Nothing Left to Prove: The Joy of Growing Older in Recovery

By Tracey Helton Mitchell 08/12/19

I entered recovery in handcuffs. I had chipped teeth, abscesses, a fresh diagnosis of Hepatitis C. But there I was, sitting in my County orange-colored jumpsuit, breathing in the fragrance of fresh opportunities.

Woman sitting on white chair outside, relaxing, head on hand.
The adversity I have experienced has made me stronger; like coal pressed into a diamond, I learned I could shine.  (model, Photo by Ronny Sison on Unsplash)

I invested hundreds of thousands of dollars with the idea that I would be dead by the time I was 30 years old. I was killing myself on an installment plan, knowing the bill would one day be due. I’m not sure if it was genetics or environment, but unfortunately suicidal ideation was a frequent companion starting when I was in sixth grade. The soft-spoken psychologist in the glasses with the round frames said I was “depressed.” I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. I did know I was restless in my own skin. It would be five more years before the warm gloss of drugs lacquered over my feelings.

If an early demise was the result of continuing on this path, young me speculated that I was willing to pay the price. I didn’t want to live long enough to be touched by the ugly reality the future had in store for me. Ugly was the world my parents lived in: Married for decades, they argued on a daily basis over his drinking and her compulsive shopping. I would sit in my footie pajamas, playing with my stuffed animals, pretending for a moment I was someone else. This was good training for my years of active addiction. I always wished I was someone different. 

Addiction Was for Other People

As I delved into the world of drugs, I saw the premature expiration date emerge in the people around me. People just looked older — pain trapped in their cloudy eyes. Young me said that could never happen. Addiction was for other people.

I was both naive and nihilistic when I took those first few forays into “partying.” Day drinking led to cocaine-fueled nights. There were benzos and meth and whatever I could get my hands on. By the time I got to opioids, I was firmly entrenched in addiction. Heroin became the cornerstone of my self-defeating belief system: The only day worth living was today; that day was only worth living if I had enough drugs. As my habit increased, so did the sinking feeling in the pit of my upset stomach that any day might be my last.

Maybe this wasn’t what I actually wanted for myself. 

If Only...

Wrapped in the covering of a slowly hardening young woman was still this quiet little being who wanted to know what it felt like to be loved. My body was a means for getting the attention I desired, the substances the keys to unlocking my inhibitions. I desperately sought the approval of others. If only I was thin enough, if only I was pretty enough, if only I changed these few things about myself maybe then you would love me. But heroin numbed my ability to care. 

I had no value beyond what my body could obtain for me. While my addiction included many radically low points, the wear and tear on this unit forced me to gain perspective. Time was crawling along at the same snail’s pace of the dealers I paged from dirty payphones. This can’t be all that life has to offer. I spent nearly a decade dying — what would it be like to live?

At 27-years-young, I entered recovery in handcuffs. The legacy of impermanence was marked on my physical self: chipped teeth, stretch marks from the weight I’d lost, gained, lost, and gained again. There were circles on my body from areas where I had picked my skin. Holes from abscesses. A fresh diagnosis of Hepatitis C. But there I was, sitting in my County orange-colored jumpsuit, breathing in the fragrance of fresh opportunities. 

No Shortcuts to Healing

Asking for rehab was, as the judge stated, the first “intelligent decision” I had made in a decade. I briskly completed a god-awful rehab with horrible success rates as I was eager to move to the next phase of life. I moved into a sober living facility with two garbage bags of belongings and the weight of all my regrets. It wasn’t the material possessions that concerned me, it was the fact that I was going to have to learn to adapt to the world using the vague internal strength I was told I possessed. I was now in charge of the well-being of this newly sober woman of substance. There would be no shortcuts to healing. 

The process of unraveling the years of unhealthy living started with a whimper. There were 12-step meetings, shitty jobs, meditation, yoga, long walks, inventories, caffeine, terrible sex, and tears shed in front of a paid professional. I needed to cast off the attachment inherent to the vessel given to me by the universe before I could see my value. The adversity I have experienced has made me stronger; like coal pressed into a diamond, I learned I could shine. 

The day before my 30th birthday, I started dating someone who I would later discover to be the love of my life. This was a less than perfect love, not like the ones in the books I read as a child. It was a realistic love, one that takes out the garbage. It was the kind of love I needed. I finished my degree at 35, and finished graduate school at 37. I found a career I actually enjoyed. I had my last child when I was almost 41. I began to not only see a future for myself but actually start to create one. 

Hot Flashes and Freedom

The passing of time has had many challenges: the death of my beloved mother, a few surgeries requiring opioids, my kids screaming they hate me. I have also outlived nearly everyone I knew. Yet, I am happier than I have ever been. There is a liberation of the spirit in knowing I have nothing left to prove. I enjoy the simple pleasures of a good face cream and a tight hug. I also dress in layers. 

Perimenopause has been a horrible wake-up call. There are days when the anxiety makes me feel like I am slowly being ripped out of my skin. Caffeine, my last addiction, has become my enemy. In my 40’s, a bottomless cup of coffee has been replaced by herbal tea. Sleeping in a pool of sweat under two blankets and a sleeping bag was something I never expected to experience again after I kicked dope. It’s like my body is its own micro climate. My hair is thinning in spots. My nails are brittle. My tolerance for foolishness is at an all-time low. Yet, there is a freedom in being the raw and uncut version of myself. I have acceptance of my strengths and limitations. I want to enjoy every single day of my life. 

I’m old now, or at least what I once considered old. I have three pairs of reading glasses strewn about my house. Hot flashes and night sweats are the current alarm bells that wake me up in the morning. My chest is starting to sag, followed by my neck. There’s the consistent search for garments that can adequately hide my midsection. I find myself asking for recommendations for shoes that have arch support. But I’ve also achieved a level of satisfaction knowing I have 21 years of mostly good decisions under my belt. At 49, I have the freedom I so desperately sought in my youth. 

Tomorrow is not promised. And I don’t know how much longer I have left in this world. I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to kill myself. But in the process of dying, I realized I wanted to live.

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Tracey Helton Mitchell is a harm reduction advocate living in the SF Bay Area. She is author of The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin and presents nationally on issues related to the opioid crisis. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.