Thanksgiving is a holiday that will be etched forever in Jean Kirkpatrick’s memory. On that day in 1963, the 40-year-old awoke at her home in Quakertown, Pa. so hung over that she was unable to drag herself to the family dinner four blocks away. “I knew I couldn’t go,” she recalls. “I looked terrible—so I continued to drink.” Sometime that evening Kirkpatrick (no kin to former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, with whom she is often confused) attempted suicide by taking sleeping pills and turning on the gas. Alerted by neighbors’ complaints about her barking dog, police found her and took her to the Quakertown hospital. “A couple of nurses didn’t want to tend to me,” she says. “This was a normal, small-town hospital where drunks were considered scum.”
Kirkpatrick, now 64, recalls the incident as part of a downward spiral that had started many years before. Another low point had occurred in 1959, when she was arrested for punching a policeman who stopped her for drunken driving. After that, she entered a mental institution. During her yearlong stay she was so desperate for alcohol that she gulped Listerine she bought in the gift shop. “What I remember most is the total abject loneliness,” she says. “You want to scream for help, but you don’t know how because you are sealed into a bottle.”
As chronicled in her book Goodbye Hangovers, Hello Life (Atheneum, $14.95), Kirkpatrick finally kicked alcohol in 1971 after a 28-year struggle. A veteran of nearly every available therapy, and a two-time dropout from Alcoholics Anonymous, she was convinced that none of the programs fully addressed the problems of America’s five million women alcoholics. After five years of research, in 1976 Kirkpatrick founded Women for Sobriety, an organization that now has grown to 200 chapters worldwide. The WFS program includes group therapy, meditation and even nutritional education to treat addiction to sugar, which tends to aggravate mood swings.
Though Kirkpatrick accepts some of the Alcoholics Anonymous philosophy—believing, for example, that alcoholism is a disease and that lifelong abstinence is the only road to recovery—she faults the organization for critical shortcomings. She believes AA’s insistence on encouraging humiliating confessions about alcoholic behavior only reinforces women’s feelings of guilt and powerlessness. “I’ve never met a single [alcoholic] woman who needed more humility,” she says. “I believe that women need exactly the opposite—the self-confidence to stay sober.”
AA’s emphasis on religion also disturbs Kirkpatrick. The organization’s “Twelve Steps” to recovery cite a commitment to a “higher power” as a prerequisite to overcoming alcoholism. “Without that belief in God,” says Kirkpatrick, herself a Lutheran, “one is lost, and the program is generally less effective.”
Kirkpatrick’s position has angered many AA members. Comments clinical psychologist Sharon Wilsnack, an authority on alcoholism among women, who is not affiliated with either group: “Often when WFS comes into a community, it is seen as a threat to the AA establishment, a competitor that AA feels isn’t needed.” Adds Kirkpatrick: “AA members believe stubbornly that there is only one way to sobriety and that anyone who uses any other method ends up drinking again.”
Kirkpatrick’s alcoholism began in high school in Quakertown, where she was class president and played on the girls’ basketball team. She dated often, though she didn’t enjoy fending off clumsy sexual advances. Finally she dated a boy who didn’t make any. “What was delightfully different about him was that he was interested only in drinking and not in petting,” she says. Kirkpatrick joined in, and by the time she reached college she was drinking heavily and suffering blackouts. After expulsion from three colleges, a broken marriage and psychiatric treatment, she managed, at 27, to graduate from Moravian College and to receive a master’s from Lehigh University four years later.
Fired from a teaching job in Kansas, she joined AA briefly and stayed sober long enough to enroll at the University of Pennsylvania, where she nearly completed her Ph.D. in sociology before taking up with another alcoholic boyfriend and returning to blended rye. “I loathed myself,” she says of those years. “I only wanted to die.” Ironically, it was her lover’s suicide, in 1965, that finally shocked her into saving herself. “I was emotionally free,” she says, “to begin the long road to recovery.” She triumphantly received her Ph.D. in 1971, 16 years after she started working on it.
She is grateful, after all those wasted years, that her father, a businessman who spent $175,000 on her various treatments, survived to witness her recovery. “It was my father whom I so disappointed and my father who so desperately wanted me to succeed,” she says. “At least he lived long enough to see me sober.”