Are we ready for the new face of addiction in America? Behold, the baby boomers.
In the three years in his mid-50s that he was addicted to crack, J., who is now 64, estimates that he spent about $100,000 on the drug. Still, he managed to keep his addiction a secret from his wife until that fateful day (or at least it seemed fateful at the time) when he received a cell phone call from her while he was having sex with a crack addict in a motel room.
His wife had bad news: The mother of another crack addict J. was seeing had called, informing her of J’s affair and addiction. J. could come home, pack his bags, and move out.
It was a fast and startling fall from grace. A former corporate executive and college professor, J. had long ago supported his teenage daughter in her recovery from addiction. A Vietnam Veteran and self-described “war hawk” in the 1960s, J. only started smoking marijuana and drinking heavily in his 30s when he began to “accept the futility of the war.”
J’s drinking got worse as he aged, and by the time he retired in his early 50s, he started most mornings with a shot of brandy in his coffee. Next to his favorite liquor store was a headhunter’s office specializing in manual labor jobs, and when the manager learned about J’s business success, he asked him to lead some motivational seminars for the men he was trying to find work for.
Some were essentially homeless, and many spent the little money they earned on crack. One day, without thinking much of it, J. heard himself asking one of them if he could try some. “After that,” J. says, “I didn’t need liquor or weed anymore. All I needed was crack. There’s a saying that’s very true. ‘You don’t do crack. Crack does you.’ For the next three years, crack did me.’”
J.’s habit quickly escalated to the point where some of the workers he lectured to were worried about the monster they’d helped create. While their crack use was limited by their poverty, J. could spend as much as he wanted. Soon he was up to $500 a day.
To pass the time, J. spent hours talking to women online in his home office. When he wasn’t online, he would sometimes hang out with his drug dealer, who told him stories of the seven regulars he sold to in a local retirement community. Through his dealer he met a 29-year-old crack addict with whom he became infatuated, and he lied to his wife constantly so he could be with her.
At times (usually when he was sober), J. was deeply ashamed by his drug use. “I would hide my crack in a little box near my home office, which was in the garden, separated from the rest of the house,” he says. “If I died, I didn’t want anyone knowing I was a crack addict.” He even tried to stop. “I would get really fed up and throw my crack pipe in a pond near the house. Let me tell you, there’s a lot of crack pipes in that pond.”
When J’s wife threw him out, he went to stay with his daughter, but he continued to sneak off and use crack. His wife gave him an ultimatum: Go to treatment, or expect a divorce.
The face of addiction is growing older. Between 2002 and 2005, illegal drug use increased 63 percent among people in their 50s. For those in their 40s and 50s, overdose deaths from illicit drugs increased by 800 percent between 1980 and 2006. And according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the number of people older than fifty needing treatment will double from 2.5 million in 1999 to five million in 2020.
“We’re seeing more people in their 50s coming in on harder drugs like cocaine and crack,” says Carol Colleran, who founded the older adult treatment program at the Hanley Center in Florida. “And it’s only going to get worse.”
“Very few people have thought about the implications of all this,” adds Peter Provet, the CEO of Odyssey House, a New York City treatment center that specializes in treating older adults. “Most of the addiction field has long been focused on young people, because it’s believed that if you keep someone away from drugs early in life, they’re unlikely to start using later. But we’re seeing more and more baby boomers in trouble, and we’re seeing some people—we call them ‘late-onset’ addicts—who never abused alcohol or drugs and then start later in life.”
Addiction experts are trying to better understand why some people can drink relatively normally (if at times excessively) for most of their lives only to lose control later in life. Were they not addicts for most of their lives but then turned into addicts later? Or were they always addicts who simply needed a trigger to start acting like one?
Colleran says that the common denominator among late-onset addicts is a loss of purpose—a sense of not being needed or wanted. For some late-onset addicts, their addiction is triggered by the death of a spouse or child. Take the case of Moses, a strong and reserved 57-year-old who rarely drank and had tried only marijuana before his wife died in 2001. “When I lost my wife,” he said in a group therapy session at Odyssey House, “I also lost my best friend. All I could do was think about her, and I needed something to help me control my thoughts.” He chose heroin. Moses quickly started abusing it, and then selling it. “I sold it to be around it,” he told the group. “It was all I lived for.”
When he sold to an undercover cop, he ended up in prison. At first glance, Moses doesn’t seem to fit neatly into the disease model of addiction, which argues that addiction is a chronic and progressive illness. There appears to be nothing chronic in Moses’s story, nor does his addiction seem to have progressed so much as appeared.
If he does suffer from the disease of addiction, could it have been dormant for most of his life? Yes, argue many addiction s researchers, who liken addiction to other chronic diseases—Type II diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease—that have a genetic component and an onset and course that vary depending on behavioral and environmental factors.
“Do we know that there is a degree of genetic pull in some addictions? The answer is, without a doubt, yes,” Provet says. “Do we know definitely how predisposition mixes with environment to create an addict? No. We’re not at the point where we can draw a clean curve, or graph, and explain why someone can take or leave drugs for most of his life but then start abusing them in his fifties. That’s still a mystery.”
Unlike addicts in their 70s and 80s, many of whom enter treatment with a deep sense of shame about their problem, baby boomers tend not to hold such negative views about drug use. “People in their 70s and 80s grew up at a time when an alcoholic was a horribly negative word,” Colleran says. “The alcoholic was the town drunk or the homeless person under the bridge. Addiction was seen as a humiliating moral failing, something to be deeply ashamed about. Many boomers, on the other hand, came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, and many of them experimented with drugs and don’t necessarily hold negative views about them. It makes them more likely to pick them up again later in life.”
Larry, 58-year-old boomer who went through treatment at Hanley, puts it this way: “With the lower retirement age, 50somethings like myself are coming out of the workforce and into the world of doing nothing, and we’ve accumulated enough bad habits to really be in trouble. Many of us don’t feel 55 or 60. We feel 35, we’ve been successful, and by God, we’re going to do exactly what we want to do, which is do exactly what did when we were 35, minus the responsibility, the raising of our kids, and going to work everyday. We have all the time in the world to really screw up our lives.”
Addiction experts say that boomers are a challenge to treat. Boomer addicts suffer from what Dr. Muchowski of the AdCare treatment center in Worcester calls “terminal uniqueness.” “They’re pretty sure they know how to run their own treatment program,” she says. “If they spent half as much time working on recovering as they did explaining why the rules shouldn’t apply to them, they would be in great shape.”
In that way, they’re much closer in behavior to a 25-year-old crack addict than a 75-year-old alcoholic. “Baby boomers are about as far from the rocking chair as you can get,” says Colleran, “and they don’t let you forget it. We’ve had some come into the older adult program and ask to be put in with the younger guys, because, you know, they’re too hip to be hanging out with the old geezers.”
That’s how J. felt when he agreed to his wife’s demand and entered treatment at Hanley. “The older guys in the adult program would follow the rules,” J. says, “but I don’t think I followed a single one while I was there. I was far from their model patient, which is why I think they’re so shocked that I’m still sober all these years later!”
—Benoit Denizet-Lewis, the author of America Anonymous: Eight Addicts in Search of a Life, in which he follows eight addicts for three years, contributed to this Good Men Project Magazine newsroom report.
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