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)
And she continues to see a counselor every week. "I’m rebuilding my credit by paying off my debt," Blackmarr says. "More important, I’ve reforged the trust with my husband. Our life is wonderful, in spite of everything, because we love our careers and we love each other. We’re rich in all the ways that really count."Eating DisorderWhen she was 17, Barb Delaney was in a near-fatal car accident. "I lost my nose and had nine surgeries over the next four years to reconstruct it," says the 44-year-old mother of two, who lives in Springfield, Virginia. The accident destroyed more than her face. "It devastated my self-confidence," she says. "I had always been self-conscious because I was a little overweight, but after the accident, it got really bad. I was in college and just wanted to fit in, which is pretty hard when your face is constantly changing."With her appearance determined by her doctors, Delaney took control of the only thing she could: her weight. "I’d eat very little, or eat a lot and then throw up," she recalls. "I became really thin, and that made me feel a little better about myself."She married in 1988. "I was hoping that my eating problems might get better, but though I managed to resolve my bulimia in college, during my two pregnancies, I couldn’t help worrying about my weight," she says. Nonetheless, Delaney ate well, and both of her children — a daughter in 1990 and a son three years later — were born healthy.Her career was also thriving. The family had moved to Hawaii, and Delaney became the director of two child development centers. But her marriage was faltering. "We didn’t really know each other well when we got married," she says. "Matt’s a wonderful man, but we weren’t really right for each other." In 1999 they divorced, a split that she describes as "a good thing for both of us."The stress of single parenting took a toll, though. By the time she was in her late 30s, Delaney weighed just 85 pounds; her health was precarious. "I had been in and out of the hospital several times, and I had an intravenous feeding tube for several months," she says. "One day my daughter and I went to Costco, and I couldn’t lift a case of Coke. I was ashamed. You’re supposed to have it all together in your 40s, and I was a mess. I didn’t own a house, I had a beat-up car, I was divorced — and I had this terrible eating disorder. For a person like me, who likes to do things right, that was very difficult."The turning point came in the summer of 2005, when her parents, her brother and five of her close friends staged separate interventions. "My brother said, ‘It will make a lot of people feel so much better if you go and get some help,’" Delaney recalls. "Those were the magic words. I’m not one to do things for myself, but I’ll do almost anything for the people I love, especially my kids. I realized what a burden my illness was on them and how frightened they must be about my health. So I agreed."She went to the Renfrew Center in Philadelphia, an inpatient facility that treats people with eating disorders and has a program for women over 35. Although they spent a lot of time with the younger patients, Delaney and the other women her age had their own groups, where they talked about the things that were important to them.According to Susan Ice, MD, medical director of the Renfrew Center, the percentage of women over 40 seeking treatment for anorexia has doubled in the past 10 years (from 5 to 10 percent). "What we see is women who’ve had a minor problem for years getting worse in middle age, triggered by divorce, empty nest syndrome, and the stresses of caring for aging parents," she says. "Also, many women who have always struggled with their bodies are thrown when they begin to see the signs of aging, so they start dieting as a way to keep their bodies the same."Delaney stayed at the Renfrew Center for three weeks, not as long as the counselors thought she should stay but the longest she could stand to be away from her kids. Still, she put on 13 pounds and gained something even more important: new coping skills. "After years of starving myself, it’s hard not to reject food. But if I give myself some quiet time to calm myself after I eat, it really helps," she says. "And I understand that getting better is something I need to do for me."Now, at five-foot-five and 105 pounds, Delaney is still very slim.

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