Villard Books, a division of Random House Inc.
Terry: My Daughters Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism by George McGovern
Senator George McGovern died Sunday, October 21 at 90. While known most broadly for his liberal politics and failed 1972 presidential bid, he also brought wide attention to the tragedy of alcoholism after his daughter, Terry, died in 1994 of hypothermia while intoxicated on a cold December night in Madison. He wrote a book about her experience, Terry: My Daughter's Life-and-Death Struggle With Alcoholism, which was excerpted in the May 31, 1996 edition of Isthmus.
Just after noon on Dec. 13, 1994, two employees of Lakeside Press found the frozen body of an unidentified woman behind their Williamson Street print shop. An autopsy performed the next day determined that the cause of death was "hypothermia while in a state of extreme intoxication."
"I do not expect ever to read sadder words of finality," writes George McGovern of his daughter's death in the recently published Terry: My Daughter's Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism. McGovern will be in Madison June 5 to give a talk and sign books at 7:30 p.m. at the State Historical Society Auditorium (free tickets for the event are available at Canterbury Booksellers Coffeehouse, 315 W. Gorham St.).
McGovern, a former U.S. senator from South Dakota, notes in the book's preface that Terry is one of 100,000 alcoholics who die in this country each year from the disease. But her death was different, he writes, because Terry "was the daughter of a prominent family. She had campaigned across the country in 1972 for her dad, the Democratic nominee for president. The moment her body was identified, her death was news around the world."
Just 45 years old when she died, Terry had battled alcoholism and depression -- McGovern calls them "companion demons" -- since a teenager. She moved to Madison in 1976 when her sister Sue and brother-in-law Jim Rowen invited her to live with their family.
People who knew Terry describe her as talented, altruistic, warm, funny and caring -- when sober. But when drunk, her ability to cope and take responsibility for herself and others became severely impaired. She was in and out of rehabilitation centers countless times. But always, she returned to the bottle.
"The problem with short-term sobriety for Terry," concludes McGovern, "was that she couldn't bear her life's pain without alcohol. Almost from the moment she moved into sobriety, she was beset by anguish.... Sobriety brought pangs of guilt and regret over her failures, blown opportunities and conduct painfully at variance with her moral standards."
McGovern says he went public with Terry's story so that others could understand her life and struggles and learn from her experience. He also has some lessons of his own to share: Separate the person from the disease; "Hate the alcoholism -- but love the victim." Further, you can never give an alcoholic enough love or support. McGovern and his wife Eleanor regret terribly that they followed a counselor's advice to distance themselves from Terry in what turned out to be the last six months of her life.
An excerpt from Terry follows.
From October 1980 until the summer of 1988, Terry maintained the longest period of sobriety in her adult life. It was during this period that she met and fell in love with Raymond Frey, a Wisconsin social worker. Although they never married, they lived together for several years and became excellent parents to two daughters, Marian, born in 1985, and Colleen, born in 1987. They faced the usual strains and pressures of trying to rear children and maintain a home on a limited income, but they also developed clashing emotional needs that made it difficult to sustain their relationship.
Terry, a recovering alcoholic, was also a sensitive and loving person who desperately needed the emotional support of an affectionate and caring mate. Ray was caught up, as are so many young fathers, in making a living. He perhaps needed more personal distance than Terry could tolerate. After five years of living together, they came to a mutual agreement that Ray should leave, at least for a trial period. Terry believed that after a few weeks of separation, Ray would miss her as much as she did him, and would return as a more understanding and loving mate. But this was not to be.
Ray had scarcely departed in mid-October 1988 before Terry went into a painful time of alternating regret, jealousy, resentment, sorrow, anger and self-pity, culminating in her relapse into drinking.She lacked the personal resources to care for two energetic, demanding little girls by herself; nor could she escape the sense of rejection she felt because Ray had begun a new relationship with a woman who had also been Terry's friend.
When an alcoholic relapses after a lengthy sobriety, recovery is extremely difficult. The disease continues its insidious course even in sobriety and grips the victim with new force when a relapse occurs. To her credit, Terry recognized the seriousness of her resumed drinking and placed herself in a long-term recovery program in Milwaukee. A young mother invariably finds such a program especially painful and difficult because it separates her from her dependent children. But Terry succeeded over the next year with a determined effort.
Four days into this experience at Recovery House, she wrote in her journal on October 29, 1989:
Sitting here in my room, feeling the old, familiar gnawing emptiness, I know I must continue with my meditation. It is the most valuable time I have.... I listen to the wind. I wish I were in my new home listening to this wind while my babies sleep.
But at the end of the day, she knew that she must remain in Milwaukee struggling with her recovery:
11:15 p.m. The day is over and I'm going to bed with a good feeling. What I learned today that will help me stay sober are some of the things that caused my relapse:
This energetic, full-time recovery program meant that for the first time Ray was the primary caretaker of 4-year-old Marian and 2-year-old Colleen. He cooperated in driving the children from Madison to Milwaukee for a visit each weekend. Terry's treatment continued for much of 1990 as she received outpatient care while living in her own apartment in Milwaukee. All went well until she decided to move back to Madison to be with her children. Then the same old anxieties, stresses and depression returned, and she sought relief in her old friend alcohol. She made other serious efforts in recovery programs in Wisconsin, Washington, D.C., and Maryland -- but each in turn was soon followed by a relapse.
During the last four years of her life -- beginning March 25, 1991, and ending December 12,1994 -- she was admitted to the Tellurian Detox Center in Madison 68 times -- usually after collapsing and sometimes injuring herself while heavily intoxicated. On one occasion, she fell facedown in a pool of water and nearly drowned. Several times she suffered painful head or facial abrasions from falling on the sidewalks or streets of Madison. At other times, she passed out on a bus, on a park bench, or in a store and was then taken to the detox center or a nearby hospital after someone called 911. She became a familiar, forlorn figure to the Madison police, emergency crews and hospitals and the ever-beckoning detox center.
These many detoxifications kept Terry alive, but they were miserable experiences. But even at the detox center, while her body jittered from withdrawal, she would limp out of bed to soothe her roommate, or pad down the hall in a robe to bring her orange juice. In group therapy she liked to comfort others, rather than focus on her own troubles.
Her warmth helped heal other alcoholics even if she couldn't heal herself. One friend from detox, a man named Don, tells of the time he escaped from a treatment facility with a lunatic plan to run away to Bangkok. He called Terry from the platform at the Amtrak station. She had precisely 15 minutes to persuade him to come back to the facility.
Later, they celebrated his sobriety by spray-painting his initials on a rock along with his recovery date, 12/25/89. Christmas. Then Don sprayed TJM. Teresa Jane McGovern. He asked her, "What's the anniversary of your recovery?"
She smiled crookedly and said: "just put a question mark."
From the book Terry by George McGovern. Copyright 1996 by George McGovern. Reprinted with the permission of Villard Books, a division of Random House Inc.