A Companion to Protect Addicts From Themselves
HE is 36 and successful, the owner of a high-tech company who also finances music and film productions. But sometimes, in the middle of the night, he’s assaulted by nightmares and cold sweats. That’s when he reaches for the phone to call Ronnie Kaplan.
“I get there and I sit him down and relax his mind,” Mr. Kaplan said. “I ask him ‘What brought this on?’ It’s always something.” Once they figure out the trigger, “It’s over.”
“It” is the drug craving. The businessman is a drug addict, and Mr. Kaplan is a sober companion, a combination big brother, baby sitter and spiritual guide who uses motivation, prayer and exercise to keep his clients away from alcohol and drugs.
Mr. Kaplan, who sports a goatee and shaved head, is an ex-user and ex-convict, a former gang member and muscle man whose skin — hands scarred from a prison fire, head-to-toe tattoos of naked women, four-letter expletives and green flames shooting upward from the corner of both eyes — documents a previous tough life.
Mr. Kaplan now makes a living gaining the trust of wealthy clients like the young businessman, who allows him into his home, his social circle and his innermost thoughts, paying him fees that can reach $1,000 or more a day. He’s not beyond searching the premises for illegal substances to help a client stay clean.
Sober companions who, like Mr. Kaplan, charge daily rates comparable to the most expensive rehab facilities, have mostly been known as members of a celebrity’s entourage, akin to a personal trainer or a life coach. The profession gained some notoriety when companions accompanied actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Matthew Perry as they struggled with substance abuse problems while shooting a movie or television show.
But, in recent years, sober companions say demand for their services has come from outside Hollywood as well: from the chief executive officer who needs to avoid taking a drink while entertaining clients to the lawyer who needs to stay away from the airport bar while on a business trip.
“Anybody who’s returning to their life after rehab needs added structure and support in that transitioning phase,” said Nanette Zumwalt, owner of Hired Power, a company in Huntington Beach, Calif., that in four years has grown to 70 companions, from 10, working in 15 states.
Even if rehab works in the short-term, “What doesn’t always work is translating the skills learned at rehab to the home,” she said.
THERE are no hard data on sober companions because the occupation is not regulated, but there is evidence that these minders are emerging as a lucrative corollary business to the growing substance abuse treatment industry. Ron Hunsicker, president of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers, said his group alone has grown to 318 members, from 200, in the last five years. He said most of the growth has come from high-end treatment centers serving the affluent “self-pay market” in California and Florida (insurance coverage for the cost of treatment facilities is uneven and it does not cover companions, he said.).
Some treatment centers now refer clients to sober companions when they are sent home, incorporating the helpers in their discharge plans and follow-up care, Dr. Hunsicker said.
“It’s another option, particularly for high risk, relapse people,” he said.
Sober companions vary wildly in credentials and style. Some work informally, like Mr. Kaplan, a former bodyguard for entertainers and business people who uses his own recovery as training and word-of-mouth references as his ads; others work for companies like Sober Champion and Hired Power, businesses that have been founded in the last three or four years.
Individual support has been a critical component of recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, which provide “sponsors,” mentors and role models who have gone through the programs themselves, for free. Sober companions have a more intense relationship with their clients, as do sober or recovery coaches, members of a related specialty, who function much like a counselor or therapist, meeting with clients or talking on the telephone in sessions that focus on issues such as building life skills, like devising a budget. Both are carving out their own niche in the substance abuse treatment industry for those who can pay.
Demand for sober companions — who are usually paired with recovering addicts of the same sex and work for a few days or a few months, and for shifts that last just for a few hours or are around the clock — sometimes comes from those who want to deal with their addiction on their own or can’t stand a residential treatment center.
That was the case for Mr. Kaplan’s client, who left one such center 33 days short of a planned 90-day stay for addiction to heroin, cocaine and painkillers, unable to stand what he says was the lack of privacy and the cliques that develop among patients.
“It was driving me crazy,” said the man, Nathan, who used only his first name to protect his privacy.
Mr. Kaplan loosely follows the spiritual foundation laid out by the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program. He meets Nathan at his house each morning for an hour of prayers, meditation and reading from self-help books like “Addiction and Grace.”
While Nathan is at the office, Mr. Kaplan conducts “feeling checks” to find out how his client is feeling before they meet again for lunch or for a walk, hike, session at the gym or a noon A.A. meeting.
They get together again at the end of the workday, for another A.A. meeting and dinner, followed by prayers at Nathan’s house before he goes to bed.
For a recent meeting, the two drove in separate cars but, in the parking lot, they put their arms around each other’s shoulders and bowed their heads.
“Lord, I ask that you open Nathan’s mind so that he can receive the message he’s about to receive,” Mr. Kaplan intoned.
Nathan, whose family staged an intervention last December and who found Mr. Kaplan for him, said he couldn’t recover alone. He said he had seriously considered suicide.
“He speaks to the part of my brain that can trick me into thinking ‘this is a good excuse to do drugs,’ ” Nathan said of Mr. Kaplan, whom he passes off to friends and associates as “a friend of mine.”
Robert Tyler, president of the California Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors, said companions can serve an important role in setting up those freshly out of rehab in “the sober community” — accompanying them to A.A. meetings, for example.
But Mr. Tyler said he’s also wary of the profession. “There’s no regulation, no accountability,” he said.
Jerry Schoenkopf, a treatment center administrator who runs the Telesis Foundation, a nonprofit organization that sponsors free detox services, said the sober companions can add “an extra layer of protection” between the client and the world but noted that the occupation is “more art than science.”
One client of Hired Power, a 30-year-old lawyer from Boston, said a companion should be viewed as temporary insurance “to protect you from yourself.”
“I don’t think you need a sober companion for six months,” she said. “You have to take responsibility for your own recovery.”
But the lawyer, a recovering alcoholic and cocaine addict who withheld her name to protect her privacy, said that for her, while the cost of a companion is a downside — she spent $650 a day plus expenses for four days — it is worth it. After treatment in Utah earlier this year, she said she couldn’t have flown back home alone after treatment and trusted she would not engage in her usual ritual: sitting in business class taking Valium and drinking the equivalent of two bottles of wine.
“If you don’t have your sobriety you’re going to end up in a hospital, in jail or dead,” said the lawyer, who said she had had legal troubles, car crashes and “many” close calls before she sought treatment. “You can’t put a price on that.”
The total number of Americans with substance dependence has remained stable since 2002, federal statistics show, but binge drinking is up for adults over 18 and illicit drug use is increasing among some baby boomers. The chance of relapse is significant — as high as 40 to 60 percent, according to some studies.
SOBER companions say they have clients who fall back into old habits. Mr. Kaplan, who said he’s been clean of drugs and alcohol for more than 10 years, frankly admits that “sometimes you can’t help people.”
“They think they can still drink a little bit, still smoke some marijuana, because they’re not doing their drug of choice,” he noted.
Mr. Kaplan, who never married but has three grown children, grew up in East Los Angeles the son of heroin addicts. He said he started his downward spiral as a teenager, including 17 years of prison stints for drug- and gang-related crimes.
He said he evolved from bodyguard to sober companion eight years ago, when he became tired of watching his clients use drugs.
Mr. Kaplan added that more competition prompted him this week to to start his own Web site, Mama-Tried.net, named after the Merle Haggard song about a son who ends up in prison despite his mother’s efforts to steer him right.
In his spare time, which he said isn’t much, he is also writing book about his life.
“I sleep, eat and play when I can,” he said.
Mr. Kaplan, who said he lives in a modest two-bedroom apartment with a roommate, is also saving his money to open his own rehab center. He said he has traveled the world because of the needs of his rich clients, but downplays the perks of the job.
“The lifestyle, most of it is a facade,” he said. “Most of them are miserable. I try to bring meaning to their life.”