Addiction as Personal Identity

Ellen Goodman

September 18, 1990|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON — Boston. THE BOOK begins with a simple declarative sentence: ''I'm Kitty Dukakis and I'm a drug addict and an alcoholic.'' It is a sentence that she read to Barbara Walters while the cameras were rolling. A sentence that led the excerpts in her hometown paper. A sentence repeated almost verbatim on the talk shows.

In time, it takes on the quality of a mantra. This complex woman is reintroducing herself to the public these days as if we were all members of a 12-step program together, sharing the same room, standing up and naming ourselves. ''I'm Steve and I'm an alcoholic.'' ''I'm Betty and I'm a drug addict.'' ''I'm John and I'm a substance abuser.'' ''I'm Sue and I'm a co-dependent.''

By the end of the book, the almost first lady has labeled herself as a substance abuser, an alcoholic, a depressive, a manic-depressive. She has a listed a pharmacy of drugs taken, from amphetamines to Prozac to Lithium, a directory of clinics tried from Hazelden to Self-Discovery, a roller-coaster ride of hopes raised, relapses recorded.

The story of Kitty Dukakis doesn't fit the literature of recovery with its requisite upbeat endings. It is too raw for that, written in process, riding the highs and lows. There was hair spray swallowed between chapters, new diagnoses made between drafts. At times this epic tale of one woman's struggle for control reads like a Pilgrim's progress of illnesses and treatments. Only without the promise of progress. It is not easy reading.

I was saddened by ''Now You Know.'' In part, it was the sadness of discovering that I liked someone much more than she liked herself. The landscape of Kitty's childhood, hometown and high school, were familiar. But I had trouble finding the Kitty that I had known in an occasional neighborly way for 20 years.

Hidden is the woman who is funny as well as intense, an enthusiastic gossip about life and love, a talker and a listener, passionate about her family, her politics, her projects. It is all, except the honesty, missing in these descriptions of the worst moments of the worst years of her life.

In some unhappy ways, Kitty Dukakis' story is wholly self-centered, as illness can be. One of the tragic symptoms of disease is that it reduces the sum of the sufferers to their most painful part: the inflamed disk, the migraine, the mental anguish. The soul of a poet, wrote Dostoyevsky, is in his aching tooth. For Kitty, the toothache was treated with addiction.

But what troubles me the most in this dutiful, serious, uncompromising effort at truth-telling is what the culture of addiction treatment seems to demand of the troubled in this era. Your whole identity.

In other times and places, preachers demand that those seeking peace of mind name themselves by their lowest common denominator: I'm Margaret and I'm a sinner. Now I wonder if recovery programs don't demand a similar price for admission to the community and the promise of help. In Kitty's tour through the world of help and self-help, she followed the first commandment, that you exchange an old identity card for a new one: ''I'm Kitty Dukakis and I'm a drug addict and an alcoholic.'' This is the new bottom line.

Well, admittedly, I am no expert in this world. I have had no addiction more serious than that of my morning coffee. I understand the need to name and confront reality. I know the value of these programs. But how do you know when that bottom line is a building block for a stronger identity and when it is the rock you've crashed against?

''An addict is an addict is an addict,'' writes Kitty. It describes the stripping away of self. What happens when those who wrestle with problems of self-esteem are required to wear such a label?

Reading Kitty's book, I wondered whether she wasn't also searching identity in addiction, a name to her pain. I wondered whether her attempts to speak and work and even write about addiction weren't part of another deeper search: for something meaningful to do with her life.

The oldest, most complex questions about what philosophers like to call the human condition are these. Who Am I? How do I lead a life? Today Kitty Dukakis describes her self by her diagnoses. Drug addict. Alcoholic. Manic-depressive. As one of many who have known her, I hope that behind that list are words without prescription pads -- ''compassionate'' and ''strong'' -- just waiting to reappear.

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