Mental & Emotional Health

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Recovery at Midlife: If Not Now, When?

September is not just the month school starts again. It is the 25th Annual National Recovery Month. The mission is to publicize the societal benefits of treatment, prevention, and of course recovery for mental health conditions and substance abuse issues. During this month of new beginnings, thousands of programs and services nationwide celebrate their success at transforming their lives through recovery.

This is an especially important message for boomers, given these (pardon the pun) sobering statistics: According to The National Survey on Drug Use and Health sponsored by the U.S. government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, illicit drug use among adults between 50 to 64 has grown substantially. From 2002 to 2013, the rate more than doubled for those between 50 and 54, leaping from 3.4 to 7.2 percent. Among those 55 to 59 in those same years, the rate tripled from 1.9 percent to 6.6 percent.

The statistics for the rise of depression in boomers is also grim. A government study found that among middle aged Americans the suicide rate jumped 40 percent between 1999 and 2010. And three times more women than men attempt suicide.

The reasons for these “trends” are issues that affect the lives of boomers: declining health, job loss, grieving the deaths of loved ones . . . Another factor is the prevalence and ease of obtaining drugs. The American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry reported that 20 percent of the 65 and above set use painkillers several times a week. They also reported the involvement of hydrocodone, methadone, and oxycodone in nearly 40 percent of opiate related deaths in this age group. As with alcohol, these drugs mask or worsen symptoms of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other mental health woes.

Yet the midlife years can also be a time to take stock, decide: If not now when, and ultimately to take hold of one’s life. For example, Wendy Venable Nelson, 53, says proudly, “I am a mid-life woman in recovery.” Wendy, who spent decades dousing her depression with alcohol, shares, “You get to a place where you see what is behind you versus what’s in front of you. I began for the first time to truly understand that life is not a dress rehearsal.”

Post-epiphany, the day-to-day slog of recovery was often brutal. “I got honest with myself and tackled the demons head on to find inner happiness.” Wendy finishes, “It was and will always be work – but the rewards are real and meaningful. I’ve come to the point where I couldn’t see life any other way.”

Kelly Meister-Yetter ( also discovered it is never too late to work on problems that have been bedeviling one for decades. Now 51, until recently she’d given up hope that she’d ever “get a good grasp on how to handle multiple mental health issues.”
She’d tried conventional therapy and Prozac for a time, but didn’t feel the treatment had much effect. The troublesome cocktail of symptoms she endured year after year included, “a volatile temper, withdrawing from conflict, poor self esteem…”

Last year, at the half-century mark, Kelly made her moves. Aging didn’t need to mean settling for a painful status quo. Bettering one’s circumstances is possible at any stage. She married the love of her life and took her mental health more seriously. “I started asking more questions of the people who diagnosed me, and the ones who handle my medications,” she says.

Another way of putting it: “Decades of insanity will take their toll on you, and I was getting pretty tired of it.”

Today Kelly is on a three-psych-pill daily regimen that has made all the difference. “I can’t believe it took me so long to get things under control,” she says.

Perhaps the best side effect of sprouting a few grey hairs and noticing a widening middle is the accompanying realization that time is not an infinite blessing. Rather, time is something we will waste if we don’t saddle up and ride into the belly of the beast versus hiding from our worst fears.

Want inspiration from other recovery stories or to share your own? Visit Voices for Recovery.

Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW is a NYC-based therapist, speaker and author of 3 books, including The Complete Marriage Counselor: Relationship-saving Advice from America’s Top 50+ Couples Therapists. Her website is Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW.

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