Here’s a weekly question we pose to our resident advocacy professional, Joe Schrank. Joe’s been a social worker for 25 years and he’s also been a hired sober companion. So that’s our topic today: Sober Companions. Joe’s helpful responses to some obvious questions begin right below this bold paragraph.
1. Are Sober Companions just for rich people?
Sober companions are only for rich people but I wish they were not. In my fantasy, everyone leaving rehab gets a sober buddy. It’s really hard, and being sober can’t just be theory. Doing groups on the inside, I always try to stress how hard it will be. It’s disorienting, and a sober companion provides ballast in the boat. I have no idea how the practice could be scaled for the masses but I wish it could. The ancient Greeks had a pretty limited understanding of mental illness, but their treatment plan was pretty good: “Be not idle, be not alone.”
2. Do celebrities just use them for PR purposes?
Celebrities absolutely use sober companions as a PR move. For many it’s just damage control. For some, a sober companion is an accessory, like the cool bag or car. There is often a lack of sincerity. Hollywood has a herd mentality, and having a sober companion became a pop culture staple. It’s not just celebrities – Wall Street people are the same way. I have walked away from gigs for this reason. If someone only wants to assuage guilt or deflect anger, there’s very little value to rehab or a sober companion. I have said “If you’re not really interested let’s call your parents and tell them you’re a drug user, we can refer them to a family therapist to deal with their feelings about that.” It gets to be like hush money which isn’t really my thing. I’d like to say that’s virtue, but it’s more arrogance. Sorry, I won’t be a character in your movie, I’d rather be poor.
3. What do you actually do when you get hired as a sober companion?
I think of being a sober companion as similar to being a personal trainer. Much of it is shifting the dynamic. The presence of someone is very different than the absence. If the client is willing to try 12-step recovery it’s much easier for them to go to a meeting with someone than to go alone. I’m big on the overlap between mind and body so working out is a big part of the day. Managing the schedule is a part of it too. Keeping obligations is a challenge for many people so appointments with doctors and therapists and keeping the individual on task. A&E wanted me to do a show about sober companions, and I told them it would be really boring. If it’s a good fit and there is sincerity, it should be really boring.
4. Can you tell right away when someone is doomed?
Predicting that someone is doomed is difficult. The population that has a sober companion is extremely high risk and very advanced in the pathology of substance misuse, so it’s a very skewed sample. I have been around long enough now to know better than predict. I have been to weddings of former clients who I swore wouldn’t last a day and funerals of clients I thought were doing great. Oftentimes I have a good instinct for outcome. Placing blame is a big indicator. When people feel things being done to them, it’s very difficult to gain any traction.
5. Have you ever had someone die?
I have had more than a few clients die. Never while I was on duty. Most notable was Greg Giraldo. The anniversary of his death was just yesterday. Jeff Corzine who was a long time client and such a great kid. He was very spoiled but not a brat. He was kind, highly sensitive. I was interviewing with Philip Seymour Hoffman and he rejected the idea. He didn’t seem to have a problem with me but wouldn’t have anyone with him. Heartbreaking when people die.
6. Does that make you feel like a failure? Like, “Ah, shit, this is my one job…”
It doesn’t take a death to feel like a failure as a sober companion. The whole notion of success is an intangible metric. It’s very hard to measure what didn’t happen. Deaths are, of course, acutely difficult. I have never had a client die on exactly on my watch. It’s easy to say “If I had been there…” but that’s incredibly arrogant. Greg was the hardest because were so close as friends. I could easily chase away people offering drugs and the partying after a show. Instead we’d end up back at the hotel with junk food and laughing at new bits or bad TV. He never even complained about it. But he could not set limits for himself that would keep him safe.
The night he died he was with some girl who never even called 911 when the shit started to go down. I try to think of my clients as having Stage 4 cancer, so I’m aware they won’t all make it. Arrogance is one of my flaws, but not to the point that I think I can control addiction. The body count is high and it is kind of wearing on me. I’d love to coach high school baseball and teach history, but this is like the priesthood: you can leave it entirely but in your heart you’re still a priest. Even if I did coach high school baseball, I’m sure someone’s mother would overdose and fall off the bleachers.
7. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve had to do as a sober companion?
I think being a sober companion is weird in and of itself. The weirdest thing I have ever been asked was, “Can you stop by my house and get my tanning underwear and meet me at the tanning salon?” I had a client obsessed with his tan line, like an obsessive disorder. I met the request; when someone is fresh from injecting drugs, tanning underwear is pretty harmless.