Millions of her fans know her as Mary Ellen Pinkham, the cheery Minneapolis housewife-turned-humorous-columnist for the how-to crowd. Pinkham, now 40, first struck it big in 1979 with a lighthearted book of domestic tips, Mary Ellen’s Best of Helpful Hints. In 1982, after she had whittled herself down from a pudgy 200-plus pounds to a svelte 135, she turned out another best-seller, Mary Ellen’s Help Yourself Diet Plan. But Pinkham wasn’t coming clean—it turns out she had a king-size skeleton rattling in her dust-free closet: Both she and her late husband, Sherman, were alcoholics. After successsfully tackling her own problem at Hazelden, a Minnesota treatment center, Pinkham turned to Families in Crisis, a Minneapolis-based counseling organization, for help in dealing with her husband’s drinking. In How To Stop the One You Love From Drinking (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $15.95), Mary Ellen describes her family’s struggle and offers practical tips about how to beat the addiction. Pinkham recently talked with correspondent Barbara Kleban Mills about her hidden life as an alcoholic.
I expect my alcoholism will come as news to the millions of readers of my books. I guess this is still helpful hints, but in another form. Everyone probably thought Mary Ellen Pinkham really had her house in order. Well, I may not have had cobwebs in my attic, but I had more than a few in my head.
I believe I was an alcoholic when I was born. I really believe it was waiting for me. Alcohol made me feel better about myself than any human being possibly ever could. Alcohol made me feel powerful. It made me feel beautiful. It made me feel charming and witty, like Suzy Parker and Dorothy Parker rolled up in one brilliant package.
And so the love affair was on. As a young girl, I used alcohol abusively. During my dating years it was always important. In 1969, when Sherman proposed to me, it was over a glass of wine. And we had our first argument over a martini. Our relationship and our social activities were surrounded by the use of alcohol. If we went to a party, football game, card game, you name it, alcohol was there. And everybody was drinking as much as me.
I did very little drinking on weekends. But Wednesday, an easy day at the office, was a big day. I called it “drunch day.” I always drank in swanky restaurants. It was all very glamorous. It was also phony. I would never drink a cheap scotch. It always had to be a premium brand or very, very elegant wine. And martinis. Although I’ll tell you—I quit drinking martinis 10 years ago. I couldn’t handle them any longer.
Even with the drinking going on, there were still a lot of nice things in my life. I entertained. I was a great hostess. I had friends. These were productive years. The drinking was really “reward drinking.” Maybe that’s why I accomplished so much—to reward myself. Why didn’t somebody step in and do something? Well first of all, a lot of people around me were practicing alcoholics themselves. They loved me. That was a biggie. There were a lot of wonderful things about Mary Ellen Pinkham. So big deal, she goes off the deep end once in a while. We can tolerate that. She’s so great most of the time. They didn’t want to hurt me.
For a long time I could go out and have my “drunch” and then go back to work. But then I’d go out and just keep on drinking. Then I started paying for my behavior. My business life was in chaos. So were my finances and my relationships. I lost my concentration totally. I could not work. I’d sit at my desk and shuffle papers. I couldn’t follow through on any assignment.
My brother, who’s been sober five years, was watching this whole fiasco in my life and had attempted many times to get an intervention together. There were meetings and discussions in the family, but nobody ever followed through. But one day the president of my company, Jonathon Lazear, said, “Mary Ellen, you’ve got a drinking problem. You’ve got to get help.” That was his No. 1 mistake—he came in alone. And I looked down and said, “Yeah, I do.” That is a real good offensive move. I mean, what do you say to somebody who admits it? So I had dinner with another primary person in my life and totally convinced him that I didn’t have a drinking problem, that I wasn’t crazy but Jonathon was.
Then in December 1982 I started going to a therapist—but for all the wrong reasons. I don’t know why I was going, probably to get people off my back. At least I could say, “I’m doing something about my problem.” And I listed my reasons for going: stress, financial and family problems and then, right at the bottom, drinking too much—occasionally. I remember that early that year before the therapist went on vacation I said to her, “Okay, while you’re gone, I’m not going to drink.” That was a Thursday. Friday I went out to lunch with the intention of drinking one glass of wine. No more. I really believed that. But I drank and drank and drank until about 5 o’clock in the afternoon. I really blew it. I was so sloshed I forgot I was supposed to take my husband and my son to the airport. That huge tolerance is a sign of alcoholism. If a lot of people drank as much as an alcoholic, they’d pass out before they even got started. But it was just one of those times when I could not stop. That loss of control is another sign of alcoholism. When you lose control it can happen at real crazy times—the kids can be waiting to see Santa Claus, the in-laws can be waiting for you.
That Saturday I tried to sleep it off. Sunday I met a girlfriend of mine for breakfast at a diner. When I walked in, I saw the look on her face. She said, “You need help, Mary Ellen.” And she pulled out a brochure for a treatment center from her purse. Suddenly my drinking was out in the open. I checked into Hazelden and stayed for 28 days. I want to say right now that I feel very strongly that people have been getting the impression that only the rich and famous—the Liza Minnellis, the Liz Taylors, the punk rockers—are the people coming out of the closet about their alcoholism. It’s not so. The typical alcoholic has a family, a car in the garage, goes to work every day and man ages quite well, actually, just like me.
At Hazelden I learned what chemical dependency is all about. There were lectures, but most of the therapy goes on when none of the experts are around. You share your experiences with other patients who’ve been there. You learn to love these people and you see their pain and suffering, and it gives you a better acceptance of yourself. The treatment is a different experience for everybody. It’s a rebuilding of your emotional life, your physical life and your spiritual life.
Anyway, I did have sort of an epiphany at Hazelden. I’d been there 26 days, and I didn’t know if I could make it. I didn’t know if I could live in a drug-free world. And I was really frightened about leaving. So there I was, standing on a hill, listening to my Walkman. The song I heard was by John Lennon and the lyrics were something like, “Woman I can hardly express/ My mixed emotions and my thoughtlessness/ Thank you for showing me the meaning of success/ I love you.” I changed the words to, “God, I can hardly express…” It may sound corny, but I was so filled with joy that I grasped on to a tremendous amount of hope. There on the spot I accepted myself for what I was. I don’t know if this was a God experience, but it was bigger than me. And I shouted out, “I want to live.”
When I got back from Hazelden the first thing I wanted to do was divorce Sherm. Our marriage had been difficult for a long time, and I didn’t want the problems to drag me backwards. But at Hazelden they had told me, “Don’t make any changes in your life for a year.” So when I walked into the house and saw Sherm lying on the couch looking really hung over, my heart just sank. It was a pretty bad scene. Then my brother asked Sherm if he thought he had a drinking problem, and Sherm said, “No,” but promised that if he got into any difficulty he would do something.
Well, six months later he got into big trouble. He got totally annihilated, three sheets to the wind. The next morning there was no argument. I didn’t blame him. I didn’t acccuse him. I didn’t try to fix it for him. I didn’t pack my bags and leave. But I said, “Sherman, either you’re going to get help or we’re going to be legally separated.”
He left very angry and went to our cabin in northern Minnesota. While he was there I got together with the people at Families in Crisis who helped me write this book. They believe, and so do I, that the way to get to the bottom of this kind of problem and get a really full picture of the trouble is to talk to people around the person who is drinking. That’s what’s so neat about the process, which they call “intervention.” Everyone who’s close to you starts seeing what a full-blown problem it is. And I want to stress that it’s the family that intervenes, not a counselor who takes over and decides he’s going to handle the drunk.
So when Sherm Pinkham, 60, came back to Minneapolis, he walked right into an intervention. It was classic. He walked into the room, saw me, my brother, our son, Andrew, and a few friends and realized what was going on. Sherm just said, “I’ll go.” He didn’t go to Hazelden. He went to an outpatient program at St. Mary’s hospital in Minneapolis, which is also a world-renowned treatment center.
Things were really starting to progress in our marriage, and there was a good feeling between us, and then Sherm got sick. He fell ill on Jan. 1, 1986. The diagnosis was terminal lung cancer. On Feb. 23, he died at home.
Friends have asked me if I feel bitter or angry about Sherm’s dying just when we seemed to have gotten it all together. I don’t have a lot of anger about it. What I’m feeling is a great deal of gratitude that Sherm Pinkham was sober when he died. If he had been drinking, my life would be in turmoil. I’d be a maniac, because I would have been carrying a tremendous amount of guilt.
As for myself, I think sobriety is wonderful. It has given me so many rewards that when I start to think I’m okay and could have a drink, I take care of myself. I go to an AA meeting. I take myself out of situations that are dangerous. It’s that simple.
When I came out of the closet about my drinking, I didn’t sneak out. That’s not my style. When I found a better way to clean a barbecue grill, I wanted everyone to know about it. When I hit on a great diet, I wanted everyone to go on it. When I stopped drinking, I wanted the world to recover.