Kitty Dukakis Details Her Long Battle With Alcohol

Times Staff Writer

Within “weeks of the election, it was clear that something was happening,” Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis said Feb. 6 in his sudden announcement that his wife, Kitty, was entering an alcohol treatment program.

But, in an interview here, Kitty Dukakis said that her problem with alcohol predated her husband’s presidential defeat.

“I was an alcoholic before Michael lost,” she said in her first in-depth discussion of her drinking problem since her release on March 7 from a 31-day stay at Edgehill Newport in Rhode Island.


The 1988 presidential campaign loss was a “crisis,” she said, but added that “one event does not make one an alcoholic.”

An alcohol-abuse problem does not develop in less than three months, she said. “It never does.

“I was chemically dependent at the age of 19,” she said, “and the lesson I did not learn was that, once you are dependent on one chemical, you are dependent on others.”

In talking for close to an hour Monday in her office near the Massachusetts Statehouse, she evoked a new sense of humility, an aura of tranquillity and an eagerness to share the joys of her sobriety.

She disclosed in 1987 that she had been treated six years earlier for a 26-year addiction to diet pills. And, for 6 1/2 years after she went through treatment at the Hazelden Foundation in Minnesota to kick her pill habit, “I was able to control my drinking,” she said.

There was no public inebriation. Close friends said they seldom saw her drink more than the occasional glass of wine. After the rigors of a day on the campaign trail, she would sometimes unwind with a drink, some who traveled with her said.


Marilyn Chase, Mrs. Dukakis’ chief of staff during the campaign, told the Boston Globe: “I think I probably drank more than she did.”

Problem Unsuspected

Never, apparently, did anyone suspect that she was fighting a problem.

“What happens often with men and women, though with women in particular, is that you drink in private,” Mrs. Dukakis, 52, said.

Twice last March, both times at home on Perry Street in Brookline, she lost control while drinking, she said. But, in the flurry of the campaign, the incidents were overlooked.

Some reports say she passed out from excessive alcohol consumption on three occasions after her husband’s defeat in November.

Husband a ‘Co-Dependent’

Kitty Dukakis said she found out in her treatment that her husband had been a “co-dependent” to her pattern of “binge drinking and episodic drinking,” although “he didn’t know it.”

Until she underwent treatment for alcoholism, “I never even knew what a co-dependent was,” Mrs. Dukakis said. It is term used to describe those whose lives are closely intertwined with the substance abuser.

She said that she hid her drinking just as she once had hidden diet pills in her underwear drawers.

Even her son, John, and his wife, Lisa, who lived with her and Gov. Dukakis in the final stages of Lisa’s pregnancy in January, had no idea.

“I was falling apart before my own eyes, and I was able to fool people,” she said.

She was even fooling herself.

Clung to ‘Mythology’

She said that she now understands that her denial about her drinking was “very strong.” She said she was clinging to what she called the public “mythology” that “you have to be a bum in the gutter” to be an alcoholic.

Since then, she has learned that “there is no profile of an alcoholic. There are just many different faces.” Many people with drinking problems consume alcohol “from 5 to 7 every night, or only on weekends,” she said.

“I think the fairest definition is when one begins to lose control.”

Publicly, Kitty Dukakis seemed very much in control. During the campaign, voters in tiny towns in Iowa and elsewhere in the country listened appreciatively as she candidly discussed an addiction to amphetamines that began when she was 19 years old. She spoke out also on homelessness, AIDS, the rights of refugees and on women in politics.

Asset in Campaign

As the campaign wound to its unsuccessful end, even her one-time harshest critics conceded that Kitty Dukakis had been among the Democratic candidate’s strongest assets.

After the devastating defeat, she still seemed to thrive on public attention. She received a $175,000 advance from Simon & Schuster for a book about her experiences on the campaign trail; and she announced that she had signed with a New York agent, Harry Walker, to begin a national speaking tour.

But she was not eating right. “I was substituting alcohol for food,” she said. For alcoholics, she said, “your nutritional habits just go by the wayside. That’s what we talk about when we say we lose control.”

She failed to apply the lessons of one form of substance abuse to another. Although she had publicly acknowledged amphetamine abuse, she paid no attention to the warning signs about alcohol.

She said she felt her self-esteem wither: “What happens is that alcohol just destroys any of those positive feelings.” While she was under the influence of alcohol, “they were just gone. One’s sense of self-worth just goes out the window.”

‘Three-Pronged Disease’

Alcoholism, she continued, “is a three-pronged disease. It is emotional, physical and spiritual. You become bankrupt in each of the three areas.”

As a “public person” who had been so candid about her amphetamine abuse, she could not slip unnoticed into an alcohol treatment program. “You know that I couldn’t do it privately,” she said.

Going public with her problem was “part of the responsibility and part of the pain of making the decision,” she said.

After entering the $271-a-day facility, she received “an outpouring of support” that so far has included 8,000 letters, only four of them negative.

Among her correspondence, Mrs. Dukakis said, has been a “wonderful” letter from First Lady Barbara Bush, a “lovely” note from former First Lady Nancy Reagan and “an extraordinary” letter from former First Lady--and fellow recovering substance abuser--Betty Ford.

She said she learned to accept help.

Invited to AA Meeting

Last week a Boston-based television cameraman who had covered her during the campaign saw her in Philadelphia, where she was speaking for the first time since her release from Edgehill. He invited her to join him at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Boston.

Although she formerly had been a go-it-alone type who, she said, was much more likely to offer assistance than to take it from others, Dukakis happily accepted.

She now says her book will encompass her treatment for alcoholism, rather than ending with her husband’s defeat. And she deals with her abuse problem in her speeches, with determination and humor.

Fell in a Pothole

At the speech near Philadelphia, she hobbled to the stage with one foot in a cast. “The bad news is that I fell in a pothole in Boston,” she told the audience. “The good news is, I was sober when I did it.”

In the interview, she said women “bear a particularly heavy burden” when it comes to alcoholism.

“I think that women are not reflected in the numbers in treatment programs that there are out there,” she said. “Women are prescribed mood-altering drugs that are detrimental. Women get addicted. They become dependent.

“Society needs to recognize that dependency does not recognize gender,” she said, and that more government programs are needed.

Still, the social climate is more conducive now than ever before to the needs of chemical abusers, she said.

In a less tolerant era, say 15 or 20 years ago, “I would have destroyed myself,” she said. “We’re far ahead of where we were, but we still have a long way to go.”

Whether she will assume a public role in the fight against substance abuse remains to be seen. “I just don’t know,” she said. “I’m trying not to make any major decisions. They tell you not to do that in your first year.”

Instead, she and her husband are enjoying a life where, for the first time, all three children have left home to live on their own. “We love our children, but we are enjoying being (alone) together,” she said.

She supports his decision not to seek another term as governor. “Twelve years will have been enough,” she said. During treatment, she said, she overcame her feelings of White House remorse, and she no longer feels envy toward Barbara Bush or anyone else in Washington.

And she counts each day without chemical abuse as a special kind of blessing.

“Without sobriety, you can’t do anything else,” she said. “You can’t love other people. You can’t love yourself.”

On this day, as she hurried off to a lunchtime meeting of women alcoholics, she was observing her fiftieth day of sobriety.

“Fifty days today,” she said. “It feels great.”