One-on-one relationships have long been part of the addiction recovery process, from the sponsors who help new Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) members to therapists who specialize in co-occurring addiction and mental health struggles. Building relationships of trust with those who can help a person understand stress and triggers, avoid intoxicating substances, and stay sober is a deeply important part of the long-term recovery process.
Recently, this one-on-one relationship has expanded into a constant presence from a person called a sober companion. This is a job, much like a therapist or coach, for a professional who can be present with clients in a variety of ways – as little as “on call” over the phone to as much as living in the same home and accompanying their client through an entire day. The sober companion industry is a new field, facing few regulations at the state or federal level, but sober companions may become an important part of recovery, as the understanding of addiction and relapse changes.
What Sober Companions Do
Generally, a sober companion serves similar functions as an AA sponsor, individual therapist, and personal trainer. Many sober companions work with their clients in the first weeks after the individual has left a rehabilitation program and is transitioning back into living at home.
The International Association of Addiction Professionals (IAAP) now provides a certification program for those who wish to become sober companions or coaches. This program aims to standardize the definition of sober companion, the required training, and professional, ethical standards for calling oneself a sober companion, coach, or escort.
Who Benefits from Having a Sober Companion?
People who benefit from the presence of a sober companion are those who live alone; who have competitive, high-stress jobs; and who need reinforcement to avoid old patterns and bad influences when they leave their rehabilitation program. Those who were in an inpatient program, who lived in a supervised environment that enforced their sobriety, can benefit from a person living with them or visiting them several times a week for the first weeks out of the rehabilitation program, so they stay on track.
Sober companions are often reported as being 24/7 presences, who police their clients’ lives, and go so far as to slap drugs or alcohol out of their clients’ hands. While these individuals certainly exist, that does not represent the extent of flexibility in the sober companion role. Sober companions may spend a few hours per week with a client, helping them on tasks like grocery shopping, or they may advise their clients on staying sober in high-risk situations, like holiday parties.
The benefit of turning to a sober companion for help staying abstinent is that they develop a specific relationship with each client, so they can provide tough love, coaching, advice, and emotional support without presumptions from previous relationships like those with friends and family. Getting the support of loved ones during recovery is extremely important, but these relationships may have been frayed while the individual struggled with addiction. A sober companion can take some of the weight off these relationships, just like a therapist, social worker, and mutual support groups can.
Another benefit of a sober companion is strict anonymity for the client. Investment bankers and Hollywood celebrities may have their struggles with addiction publicized, but sober companions are under contract not to disclose the details of the recovery process to anyone, including journalists.
Risks Associated with This New Career Field
Although sober companions can be very beneficial, there are some potential downsides.
- Clients may not learn to enforce their own boundaries.
The first weeks and months after one exits an inpatient rehabilitation program are a time of vulnerability and stress, as one tries to create a new routine without drugs or alcohol. Having a sober companion to manage this transition can be great; however, if the sober companion does not help their client move toward self-sufficiency, it can lead to issues down the road. The companion could remain present for months, and when the contract does eventually end, their client may still not be able to say “no” or avoid old habits without someone constantly over their shoulder. A therapist and support group may be more beneficial during this transition, or living in a sober home, which provides space for residents to rebuild a daily routine without the presence of drugs or alcohol in the home can be more beneficial.
- They are expensive.
Currently, sober coaches and companions are intensive jobs that may require living with clients, being available at varied hours, or following clients to events at a moment’s notice. These services are not covered by health insurance, and sober companions rarely have certifications, educational requirements, and legal guidelines. This means people who claim to be sober companions can basically charge as much as they want for their services. While there are more professional and nonprofit organizations offering professional certificates, and some states are beginning to provide training for these positions, the market for sober companions tends to focus on wealthy clients.
- There are few regulations and guidelines.
Again, more regulations, guidelines, professional organizations, and certification programs are appearing to help people who claim to be sober companions develop professional skills and define their job. These protect the companions from abusive clients, and they protect clients from irresponsible, untrained, and manipulative sober companions. Still, the position is such a new addition to long-term addiction treatment and recovery that there is little oversight, so it can be easy to get duped by scam artist.
- There’s no evidence that sober companions help.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states clearly in their Principles of Effective Treatment that addiction treatment programs should offer many approaches to recovery because each person has different needs. For example, one person may benefit from a spiritual approach while another does not appreciate this kind of treatment. Sober coaches and companions can be good for some people who need this kind of oversight, but, like any personalized approach, they will not work for everyone. There are no studies on the effectiveness of sober coaches, so there may be similarly effective but less expensive approaches to staying abstinent.
Finding a Great Sober Companion
It is also important to know that a sober companion is not a replacement for a medically supervised detox program and evidence-based rehabilitation program. Instead, a sober companion can be a beneficial addition to the longer recovery process after one completes a rehabilitation program.
After going through detox and rehabilitation, ask a case manager, social worker, or therapist at the rehabilitation program if they think a sober companion could benefit the recovery process and inquire if they have recommendations for affordable, certified, and trusted professionals working in this field. Start with detox and rehabilitation and then work with addiction specialists to set up a personalized approach to recovery.