Back to Life in Midlife: Beating Addiction

Addictions are powerful — but so are over-40 women. Here, four stories of how maturity speeded recovery.

By Ginny Graves
Janis Robinson (Photo: Alessandra Petlin)

Midlife Women and AddictionMost treatment programs — whether they’re for drugs and alcohol, gambling, or eating disorders — are targeted to people under 40. But the number of midlife women with addictions is on the rise. By the year 2020, 4.4 million Americans 50 and older will have drug and alcohol problems, almost triple the number in 2001, according to estimates from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. And many of the women will hesitate to seek help. "Women feel more ashamed of their problems than men, and older women even more so," says Stephan Arndt, PhD, a University of Iowa professor who has studied addictions in people over 40. "Once in treatment, however, they usually encounter other women just like themselves."And they’re motivated to get better. "Midlife women," Arndt says, "often look at the second half of their lives and think, ‘Do I want to spend time maintaining, yet trying to hide, an addiction?’"Moreover, recovery may come more naturally to women. Brenda Iliff, director of clinical services at the Hazelden Women’s Recovery Center, in Center City, Minnesota, says women are "wired for connection." And recovery, she explains, "is about reconnecting with family, friends, communities, and colleagues."Women often emerge from treatment with a strong focus on their values and try to reflect them in their lives, notes Carol Colleran, executive vice president of the Hanley Center, a rehabilitation facility in West Palm Beach, Florida. "That, in and of itself, helps them stay clean," she says.If you’re a midlife woman struggling with an addiction, that’s inspiring news. Here, four equally inspiring stories.AlcoholismHer philosophy had always been "If I work hard, I can play hard." A stay-at-home mom in Chicago, Janis Robinson, now 48, devoted herself to her two kids and household chores Monday through Friday. But on weekends she and her husband would go out to dinner or entertain friends, and she’d always have several glasses of wine.The couple divorced in 2001, however, and Robinson’s life became more stressful. With her children, ages 4 and 8, in private school, she went back to work — as the head of diversity at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business — and had many more responsibilities. "I was angry and unhappy, so I began kicking up my heels on the weekends," she says. "I’d get together with other single moms on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, and while the kids hung out, we’d party."The weekend revelry didn’t seem like a big deal when the children were young, but as they got older, their schedules became more demanding. "It’s hard to get up early and take your kids to soccer or basketball practice when you’re hung over," she says.Her turning point came in 2005, while she and her daughter were on a ski trip with friends in Colorado. Robinson’s attorney called to tell her that her ex-husband was planning to sue for full-time custody of the children, and she fell apart. "I went straight to the liquor store, bought a bottle of vodka and drank it all," she says. She passed out, and when her daughter couldn’t awaken her the next morning, Robinson was rushed to the hospital."I was humiliated and frightened," she says. "My husband picked up my daughter, and my two sisters, who live in Colorado, took me home with them. My mom was there, and she and my sisters asked, ‘What’s your plan? What are you going to do about this?’ I said I was going to go into treatment."Because she couldn’t afford a months-long absence from her job (by that time, she was an insurance broker), Robinson enrolled in the Hazelden Foundation’s intensive outpatient program in Chicago. She attended its classes for three hours every evening after work for six weeks, then continued going several times a week for almost a year. She also went — and still goes — to 12-step meetings three times a week during her lunch hour.Robinson has been sober two years, although it hasn’t been easy. "The kids live mostly out of state with my husband, so I don’t see them nearly as often as I’d like," she says. "But I’m grateful every day for my sobriety, and I’m so much happier in most ways. I have a great network of sober friends. I feel healthier physically and emotionally, more centered and peaceful.

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