“Too bad you didn’t get treatment for alcoholism earlier in your life,” said a young man in the discussion group after hearing my addiction story. “Let’s face it,” he continued, “your best years are behind you.” A big guy with a voice that didn’t match his 6’1”, nearly 300-pound frame, this opiate addict had a tendency of saying things that can be taken the wrong way. Sensing this was one of those occasions, and based on the bewildered look on my face that indicated I had indeed taken it the other way than he intended, he quickly added, “But you don’t look 60.”
At that point I knew I was making progress in my recovery because before coming to treatment I would have responded with some really nasty sarcastic remark about how he may never live to be my age. But I’ll admit it did catch me off guard, and caused me to ponder, ‘why, I am the oldest man in my unit. Aren’t there more people my age with an addiction seeking treatment?’
I responded in the calmest voice I could muster, without sounding phony by saying, “You may be right… but the way I was going there wouldn’t be a future for me.” Frankly, I couldn’t see how either option would have been a good thing since these are the things most people try to avoid.
I recognized that most of the 25 men in my unit, all white and ranging in age from early 20s to mid-30s, were expressing their opinions based on their own experiences. Most of them were in treatment, many for the second or third time, because a judge gave them an option of treatment or jail. The remaining few were trying to save their marriages and reunite with their kids. I, on the other hand, had raised four boys their ages, been with my wife for 35 years and held a job for as long as most of them have been alive, before I began to have serious problems with alcohol.
I didn’t know six months ago that whatever I drank would end with the same results—I couldn’t stop. It took some time to accept I no longer had an off switch. I truly was powerless over alcohol, but not ready to admit it. As any alcoholic will attest, one drink for me was too many and 100 was not enough. But I continued to try.
Initially I would purchase two bottles of wine even though I truthfully thought that was way too much. I rationalized that the second bottle was just in case I needed it; saving me another trip back to the liquor store. I was still able to convince myself I wasn’t an alcoholic because I didn’t drink in bars and never drank while driving. Of course, the reason was because I was isolating myself.
Each day I retreated to my home office and downed a bottle of Chardonnay while pretending, attempting, or a combination of both, to work. Before long it was a bottle in the morning, sleep it off and open another bottle when my wife came home while pretending that was the first bottle of the day. Eventually that increased to three bottles a day and led to creative ways to hide the empties around the house. I even started going to different liquor stores so I wouldn’t be that guy. You know, the one who the liquor store employees greet by name and point out the current discount on their favorite brands. Unfortunately, that is the guy I was becoming and I didn’t want to accept it.
Despite the denial, my body was telling me the truth. I could no longer eat or drink even water without it immediately coming back up faster and more violently than it went down. The only thing that stayed down in the morning was my first drink of wine. That, along with a passionate plea from my oldest son, helped me take the first step to recovery. I finally admitted I was powerless over alcohol.
But back to my treatment story. Throughout the rest of that day I paid particular attention to the other men in the treatment center who looked my age. To my surprise, there were more women over 50 than men. And only one African-American man, me. Strangely, I never noticed until this day. Obviously, addiction doesn’t discriminate, but you couldn’t tell from those who sought treatment. But that is another story for a later time.
With a Google search, I discovered I wasn’t unique despite what I have observed from those in treatment. It turns out I am among the 17 percent of the elderly with an alcohol or substance abuse addiction. One-third of the seniors that are alcoholics developed a problem later in life, according to information provided by the American Family Physicians. Another two-thirds grow older with the early onset of alcoholism. There are various studies on the number of seniors who are addicted to something. The latest study I could find estimates that 8 million senior citizens are alcoholics. And that number is estimated to increase dramatically in the next five years as more baby boomers retire.
Experts believe that as people age their sensitivity to alcohol increases and their tolerance decreases. In essence, we get drunk faster. That is because seniors drink less water and have a decreased amount of water in their bodies to dilute the alcohol consumed. So when I drank alcohol I got drunk faster than when I was younger, even if I consumed a smaller amount. My drinking probably had an even greater impact since I’ve always consumed less daily water than is recommended.
Now that I know why my drinking got worse as I got older, I’m better able to deal with the situation without the lingering question that most seniors ask: How did it come to this? I always wondered why it happened now as opposed to the real trying times in my life, like the major life-threatening illness to my second son at birth, losing my only sister in my 30s or when my job was eliminated after 25 years with a corporation. It seems to me that if alcohol was going to be a problem for me it would have occurred during either of those situations. Until now, I didn’t know why it didn’t. Now I do.
The good news for seniors like me is that we are more likely to succeed after treatment because we recognize there is not a lot of time to get this right if we want our remaining years to be meaningful and enjoyable. Yes, I’m in my twilight years. But I am confident that although the majority of my life is behind me, what lies ahead can still be amazing compared to the direction I was going. It all depends on how I manage my sobriety. And just think, I would have never discovered any of this if not for that awkward question from a fellow addict.
by M. Keith Dennis