Senator George McGovern: Let's Draw The Line on Underage Drinking

by David M. Edwards and Mary Allen

Senator George McGovern is perhaps best remembered for his unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1972. His name became almost synonymous with opposition to the war in Vietnam. While he struggled with these high-profile issues, a private struggle was taking shape within his own family, the tragic climax of which has now lead him into another battle - the battle against alcoholism.

George McGovern & daughter TerryTeresa Jane was the third daughter born to George and Eleanor McGovern. Terry, as everyone called her, was a fun-loving, pretty girl. From her teenage years, however, Terry struggled with alcoholism and depression. On the night of December 12, 1994, at the age of 45, Terry walked out of a bar in Madison, Wis., stumbled in the deep snow and froze to death.

As a result of this painful tragedy, Senator McGovern has become increasingly involved in activities aimed at helping people understand and overcome the disease of alcoholism. He has written a book about his daughter's life, "Terry," which will be published by Random House this year. He has also been named honorary chair of Alcohol Awareness Month in April, 1996, by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD). Treatment Today recently spoke with Senator McGovern about this latest chapter in his life.

Although his daughter, Terry, had been in and out of alcohol treatment programs since the age of 19, Senator McGovern was never publicly active on the issue of alcoholism. Her death has changed that. With regard to the continuing role he plans to pursue, Senator McGovern said, "I want to concentrate on doing whatever I can to get more public support for research on alcoholism - the causes, how to prevent it, how to reduce it. There are so many unanswered questions."

Senator McGovern believes that Terry's repeated relapses following treatment resulted from a lack of adequate follow-up care. "I think if she had gone into a six month, or even a year-long halfway house program after the first treatment, it might have been more successful," he said. Recent research offers support for this view [see "Statistically Speaking," Treatment Today, Spring 1996]. "There are a number of good treatment centers around the country. The ones, though, that combine treatment with halfway housing follow-up are the ones that are the most successful."

Other factors which Senator McGovern believes were important in Terry's addiction are genetic predisposition and the age at which she started drinking. "I am in the growing number of people who believe that alcoholism has a genetic base. I think Terry was born vulnerable to it. That doesn't mean that she had to become an alcoholic - it means the chances were much higher in her case," he said.

Senator McGovern also believes it makes a difference if young people start drinking at an early age. "There is a growing consensus, both on alcohol and nicotine, that if we can get people to hold off on first use until they are 21, the chances of them becoming addicted are greatly, greatly reduced." He feels that alcoholic beverage advertising which appeals to youths "tends to thwart that goal." His advice to parents regarding their children's use of alcohol is that "they need to be put in touch with professionals - either people who are in the AA program or counselors trained in dealing with the problem of addiction. It doesn't mean the child is an addict, but it means - starting at an early age like that - they are vulnerable to it."

In addition, we need to recognize the importance of co-occuring problems - especially clinical depression. "That, as you know, sometimes becomes a dual problem. Terry had great difficulty with that, and she never did really find a sure antidote to the depression."

As a result of his decision to respond openly and candidly about Terry's death and his desire to do something to help prevent a similar fate from befalling others, Senator McGovern agreed to serve as honorary chair for Alcohol Awareness Month. "As access to treatment for alcoholism becomes increasingly limited, it's more important than ever to do what we can to prevent our children from using a drug that is the third leading cause of preventable death in America," he said. His involvement includes speaking engagements, participating in a film and other activities aimed at drawing attention to the problem.

Alcohol Awareness Month has been sponsored by NCADD since 1987 for the purpose of encouraging local communities to take a closer look at how America's number-one drug problem affects their young people. This year their slogan is "Let's Draw The Line." NCADD provides kits for a modest fee which include a model underage alcohol consumption reduction act (as recommended by the President's Commission on Model State Drug Laws), reproducible press materials and suggested grassroots activities for organizers, as well as a sample copy of "What Should I Tell My Child About Drinking?" a new, comprehensive guide for parents.

Writing the book about Terry was important to Senator McGovern, both as a means of educating people about the problems that she faced and as a way for him to deal with his own grief over her death. Although he says he is a "failure when it comes to dealing with grief," it is apparent that writing the book was both a learning and a cathartic experience. He said, "If I have learned any one thing, it is the absolute importance of learning how to loathe and detest the disease, yet at the same time love and care and understand and appreciate the people who are victims of it."

Within the pages of "Terry," Senator McGovern writes with eloquent sincerity about "My lovable little girl who had given me ten thousand laughs, countless moments of affection and joy, and yes, years of anxiety and disappointment." He tells of how difficult the writing was: "I have written every word in long-hand on pads of yellow legal-size paper. Those sheets show many small smudges. That is what happens when tears fall onto the page." Nevertheless, this book is not a simple outpouring of emotion, it is a genuine search for answers. It is his hope that the story of Terry's life-and-death struggle with alcoholism "will help in some way to open the eyes, instruct the minds and warm the hearts of other strugglers along the way."

As for what we can do to further the struggle with alcoholism and other addictions, Senator McGovern stressed the need for more research. "We need to know more about what makes people vulnerable to alcohol. We need to know more about what possibilities there are with uses of medication to reduce the cravings for alcohol. We need more research in general on the nature of this disease, and that requires both public and private funding."

We sometimes forget that public figures are also fathers, mothers, husbands and wives. Their life in the spotlight doesn't alter the human feelings they experience. "I must tell you that the loss of a child, no matter the age - 5, 25 or 45 - produces more grief than you can imagine. And the longer that child has lived, the more memories, associations and shared history flood your heart and mind." For Senator George McGovern, this intensely painful experience has meant a dedication to helping others avoid this kind of sorrow. "It's such a tragedy. She was a spectacular young woman - it's a great loss."

Copyright Quest Publishing Company, Inc. 1996. All rights reserved.

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