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ORANGE COUNTY

He fights substance abuse -- with no stars in sight

January 24, 2008|DANA PARSONS

The cul-de-sac in a residential Tustin neighborhood, especially on a gray rainy afternoon like Wednesday, seems a long way from the brightness and glamour of the celebrity world of Hollywood and beyond.

But drugs and alcohol don't care where you live, and you can get just as loaded and lost in Tustin as Tinseltown.

Or Anywhere Else, USA.

Tim Chapman works almost exclusively out of the public eye. He runs a residential treatment center for substance abusers -- with separate programs for teenagers and adults -- out of facilities in Orange and Tustin. And before he ran the show, he lived it.

He knows what it's like, he says, to sleep in a stairwell and eat potato chips for breakfast. To live on the street and to get buzzed when you're 16 and to be shuttled from treatment center to treatment center instead of going to jail.

And for the last 30 years, he's known what it's like to be clean and sober.

We're talking at the Tustin site that has a 44-bed facility and rooms for counseling. I was curious about the everyday work life of a drug counselor who plies his trade day in and day out, away from the glare of celebrity cases that so often capture the public's attention.

The day before, acclaimed actor Heath Ledger had died. A week earlier, actor Brad Renfro had died. The cause of death hasn't been determined for either, but news reports have said that both had a history of substance abuse. And, of course, the media have printed numerous accounts of Britney Spears' and Lindsay Lohan's bouts with drug use. And Owen Wilson's drug problems were reported after his apparent suicide attempt last August.

The public takes notice of celebrities. It doesn't take notice of the people Chapman and his staff see every week of the year. Yet, he says, referring to high-profile stars, "if they have the disease of addiction, they have more similarities than differences with Joe Schmo sitting around a table."

Life around Chapman House isn't glamorous. Meeting an abuser may begin with handing them a sheet of paper and asking them to answer a question: "Who are you?"

"Some can't even write it," Chapman says. "They say, 'I don't know anymore.'

"Most of the people who come in here are 50 years old going on 14. Or 26 going on 14. Or 38 going on 14. They somehow got stuck in that adolescent place where they started to drink and use [drugs] and somehow they lost a little bit of themselves. And the next thing you know, they're asking, 'Who am I?' "

The same thing happens with celebrities, some of whom he says he has worked with over the years.

"The challenge for younger celebrities," he says, "is that they've got fame, and part of that fame is they've got to be out flaunting it. I find a lot of them have a loss of self. They don't know who they are. They're busy performing and then when they're not performing, they're busy trying to protect their privacy."

Chapman opened the center about 25 years ago. The clientele, he says, includes teens "just starting to smoke pot all the way to the guy who's been shooting heroin for 25 years."

In a business where perfection isn't realistic, making a difference for seven out of 10 patients is a reasonable goal, he says.

"People tend to trust a counselor who's been there and done that," Chapman says. "Parolees to corporate CEOs to adolescents to celebrities, I've dealt with all of them. Our job is to get them to trust that you know what you're talking about."

And while he says he'd "love" to get Britney Spears into treatment, he's content to work off the radar screen. Being the guy who "saves" Britney would be good publicity, but the job provides plenty of satisfaction already, he says.

"When five to 10 family members say, 'Thanks, we got our brother, son, husband and dad back,' there's nothing more rewarding than that."

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Dana Parsons' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.

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