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Older Addicts Face Uncertain Twilight

But he couldn't contain himself during a recent session when the counselor threw out this question: Is it worth your time to warn young people to stay off drugs?

"Maybe some of these young people should learn the hard way!" Gulick said, folding his arms across his chest and smiling a surprised smile -- as though he couldn't believe he had ventured an opinion.

Addiction cost Butler four marriages and estranged him from his family. (Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

_____More in Health_____

Gulick's voyage into treatment began the way it began for the other members of the group -- in the back of a police cruiser.

After being arrested one December night two years ago as he bought cocaine at a Spotsylvania hotel, he was given a choice by prosecutors: spend six months in jail or make a commitment to drug court, a treatment program for addicts. Treatment would require him to learn things about himself that he wasn't eager to know.

"I can't think about why I've done drugs; there's no answer," Gulick said in the low drawl of his native southeastern Virginia, nervously wiping imaginary crumbs off the Denny's restaurant table for the fourth time in a half-hour.

"I just know the life I had before drugs, I know the life I had on drugs, and I know the life I have now. It was time to come off it."

Eighteen months after starting drug court, he hasn't delved very deeply into the whys. He took the first pipe from a friend when he was in his forties and, during a decade, lost his marriage, his home and contact with his son and brother. When he retired from a sales management job in 2000 with $238,000 in savings and a pension, he began pouring money into crack, spending $1,000 a day by the end, he says. He dropped 30 pounds.

He spent the first several months of treatment in denial. At weekly check-in sessions with Fredericksburg Circuit Court Judge John W. Scott Jr. -- who chats briefly with each participant and often jails those who have failed surprise drug tests -- Gulick would lean back in his pew and let an easy smile rest on his weathered face. He looked like the rebellious student who laughs when he is sent to the principal's office.

But in recent months, Gulick and his counselors agree, his outlook began to change. Broke and required by drug court to work or volunteer, Gulick went nearly a year ago to the local day-labor office and struggled through construction work. After a few months, a friend gave him a job at a publishing house, where he packs boxes. On weekends, he tries to stay busy, barbecuing or fishing.

Settling into a new life at his age hasn't been easy. He moved from Caroline County to Fredericksburg to be closer to drug court, and it took three months to find a roommate who wanted to live with an older man with special requirements.

"I'd say, 'Look, I don't drink, I don't do drugs.' They'd say, 'I'll call you back and let you know if you got the apartment,' and then you never hear from them," he said. "That's how you know."

If Gulick is all laid-back pragmatism, Richard Butler is the opposite, bouncing off walls one minute with tear-choked regret and the next with elation over the life he has reclaimed in his seventh decade. The burly carpenter embraces the self-examination that came with drug court, carrying self-help books and churning with analysis.

"No, no, no!" he responds to Gulick's suggestion. "If only someone would have told me that freedom comes from living life today as honestly as possible!"

With his tousle of sandy brown hair and puppylike grin, Butler, 62, looks as if he should be organizing a family touch football game, not smoking crack alone in the Fredericksburg motel where he was living when he was busted in 2003.

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