PHOENIX — America’s drug crisis is taking a deadly toll on a group you might not expect. A recent report from the Center for Disease and Control shows the number of “middle-aged” women who died of overdose has quadrupled since 1999.
Staff at addiction treatment centers in the Valley are also reporting a spike in the number of women between the ages of 40-64 seeking help.
Many of these women are getting hooked not just to pain pills and heroin, but also to alcohol.
Christine Wolfe was one of them.
“I never dreamt in a million years that I would become an alcoholic. I could not stop; my children begged me to,” said Wolfe.
Her addiction started after major surgery. Wolfe said she had undergone gastric bypass surgery and was told a small amount of alcohol could really affect her body.
During her darkest times, Wolfe said she would hide alcohol in water bottles and try to hide her addiction from her family, but they were on to her.
For Pamela Aguilu, the drug of choice was prescription pain pills. She got access through them legally, through her doctors after spinal surgeries. She said initially it had helped with her pain.
“I would say I got addicted right away. I was taking massive amounts of oxycodone,” said Aguilu.
Both women say their addictions destroyed relationships and their own families. It destroyed trust between them and their children and took over their lives. For both Wolfe and Aguilu, the out of control addiction started later in life.
“I did not start drinking until I was 47,” said Wolfe.
Both women are also part of a dangerous trend being tracked by the CDC right now. Studies show the fastest growing segment of addicts in the country is middle-aged women, most of whom are mothers.
“Soccer moms become addicts. Soccer moms, moms that are engaged with their children — we are just as liable to become an addict as anybody else,” said Aguilu.
Researchers call it an “evolving epidemic.” The number of overdose deaths in this population has increased by 260 percent since 1999.
Wolfe said she was surprised she is alive today.
“Very surprised. There are times I should’ve been dead. My blood alcohol was so high– like 0.56. That can cause strokes, that causes your heart to stop,” said Wolfe.
Aguilu was also grateful not to become a statistic. She said her rock bottom hit when her landlord called the cops on her for making too much noise. She found herself facing a female police officer who had broken into her home and was asking her if she was okay.
“The last thing I remember is the ER physician saying we need the Narcan now and then I was out. I was out for two days,” said Aguilu.
The big question researchers are still trying to answer: why middle-aged women?
Cheryl Hawley, a clinical director at the Valley Hope alcohol and drug addiction treatment center, said it was encouraging to see this population of women seeking help.
“When we first see these women come in, they are hopeless. The transition is miraculous,” said Hawley.
She believed a lot of it had something to do with women trying to put on a strong face for their families. The roles of being a mom, a wife, and taking care of the household came before their own well-being.
“You can see despair is written all over their face, along with the shame and the guilt,” added Hawley.
Women seeking help for addiction in their 40’s and 50’s are finally acknowledging the anxiety and depression that they have buried for years.
“You hit middle-age, and you think you’ve got it all figured out, we live in a society where we take pills for everything,” said Aguilu.
Both she and Wolfe wanted other women to know that there was hope.
Wolfe found it at Crossroads substance abuse treatment center in Phoenix, while Aguilu rebuilt her life at Valley Hope in Chandler.
Both women said the centers provided a wholesome treatment program keeping mind, body, and soul at the top of the agenda. Both included trauma counseling, medication, and strict schedules women had to follow. While treatment is not easy, both women said the supportive staff and the families formed away from home helped keep them on track.
Wolfe called it a tough road paved with challenges.
“I would black out, and I could not stop, I would just drink until I blacked out,” said Wolfe, but she added if you are willing, it is possible to feel free once again.
“I used to wake up hungover– praying I could find a drink. Now I wake up thankful I’m alive,” she added.
Aguilu said recovery, while not easy, was something they will always be working on for the rest of their lives.
“For today I’m sober, and if I start thinking that my disease of addiction is cured, then I’m going to use because I’m going to be an addict until my last breath,” said Aguilu.
The difference is now they are recovering addicts who are in control, continuing their journey, their healing, and sharing their stories because they want every woman to know, their families need a “mom” every single day.
Talking to a loved one about addiction may be the toughest step to start this journey.
Alcoholism and drug addiction aren’t always obvious. It helps to know what some of the symptoms of addiction are. You can look for any of the following symptoms in your mother or loved one:
- Slurring her speech
- Having memory problems
- Feeling extremely tired most of the time
- Having a lot more energy than usual
- Glazed eyes
- Very small or very large pupils
- Bouts of confusion
You can also look for additional symptoms of addiction. These are more behavioral, and they include:
- Using drugs or alcohol at inappropriate times
- Needing to use substances upon waking up in the morning
- Placing alcohol or drugs at a high place of importance
- Withdrawal symptoms from drugs or alcohol
- Feeling the need to use more alcohol or drugs than used previously