“How are you even alive?”
I’d been talking with another newbie before a newcomers’ AA meeting. She was 19 and just out of rehab; I was 57 and about three months sober. She probably assumed that I, like the other women my age in that group, had been sober for 20 or 30 years. When I said I was new to sobriety like her, she burst out with this question about my very existence.
I didn’t fit the mold of someone with a family history, early onset, a quick descent into daily intoxication, destruction of relationships, work, and physical health. If I had, I would have, indeed, been dead.
Instead, I worked my way into alcohol dependence, slowly but steadily. I didn’t drink at all in high school and rarely in college. I was a full-grown adult when I descended from drinking for fun to drinking because I couldn’t have fun without it, to drinking so I could face another empty night. Eventually, I was turning down invitations and dropping out of activities — creating empty nights so I could spend them drinking.
My descent into addiction took more than 30 years.
The other women my age in that newcomers’ meeting were as welcoming as could be, but their experience with alcohol generally was closer to that of my 19-year-old friend. Feeling I didn’t fit the mold, I decided I probably wasn’t really an alcoholic. I dropped out of AA and tried moderation for a while.
“One night, after I promised myself one glass of wine but poured four in quick succession, I finally admitted I had a problem.”
“Drinking like other people” involved endless negotiations with myself about when I could drink and how much. It was exhausting. One night, after I promised myself one glass of wine but poured four in quick succession, I finally admitted I had a problem.
I looked for an alternative to AA. I found the Women for Sobriety New Life Program and a local group whose members are more like me. Many of us are in our 50s and 60s. A few have a decade or more of sobriety but most have been recovering for a few years, months, or weeks. We seem to be about evenly split between slow bloomers like me and late bloomers whose alcohol use skyrocketed a few years ago, usually in response to a loss such as a divorce or a child moving away from home.
I feel at home here.
I can’t really tell you about the differences between getting sober at 30 and at 60, since I’ve done only one of those things. What I can tell you about are some differences between me at 30 and me at 60. Most of these, I think, make recovery easier today than it would have been then.
A big difference is that I know, at 60, that I can’t do this alone. I can’t do any difficult thing alone. My sobriety is possible only because of my recovery group, my church, a couple of sober friends from outside my group, and a few others who treat my recovery as one of the many facets of who I am rather than a stigma or taboo.
Another difference is that I’ve slowed down a little, both physically and mentally. Some of that is just age. For example, I walk more slowly than I used to because of a foot disorder the podiatrist says often hits post-menopausal women.
“A big difference is that I know, at 60, that I can’t do this alone. I can’t do any difficult thing alone.”
Much of the slowdown is deliberate, something I’ve been working on since I stopped drinking.
Mindfulness practices have been a huge part of my recovery. I spend a good two hours most mornings journaling, praying, meditating, and doing yoga-like exercises that keep my back from seizing up. Because of all that morning mindfulness work, I also do a lot more noticing during the day. I stop to look, listen, smell, and taste. I say “thank you.” Whatever is going on in the here and now is almost always better than what is going on in my head.
Most of my friends have slowed down, too. I don’t have to work nearly as hard as I would have in my 20s and 30s to avoid alcohol-fueled situations and hard-drinking friends. Yes, I’ve had to modify relationships with people who still drink to excess but most of my friends drink less than they did or have quit drinking altogether. A few are those incomprehensible people who never did have more than one or two. No one I know hangs out in bars. What a relief that is!
I also have much more perspective on myself than I did in my 20s or 30s. Because of recurrent episodes of major depression (can we say “self-medication,” anyone?), I’ve spent a lot of time in therapy. In my 20s, in my 40s, I felt as if therapy and medications were just keeping me alive long enough for the depression to burn itself out. This time, I think I’m actually getting better. Of course, the fact that I stopped pouring a depressive drug down my throat is part of the reason. But so is my age. I’ve bemoaned to my current therapist the time I wasted with previous therapists. She points out that, as we grow older, our capacity for self-awareness deepens and grows. The work I am doing now is not work I could have done with that first therapist when I was 26.
One possible downside of getting sober at 60 is breaking a habit reinforced over decades. Yet, I don’t think I had any harder time quitting alcohol than I would have at 30.
In early sobriety, I employed a dozen tricks — including calling a sober friend and going for a walk at 5 p.m. with no money or credit cards — to avoid the “witching hour.” Three years later, the witching hour is no longer bewitching.
I rarely think about drinking — and never simply because of what time it is.
I guess the other big downside is regret. I’ve wasted a boatload of time using red wine and gin to wash away childhood neglect, self-hatred, and an inability to form healthy relationships. Occasionally I waste more time wishing I’d done pretty much everything differently. Usually, though, I simply accept that the past is past and I can’t get it back.
Now I’m trying healthier ways of dealing with the realities I used to try to drown. In the first several months of sobriety, simply not drinking was the goal. Now not drinking is the baseline, the starting point from which the real work of emotional and spiritual growth can begin.