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The Hidden Obsession of Kitty Dukakis : A Presidential Candidate's Wife Talks Candidly About Her 26-Year Addiction to Amphetamines

July 20, 1987|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

MT. AYR, Iowa — One pharmacist told her the drug she was taking was known as "speed" and that people who used it were sometimes called "freaks." She immediately changed pharmacies.

Another warned her that she was "doing a disservice" to her body. "I kind of looked at him," the first lady of Massachusetts recalled. "I never went back there either."

Over coffee and homemade doughnuts at the Small Corral restaurant here Friday, Kitty Dukakis quietly added the story of her recovery from a 26-year addiction to prescription diet pills to a discussion of farm economics, the environment, "Star Wars" and her husband's presidential campaign. None of her 17 listeners in this tiny farming community--some with children in tow, some in denim overalls--seemed remotely surprised.

And afterwards, in her first extended interview on the subject since she disclosed her former addiction in Boston earlier this month, Dukakis talked comfortably about a habit that for many years had been a secret even from her husband.

"I denied so long," she said, adding, "Denial is a part of every substance-abuser's life."

Secret Discovered

It was five years ago that Kitty Dukakis conceded her dependency and underwent treatment at the Hazelden Rehabilitation Center in Center City, Minn. Eight years earlier, her husband, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, had discovered the cache of pills she had kept hidden from him for most of their marriage.

With a doctor's help, she tried to gradually withdraw from the amphetamines she had begun taking at age 19, three months before her first marriage, to John Chaffetz in 1954. But within weeks she was back to her old habit of doctor-shopping, wangling diet-pill prescriptions and concealing the drugs from her husband.

"It's very easy to hide pills," Dukakis said en route to a hand-shaking event in the southwestern corner of Iowa. "Other things, no. But pills--pills are easy to hide."

The daughter of the associate conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, Kitty Dukakis was for much of her adult life a dancer and teacher of modern dance. At 50, she still is slender and moves with easy grace. But "every woman thinks she's too heavy," Dukakis said, explaining how, as a college student about to be married, she first began taking diet pills.

She had no trouble persuading a doctor to issue that first prescription. "It was a phenomenon of the '50s," she said. "It was rampant."

Soon, the young military wife and her husband were traveling. In each new city, Dukakis easily convinced physician after physician to prescribe amphetamines.

"The easiest doctors to get prescriptions from were OB-GYNS," she said, because in the 1950s "they traditionally gave them to pregnant women so they wouldn't gain too much weight."

Dukakis had one son, John, now 29, by her first marriage. Daughters Andrea, 21, and Kara, 18, came soon after her marriage to Dukakis in 1963. "But I've had seven pregnancies," she said. "I've miscarried a lot."

Though her theory was never confirmed medically, Dukakis said she is certain her diet-pill habit had "some bearing" on the miscarriages. But she stopped short of branding as irresponsible any one doctor who allowed her to continue her addiction.

"There were 10 irresponsible physicians," she said.

The real problem, Dukakis admitted, was that she simply liked, and came to rely on, the kick the pills gave her. "I'm a very high-energy person anyway. So it was even crazier for me."

But along with the "hyped-up" feeling she got from the pills, Dukakis found herself prey to mood swings and a sometimes-explosive temper. She was also sick, with frequent stomach problems and migraine headaches. Sleep was a constant battle.

"I was dependent," she said. "But I couldn't stop."

Dukakis "secretly applauded" when then-First Lady Betty Ford went public with her own dependence on prescription drugs in 1974. But "denial was so much a part of my being then," she added, that "I did not feel ready" to follow her lead.

Even when she finally faced up to her problem, Dukakis said, some doctors did not view her 5-milligram daily dose of any one of 10 different Dexedrine derivatives as a major dependency. The suggestion was that hers was not a "real" addiction unless it involved about 100 milligrams a day.

"I find it fascinating that people at FDA (the Food and Drug Administration) say the amount I was taking was like being addicted to nicotine," said Dukakis, who is also a heavy smoker.

After her treatment, Dukakis turned for help to a group of fellow substance abusers. "One of the first things I learned early on is that this is not something you can do yourself," she said.

Because she was part of a group sworn to anonymity, Dukakis was able to stick by the cover story she had floated when she had gone to Minnesota for five weeks in 1982: that she was recovering from hepatitis.

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