Behind the Scenes at Malibu's Most Exclusive Rehab

By Nic Sheff 02/27/12

What kind of treatment do rich and famous addicts receive for $100,000 a month? A rare look behind the gates of one of the country's ritziest rehabs.

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A luxury rehab Photo via

I’d been sober a little over a year when I first got the job. That was the minimum requirement: you had to at least have a year clean if they were going to hire you. I had a year clean off IV crystal meth and heroin and I saw landing the job at the posh rehab in Malibu as basically the best opportunity I was gonna get. I was 21—a college dropout who’d already been in and out of four different rehab programs. My last job had been working at the juice bar of a funky, not very clean health food store in one of the ugliest neighborhoods in LA. They’d paid me whatever minimum wage was back in the early 2000s and, believe me, it wasn’t enough. 

But the $50,000-a-month treatment center in the Malibu Hills promised to pay more than twice that and besides, the job would afford me a certain cachet—one that the health food store definitely didn’t have to offer. I mean, I was gonna be working at this rehab full of celebrities. That was something I could tell people with pride when they ask the first question everyone always asks in LA, “So, what do you do?” 

“I’m a Residential Technician at **** in Malibu,” I could say.

Well, at least it sounded cool.

When some actor guy from a TV show way before my time overflowed the toilet, guess who had to wade into the bathroom to clean his mess up?

In terms of what a “Residential Technician” actually did—well, if anything it was more like being a glorified babysitter. You had to keep tabs on all the clients at all times, search their rooms and their persons, get ‘em to pee in cups for you, pass out medication, drive ‘em around to the gym or 12-step meetings, and—because these are the rich and famous we’re talking about—basically do whatever it is they ask.

I’d been to different county and hospital and low-end private places that seemed to operate on the philosophy that you had to be broken down before you could be built back up: there were always countless chores to be done, rules to follow and punishments doled out.

But not so at ****. We did the chores for them. And as far as the rules went—well, they were really more like suggestions. There were no punishments. No one had to make his or her own bed or respect time limits on the phone, or even cancel any appointments they had in the outside world. If some strung-out actor had a meeting with their agent—well, it was our job to drive ‘em there. If they wanted to barge into the office and use one of the counselor’s computers to check the security cameras at their house ‘cause they were convinced someone was breaking in, we had to let them do that, too. Basically, we weren’t allowed to ever say “no” to them. And honestly, after a few months of working there, I was beginning to wonder if the whole thing was just some sort of scam—more like a resort with bonus clemency than a place where people actually learn how to change and face their feelings of self hatred and inadequacy. 

Because in my mind, that’s what addiction really is—people trying to blot out the pain of being human with chemicals that inevitably just make the pain even worse. And what group of people as a whole could possibly be more insecure and hate themselves more than a bunch of actors and trust fund kids? Both my parents were celebrity journalists, so believe me when I tell you that most actors live for attention and external ego stroking. And most trust fund kids are constantly in need of validation that they themselves are good enough and that people like them for who they are. Believe me when I tell you, these are some seriously fucked up people. And that’s coming from the perspective of a seriously fucked up person myself.

Addiction is like an epidemic among those people, so a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous rehab would inevitably be a goldmine. That’s especially true in this day and age, when a stint in rehab is touted as the answer to everyone’s problems—as if a 30-day treatment center could erase a history of bad biology and a lifetime of bad decisions. Rehab seems to be the quick fix solution every disgraced celebrity is looking for—from cheating on your wife to erupting in a racist tirade. And if you’ve got to go to rehab, a luxe, lush place like the one I worked at is definitely the way to go. When it comes equipped with a fleet of five-star chefs, tennis courts, equine therapy, a swimming pool, and a staff of friendly Residential Technicians do your every bidding—well, a month at rehab doesn’t have to be much different from a month at the Beverly Hills Hotel. But throughout the time I was working there, I couldn’t help wonder if I was actually doing more harm than good.

As I said, at every rehab I ever attended, there were a strict set of rules and guidelines patients had to follow, in an attempt to foster some sort of humility in a bunch of selfish, self-centered drug addicts and alcoholics. For me, that process really did work. Having to do chores, being told “no,” and being largely stripped of my freedom definitely made an impression. But the rich and famous clients at this place didn’t get any of that. One time, this actor guy from an HBO series stuck a piece of pizza crust from that night’s dinner into the lock of the med room door and when the tech on duty went back up there 10 minutes later, the actor had broken in and was riffling greedily through the many bottles of pain killers and anti-anxiety medications. Now, at any rehab I went to, an act like that would have had me out on the street in a second, but not here. The philosophy was, I suppose, that rich and famous people are used to a certain kind of treatment and, if they don’t get it, they will simply leave. That’s why the goal, above all else, was just to get them to stay. They could be detoxing so badly from alcohol that their whole body was going through seizures, but if they wanted their dry cleaning taken care of, one of us had to run right out and make sure it got done—and that the cleaners didn’t use too much starch. One ex-Saturday Night Live comedian made me drive him to a meeting with a director at The Grill in Beverly Hills, but because all the nice cars were taken, I had to transport him in my tiny red tin can, oil-leaking Mazda 323. He insisted that I drop him off three blocks away so no one would see him arriving in such a déclassé little vehicle. And, of course, when some actor guy from a TV show way before my time overflowed the toilet, guess who had to wade into the bathroom to clean his mess up?

At the rehabs I attended, such special requests were automatically denied and humility was considered character-building and good for recovery. And it was true. As an addict, I was a self-entitled bastard. Being in rehab and having to scrub the toilets and follow the rules really did help bring me down to size. But the clients here weren’t getting that. I actually felt sorry for them—like they were being taken advantage of and throwing away their $50,000 dollars.

But, on the other hand, I have to admit, I was kind of jealous, too. I mean, there I was, with over a year of sobriety, trying to do everything right, and yet I was the one charged with taking out some trust fund kid’s dry cleaning, and eating the clients’ leftovers only after they were at least one day old. I was the one making their beds, driving them out to go see Lakers games. Once one of the clients offered me $10,000 to give him a single Klonopin. I refused but,  I’d never had more then $2000 in my bank account ever in my entire life. At times, being humble and sober didn’t seem anywhere near as much fun as being rich and in rehab. And I wasn’t the only staff member who seemed to be getting a little star-struck and envious. Other techs and even counselors would gossip about the clients in hush-hush terms every chance they got. We all knew who was worth what and exactly where their money came from. We read the clients’ files and spread rumors about impending celebrity intakes. 

“Did you hear Britney Spears is checking in tomorrow?” I was informed about 10 times during the course of my tenure there. (In fact, she never came in at all). 

Even the head of the entire program got into the action, saying to a woman just coming in with a collection of Louis Vuitton luggage, “Oh, perfect, wait here. I’ll get my LV bags and bring them in to keep your LV bags company.”

And then she actually did.

Of course, we all tried to play down our own envy, going on and on to each other about how hard it must be for the clients, never knowing whether people actually liked them for who they were or because of their famous names and their money. We pitied the trust fund kids because they’d never be able to emerge from the shadows of their more successful parents. We told ourselves they’d never get sober, being pampered the way we were instructed to pamper them. We laughed when they complained about the food the five star chef had prepared for them (we were more than happy to eat the leftovers), and we traded stories about the awful steamed hospital mush we’d had to eat in our county detoxes and sober livings. 

And we, the techs, did try to band together. We used to secretly trade the expensive coffee we were supposed to serve the clients with the cheap Folgers in a can coffee we were supposed to brew ourselves in the staff room. So we’d be drinking high-end coffee from some small batch roaster in Venice, while they drank bulk supermarket coffee and, more often than not, would compliment us on how good it tasted. 

At night, when we were alone in the office, we’d read the clients’ different case files—especially the six-page questionnaire they had to fill out when they arrived. We’d laugh at how out of touch their answers were. Like when the trust fund kids would write that they “identified their main problem as being” that the executers of their family’s estate were too uptight and wouldn’t give tem enough money. I remember one woman (who wasn’t a kid anymore, by any means, but was, nonetheless, still a trust fund kid) who insisted her lawyers and executers came to the family group on Sunday so we could convince them to give her more money.

There was something glamorous about their self-destructiveness—something far more glamorous than what I’d thought would be my glamorous job working there. 

Oh, man...those Sunday family groups really were something else. It was like a who’s who of Hollywood elite all sitting around in plastic folding chairs trying to figure out why it was that their son or daughter or brother or sister or husband or wife had been throwing away their lives on drugs and alcohol. And we all laughed at that, too. Because it seemed so obvious. They were these huge celebrities who’d all had their fucked up personal lives splashed across the pages of those glossy grocery store gossip magazines. We knew that the couple there with the teenage daughter in rehab were both on their third marriage and both probably so preoccupied with their own careers that their poor daughter never had a chance. We told ourselves that we pitied her. 

We told ourselves that we pitied them all.

But secretly, I mean, deep down, I’m pretty sure we all would have given just about anything to trade places with them. That HBO actor guy who stole all the meds was so sick during his opiate detox we had to hold him sitting up just so he could go to the bathroom. In a delirium, he broke into one of the “druggie buggies” (a fleet of Yukon XLs) and attempted to drive it through the locked gates. He was sick and rambling incoherently. But, still, it’s not like he ever faced any real consequences for his behavior. If anything, we just had to coddle him more after a scene like that—they hired a bunch of us to stay at his side literally 24 hours a day. And when his girlfriend (another famous actor) came to visit him, the staff was more concerned with asking her to reenact a scene from her famous movie than in telling her the details of her boyfriend’s destructive behavior.  

So, yeah, not only did I watch them let him get away with absolutely anything, but I also knew damn well that at the end of the 30 days, he had his hot celebrity girlfriend to go back to, as well as a mansion in Malibu and a million-dollar action movie to promote that spring. And me? Well, I had my Mazda 323, a $400-a-month room in an apartment with an old man permanently fixed to a caving-in chair in front of a boxy old TV set that only got around 30-something channels. I was living paycheck to paycheck, working over 40 hours a week, and having to pick out cigarette butts from the planters around the main house of the rehab. 

Honestly, however bad these rich folk had it, I gotta say, they didn’t really seem to have it that bad. And, besides, there was something glamorous about their self-destructiveness—something far more glamorous than what I’d thought would be my glamorous job working there. And, anyway, I hadn’t signed on to be the personal assistant to 20 or more spoiled rich people in the throws of chemical dependency. I’d thought I’d be working to help them, but after a few months, I was beginning to feel like we were just making things worse—both for ourselves and for the clients. What they needed from us was to tell them, “No.” But, as it turned out, our jobs were just to add to their entourage of servile, sycophantic flatters. We were like those plastic surgeons who continued to operate on Michael Jackson when it was obvious he’d already gone way too far.

I don’t have the figures or expertise to say if a glitzy treatment center is more successful at rehabbing clients than a more modest one. All I know is that, for me, the environment started to seem as toxic as they come. Living in L.A. is already a slippery enough slope to be negotiating for anyone trying to retain some form of sanity. But working there definitely pushed me right over the edge. Our collective idol worship brought me to dating an actress—the closest thing to a celebrity I could find. The two of us spent about six months shooting dope in her one-bedroom apartment in the Hollywood Hills. I lost my job, of course—actually, I just stopped showing up completely—and found myself back in rehab again, but this time as a patient. And though the place I checked into wasn’t anything fancy, they definitely told me “No” a whole lot. They broke me down to build me up. And, honestly, I was grateful. Because I’d seen the other side up close. And what can I say? It just didn’t work.

Nic Sheff is a columnist for The Fix and the author of two memoirs about his struggles with addiction, the New York Times-bestselling Tweak, and We All Fall Down. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two hound dogs, and a cat and has previously written about selling himself for sex and his father David Sheff's book Beautiful Boy, among many other topics.

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Nic Sheff is the author of two memoirs about his struggles with addiction: the New York Times bestselling Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines and We All Fall Down: Living with Addiction. Nic lives in Los Angeles, California where he writes for film and television. Find Nic on Twitter.