Growing Old Sober

By David J. Powell, PhD

Growing Old

Growing Old, Check it out. Most of the articles written about sobriety focus on early stages of recovery and that’s appropriate. Early recovery brings an array of issues that are important to address. However, long-term recovery needs to be addressed also. Just because I have been sober for some time does not exempt me from the usual issues people encounter as they age. This article will speak to some of these issues.

Stages of Life

How does one know they are getting older, besides looking in the mirror? There are four markers of aging:

• Biological/chronological: I’ve lived more years than I’m going to live. If you are over 40, you’re likely in life’s second half, at least as far as actuarial tables are concerned. Life’s second half usually brings with it different issues, such as physical pain, career changes, the few inches around the waist that were not there ten years ago. When someone tells you at 50 they can do what they were doing at 20—they likely were not doing much at 20. Aging brings biological changes.

• Social: aging brings social changes, such as loss of jobs, facing retirement, the kids are out of the house and you become an “empty-nester.” These can be exciting or frightening changes, depending on how one looks at them.

• Psychological/emotional: the old adage is “you’re only as old as you feel” may be true at 40 but less so at 60. Now, I wake up with a few more aches and pains than before. I look in the mirror and see age lines that never existed. And I begin to feel older, which is not a bad thing. One of the inevitable truths of life is you’re going to grow old; you’re going to die, despite what the anti-aging commercials on television may say. And as we age we see the seeds of our ancestors in us. Ever look in the mirror and said to yourself, “Oh now, I’ve turned into my father/mother?” All those qualities they had that you did not want to have in yourself, you now see coming out.

• Spiritual: in life’s second half you ask different questions. Instead of “how” am I going to live, support my family, develop a career, you ask “why” questions. What’s it all about? Is that all there is? What legacy do I want to leave behind after I’m gone?

Life’s Issues in Aging

Sobriety gives us the ability and skills to deal with the “normal” issues we face in life: loss of loved ones, loss of relationships, empty nesting, career changes, physical impairment, and grieving. Recovery is a process not an event. Life is a continuum of ever-deepening circles. Put those two ideas together and we begin to understand what growing old sober might look like. In life, discovery often precedes recovery. You wake up one morning and realize, “Oh, that’s what that’s all about. I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I understand. We live life forward and understand it backwards.

Recovery goes through stages, even as life does. In the beginning, we have an early awareness and acknowledgment about what life might be like clean and sober. We go through periods of incubation, consideration, where we have to ponder “what does that mean?” This leads to activity and action where we begin to make changes in our life.

Rehabituation happens where we see changes in our attitudes, values and life style. Active recovery occurs somewhere down the road, over time. It’s said we spend the first five years of recovery trying to find our marbles and then the rest of our life trying to figure out what to do with them.

As we gain sobriety and age as well, we face profound life changes which can become triggers to relapse if not addressed.

• Often we climb the ladder of success only to find out the ladder was against the wrong
building. We ask ourselves “Is that all there is?” What we sought in our younger years may no longer provide us the same sense of meaning and purpose.

• The power, possession, prestige, privileges, and perks we sought in our early years can become meaningless now as we age.

• As we age, we face profound questions about dealing with aging parents, raising a family, facing retirement, asking ourselves “will there be enough” to sustain us through life. Our fears can overwhelm us. These questions, if left answered, can lead to relapse.

• Life is a journey of transformation, from success to significance. If you do not transform your pain, you transmit it. You take it out on yourself through abuse. Being in the presence of changed people changes us. And love will always transform us. In the Program, we say, hang out with winners, transformed people.

• Recovery is always about letting go. Success has virtually nothing to teach you in life’s second half. We learn more about life from what we’ve had to let go of vs. what we retain. But, everything I’ve had to let go of in my life has claw marks on it—I do not let go of things easily. I want to hold on to them as long as possible, which causes me suffering and pain.

• Recovery is about who am I? What’s life about? What else is there? He who has a “why” in life can live with any “how.”

• You cannot do all of your homework at the end. The journey of transformation begins early in sobriety. Recovery means actively addressing these profound issues in life.

• Women in recovery may face issues unique to them: internal barriers to recovery (shame, trauma), external barriers (misdiagnosis, stigma, child care transportation, money), and systemic barriers to recovery (inadequately trained caregivers skillful in treating women, lack of women-sensitive treatment).

The road of life is rarely a straight journey. It is filled with many unexpected twists and turns in the road. The road to recovery is also filled with many changes. Combine life’s changes with the changes that happen in recovery, we face important and interesting challenges. The good news: recovery happens. Sobriety is possible.

David J. Powell, Ph.D. is Assistant Clinical Professor, Yale University School of Medicine and President of the International Center for Health Concerns, Inc. He has been a mental health and substance abuse professional since 1965 and is widely regarded as the leading expert on clinical supervision in the substance abuse field.