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July 9, 2000, Sunday
Advocate of Moderation for Heavy Drinkers Learns Sobering Lesson
By SAM HOWE VERHOVEK After she founded a self-help program called Moderation Management seven years ago, Audrey Kishline became a national spokeswoman for the notion that problem drinkers could be taught to cut back without abstaining altogether. Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous that favor abstinence sharply criticized her and the book she wrote, ''Moderate Drinking: The New Option for Problem Drinkers.''
Now Ms. Kishline says she may well become a spokeswoman again, probably from behind prison bars.
Having pleaded guilty to two counts of vehicular homicide after a binge drinking episode last March during which she became so intoxicated she barely remembers climbing into her pickup truck, Ms. Kishline said through her lawyer that she has a new message: Moderation Management involves a lot of ''alcoholics covering up their problem.''
Ms. Kishline, 43, was driving the wrong way down an interstate freeway near Cle Elum, in central Washington, and smashed head-on into a car, killing Danny Davis, a 38-year-old electrician, and his 12-year-old daughter, LaSchell. Prosecutors said her blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit.
With her plea last week, Ms. Kishline, who is in a treatment program in Oregon, is almost certainly headed to prison when she is sentenced on Aug. 11. The prosecutor is seeking four and a half years, although the maximum penalty is life.
Ms. Kishline declined a request for an interview, but in a statement she made with her lawyer at the Kittitas County Courthouse, she expressed profound remorse and described herself as ''a housewife and mother who woke up in a trauma unit of a hospital on March 25th to find out that I am the cause of the deaths of two innocent people.''
She added: ''I am giving this statement in a public forum because I pray that my story can touch at least one other alcoholic. When I failed at moderation, and then failed at abstinence, I was too full of embarrassment and shame to seek help. In self-pity I gave up and believed my nightly drinking at home could hurt no one but myself.''
Controversial through all the years that she wrote newspaper opinion-page pieces and appeared on television talk shows, Ms. Kishline has again inflamed a debate over moderation versus abstinence by offering her own calamitous story as an example of denial in action. And many of those who debated her in the past have seized on her experience to warn about what they call the delusion behind the idea that alcoholics can be taught to drink without harm.
''This dreadful tragedy might have been avoided if Ms. Kishline had come to this realization earlier,'' said Stacia Murphy, president of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, a nonprofit group based in New York City. ''Unfortunately, the disease of alcoholism, which is characterized by denial, prevented this from occurring. While this does not excuse Ms. Kishline's actions, it provides a harsh lesson for all of society.''
But far from depicting Ms. Kishline as an example of the failures of Moderation Management, people involved with the organization note that she had also tried abstinence and failed. And the worst incident occurred, in her own depiction, after she had joined Alcoholics Anonymous.
''Isn't it ironic that her most extreme case of intoxication came after she quit Moderation Management?'' said Stanton Peele, a board member of Moderation Management who is a psychologist in Morristown, N.J. ''A.A. didn't have the answers for her, either.''
Indeed, despite Ms. Kishline's troubles, the concept of Moderation Management was recently accepted as a treatment technique by the Smithers Addiction Treatment and Research Center in Manhattan.
Officials at Smithers, known for its treatment of celebrities like the baseball player Darryl Strawberry, have decided to adopt Ms. Kishline's program as one approach.
The willingness to try something new has been prompted, in part, by stricter managed care reimbursement standards, which have led to the closure of half of the nation's rehabilitation centers, say officials at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital, which runs Smithers.
Ms. Kishline founded Moderation Management in 1993 and published her book, subtitled ''The Moderation Management Guide for People Who Want to Reduce Their Drinking,'' a year later. An advertisement for the book said: ''Based on her own unsatisfactory experience with abstinence-based programs, Kishline offers inspiration and a step-by-step program to help individuals avoid the kind of drinking that detrimentally affects their lives.''
Her program calls for 30 days of abstinence, and suggests refraining from drinking for at least three days a week. Over all, she wrote, women should not have more than three drinks a day or exceed nine drinks a week; men, she said, should have no more than four drinks a day or 14 drinks a week. Among tips to reduce drinking are alternating alcoholic with nonalcoholic drinks.
Moderation Management, with chapters in 14 states and Canada, describes its aim as helping people who have experienced mild to moderate alcohol problems, but who are not alcoholics, reduce their drinking. The group says moderate drinking is a ''reasonable and attainable recovery goal for problem drinkers.''
Among the group's tenets are: ''Never drive while under the influence of alcohol.''
Alcohol treatment experts have clashed over the moderation approach, with some calling it useful for some kinds of drinkers, while others say it gives alcoholics the false and dangerous hope that they can learn ways to continue drinking.
The group got national attention two years ago when a computer programmer confessed in an Internet chat site for group members that he had killed his 5-year-old daughter by setting his house on fire in a custody dispute with his former wife.
Ms. Kishline cried in court as she pleaded guilty to the vehicular homicide charges. She had also been accused of hit-and-run driving for forcing another vehicle off the highway, but that charge was dropped.
Now she is contemplating writing another book, stressing that moderation is not a viable option for people with serious alcohol problems, said her lawyer, John Crowley.
During the proceeding, grieving relatives of Mr. Davis and his daughter watched, clutching pictures of Mr. Davis and LaSchell, who was killed 10 days after her 12th birthday. And they listened carefully to Ms. Kishline's statement afterward.
''If it helps one person to stop, then go ahead, do it,'' Will Davis, Mr. Davis's brother, said of Ms. Kishline's new message.
''But no matter what she does now, it's not bringing Danny back,'' said another relative, standing nearby. ''It's not bringing LaSchell back.''
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