George McGovern served in both houses of congress for more than two decades. He was nominated for president in 1972, defeated when voters elected Richard Nixon to a second term. Nixon soon became the only President to resign in disgrace. Under President Kennedy, McGovern was the director of the Food for Peace Program, distributing of American food surpluses to starving people around the planet.
He earned a PhD in history and the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism as a World War II bomber pilot. His B-24 plane was named The Dakota Queen for the love of his life, wife Eleanor. For all the celebrations and accomplishments of his 90 years on this earth, McGovern was tortured by a sense of personal failure.
Who knows when the demons actually begin to possess addicts. But we know when they left McGovern’s daughter. It was a cold December night in 1994. Late in the evening the doorbell rang. Two men stood on the porch, waiting with news parents of addicted children dread. “Senator,” one of the men addressed McGovern with the title he held for life. “Senator, your daughter Teresa is dead.”
Terry had stumbled intoxicated into a snow bank and froze to death. Last weekend father and daughter were reunited in a place that passes all understanding.
While it’s tempting to remember George McGovern as a liberal icon, a politician and educator of great accomplishment, his legacy as parent of a suffering child should be upheld in a way that comforts all such parents with the knowledge that they aren’t alone.
The lesson McGovern offers parents is one of courage. After Terry’s death McGovern determined to learn more about why. He embarked on the haunting task of reading diaries written by a troubled daughter suffering from depression as well as addiction. The diaries were filled with anger misplaced toward her parents. McGovern read dozens of police reports of his daughter’s encounters with law enforcement and medical records from the dozens of times Terry entered treatment and detox.
Parents never completely lose that guilt. George McGovern, for all his personal and political courage, was no exception. However, the journey he took through his daughter’s life afforded him an opportunity to learn what the parents of every addict should know. He bravely went public with the lessons he learned.
Among them, no one chooses to be an addict. Genetics plays a huge, unforgiving role. Most addicts are hard wired for the disease. Their DNA betrays them, making them more susceptible than others. Abuse of alcohol or other drugs re-wires the brain. In a complicated process that science has unlocked there comes a point when drinking and drug use become involuntary. Regardless of the negative outcomes; e.g. arrest, imprisonment, loss of family, jobs and health, the addict continues to use unless they encounter someone who makes a difference.
Like most parents, McGovern eventually learned the cure is not simply loving your child. Often that kind of love enables them to use more. Tough love, touted as a strategy, often fails. McGovern and his wife used tough love when Terry resumed drinking after eight years abstinent. On the advice of counselors Terry’s parents distanced themselves from their daughter for the last six months of her life. After her death, they were said to have regretted that decision for the rest of their days. Tough love has the potential to change lives when it works. It also carries the potential to doom the survivors to decades of self-recrimination when it doesn’t.
What George McGovern might like us to know is that addiction is neither the fault of parents nor a character flaw of the addicted. It is a disease, a brain disease and shouldn’t be condemned or stigmatized anymore than heart disease or cancer. It can be treated and it should be treated medically as vigorously as any other disease of the body.
When you think of George McGovern, think of all who are affected by this disease and say a prayer.