Although aging is not for the faint of heart, it is a privilege that many don’t get to experience. It is said that old age doesn’t begin until one starts looking backward rather than forward – when our identity becomes how many years we have been here we have given away the ability to meaningfully impact our future. In discussing addiction and recovery, this is especially true, but the conversation is unusually complicated by a number of issues.
When it comes to opiate addiction, there is no segment of our population more heavily impacted. It is easy to allow one’s self to think their addiction is different because their pills are coming from a “legitimate” doctor, but the physical, mental and spiritual consequences of addiction to a drug are the same whether you get it from a pharmacy or a guy under the bridge. And for numerous reasons doctors seem to give older people pretty much any drug they want. This “denial” and the ease of availability are further complicated by the “excuse” of one’s age itself. Recently a 70-year-old woman told me “I am too old to quit. Maybe (I will quit) next lifetime.” Sure enough, it was only a couple of months before I heard of her passing, and personally witnessed all of the children and grandchildren that would have loved to have some quality time with her.
Seventy-one-year-old John has an instructive story. Born in New Jersey in 1947, he came of age in the “hippie” era. A part of the music and party scene for a number of years, John went through horrific opiate withdrawal several times in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, finally finding long-term relief through a 12-step program in 1985. His wife used substances too, and the damage to the relationship was enough that they separated that same year. A college graduate and a painting contractor by trade he had been five years sober when he moved to Mount Pleasant in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo.
John’s painting business flourished, and soon he employed dozens of people. He got active in both a 12-step program and a local church. He remarried in ’98, had a son in ’99 and a daughter in ’06. At 60 years old John developed severe back problems from decades of hard physical work. In 2011, at age 64, a doctor prescribed an opioid for his back pain, setting in motion 5 years of misery.
“I was taking the opioids to function and continue to support my family, and at first I was able to maintain my spiritual connection. I worked hard at keeping conscious contact with God. But I started feeling like a fraud at the 12-step meetings and gravitated toward men’s meetings at the church.”
“I had a lot of self-pity that developed, and anger kept creeping into every area of my life. The dosages escalated and soon I was taking pills just to get through the day. I feared opiates more than alcohol, so I started drinking liquor to moderate the opiate use. But over time that increased too. Isolation, self-pity and anger kept increasing and then dishonesty crept in. Instead of cherishing my wife and children as I had, I began to see them as a burden that didn’t appreciate all the hard work I did. I found myself clashing with the men at church and backed away from that too. The isolation increased even further and I convinced myself life is meaningless.”
“It got to the point that my son would beg me to take him fishing or hunting but I was in too much pain to do it. Time after time I was willing to go through the pains of withdrawal but I couldn’t make it. I became intolerant of most everything around me, and although I would do my best to put on a happy face I was raging inside. I was ready to be done with life.”
“Then, in 2015 I had a surgery on my back that relieved the pain. I would wake up pain free but found myself still taking the opiates and drinking. I started going to AA meetings and quit the drinking, but I couldn’t shake the pills. It is tough to show up at 68 years old and admit that you need help. When I tried to cut down the opiate dosage I would get spasms and intense pain, and even though I knew it was my mind making it up I couldn’t stop. I tried numerous times to cut down or cut back, but finally gave up fighting. I might well have died from an overdose because I just didn’t care anymore.”
“Then in January 2016 I was invited to a local men’s 12-step weekend retreat. It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I didn’t want to let my friends in the program down. I remember arriving the first night and feeling heartbroken. I could see the deep spirituality in many of the men and could remember being in that place, but it was as though I was seeing it through a thick glass wall across a chasm. I could not imagine ever being spiritually connected again. Later we broke up into small groups, and the man leading my group started off baring his soul about his addiction and his life telling us things that most people take to their grave. At first I thought he lost all credibility with the group by doing that, but then I realized that he trusted God completely and what he had actually done was give us all permission to get honest.”
“I got honest in that small group, and after I went back to my room that night I prayed earnestly for the first time in years. Something in me shifted that I couldn’t put my finger on, but I felt moved to take the bottle of pills out and toss it on the bed. ‘They are your God, you tell me when I should take them’ I prayed. I fell asleep and slept better than I had in years.”
“The next morning I went to breakfast and to several meetings early in the day. It wasn’t until about 10:30 a.m. that I realized I had not yet taken a pill, and had no withdrawal symptoms. To this day I have not taken another pill and have been symptom free.”
“I asked the man who led that group to mentor me, and he agreed with some conditions. And in the three years since life has turned completely around. I had a lot of work to do with everyone around me – but because I was willing to do the work God was able to restore those relationships. It took time and action to show others that I truly was sorry for how I had been and that I had changed. It took my son the longest to trust me again, but making amends to him finally took hold and the family is back on solid ground. Business and the employees are thriving again. I was taking nitroglycerin several times a day for heart issues, and it is now rare that I take any at all. I am mentoring men in the program and active in several groups.”
“I might well have died three and a half years ago – and yet here I am in a life full of blessings. I look forward to and cherish each day. My life is full of people who love me and whom I love in return. I don’t know how much time I have left, but the acceptance and gratitude I have at this age are incredible. This adventure of life is again exciting and worthwhile, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel fully present for life and useful to others. I would encourage anyone out there to reach out. It is never too late, and you can recover late in life. God is here, the good life is here, and you never have to be alone. Just reach out and there are people that will help you get back on with living.”
I enjoyed John immensely – he is full of optimism and the keen observations that those with seven decades of life have to offer. He mentors men in prisons, treatment programs and individually, cares for his family and looks out for his employee’s needs. At 71 he is far more engaged and thriving in life than most people half his age.
There are hundreds of accounts from both the medical field and from recovery programs about ‘miracle’ recoveries where the withdrawal symptoms mysteriously disappear. It seems to always be accompanied by some large spiritual awakening, and happen when an individual reached the depths of despair and asked God to help them. It is encouraging to know that there is both help and hope for seniors who are drowning in a pool of medications.