For U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, it took a fall last month in a Virginia train station to serve as her wake-up call.
The longtime Arizona congresswoman had until then privately battled an alcohol issue that started a decade prior, escalating primarily in the privacy of her home.
That changed on Jan. 9, when Kirkpatrick suffered a fractured spine, cracked ribs and a head injury that required staples while on her way to the Capitol to vote.
It was in the hospital, with her family, that Kirkpatrick made the decision to admit her alcoholism publicly and enter rehab.
“It was a serious fall, and I could have suffered life-threatening injuries,” said Kirkpatrick, 69, a Democrat who represents Tucson. “I was fortunate in that I had a full recovery. But it was definitely a wake-up call.”
Kirkpatrick returned to Washington, D.C., late Tuesday, almost exactly seven weeks to the day after the fall.
She was back at work Wednesday morning, meeting with Arizona Department of Transportation representatives as part of her role on the House Committee on Appropriations to discuss bringing federal dollars back to the state for road and infrastructure projects. And she’ll return to the campaign trail to retain her seat in Arizona’s second congressional seat with a “Congress on Your Corner” event in Tucson on Saturday. (See box.)
But while it appears she’s easily resettling back into work, she said in a brief interview with the Arizona Daily Star on Wednesday morning that she’s doing so with the belief that she’ll continue to battle the disease for the rest of her life.
“I’m much stronger today than I was then. … One of the things I learned is that, you know, this disease doesn’t discriminate,” she said. “You have to live one day at a time. You’re not your disease.”
A family history of alcoholism
Kirkpatrick has represented parts of Arizona for most of the past decade, previously representing a different swing district in northern and eastern Arizona before she ran unsuccessfully against Republican Sen. John McCain in 2016. She won her congressional district in 2018 after defeating Lea Marquez Peterson, who led the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
It was early into her congressional career that her issues with alcoholism began. She never drank in high school, she said, and labeled herself as a “serious student” while attending both undergraduate and law school at the University of Arizona. She started having casual drinks about a decade ago, and her issues progressed from there.
“That’s the problem with alcoholism. It’s a progressive disease,” said Kirkpatrick, who acknowledged she has a family history of alcoholism. “I just encourage people who think there might be a problem in their family or with themselves to be open and address it.”
She also acknowledged the prevalence of alcohol in the political lifestyle.
“It’s really, really true that every evening we have multiple events and receptions where there’s alcohol,” she said. “That was not my problem. I rarely drank at any of those receptions but if somebody is prone to alcoholism, that could be a problem.”
She made the decision to enter rehab after consulting with her family.
“Well, you know, my family was extremely supportive. Let me just start there,” she said. “I’ve made a commitment to being healthy and I wanted to do everything possible to make that happen.”
While she was out, her office continued to work without her, primarily with the help of Ron Barber, her district director, who used to be the representative for her district. The staff divided public appearances that Kirkpatrick would normally make and tried to keep people apprised of the work of the House Appropriations Committee.
“We have good, capable people,” Barber told the Arizona Republic of Kirkpatrick’s staff, adding that he was “really surprised” of Kirkpatrick’s addiction, but that he did notice she seemed “off her game” after the holidays.
“Obviously, it was much more serious than that,” he said.
Kirkpatrick’s new district is relatively evenly divided in terms of registered Democrats and Republicans and has produced epic finishes in recent years. But political pundits, such as Nathan Gonzales of Inside Elections, now see Kirkpatrick as a solid bet to hold her seat.
At least 14 candidates have filed with the Federal Elections Committee to run for the seat. Shay Stautz, a Republican former University of Arizona lobbyist, is the best-funded among them, but as of December Kirkpatrick had nearly 10 times more campaign cash than he did. Stautz told the Republic he has not made an issue of Kirkpatrick’s alcohol problem, in part because of his family’s experience with addiction.
“I’m actually pleased to hear that Ann is making sufficient progress that she can come back to the job. I really do applaud those people who have the courage to ask for help when they need it,” said Stautz, whose brother died from an opioid overdose, to the Republic. “It just illustrates how none of us are unaffected by this issue.”
In terms of the campaign, Kirkpatrick said she’s excited to be with her constituents, because it’s something she enjoys. She said she’s not concerned about her alcoholism being used against her because she said that support has been overwhelmingly positive across the political aisle.
“A couple of comments I’ve gotten that were sort of, you know, criticism, there was such a pushback,” she said. “There’s hardly a family in this country that hasn’t dealt with this at some point.”
She also said that she’s hoping that her experience in rehab will also lead to legislation to those affected by addiction.
“When I was in treatment, I saw a lot of kids in treatment. Really, really young. Mainly men, young men,” she said. “And it just really raised my awareness that our country should be doing more to address this mental health issue. You know, I have three grandsons and I’ve been talking with my children about it because I don’t think you can start teaching healthy habits too early.”
Information from the Arizona Republic was used in this article.
Contact reporter Justin Sayers at email@example.com or 573-4192. Twitter: @_JustinSayers. Facebook: JustinSSayers.
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