The road to Australia’s most expensive rehabilitation clinic is marked with deep potholes. Here, where the wealthiest souls seek refuge from what bedevils them – drugs, alcohol, world weariness – local wags recently rose before the sun struck Cape Byron to plant pot in the potholes. Greeting tourists is a road sign reading “Cheer up, slow down, chill out”, recently bolted into place by a former builder turned psychic life coach – a career path unthinkable anywhere else.
“Champagne Buddhists claim Byron”, reads a note on a telegraph pole as we turn towards The Sanctuary, which bills itself as a “luxury rehabilitation centre and therapeutic retreat”. Treatment here costs clients $101,000 for a three-week stay, or $135,000 for four. That’s close to $34,000 per week on average – almost 25 times the national average weekly full-time earnings, or 453 times the cost of a decent bottle of Bollinger. By comparison, California’s Betty Ford Center, guests of which have reportedly included Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Downey Jr, is a piddling $US32,000 a month. Utah’s Cirque Lodge (clients: Lindsay Lohan, Kirsten Dunst) is $US47,850 a month, while Promises, in Malibu (Charlie Sheen, Britney Spears, Lohan – again), costs $US55,000 for 31 days, including “equine therapy”.
The most expensive rehab clinic in the world, according to The Times newspaper, is the Kusnacht Practice, in Zurich, which costs $A313,825 for four weeks. The Sanctuary is similarly priced to attract an exclusive set. Supermodel Naomi Campbell was snapped by paparazzi on the beach here in 2007. This February, singer George Michael reportedly checked in for two months (The Sanctuary won’t reveal the names of any clients).
Healing in paradise … Peter Munro gazes from his villa window at The Sanctuary in Byron Bay.
Healing in paradise … Peter Munro gazes from his villa window at The Sanctuary in Byron Bay. Photo: Janie Barrett
Since opening in 2004, The Sanctuary has treated European royalty, American record producers and corporate chiefs from Asia, Australia and New Zealand. And, for the next 48 hours, its clientele includes a freeloading newspaper journalist – namely, me.
While not addicted to any substances, I have in my life enjoyed a few too many drinks, tried a few drugs, punched a few walls, sported a few bruises. I bite my fingernails until they bleed and in 2011, after turning 35 and collapsing in a fun run, I was diagnosed with depression. My malcontent moods are likely not so serious to warrant a formal stay at The Sanctuary – and, at these prices, I can afford to do so only as a (free) guest. But to best understand life inside Australia’s most luxurious rehab clinic, I ask to be treated as any other patient.
I am given a confidential patient code, a medical check, nutritional assessment, blood tests and a psychiatric assessment. Clinical director Jane Williams conducts my initial one-hour assessment by phone. We discuss my discontent, my sense of a life that is slipping away. She tells me many people feel the same way. “You have all the ingredients of a good and happy life, and something is not being met,” she says. “You should have more joy.”
Retreat … a naturopathy session in progress.
Retreat … a naturopathy session in progress. Photo: Janie Barrett
The “intensive therapeutic retreat” takes no more than six clients at a time. They never meet each other nor have group therapy. Each client stays in a luxury house of their own and is maintained in style by a personal chef and live-in carer.
Treating them one-on-one is a suite of health professionals who target the mind and body, drawing from Eastern and Western traditions: among them therapists, physiotherapists, yoga instructors, naturopaths, acupuncturists, personal trainers and masseuses.
Some clients suffer the First World problem of weltschmerz or world weariness, Williams says. “I had one client say to me, ‘I’ve made another million dollars today, Jane, but what does it all mean? I’m successful, I’ve made this money, but I’m not getting any pleasure or joy out of it all.’ They have this existential crisis: ‘Who am I? I’ve made all this money, but I’m still not happy.’ ”
I wonder about this when I arrive at my beachside Balinese-style villa – one of about 40 properties The Sanctuary hires for clients – feeling very happy indeed. My bathroom is big enough to swing a chandelier in, and has a “soap menu” including a “calming and soothing” chai bar and a love bar. I have never seen a soap menu before. Given the stature of The Sanctuary’s clientele, I am surprised to see a toilet brush in the corner.
Chef Scott Foster plates a Thai salad and cured ocean trout, prepared with a dash of xylitol, a natural sugar alternative. Sugar is banned, along with alcohol, illicit drugs and gambling. Clients are asked to limit themselves to one coffee a day. Clients check in voluntarily but must agree to a list of conditions: their belongings are searched on arrival and they must take random drug tests; telephone or internet use is limited to two hours a night; and they are advised to abstain from sex during their stay.
In the zone … Munro has a one-on-one with a health professional at The Sanctuary.
In the zone … journalist Peter Munro has a one-on-one with a health professional at The Sanctuary. Photo: Janie Barrett
After I check in, a doctor checks my blood pressure and diet, and advises me to cut back on alcohol and carbohydrates. In a small, white, on-site treatment room, naturopath Sarita Merlo quizzes me about the consistency of my stools. Do I dream in colour or black-and-white? Do I sweat a lot? I confess that once, while wearing tan slacks, my knees sweated so much I looked like I had been wading in a kiddies’ pool. She studies the yellow fuzz on my tongue and spies deep concentric rings in my eyes, which, she says, indicates “someone who has a tendency to hold on to nervous tension and finds it hard to relax”.
My liver is also in need of support – something I am told regularly during my stay. Physiotherapist Claudia Mirdita presses my flesh and suggests I am holding on to stress “deep down”. “You look vibrant but you lack vitality,” she says.
Psychotherapist Greg McHale asks me about my childhood and how often I was hugged. At night, my assigned personal carer Jan Wilde keeps me company. Over a dinner of Moroccan lamb with spinach and, inevitably, quinoa, Wilde says she has been in recovery from alcohol addiction for about 15 years. “We try to help people find something to be passionate about other than alcohol or drugs,” she says.
The Sanctuary’s founder, Michael Goldberg, who has a drowsy voice and lavish eyebrows, is a former builder and drug addict from Melbourne who came to Byron Bay for treatment and never left. “You can only party so much. It became soulless,” he says. He started The Sanctuary to provide an exclusive, intensive treatment program tailored to each individual. Clients can claim about 5 per cent of their bill through private health insurance. “We don’t take people who have to mortgage their house,” he says.
“The hardest thing for someone who is very famous is to have people be real with them. People who are really famous don’t have people saying to them, ‘You hurt me’ or ‘Don’t be rude’ or ‘You can wait in line like everybody else’. ”
He tells me about the young European drug addict who had been going to rehab only so that she could repair her veins enough to shoot up again. “A hugely wealthy person, you know, paintings in her house for $50 million. She came to us and stayed for three months. She said, ‘Michael, I am your miracle.’ ”
The Sanctuary has a success rate of 89.6 per cent, according to Goldberg, and success occurs, he says, when people overcome their harmful addictions, depression or anxiety. He contacts former clients regularly over several years to check on their progress.
Addiction specialist and psychiatrist Michael Baigent, who is on the board of Beyond Blue, cautions that The Sanctuary’s success rate has not been scientifically verified. Private psychiatric clinics often deliver a high standard of care, he says. Then I tell him how much it costs to stay at The Sanctuary. “Oh my godfather!” he says. “People shouldn’t feel they have to go to a clinic that costs $100,000, because most treatments are available for the majority of Australians at a much reduced cost.”
While enjoying my fourth massage in two days I wonder how much of The Sanctuary’s program is treatment and how much is simply pampering. But then, I feel good and that’s no bad thing. Of course, if I was footing the bill I might simultaneously feel very sorry.
I fall asleep during acupuncture and start snoring. Later, masseuse Anna Doble tells me I have a stagnant liver and cold hands and feet. I don’t know why, but I ask her if an enema would help matters. She doubts it. “It is kind of abnormal to stick a hose up your arse, really,” she says.
Yoga instructor Consta Georgoussis has me lay on the grass and listen for the sound of the ocean, the birds, the wind in the leaves. We busy our lives with so many distractions, he says. Or at least I think he says so. I am too busy thinking of the times I have tweeted while on the toilet.
It strikes me that you need not look too deep to discover a person’s potholes. My two-day stay leaves me feeling simultaneously worse about my current state and better about my capacity to change. Jane Williams recommends I see a therapist and go easier on myself. “There is an expectation we should be happy all the time,” she says.
I leave as happy and content as I may, like a first-class passenger finishing a long-haul flight. But if I had a spare $135,000 (and I am not someone who has a spare $135,000), I reckon I would rather book myself a ticket to some sunny island, or pay a deposit on a home, or buy a flash car, or a spaceflight simulator, or a giraffe. But then, if I had a spare few million dollars, I could think of worse ways to spend it than being prodded, probed and pampered by the beach in Byron Bay. If money can’t buy happiness, it might at least cover the cost of contentment.
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