Sept. 17, 2007 -- After a very public meltdown and a suicide attempt, actor Owen Wilson followed what used to be standard protocol -- first brief hospitalization, then right into rehab. But reports say Wilson cut short the typically lengthy stay in rehab in favor of a newer method of treatment called sober companionship. A "sober buddy" isn't just a pal you give your keys to at the start of the night, and it's not a friend. These buddies mean business.
Rather than spending the standard 60 to 90 days in a chic celebrity-filled clinic like Promises or Betty Ford, Wilson has hired a sober companion to keep him on track. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, he'll have someone by his side making sure he doesn't give in to temptation. Sure, the stars can afford such intense monitoring, but they're not the primary clientele for the service.
Snap Back to Sobriety
Doug Caine, founder and president of Sober Champion, a sober companion company with offices in Los Angeles, New York and London, says the majority of his clients are not famous.
"Most people with drug problems aren't celebrities, so most of our clients are not," says Caine. "Our clients are executives, adolescents, housewives, businessmen, trust fund kids and hardworking people who develop chronic substance abuse problems."
Nineteen year-old Brandon Lucks is one of those clients. Plagued for most of his teenage years with a heroin addiction, Lucks has been in and out of rehab without being able to maintain a clean lifestyle. He says a recent event snapped him back to reality and made him realize he needed something other than rehab to get over his addiction.
"It was during rehab. I had to leave treatment because I had a heart attack and I needed to stay clean while I was out of treatment," says Lucks.
Despite suffering a heart attack at just 19 years old, Lucks didn't trust himself to stay clean alone or under the supervision of his parents.
"There's no way of getting away from it. It takes away your freedom to a certain extent," says Lucks.
Caine says that's the point.
"We're typically on you 24 hours a day for a specific period of time," says Caine. "We arrive at your door as soon as you're ready to either get clean or be clean and from the minute you wake up in the morning to the minute you go to sleep at night, we're by your side."
Companionship vs. Rehab
But how does the intense, round-the-clock care compare in cost to rehab? Sure it seems like a good idea, but is it affordable?
Caine says his services are actually cheaper than most upscale treatment centers, depending on the length and level of care. His prices range from $450 to $1,500 a day for care. Caine says that pales in comparison to centers like Promises and Wonderland that cost between $30,000 and $50,000 a month.
While Caine advocates a stay in rehab initially, he says the skills learned inside the walls of a treatment center aren't easily translated into the real world. The transition back to day-to-day life after rehab brings out the real need for a recovering addict to have sober companionship to ease that transition.
"In rehab you're not in your own environment and you're not building any success in the environment where you have to have success," says Caine. "Staying clean in rehab is fairly easy because they don't give you any drugs there. After you return from that safe-feeling unprotected environment you're back to the same place."
A former addict himself, Caine says the feeling you get in rehab is very different from the normal world.
"The rest of the world doesn't go away because you went to rehab for a month," says Caine. "Our goal is to augment it and create a paradigm for people who need to get clean but can't afford to take 90 days out of their lives to live in a treatment center."
While rehab may not be reality, doctors are cautioning addicts not to forego one treatment in favor of another. Like Caine, addiction specialists say the combination of the two treatments is preferred.
"Recovering from addiction is not an either or proposition," says Dr. Jennifer Schneider, an addiction medicine and pain management physician in Tucson, Ariz.
In her 17 years in the field she says she's seen many trends come and go, and like others before, she's skeptical of this one.
"The idea of relying on one person to help maintain your sobriety is a very risky thing," says Schneider.
Been There, Done That
But one person, says Lucks, is what saved him. His sober companion, like all staff members of Sober Champion, is a former addict.
"It was great to have somebody there who's gone through it," says Lucks. "I found that my sober companion had gone through a lot of the experiences I had and he had grown and learned."
Caine says his struggles with addiction and getting clean help him work with others trying to recover, especially when they lash out and take out the pain and anger of withdrawal on him.
"We're all used to being thrown in jails and being threatened by the cops and the district attorney, so to have an addict or alcoholic in early recovery call me names doesn't really bother me," says Caine. "I actually expect it."
Lucks admits that it was tough to have someone with him day in and day out, but with the help of his sober companion he's been clean for almost six months and is going back to school.
"He really showed me a whole new way of life," says Lucks. "He told me it was OK and it could be fun to live clean and not have to rely on drugs."
Lucks isn't sure if the sober buddy trend will take off, but with celebrities like Wilson drawing more attention to the treatment, "sober companionship" may become the new gold standard for treating addiction.