Are paid pals a boon or babysitter for kicking addiction?

The title “sober companion” sparks images of Hollywood stars trying to stay out of jail. And while the job started as a response to the rich and famous' woes, today the industry has shifted to helping every-day people in need of added support to kick their addictions. At best, companions are as faithful and supportive as a golden retriever, quietly hanging around all the time without a need of their own. At worst they can become an addict's new partner in relapse. 

Sober companions make between $500 and $1,000 a day, transporting, facilitating recovery plans, and creating safe boundaries around a client's normal life. This means you can count on a sober companion to, say, fly with a client from their detox and to a long-term rehab. Or accompany them to an office party. Or just be available to talk about feelings 24-7. 

The industry sprung up in the mid-1990s in Los Angeles, when a former street heroin addict named Bob Timmins became publicly known for helping members of rock bands like Aerosmith and Motley Crue stay sober. Timmins passed away in 2008, but his legacy remains. A former sober companion, Joe (he prefers first names only to maintain his anonymity), was schooled under Timmins and worked in the business from 1997 to 2011. The loose rule for qualification as a sober companion, Joe says, was to have 10 years of sobriety and not be rattled by celebrity. 

"I always had a cover" working in high-visibility circumstances, he remembers, since he and his clients didn’t want to draw attention to their recovery. "Sometimes I was in charge of security, sometimes I was a personal assistant. If it was a short gig, I was just a friend. Then there were the times I was hired by production and here is where the babysitting comes in. Because the person doesn't want it, you (the companion) are obsolete."  The goal of any sober companion is to become unnecessary, after a client is independently free of drugs and alcohol. In the case where the companion is hired by a third-party, that goal is hard to meet, since the client doesn’t  really want him there.     

Patty Barrett is founder of Connections In Recovery, a sober companion referral service. She’s also is one of the foremost leaders in establishing ethics in a business with no certification or professional oversight. Besides leading seminars (with input from mental health professionals such as UCLA psychiatrist Timothy Fong, MD) to establish guidelines for sober companions, Barrett is very selective about her hires. Among other things, they must have a minimum of five years of continuous sobriety and agree to random drug testing.     

Barrett's description of the job is nothing like when Timmins was running the show. It's gone from a celebrities-only platform to everyday people with high-powered jobs and busy schedules. Alternatively, clients are teens at precarious points in their lives who need some support. Good sober companions help the client establish a community within Alcoholics Anonymous (if they're willing), walk them through good habits, and give them tools to offset past behaviors that might lead them back to using. It's a service that helps to get them safely through what Barrett calls "their journey."

Founder and CEO of Cliffside Malibu Treatment Center, Richard Taite has helped addicts for over a decade.  He says companions can be assets, especially when a client has to go back a high-pressure job with an extreme schedule after being ensconced in a nurturing rehab facility. Taite knows relying on well-trained companions to transition clients can be the difference between failure and success for a client. He'll also tell you how haywire things can go: "if a guy wants to go to a bar and he's paying his companion $800 bucks a day--and the companion doesn't have another way to make a living--then that companion's going to the bar." Barrett says: "Like any business, you have the really dedicated professional, and you have the opportunist. A good companion is helping you set a solid foundation. For me, this isn't just a profession, it's a passion." 

Sources:

  1. Connections in Recovery
  2. UCLA Health: Timothy Fong
  3. Cliffside Malibu