Terry: My Daughter's Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism

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TERRY: My Daughter's Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism

TWENTY MILLION Americans have the disease of alcoholism, and millions more are affected by it. The stories of alcohol's ugly effects are no less horrific for their commonality, for each story contains an unyielding and ultimately indescribable kernel of agony. But if the intention for sharing is rooted in love or hope, the telling of stories can be both helpful and healing -- and this is the case with George McGovern's heart-wrenching book Terry, the anguished account of his third daughter's unsuccessful battle with alcoholism.

McGovern, a former United States senator from South Dakota and the Democratic candidate for president in 1972, painfully and painstakingly details the chronology of Terry's tormented existence, which ended tragically after 45 years when she was found frozen to death in December 1994 after having stumbled into the snow, inebriated. The author is aided in his chronicle by his daughter's own words, taken from the copious and often eloquent journal entries she made throughout her life. Together, the words of father and daughter weave a compelling portrait of the mercilessness of a disease that kills 300 Americans every day -- and the ultimate powerlessness of loved ones to change the disease's course.

But knowledge, as they say, is power -- and Terry, while offering no answers, does provide, through the honest retelling of his daughter's tortured life, many questions of worth to anyone who has been affected by or who deals in the treatment of alcoholism. As concerned and loving parents, George and Eleanor McGovern supported their daughter's seemingly countless therapy sessions, treatment programs, hospital stays, and forays into normal life. But, looking back, the author wonders at the efficacy of almost five years of daily psychoanalysis early in Terry's life when during those years she was, by her own account, averaging "5-6 beers daily or 3-4 shots of hard liquor, or a bottle of wine." The notion that alcoholism "might be the major cause of the patient's depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem was alien to most psychiatrists," McGovern continues. "Alcohol abuse was a symptom, not a cause, of emotional illness, they believed. To this day, practicing medical doctors, psychiatrists, and specialists in alcoholism dispute the relative importance of physiological versus psychological factors as a basis for alcoholism."

Pondering this same question later, the author writes, "At times, Terry seemed incapable of moving forward because of her preoccupations with her memories and perceptions of the past. And, of course, regardless of what psychological ills were revealed, such efforts were meaningless without sobriety."

Other inquiries in the book focus on the possibility that women have a unique vulnerability to the disease of alcoholism; the irony that a person so celebrated for her kind and loving nature could not extend the same kindness and love to herself; and the deepest, most devastating question of all: Why do some people, but not all, recover from alcoholism, and why wasn't Terry -- who fought so hard to conquer her eventual killer -- one of those people?

Sadly, McGovern lives with the enormous ache of that question, even as he insistently calls for more research into a disease that is probably the primary health problem in the US, given its estimated $100 billion annual cost. "Canceling the production of one B-2 bomber and one Seawolf submarine would free up several billion dollars that, if diverted to alcohol research and treatment, would contribute far more to the defense and security of the American people," he writes. Toward that end, he has established The McGovern Family Foundation (PO Box 33393, Washington DC 20033) to, as he expresses it, "transform Terry's death into a means of saving the lives of others."

With this searching, sorrowful, deeply moving book, McGovern has indeed proved himself an alchemist of the highest order, creating a work that genuinely serves those who have suffered because of the disease of alcoholism -- one reader, one life at a time.

Institute of Noetic Sciences.

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By Maggie Oman

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