May has been designated Older Americans Month, and this year’s theme is “Get Into the Act,” “focusing on how older Americans are taking charge of their health, getting engaged in their communities, and making a positive impact in the lives of others” (Administration for Community Living, www.acl.gov). The past few weeks, we have discussed mixing aging and alcohol use/misuse. James, a local “older American,” has gotten “into the act” and improved his health and well-being by taking control of his alcohol use, and hopes that sharing his story will help others choose to make positive changes in their lives also.
Until he became sober, James never saw himself as an alcoholic. When presented with questions from alcoholism screening tests, he viewed then as “silly” because he had lost perspective of how “normal people” would answer the questions. He was aware that he had a much higher tolerance for alcohol than other people, but he was able to manage the responsibilities of an executive position for many years, so how could his drinking be a problem? Even when his brother died of alcoholism at age 38, James was blind to the effects of alcohol on his own life, and felt only anger at his brother for leaving his wife and three young children behind. “Why couldn’t he just stop [drinking]?”
The turning point for James came after he retired. Previously, his innate sense of responsibility to financially provide for his family and meet his boss’s expectations had kept him functioning at work. But with the kids grown, and no boss to answer to any longer, “the sense of freedom allowed me to pursue the booze.” He tried to operate his own consulting business, but didn’t have the attention span needed to focus on the many details involved. He learned that his wife had visited a divorce attorney. His grown children had grown weary of his constant drinking. Slowly he began to realize that drinking was not always a wise choice and started to hate it. His psychological and physiological need for alcohol, however, made him also hate not drinking. Being miserable either way, he went for counseling, thought about and even picked a treatment center to use, but saw treatment as a method to decrease his tolerance. The concept of alcoholism as a disease was still foreign to him, and it wasn’t a “convenient” time to make a commitment and have to go away for a while.
After a particularly bad week of constant drinking, which led to days of no memories, the treatment center (prompted by his wife), called him and told him that they had an opening, and he finally agreed to go. The first week he had to wait for the “poison” to get out of his system before he “could start paying attention and learn how to deal with it.” He was amazed to learn that alcoholism is a disease and that those who are addicted can’t just quit whenever they decide they want to. The high mortality rates related to alcoholism, and the fact that there were others with similar experiences to his own, were also eye opening for him. He returned home after a 28 day stay, but his recovery was only beginning. Outside of the protective bubble of the treatment center, it was a constant battle against the compulsion to stop at a bar every time he went somewhere. The compulsion lessened after a couple of months, but it took a lot longer for his frequent thoughts about alcohol to fade.
James looks back at his years of alcohol use and describes himself during that time as an “egomaniac with an inferiority complex.” He focused only on his own needs and wants, but despite attempts to control these, was always convinced that something bad was about to happen. He credits Alcoholics Anonymous with teaching him how to live life on life’s terms. The past seven plus years of sobriety have brought him peace. He has the respect of his children and the desire and ability to do things with his grandchildren that he didn’t do with his own children, notices a world of things he didn’t before, is more physically fit, sleeps better at night, finds holidays enjoyable, knows more people that he can truly call friends, and is able to offer his talents to help other people. If he had not stopped drinking, James is convinced that he would have been in prison or dead by now.
James encourages those who have an alcohol habit to think about their quality of life. Is life enjoyable? What are you contributing to society? When “undesirable” events happen, was alcohol involved? Since beginning recovery, “Life keeps getting better” for James. Isn’t a second chance worth your consideration?
Karen Kaslow, RN
Information about local Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, as well as other local services related to alcohol and drug addiction, can be found on the Cumberland County website at www.ccpa.net under Government, Health and Human Services, Drug & Alcohol Commission. The local AA 24-Hour Hotline is 717-234-5390.
Thank you, James, for your willingness to share your personal struggles with alcohol addiction. If you would like to speak with James personally, you may contact him at 1Jamesoliver11@gmail.com.