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THE (POSH) PATH TO RECOVERY MALIBU'S PASSAGES REHAB ESCHEWS 12-STEP PROGRAMS.

Byline: Valerie Kuklenski Staff Writer

The gate buzzes and opens, revealing a secluded street winding its way up a Malibu hillside marked by lavish homes and lush landscapes.

Up one driveway, between the marble columns and carved stone lions and just past the koi pond, is the front door of what could be a palatial residence or a very exclusive ocean-view resort.

But Passages is neither. It is a highly successful drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, according to proprietors Chris and Pax Prentiss, and possibly the most expensive facility of its kind in the nation.

Too costly for some

It's not just the high price -- $57,550 for 30 days of intensive therapy -- and the reported 84 percent of its clients overcoming their bad habits that distinguishes this facility. It's that it claims that success while flatly rejecting the widely accepted 12-step model created by Alcoholics Anonymous.

As tabloid headlines announce this or that celebrity returning to rehab after falling off the wagon, this father and son are bringing clients through a system they developed themselves, without professional training but with the knowledge that comes from Chris -- who has a background in real-estate investing -- having helped Pax overcome a long, life- threatening dependency.

``Basically, I was hooked on heroin and cocaine and alcohol for 10 years,'' said Pax, who at 32 looks like he hasn't been sick a day in his life. ``I've tried the 12-step program many times; I've probably been to thousands of meetings.

``And it wasn't until my dad and I started looking for underlying problems in my own life and found them and started to work on healing those that I was able to get sober and stay sober.''

His grueling story of escalating drug use, being beaten by dealers over unpaid debts, desperate fixes and, ultimately, resolution and sobriety are recounted in a chapter he wrote for Chris' book ``The Alcoholism and Addiction Cure: A Holistic Approach to Total Recovery.'' The book also details their treatment approach and their argument against 12-step programs as demoralizing and too often hopeless endeavors.

``Ninety-five percent of the people go to one (12-step) meeting and never go back again,'' Chris said. ``I can understand why. They hate them.

``Most people don't like to stand up and declare themselves an alcoholic or an addict. Alcoholism is not a disease. Alcoholism is merely a symptom of an underlying condition.

Chris, now 70, stood by his son through his multiple attempts to get clean.

``We went to meetings, we went to doctors, we went to psychiatrists, psychologists, drug and alcohol therapists, addiction specialists, rehab -- 90-day, 60-day, 30-day programs,'' Chris recalled from his second-floor office overlooking the Pacific.

``They were all ineffective. And they were not only ineffective for Pax, they were ineffective for most of the people in the program. They were relapsing. They'd leave the program, two days later be back.''

Passages is more than comfortable for its mostly well-heeled patients. Among its three houses and three guest houses, there is a tennis court, a pool, an expansive lawn overlooking the ocean, a 24/7 gym, surf gear at the ready, and therapy rooms for massage and acupuncture that compare to those in any high-end day spa. The residents' rooms could be in a nice hotel, and a chef formerly with Spago prepares meals aimed at pleasing sophisticated palates while healing often malnourished bodies.

But all those creature comforts are in support of a rigorous program of 20 hours per week per client of one-on-one therapy aimed at getting to the reason he or she turned to drugs or alcohol in the first place. (It is all those specialists on staff -- 34 counselors for up to 29 patients -- that requires the high fee.)

``There are only four causes of addiction and alcoholism,'' Chris explained. ``Chemical imbalance, events of the past they haven't been able to cope with, current conditions they haven't been able to deal with, and things they believe that aren't true.''

Felt he couldn't measure up

In Pax's case, it was a feeling that he couldn't measure up to the expectations of a successful father he adored. For one man, it was dealing with a mugging injury that made him reliant on painkillers, until he learned to manage his chronic pain with acupuncture. One woman had been sedating herself nightly for decades by drinking, until a physical exam at Passages determined she had an elevated heart rate, which they remedied with a prescription in order to eliminate the need for alcohol.

During a recent visit, residents were in different stages of recovery. One had a spring in his step and clear eyes and greeted visitors warmly. Another slinked out of a therapy room, her hair rumpled and her eyes looking weary and clouded. But both would be expected to attend the next graduation ceremony, a gathering in the living room where nearly everyone sits on floor cushions and a large brass gong is sounded while incense wafts through the air.

Chris Prentiss says many addiction specialists denounce his program as ``snake oil.'' But Passages is part of a trend toward at least downplaying 12-step therapy, which requires in part turning to God or a higher power, and looking at the bigger picture of the addict's overall health.

The 12-step approach

Psychotherapist and family counselor Steven M. Orenstein worked in addiction treatment at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center before opening New Seasons, a residential treatment center in Port Hueneme, eight months ago. It uses 12-step and intensive one-on-one therapy as well as brain mapping and neurocognitive rehabilitation.

He says studies have shown that treatment facilities working on the ``mind-body-spirit package'' have greater success rates than more conventional methods.

New Seasons uses 12-step group sessions along with personal counseling because Orenstein sees a benefit in working out those issues with peers without a leader dominating the discussion.

``It's not the perfect solution,'' he says of 12-step programs. ``Their success rates are low. But the people that do participate in it tend to do well.

``The success rate of treatment overall is not phenomenal, and we're still trying to work on that,'' Orenstein added. ``I think trying to integrate the best of every type of modality that's offered out there is the best thing we can do at this point.''

Rachel Ballon, a marriage and family therapist whose West Los Angeles practice includes addiction treatment, says she refers her patients to 12-step programs because she likes the personal accountability involved.

``Therapy alone -- and I've been a therapist for 26 years -- can't stop people from being alcoholics, overeaters or whatever the issue is,'' Ballon said. ``I think the tools of the 12-step program are wonderful, if they don't become an addiction in themselves.''

Twelve-step programs didn't break John Higholt's habit. He had been on heroin for six years, and then abused marijuana and OxyContin, scoring the pills from hospice workers who stole leftover medications after their patients died.

``That was my 16th treatment facility,'' said Higholt, 31, an L.A. resident and recent Passages graduate. ``Every other time, was a guy in a big black robe who told me I had to go. This time I went on my own.''

Playing the victim

A few sessions with the right therapists were eye-opening for him. ``I spent a long time in the victim role,'' he said. ``My mom committed suicide when I was 4, and I went into an abusive boarding school.

``But I learned I am responsible for what happens now. I was powerless over events in my childhood, but I have no one to blame for what happens to me now but myself,'' Higholt said. ``It was like getting hit over the head with a hammer -- in a very good way.''

He knows of a couple of individuals who attended Passages with him who have relapsed, but he is looking ahead with another graduate toward opening a clean-and-sober recording studio and label.

Frank assessment

The strongest testimonial probably comes from Pax, whose idea it was to open Passages. Every Friday night, while his old acquaintances likely are scrounging for drugs, he is leading a group session in which he talks frankly about his dark past.

``I was using heroin to cope with my problems. So once I got my problems handled and healed, I no longer needed the heroin,'' he said.

``I've been sober for six years, and I do not get cravings. And I'm telling you, I tried to get sober for 10 years and I couldn't do it. And I used to struggle with cravings on a day-in, day-out basis. It was like white-knuckling it.

``Ten years of drugs. It was a long time,'' Pax said.

``I'll say it was,'' his dad added.

Valerie Kuklenski, (818) 713-3750

valerie.kuklenski@dailynews.com

For more information

Passages: www.passagesmalibu.com; (888) 777-8525

New Seasons: www.newseasonsrecovery.com; (866) 697-3766

Alcoholics Anonymous: www.alcoholics-anonymous.org

World headquarters in New York: (212) 870-3400.

Information in L.A.: (323) 936-4343;www.lacoaa.org

CAPTION(S):

5 photos

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) A new approach to CLEAN & SOBER

Father-son duo spark controversy at Malibu's Passages

(2 -- color) Pax Prentiss, left, and his father, Chris Prentiss, stand on the lawn at the Passages rehab facility overlooking Point Dume in Malibu. The father-son team started Passages after Chris helped Pax conquer a 10-year addiction without using a 12-step program.

(3 --5) A treatment room in the Passages rehab facility, above. Pax Prentiss, 32, above right, was addicted to heroin, cocaine and alcohol for 10 years, before becoming sober with the help of his father, Chris Prentiss, right. The two, who started Passages, believe addiction is not a disease in itself, but rather a symptom of underlying dysfunction, such as emotional problems or chronic pain.

Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 9, 2006
Words:1629
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