As a result of their struggles with addiction, many celebrities have inadvertently introduced the recovery community to the idea of a sober companion. In summary, according to a recent piece (and many before), it is becoming increasingly common for white-collared high-powered hustlers fresh out of treatment to hire sober someone’s to keep the wine and coke off the table and out of the bathroom. These companions apparently roll incognito, blending into the client’s life, disguised as bodyguards, personal assistants, spiritual gurus, or even old high school buddies.
When I read stories like this, I think: Oh my God, this is a job I’ve been doing my whole life. I was raised to be a sober companion. Granted, I wasn’t a terribly effective one, as those around me continued to get wasted but hey, I wasn’t getting paid, either. Leading a double life so that I could keep my mother’s addiction a secret along with managing her addictive tendencies was a job that I didn’t even have to apply for. By day, I was a unicorn-loving candy muncher that went to church every Wednesday and Sunday. Yet at night and on the weekends, I switched over to bartender, barista and DJ, spending my shifts diluting half-drunken beer cans with water, shoving coffee in my mother’s face when she slurred her words and monitoring the volume on the stereo when pop up dance parties erupted at 3 am.
If what Malcolm Gladwell says in Outliers is true—that it takes 10,000+ hours of practice to become a master at anything—then my level of expertise in sober management is untouchable. Who else can claim that their training began in utero? If only it had occurred to me to have opened up shop when I was 10 years old—apparently a sober minder can rake in anywhere from $1,000 a day to $80,000 a month for their services. But it’s precisely these hefty dollar amounts that have left some in the treatment industry skeptical of the trend’s effectiveness and ethical practices.
Now, as someone who intimately understands how addiction thrives in denial, I fear that sober coaches who aren’t properly trained could keep addicts from addressing the severity of their disease. Instead of learning how to manage their impulses to use, they could easily become reliant on sober hands intercepting their temptations. I understand the idea of using a sober companion as a temporary transition but doesn’t the ancient Chinese proverb—“Give a man a fish; you have fed him for a day. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime”—apply here?
What I’ve learned from growing up in a family of addicts is that there really is no right or wrong way to achieve and maintain sobriety. Still, we are in desperate need of expanding our collective recovery palette. Despite what insurance companies seem to think, rehab is not a one-and-done deal for most and relapse is not the exception but the norm. And yet when a woman goes into remission for breast cancer, we rejoice. From the moment she steps out of the hospital, the community rallies. There are support systems in place that celebrate her victory and lay out a clear path from point A to B. Should the cancer return, it’s sad news but the relapse is not held against her; people don’t look in her direction thinking, “What a failure, how could she not beat cancer?” Unfortunately, society does not apply the same understanding and support to addiction.
So I certainly understand that transitioning back into the real world after rehab and learning to face it in a new way can put an addict in a vulnerable position. But the world of sober coaching isn’t regulated which means that Joe Sober Person could technically wake up one day and before breakfast, decide that he’s a coach. If he’s only in it for the green backs—well then he’s an asshole and there goes another potential success story.
Here’s what happened in my own family: After years of bouncing around from rehab to rehab, my brother finally found a sober living program that worked. When he graduated, he rented an apartment and got a job working for Saturn. But I will never forget the day he called me in a panic because he didn’t know how to go to the bank and open a checking account. He was 38 years old at the time. The program he’d completed had gotten him to sobriety but it didn’t bridge the gap between recovery and the real world. There’s no way that my brother could have afforded a sober companion; he was barely surviving off of his welfare checks. And yet, for today anyway, he’s made it.
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