The house looked like something painted by Norman Rockwell and upon first glance, I fully believed I’d been given the wrong address. When I was told of the group I’d be meeting inside, and what they were up to, I’d imagined the house would reflect the level of visual ill-repute that accompanies a typical trap house. I should’ve realized, however, that this trap house wasn’t like any other because the users inside were paying for their high with pensions, retirements, and the dead presidents from dead husbands … and they were getting twacked out on the purple drank, commonly known as lean. They were grandmothers.
Purple Drank is an addictive concoction whose primary intoxicating ingredient is promethazine-codeine cough medication available only by prescription. It’s mixed with a soda drink like Sprite or Mountain Dew. Jolly Rancher candies may be crushed and added to give it more color and flavor.
The mixture, made popular by hip hop stars, is commonly called by many names such as: Sizzurp, Lean, Texas Tea, Memphis Mud, Purple Sprite, and Drank.
“It’s not like we’re drug addicts,” Landis Treamont, 73 years young, quickly explains when I meet the group. “We just like to unwind like the next.”
The group of five women in their twilight years: two widows, two divorcees, and a sexually active lesbian, have known one another for decades. “Our kids went to school together,” explains Suzanna Barret (no age given – I was admonished for even asking) about Isabelle Janis, age 73. “Our kids did the girl scouts together, my son took her daughter to prom, we were at our families’ weddings, and when Isabelle’s husband died, she moved in with me.”
“I’m the only lesbian here,” Beth Brown, 71, eagerly mentions. “I worked with Cloretta [at the phone company] and when we retired, we started meeting once a week to play Gin Rummy and drink a little wine.”
“Oh, we drank more wine than we ever played,” Cloretta Flynn, 71, laughs as she continues the introductions, “BB and I [BB is the pet name Cloretta’s given to Beth] were so terribly bored when we retired. We worked our whole lives, we raised kids, we did everything good American women were supposed to do, so when retirement was forced on us, we couldn’t figure out how to fill our time.”
So the group of women, who’ve christened themselves “The Lean Ladies,” found each other and started meeting twice a month for whatever kind of mischief they could find themselves in. “We started doing things like going to paint and sips [parties where attendees are provided a canvas, paint, and plenty of wine],” Flynn giggles, “we kept asking if they’d bring in a nude model.”
“The organizers hinted for us to stop coming,” Brown adds.
But time constraints and fear of DUI’s forced the ‘Lean Ladies’ to start looking at ways to meet up in a safer environment. “My grandson is actually the one who told me about [lean]. He said his friends were all trying it and he was curious if I had any prescription cough syrup,” Treamont begins to explain. “I told him it’d be illegal for him to take my prescriptions and I told him to knock it off, but I admit, I was intrigued.”
Isabelle Janis puts some perspective on it, “We were all around during the 60’s, I know I’m not the only one who was doing LSD and marijuana [she looks around the room for support], well, I’m not – and it was an exciting time for me; but motherhood and making a home and a being a supportive wife – all those things happened to me like they happen to other women, and I had to make some decisions.”
“We were all alive during women’s liberation, bra burning and the like; we felt free, but there was a time when that part of our lives had to end and we had to grow-up,” adds Flynn.
“I know it’s drug abuse, what we’re doing, but damn it, I’m 73 years old, my kids are grown up, my husband passed almost a decade ago, I don’t see any reason why I can’t have a little fun,” Janis says.
The women all know the inherent dangers of the drug – they throw in the name Lil Wayne like they’re teen agers and they remind me how he was hospitalized for seizures from his addiction to drank.
They’re aware that when the dosages gets high, there may vomiting, weakness, headache, itching, dry mouth, hives, chest pain, fainting, hallucinations, seizures and tremors.
They speak cautiously about the possibility of death, especially if the drug is mixed with others like alcohol or Ecstasy. The codeine in the cough syrup is a breathing depressant, as is alcohol and when mixed, the effects can be fatal. In August 2012, a fourteen-year-old girl in St. Paul, Minnesota died after she was given this drink by adults. Her seventeen-year-old cousin was hospitalized.
“We know about it, we’re adults so we did the research,” Treamont explains. “It took us a couple tries to get the right mixture together, a lot of trial and error, but we found the right recipe for us. One of us always refrains from drinking [they take turns] so if there’s an emergency, we can respond, that’s something kids probably don’t do.”
Are the women worried about the high rate of addiction? “I’m seventy one goddamn years old,” Beth Brown says incredulously.
The women meet a couple times a month and partake in the purple a few times a year. “We do other stuff together – the Botanic Gardens, lunch, shopping, we play cards, go to Monster Truck shows when they’re in town,” Suzanna Barret says, “We’re not a bunch ol’ bats just going bonkers on cough medicine, but when we do it, we make no apologies for it.”
“Well let’s be honest, Suz,” says Janis, “we may not be on lean everytime we get together, but we almost always smoke pot!” With this, the group erupts in laughter.
“I’m high now!” Flynn laughs.
“I can tell you one thing, my sex life is better than it’s ever been, that’s not an exaggeration,” Treamont snorts, “I’ve even started hooking up with a younger guy [he’s 55, I later discover].”
The women may not be all that unusual for their age, according to Dr. Richard Friedman, a contributor to the New York Times. “The notion that the elderly might be abusing or addicted to alcohol, illicit drugs or prescription medications may strike some as improbable. After all, the common notion is that alcohol and substance abuse are for young people.
Dead wrong. Baby boomers, who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s when experimenting with drugs was pervasive, are far more likely to use illicit drugs than previous or even later generations.”
Friedman cites a 2011 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that among adults aged 50 to 59, the rate of current illicit drug use increased to 6.3 percent from 2.7 percent in 2002. Aside from alcohol, the most commonly abused drugs were opiates, cocaine and marijuana.
Drug or alcohol use that begins after age 60 appears fundamentally different from use which begins as a teen or twenty-something. Typically, those who start use as teenagers or young adults tend to be sensation-seekers with measurable rates of psychiatric disorders and antisocial traits, according to Friedman. In contrast, the elderly turn to alcohol and drugs to alleviate the physical and psychological pain from the onslaught of medical and psychiatric illness, the loss of loved ones or social isolation.
So, as grandmothers, the question must be asked, what would the women say to young people who want to experiment with the highly addictive drink. Beth Barret is quick to offer an answer: “I’d tell them that I’m all for it, they should definitely do it …. as soon as they turn 71.”