Meet the Addiction Predators

By Chelsea Carmona 02/03/13

From handlers of addicted celebrities to garden-variety "sober coaches," the addiction treatment world can be a rat's nest of opportunists, charlatans—and worse. 

Art: Danny Jock

“If you try to get rid of me, she’ll be dead and I’ll piss on her grave… You’d better learn that I control everything,” threatened Sam Lutfi, Britney Spears’ self-proclaimed former-manager, according to Through the Storm, Lynne Spears’ memoir. Spears alleges that Lutfi acted as a jealous predator and jeopardized her daughter’s health and safety by grinding up and mixing her medication. Lutfi subsequently filed a lawsuit against the pop star’s parents, claiming libel, breach-of-contract, and defamation. He hoped to appeal to the jurors’ sympathetic side by arguing that the release of the book left him depressed, suicidal, and overwhelmed with death threats. The case was dismissed in early November.

The extraordinary circumstances of Britney’s life hardly represent the norm, but Lutfi’s behavior indicates a disturbing trend in the lurid overlap between celebrity and addiction. Whether we’re rapidly detoxing addicted patients on cable TV, announcing Lindsay Lohan’s latest rehab-stint in the tabloids, or awarding a book deal to Cat Marnell, our popular culture has turned a particularly voyeuristic lens onto the disease of addiction. Troubled celebrities are no longer heroes in the vein of Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin, or even gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. The public's interest in the escapades of Hollywood’s latest party girl has grown into, for some, a lucrative obsession. And as a consequence, the sensationalist behavior of damaged celebrities has become a target—even an investment—for some. Call them the addiction predators. 

Take, for instance, David Weintraub, a TV talent agent who has alchemized troubled stars into skyrocketing ratings, spinoff shows, and a multimillion dollar management/production company. For starters, he channeled his addled clients—Guns n' Roses drummer Steven Adler, porn star Mary Carey, fallen Miss Teen USA Keri Ann Peniche, and many more—onto Dr. Drew Pinsky's demented showcase for addiction in action, VH1’s Celebrity Rehab. The series follows the treatment and transformation of a cast of famous addicts, but as anyone in recovery knows, the sudden surge of income and exposure that results from the appearances can seriously complicate the recovery process.

“Very often, business overrides the treatment, and that’s where we've gone today. Treatment has lost some value because people want to make money instead of helping others get clean and sober."

“There’s nothing quick fucking fixable about sobriety,” says Recovery Life Skills Coach Lisa Neumann—who makes it clear that she has not worked with celebrities. Treatment professionals at large have raised concerns about the extreme transformations depicted on Celebrity Rehab after just one month of treatment. For Derek Salazar, Maintenance Counselor at Recovery Solutions of Santa Ana, the shortening of treatment in general is concerning. “Very often, business overrides the treatment and that’s where we have gone today," she says. "It’s sad to say that treatment has lost some value because people want to make money instead of helping others get clean and sober. When I got sober I spent 22 months in Phoenix House and it saved my life.”

New, controversial service roles have emerged within recovery communities to complement acute care. Along with hit dramas like CBS’ Elementary, celebrities like Owen Wilson and Robert Downey Jr. have commercialized these peer recovery support services by hiring sober companions to keep an eye on them for anywhere between $750-1,500 per day. Because of the excessive costs some peer recovery support specialists demand, these services have gained a reputation as the newest accessory of the troubled elite. But Neumann has a different take. “If you can pay $100 per hour to have someone follow you around your house, do it," she says. "But if you’re considering giving up addiction, it’s not time for a recovery coach. You need to be done considering giving up addiction for it to be cost and time effective.”

It’s not that Neumann, the author of Sober Identity: Tools for Reprogramming the Addicted Mind, wants to leave perpetual relapsers at the door; she’s just not interested in wasting anyone’s time: “I won’t work with someone until they get sober. I’m here for a phone call, a meeting, an assignment, or an e-mail. But I’m not going to charge you for that.” 

Unlike much of the substance abuse treatment industry, recovery coaching is a non-clinical, non-professional service provided by people who are experientially credentialed. While many coaches receive some kind of formal training, it's their first hand knowledge that provides the foundation for their expertise. With other service providers like recovery residence managers and sober companions, recovery coaches constitute a growing niche within the treatment industry known as peer recovery support specialists, or peer workers. But the peculiar nature of the professional non-professional is raising some concerns—and plenty of confusion. 

For Bill White, Senior Research Consultant at The Lighthouse Institute, a division of Chestnut Health Systems, “There are numerous misconceptions of the recovery coach role, mostly due to the wide variations in role responsibilities to which the title is being applied, whether it's peer/professional, paid/volunteer, full/part time. And there's a wide variety of organizational settings in which coaches and other recovery support specialists are now working. It'll take several more years before this role is clearly defined and evaluated in terms of its influence on long-term recovery outcomes.” 

White, who has served in the addictions field for 40 years, adds that this ambiguity parallels that present during the early history of the addiction counselor. But for now, with no accreditation system, recovery coaches have little to distinguish themselves from one another besides their sobriety date—and their social media presence.

Recovery coaching may have emerged as a form of service work done between close members of indigenous recovery communities, but today, private coaches need effective marketing and outreach strategies to compete with larger companies. For Neumann, the importance of online marketing was unexpected. “If McDonalds cut their advertising budget,” she says, “they wouldn’t have any customers left—but not me. I don’t want to spend money on advertising. My work should speak for itself.”

Her marketing scheme is completely against the traditional approach of the 21st century: fewer advertising dollars are necessary to keep an existing client than to find a new one. “I don’t want you to be here if you’re not catching on,” she explains. “I’m not doing my job if you still need me every week after a year.”

With companies advertising recovering coaching as a sort of “catch-all” solution for all of the addicts who hate AA and prefer not to take time away from work to check back into treatment after they have been kicked out, Neumann’s message of hard work and personal integrity is not a very competitive one. Companies like Sober Champion aren’t afraid to play up the job’s celebrity reputation, using references to filming schedules and socioeconomic status to lure clients in: “For those who can afford one, a Sober Coach or a Sober Companion is an outstanding addition to any post-acute treatment program.”

While the research of peer-based work is highly limited, studies of the essential services provided by recovery coaches suggest that it is a potentially promising practice as an adjunct to treatment. Leaders in the field also acknowledge the significance of the peer-relationship. According to Michael Walsh, the President and CEO of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP), “Done well, I believe sober coaching can be the difference between compliance with an aftercare plan and non-compliance and the longer someone is engaged in aftercare the better their chance at sustaining recovery.” But without a uniform accreditation system, there is little accountability to quality assurance, ethical practice, or peer integrity. 

In 2010, the need for greater organizational hierarchy came to a head, so Faces and Voices of Recovery began to establish a national accreditation system.

“Accreditation, not certification,” clarifies Tom Hill, Director of Programs at Faces and Voices. “Most people use the two interchangeably.” The distinction is important, he explains, because accrediting recovery communities, organizations, and programs will allow Faces and Voices to take a comprehensive approach to a range of issues rather than attempting a piecemeal solution by credentialing or licensing individual people. By providing a framework for effective oversight, management, and accountability, the system will work in tandem with current efforts to license individual workers.

A large part of the initiative’s value, which is scheduled to be ready in time for 2014’s Affordable Care Act, is its research potential, which could allow the peer recovery support services industry to achieve higher quality assurance and increased confidence from both the public and the field. But prior to tackling large-scale issues of access, accountability, infrastructure, and public confidence, Faces and Voices must address one of the most fundamental and controversial issues facing peer workers today: role definition and clarification. 

While providing coaching services as a part of his career as an interventionist, Walsh encountered perhaps the most common ethical concern with peer workers: whether recovery coaches are getting paid to sponsor newcomers. “I had a sponsor say that [recovery coaches and other peer workers are just paid sponsors] to me,” he says. “After a few months of watching me work with families who might not have otherwise continued to engage a professional, he told me he understood.” 

The road to mutual understanding and role clarification may not be an easy one, as the debate between experiential authority and formal education has a long history in the field of addiction medicine. But for many addicts looking for peer recovery support services like overeater Erika Alvarez, empathy is a priority: “I was looking for someone I could trust, someone I admired and someone who could understand me fully (someone who had lived an addiction and overcame it). Basically someone who could really guide me effectively.”

Because addicts sometimes feel vulnerable to the power differential between themselves and addiction professionals, and the external accountability that controls the relationship, peer workers are often in the unique position to receive sensitive information from addicts in a way that professional, clinical treatment providers may not. But for Neumann, recovery coaches should work in collaboration, rather than in conflict, with the medical community. “I’m not trying to take anything away from the medical or the research community,” she explains. “That’s not my platform. My platform is about doing the work, and if you need medication or AA to do the work then go get it.”

Salazar, who has been working with addicts since 1995, agrees that there is a place for everybody in the field of addiction, as long as they are licensed and certified. But he has some concerns about the language we have attached to certain peer recovery support services: “I do believe this term ‘coaching’ is terminology used in a different manner so that there’s no need to get licensed and certified," he says. "If you’re just coaching and not treating or counseling, there’s less of a need to get licensing. It’s a manipulation of words.”

When your troubled past is the leading credential for your current career, it's hard not to see the need for an organizational hierarchy with national standards. Both Walsh and Salazar mentioned hearsay concerning inappropriate coach/client relationships. Just a few days before I saw her, Neumann encountered a recovery coach who was still drinking. Without more structure, peer workers who work in private practice in states without certification have little accountability to anything but the law. Efforts to accredit and systematize a service that developed from a mentor-mentee-like relationship must be approached cautiously, though.

“With opportunities also come challenges,” says Hill, expressing his concerns about the potential over-professionalization of the practice. “We’re trying to build systems that will ensure that the ‘peerness’ will stay in tact.” White echoed his sentiments, adding, “Professionalization efforts to date are mimicking other roles whose knowledge sets are based on pathology and intervention paradigms rather than a recovery program.”

White’s work suggests that we take great care in order to avoid over-commercializing the role of peer recovery support specialists. Professionalization efforts can inadvertently undermine the very essence of these services because people tend to detach from their communities when they learn to view themselves and their professional organizations as the source of their authority. Without the support of their recovery communities, and without the full acceptance of the interdisciplinary teams they work with, peer workers can encounter a lack of support for their own recovery. 

While the public’s infatuation with the peer recovery support specialist has almost exclusively centered on the extreme cost of celebrity recovery, Hill does not want us to forget that anyone can be taken advantage of. In fact, treatment centers have a history of financially exploiting those in recovery. “We don’t want peers to become exploited,” he explains. “We want them to be valued for their life experiences and what they bring to the table.”

This isn’t lost on Bill McAdam, an alcoholic who lost 17 years of sobriety with a shocking suicide attempt. “I had always been somewhat skeptical about paying someone to give me information I already knew," he says. "But there was this feeling that I got from Lisa [Neumann] that as much as she was in the coaching business she explained the Universal Law [of Compensation] about what she did and the value I had to apply to it,” he concluded, “Without a shadow of a doubt it’s the best money I have ever spent.”

For Neumann, who is trained and certified through the International Coaching Academy (ICA), experience will always be the greatest teacher; but with all the horror stories, hearsay, and confusion surrounding her profession, she’s looking forward to the clarity and legitimacy the Faces and Voices accreditation system will provide.

“I’m not here to dazzle you or convince you that sobriety is awesome,” she explains, “I’m here to walk you through whatever it is you say you want in your life, and if it doesn’t work I’ll give you your money back.”

Still, for the famous, the busy, and the wealthy, there are plenty of expensive “Motivators and Cheerleaders” available to follow you around and search your belongings.

Chelsea Carmona is a freelance writer whose work has been featured in The Washington Post, Al Jazeera English, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Guardian. She works for The OpEd Project, a social venture founded to increase the range of voices and ideas we hear in the world. Follow her on Twitter: @CarmonaChelsea

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Chelsea Carmona is a freelance writer whose work has been featured in The Washington Post, Al Jazeera English, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Guardian. She works for The OpEd Project, a social venture founded to increase the range of voices and ideas we hear in the world. You can follow Chelsea on Twitter or Linkedin.