I Was a Paid Celebrity Sober Companion
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I am sitting in the backyard of a Malibu estate set upon a cliff overlooking the Pacific. The sun is beaming one last smile in late afternoon, perfecting yet another southern California day. A teak picnic table is layered with meats and salads prepared by two staff chefs. Sipping an endless diet coke, refilled by one of several attendants present, I survey the scene nodding at the perfectly ordinary conversations buzzing around me. Of the nine of us around the table, I am the only one who has not been on the cover of People magazine, or starred in a big-budget film. I am the only one who is not a celebrity. Yet for the past month, I've eaten with this distinguished crew, had my morning coffee with them, heard secrets, shared struggles and nodded with sympathy; most especially to the problems of one of these people.
I have a job to perform, just as surely as the chefs, attendants and gardeners. Quite unexpectedly, I have ended up as a paid sober companion to a Hollywood movie star. There he is now, looking across the table at me as the wine is passed back and forth between the superhero, the beloved sitcom starlet and the reformed Hollywood bad-boy. I smile encouragingly: You can do it, one day at a time.
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$18,000 for a month of doing what I do anyway? Of course I fucking said yes. Giddy, I booked a first class flight to LAX.
The sun begins to set, and a fire is started in the pit by the swimming pool. I get up to join the others in more intimate conversation. As with any dream, I feel a pang of regret that this impossibly comfortable way of life will soon come to an end. These wonderful people surrounding me are professionals at making one feel a part-of. Despite the compliments and hugs, I have to disengage from their talented grasps. They are not my friends.
What am I doing here? Guys like me don't even look at magazines about these kinds of lives, let alone get close to them. I was in my 40s, just three years sober. I'd gotten college degrees, been in the Navy, worked dozens of jobs and finally sobered up in New York. I had fallen into a good crowd of men and women who got invested in my staying clean—one guy walked me in the rain all night while I screamed about another injustice that I had to drink over. Life went from bleak to good very quickly. Then I received the phone call.
Just a month before that Malibu scene, I was in my 250-square-foot sublet in New York, cooking a couple of ribeye steaks atop an electric stove. Just me, my girl and a hungry new guy chain-smoking out the window. One of my few abilities is to cook and be a warm host; so I was cooking, bossa nova was trilling on vinyl and my girl was dancing and smiling and I thought of how in that moment I had it all—the ability to be helpful, love and hope. Just because I came into AA desperate and took some suggestions.
The phone rang at that moment. An NA friend who worked as an actress was calling. I steeled myself for her usual barrage of complaints about her fancy lifestyle. Instead, she told me that a colleague of hers was having problems with his job and marriage due to substance abuse. Could I give him a call and help him out? As I motioned to the newcomer that the ribeye was ready, the actress told me that her co-star "liked" me, and was considering trying me out as a sober companion to get him back on track. She gave me his cell number, cautioning me not to give it out to anyone else.
I made the call, thinking I would do for him what I was doing at that moment for the hungry new guy, eyeing my girl. I heard out his problems, I commiserated, and I told him what I had done when I was in trouble. The guy said he wanted what I had—and then offered me 600 bucks a day to help him. I'm happy be there for anyone, but I wasn't so sure about being compensated for it. No one got paid to be there for me, in fact, a lot of guys assisted me financially the first couple months. What would my sponsor think? He'd never heard of such a thing and was as clueless as I was in this "service-for-a-fee" department. Broke as I was at the time, the upside seemed impossibly good.
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Despite having two college degrees, I'm ashamed to say that I've been an eight-dollar-an-hour guy my whole life. I've made ends meet by any means necessary, and live well below the poverty line. I eat better then a king and have many friends. I mismanage anything given to me on a silver platter, and I have a collection of silver platters. I am what you can safely call accident-prone. I often feel like a modern day Mr. Magoo as I wander through the clean life. Sobriety is like a very long acid trip without the anxious teeth thing.
The plan was that I would fly to Los Angeles and stay with this man and his family 24/7 for 30 days. I agreed, and he told me that his "people" would handle the arrangements. I was put in contact with an attorney, who had a non-disclosure agreement couriered to my home. I was then formally offered $600 a day and given a credit card number for travel and incidentals. $18,000 for a month of doing what I do anyway? Of course I fucking said yes. Giddy, I booked a first class flight to LAX.
That was error Number One. The actor's lawyer and manager both berated me: Who did I think I was? Movie stars go first class, employees go coach. I thought movie stars went private, and employees went first class. I duly paid back the difference, so that was the first few days of pay gone.
Infractions Two and Three had to do with the "car" my new client owned. Having lost his driving license, he continued to upgrade his vehicle yearly, despite not being allowed to operate it. With its sticker price of a quarter million dollars, he loved this machine deeply. Did he actually want me to drive this thing? Rent-a-Wreck, Enterprise and Avis were right down the block, every block actually. After a short lesson on where to put the key, he warned me that the tires were expensive (of course) and manufactured in such a way that they could get punctured on even the smallest debris on the road. So on my first day, while heading to his first appointment, I got my first flat. The big-time director would have to wait.
The second day we spent at the auto shop and I replaced the thousand-dollar tire myself. I quickly calculated that at this rate, I was going to walk away from this job owing the boss money.
By the third day I discovered my main task was to be a chauffeur, which in a world where lunacy is not a prerequisite for art would be seen as ridiculous. I'd never been to LA before! I got lost pretty much all the time. I don't have a smart phone. The only qualification I have is that I know how to not get high, one day at a time. As the days progressed, life consisted of a lunch and a dinner with some producer or director, as well as a daily trip to the gym, and several trips to different doctors for his many, many prescriptions.
By the fourth day, I suggested that given that I was a sober companion, we might want to try some 12-step meetings. He had thought that we could do the sober thing one-on-one, so I convinced him that my own welfare was in peril—however he wanted to stay sober was fine, but I needed to attend meetings on a regular basis. This backdoor approach worked, but this man's professional success—in a town where status is king—immediately made social interactions at the meetings sticky with professional agendas. Whether we went to the celebrity-friendly meetings, or the bizzaro private home meetings, the personalities would eclipse my sense of the principals. I hated that I was so overwhelmed by something as superficial as star-power. The upshot was that his ego got stroked some more, and my recovery took a backseat to his glory. I didn't get the relief I was accustomed to from LA AA. What now?
I don't know how much that paid companion work contributed to my relapse, but I know it didn't help my sobriety.
I suggested we go to meetings in Compton or Watts or even Korea Town—the kinds of meetings where I was sure to be more comfortable. I was told—as if it was something everyone knew—that in LA white people stick with white people. It's a West Coast thing I suppose. With all the driving and the immersion in a culture with no magnetic north for the mind, I began to acquire a chronic cold sweat, a constant feeling I can only liken to the symptom just prior to the swish of diarrhea. I would have to hold it.
We stuck to his regular schedule and the meetings he liked. I listened earnestly to his problems and concerns, and as always I shared my experience (my strength was lagging) and hope, the best I could. When he asked me a question, I would tell him what my sponsor had always told me or, in a pinch, just make something up.
Weekends were for family and friends. We would make the one-hour drive to Malibu in time for supper Friday evening, where we would join up with his family and the Who's Who of Hollywood. I was given the guest house on the estate and the car keys. Finally I could make meetings on my own and I found a few people to confide in, though I was frankly becoming embarrassed by this job and all the trappings that didn't belong to me. I'm just not that good of an actor. If I was asked anything personal, I wasn't allowed to give out any details, given the non-disclosure agreement.
"What brings you to town?" I would be asked.
"Just helping out a friend," I would say.
Mostly I was alone, and I don't do well in isolation. The boredom, the sense of not really carrying the message and, ironically, the lack of real companionship ate at me. I contacted people on Facebook and posted a photo of myself beaming on the hood of the boss's car. But basically I just felt less-than and lonesome and homesick for the neighborhood I equated with sobriety. And I missed my girl.
Here I was, "living the dream," as a dear friend of mine barked at me over the phone. All I could think about was walking down Houston Street with my sober crew en route to the Midnite group.
I sought out other sober companions in LA. These were career companions who took themselves and their work very seriously. I perked up when one talked about the acting jobs he had gotten through his newfound connections. All of these recovery predators seemed to feel strongly that they were doing God's work. I wasn't so sure. When I mentioned my misgivings they told me that treatment centers charged money, and that the rich and famous needed "extra help". One told me not to worry because these guys could afford it. They were slick and deeply superficial, wrapped up in the lives of others, accepting larger sums then I was getting and speeding towards some codependent train wreck I wanted no part of. I looked at these gym-healthy men and women with perfect tans, tattoos of the week, bleached teeth and moral certainty. Was I glimpsing a possible future version of myself? A place where purpose and commerce collide in abject fulfillment for the misfit...I'd rather drink.
As I became more alienated and homesick—as I felt my own program becoming dimmer—my man actually started to open up. It wasn't an earth-shattering, white-light experience, but it was something. Walking along the beach, standing outside meetings, sitting in fancy restaurants or over Cuban cigars on his deck, something began to click for him. Only an idiot (see above) could take credit for this. We began to talk matters of the heart. This is one area I am at peace with. My sober girlfriend once told me that my greatest talent lies in my ability to make others feel like themselves. It was the nicest thing anyone ever said to me. She had seen me with countless people, laughing, crying and being a friend. I suspect that's the reason I'm approached for these types of situations.
As the actor unburdened his fears, I listened and nodded. He wanted to talk more than he wanted to listen. That's okay; I never felt the need to preach. I firmly believe in attraction rather than promotion.
He had a bigger life then I ever will. The question that percolated inside me was how I could help. I was gravely out of place, yet I still felt that there had to be value in these exchanges. My own ambition frequently collided with this foreign concept of service. After a week, I seriously considered giving him his money back, so I could slip into the position of friend, or sponsor. I knew that I was paying a bigger emotional price than expected. Then I calculated that at this point, I couldn't afford not to see the job through. My sponsor back home concurred.
But I did begin to see my purpose as just what I had been hired to be—a sober companion, to just be myself with this man, to be a power of example. While my spirit was lagging, I maintained an integrity with the principals of AA during my time with him. Perhaps this is because I clearly saw that there was a separation between what I was doing and true service. I was simply a salaried servant. Who I am, however, is a member of an organization that has transformed the lives of hopeless people destined to perish from the inside out.
The evening before I returned to New York I got my second flat tire. It was raining and I had just gone out for a taco. The most expensive taco I have ever eaten. After contacting the flatbed I contacted him. I could hear his movie-star wife asking him, "Why didn't you just rent him a car?" And I thought about my first day there, when I'd suggested renting a car. I started to laugh hysterically, as I heard her screeching at him over the phone. Then I hung up and started to cry.
The plane ride home felt longer, much longer. I was sitting in coach and going over and over my experiences during the month. I had so many new questions. Was the program I need to survive being swallowed up, like everything else, by capitalism? Who isn't venal enough to take the bait? I was certainly heading home a bit richer, but I felt none of the wealth of the spirit that I have been bathed in over the years, listening to a newcomer, qualifying or even cleaning ashtrays. Does $600 a day do that? Had I sold out yet again? Would my relationship to recovery ever be the same? Increasingly, AA and NA meetings appeared to me like infomercials to sell the Big Book. This is nowhere more apparent than the rooms of Los Angeles, but that's another story.
I explored the Paid Companion lifestyle again a few years later, accompanying a sober member of AA with other issues. I found myself on a secluded beach in South America with a dozen of the world's top supermodels all naked and laughing around me. I never felt more bored in my life. I texted a friend back in the city that I wanted to kill myself. (You try talking to a supermodel.) Again, I thought of my real friends, of New York and the beautiful girl I had waiting for me in that little cramped space I called home. All I wanted was to come back and cook for the people I loved. To laugh and smoke cigarettes out the rear window.
My LA celebrity did get sober and remains so to this day. I, however, have fallen from grace once again. The girl is long gone, as is that studio apartment. I returned to LA to pursue a dream, living far from my former client's lifestyle. The career eluded me; I ended up alone, drunk and shooting up. I came back east and got the same help I had gotten the first time. I don't know how much that paid companion work contributed to my relapse, but I know it didn't help my sobriety. I had to give up everything one more time to see if it was real.
Today I'm back, cleaning up coffee pots at my home group, standing on street corners laughing with friends, starting over with people I'm comfortable with. And I'm glad AA is still there for me, no matter how far I've strayed. I'm ready to move forward.
Antonio Vespucci is a pseudonym for an AA member based in New York.