By Diane Cameron, author of Out of the Woods: A Woman’s Guide to Long-term Recovery

When we were young in recovery, we looked to the old-timers with awe. “She’s got 35 years.” “He’s got 40 years.” We’d listen when they spoke, and we’d quote them to our friends.

We knew that all that time meant something. We knew it meant they had been through a lot and they still did not use or drink. We knew they had faced all kinds of hard things and had learned a lot about recovery and spirituality and personal growth.

Yes, there were some old-timers that maybe we didn’t admire so much. They were clean, but they were just mean, or they were sober but just not very nice. But those were the exceptions.

But as much as we admired the old-timers, we didn’t always ask them to be our sponsors—we needed people closer in age to us and we needed people closer to our life stage: other people who were dating or having kids or building careers or making a new life after divorce.

We wanted a partner and a career and a friend group and maybe a better apartment. Soon after that, we wanted a baby, or a different career, or to buy a house. We wanted a creative life, a book contract, or a gallery show, or a VP title. All these things so worthy of recovery. Not a single thing wrong with any one of them.

We used the principles of the program—we prayed for God’s will. We surrendered. And, just like the odds in anyone’s life, some of us got the book contracts or the VP titles or the babies. And some did not. We celebrated, and we grieved.

So, it turned out that as much as we whispered our admiration for the old-timers in our meetings, we also didn’t look too closely.

What we missed by not looking closely was the grief, the physical pain, the family losses, and death moving closer. Maybe we knew they had a child that died but the comments in meetings just sounded so wise, still. And we heard that “so and so” had a bad diagnosis or was in the hospital, and maybe we even visited but we missed the fine points.

“How do you get to be an old-timer?” the old joke asks. “Don’t drink and don’t die.” And we laugh. But behind closed doors, and in small living rooms where everyone is over 65, the story changes. The physical stuff is hard, death is not a theory, and we have to face things that platitudes cannot remedy.

So, talk about dig deep or die time. This is it.

Then as it happens, we got older too. We had the career disappointments and the divorces. The small crises and the huge, shocking ones. If we had kids it turned out that they pleased us, or they didn’t. The baby we prayed for 30 years ago is a drug addict or a too busy parent. They married someone who likes us or who doesn’t.
We lose our jobs—the ones we liked and the ones we hated, and we are shocked that can happen to someone in recovery. Again and again, we are confronted with the missing promise: (God, will make our stuff turn out good.) No, life happens to us the way it happens to the rest of the world. What we have is recovery and maybe a little bit more sanity than some others and some great habits and a community or people who speak our language. That’s a lot.

But the divorces hurt, and the wrinkles shock and the scary diagnoses come slowly and then quickly. Time keeps passing. We sponsor young people, but our recovery friends are aging too.

It’s not a question of staying sober or abstinent. That habit is pretty solid. And over these many years, your lifestyle runs itself. You don’t buy wine, and no one offers it. You are not in bars or parties with drugs. Maybe the grown kids are a problem if they bring their substances home post-divorce or post-job loss. You need to tell your recovery friends about that.

And something else happens with those friendships: They get farther apart. As the illnesses and disabilities get more serious, our friends start to move away: they go to special living places or to the town where their kids live. Oh, we promise to call and visit, and we do, but then it’s harder for us too. And the gap grows.

We go to meetings and we speak when asked. Our stories are still admired. But we don’t raise our hands as often. We may be a little bored with ourselves.

The news gets bad. Our sponsor dies. Do you get a new sponsor when your sponsor of 30 years is gone? Or do you just keep co-sponsoring your other friends? What does recovery look like now? What is recovery in these years?

We are the old-timers, but we are not fixed. No one is, after all.

Do we need special meetings? Closed rooms to talk about the scarier stuff or the things that might feel like a joke in meetings with younger people: all these doctors and pills and being bossed around by our children?

It doesn’t matter who you used to be. Who are you today? What does your commitment to recovery look like now? How do you sustain it? And how will you move toward the end of your life?

What of grief and resentment? Can you handle the resentment of younger people? And your resentment of their energy, and plans and worries—the worries you once had? How do we stay useful and embrace this strange new phase of recovery? How do we embrace all-encompassing recovery as we age?

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