Like many in Connecticut, I’ve been following for several weeks the news about drinking at the State Capitol. The commentary goes something like this: It’s a serious problem; no, the severity is being exaggerated. It’s a Covid phenomenon; no, it’s always been like this. It’s a problem with Democrats; no, Republicans just fly under the radar. We should show compassion; no, we should be outraged.
The one thing pundits seem to agree on is that we are one incident away from tragedy.
As someone who comes from a family beset by alcoholism but who somehow managed to escape the disease — and I admit it took me years to believe it was a disease and not a moral failing — I’m reading each of these news accounts with tears blurring the page.
I lost my sister Kathleen to alcoholism a few years ago. Many seasoned politicians and reporters will remember her as the strikingly beautiful, outspoken, whip-smart treasurer of the City of Hartford who stood up to the mayor (later convicted of bribery) and who predicted the collapse of Bear Stearns. Because she pulled the city’s money out in time, Kathleen remains a heroine to countless pensioners who credit her with their personal financial solvency.
Before entering politics, my sister had a notable career in journalism. In the 1960s, she led her college chapter of the leftist Students for a Democratic Society (the SDS). She was extravagantly generous, an early feminist, and a beloved aunt to my four sons who, when they were little, took pride in watching her march in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade along with all the other elected officials.
But Kathleen was also a drunk. And when she had a DUI in 2002 at the age of 54 (about the same age as my friend Rep. Robin Comey), she came very close to “bottoming out” — the first, lifesaving step to recovery. However, that critical moment got away because her political contemporaries circled the wagons. They shielded her, and convinced her “we all do it,” and that she was merely the unlucky one who got caught. At the time (long before I myself entered politics) I tried, unsuccessfully, to convince her otherwise.
Immediately after her arrest she was raw, and exposed. In a moment of great clarity, she admitted she was powerless over her disease, wrote a candid apology to her constituents, and told me she was ready to go into a residential treatment program. But then, the legal system kicked in — she avoided jail because (as a wise friend in recovery put it) people of influence often protect those under the influence. Kathleen ripped up her confession and, eventually, the news died down.
Maybe, if my sister had had an incompetent lawyer instead of a notable one, or had killed someone instead of sending two people to the hospital with minor injuries, or had been fired instead of praised, or had spent more time with sober friends instead of at Kenney’s on Capitol Avenue (now the Red Rock), she’d be alive today.
Despite her alcoholism, my sister was brilliant, funny, highly accomplished and widely admired. Perhaps her tragedy was that she did her drinking in the shadows, in an era before social media, which rips off every veil and spares no one.
Robin Comey, too, is an effective, creative, well respected public servant. Hers is a cautionary tale for us all — not just for our colleagues in the legislature, but for every family in every town. For employees in every workplace. And for students on every college campus.
They are, after all, starting as my sister started — developing a lifelong habit while our culture accepts the ubiquity of drinking, or turns a blind eye to the tornado, and in so doing, minimizes the familial and professional devastation it leaves in its wake, always.
Christine Palm is the state representative for the towns of Chester, Deep River, Essex and Haddam.