Sen. George McGovern certainly never intended to become a national advocate for alcoholism awareness. Born in South Dakota, the former presidential candidate served his home state as a representative and senator for 22 years. But from her early teen years, McGovern's third daughter, Terry, struggled with alcoholism and clinical depression. Her death just more than 10 years ago gave McGovern a new focus- to promote public education about alcoholism and increase support for research on all addictions.
The middle child of five, Terry was in and out of alcohol rehabilitation centers from the age of 19, and at one point had achieved eight years of sobriety. But, according to McGovern, the disease never lost its hold, and in December of 1994, Terry tripped and fell into the deep snow outside a bar in Madison, Wis., and froze to death. She was 45 years old. "Here was this wonderful, smart, vivacious woman, everybody liked to be around Terry. And yet she was a helpless alcoholic, and in the end, it killed her," he said. "I thought, this is something society hasn't dealt with enough, and it led me to begin talking with experts, reading everything I could. I became fascinated with the disease."
Since Terry's death, McGovern and his wife, Eleanor, have become increasingly involved in activities aimed at helping people understand and overcome alcoholism. They helped establish the Teresa McGovern Center, an alcoholism treatment facility in Madison, Wis. that focuses on women, and also created the Terry McGovern Foundation on Alcoholism, which contributes to research investigating special addiction problems in women. McGovern also has become an active speaker on the issue, discussing various approaches to treatment and intervention, as well as the impact of the disease on families. "Alcoholism is a family disease, really in two different ways," he said. "First, it really complicates life for the people who love the addict. There is a lot of anxiety and a certain amount of anger. The emotional depression certainly carries over to the family members.
"Second, there's very strong, growing evidence that there is a genetic basis for this disease, and its likely families going through it will discover that someone else in the family also had these problems. It certainly was the case in our family."
McGovern chronicled Terry's and his family's heart-wrenching story in Terry: My Daughter's Life and Death Struggle with Alcoholism, published in 1996. He said he hopes the book helps other addicts realize they are not alone. "There are a lot of people addicted who think 'I'm just a bum,' but when they hear of someone from a prominent family who has the same problem, they have a little more confidence to deal with their own problem," he said. "It gives them a lift to know this can happen to any family- rich or poor, privileged or not."
McGovern said he could not have written the book if Terry had not kept extensive diaries, letters and other correspondence. "She was very honest about her disease," he said, "and that honesty formed the basis of the book."
In addition to sharing his story, McGovern has been outspoken on the role of personal choice in addictions, which will be the focus of his keynote lecture at the sixth annual NCRG Conference on Gambling and Addiction, taking place December 7-8 in Las Vegas. McGovern worries that America is falling victim to what he terms a Òculture of paternalism,Ó in which legislators attempt to control addiction by making rules and passing legislation governing what individuals can and cannot do. "People have to recognize that this is a disease," he explained. "You can't pass laws saying no one's allowed to gamble or drink, and you can't solve addiction with legal action. There is such a thing as using the law to overprotect people. As a former Senator, I am often inclined to think of a legislative solution, but these are matters of personal choice. We need to work more on establishing ways of intervention when those choices become destructive."
McGovern learned about the NCRG conference from Dr. Howard Shaffer, director of the Division on Addictions at the Cambridge Health Alliance, with whom he had worked in the past at other addictions events sponsored by Harvard Medical School. He said Shaffer invited him to NCRG's event to talk about his experiences and apply them to those addicted to gambling. "I don't know a lot about gambling, so I'm going to pose these as questions, not certainties," he said. "I hope people understand this is an amateur judgment I'm giving- I'm not an expert on how the brain works. These are just the observations I've made, the information I've gathered and the experiences I've had." McGovern's keynote address, "Freedom of Choice and Addiction," will take place Thursday, Dec. 8 at 2 p.m. at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino.