Singer Judy Collins Discusses Alcoholism and Recovery

Singer Judy Collins.

It was April 1978, and singer Judy Collins hadn’t had an inspirational thought in four years.

She’d been an alcoholic for 23 years — “and I was proud of it.” She’d toured and made records, but she knew the ride she was on — her father had been an alcoholic — and “as long as I was on it, I was going to enjoy every minute.”

But in those last four years, she’d been drinking around the clock. Three-black-outs-a-day drinking. Jelly-jars-full-of-booze drinking. So her accountant and her assistant, the only people who would have anything to do with this version of Judy Collins, put her on a plane to a rehab facility.

“I could barely sing. Or walk,” says Collins, the keynote speaker at a luncheon held this week at Father Martin’s Ashley, the alcohol treatment center in Havre de Grace.

Headed to rehab, she took along a pile of books, a typewriter and a suitcase full of all kinds of pills. She thought she’d read and write. And stay high. It didn’t matter where she was, Collins says, she knew she was going to want to be somewhere else.

An intake nurse at the rehab facility — callled, inexplicably, Chit Chat Farms — took away her books, her typewriter and her pills, and said, softly, “Why don’t you let us drive for a while?”

Collins hasn’t had a drink since that spring 24 years ago, and now the woman with the voice like a crystal bell uses that voice to talk about her recovery and to urge others to seek treatment.

“This illness doesn’t have any favorites. It doesn’t choose rock-and-roll stars,” said the songstress who remembers Janis Joplin, when the two were bingeing together, predicting that one of them wouldn’t make it. Joplin was dead of an overdose two years later.

She always thought she was crazy, Collins said in a telephone interview from her New York apartment. When they told her she was sick, that she had an illness, she was almost relieved.

Collins, 71 and with a mane of white hair, but as trim and fit as a teenage gymnast, was at Father Martin’s Ashley, located on the Chesapeake Bay estate once owned by Maryland Sen. Millard Tydings , for an event paying tribute to California Rep. Mary Bono Mack.

Mack, who described herself as the daughter, widow and mother of addicts, was honored for her campaign against prescription drug abuse, which nearly claimed her son. The audience was made up of women in recovery — alum Lynda Carter, the actress, was there — and their supporters who joined the effort to raise funds for the women’s program at the center.

Women are a different kind of addict, as it turns out. Peter Musser, who supervises the women’s program there, says women will self-medicate to just get numb. It might be serious abuse or neglect that they don’t want to feel. But it can also be an attempt to escape the sometimes crushing stressors of work-dash-life.

“And if she has addiction in her family history,” he said, “it is more likely that the self-medication will become a full-blown addiction. She may be drinking in secret. She may still be able to maintain. But it is insidious.”

It wasn’t insidious for Collins. It was the ’60s, she told listeners, and she was ready to drink everyone under the table. Drugs never caught her fancy. They took time away from her drinking. She talks about her first LSD trip and says that it took her three bottles of Jim Beam to get over it.

Alcoholism is a family disease, of course. Collins inherited it from her father and passed it on to her son, who took his life in 1992 at the age of 33 when he relapsed after seven years of sobriety. Collins is now an advocate for suicide prevention as well. She had tried to take her own life as a teen, and the booze made her suicidal, too. But she was always too drunk to form a plan.

“An alcohol survivor and a suicide survivor,” she tells the listeners. “They do the same thing to you. They ruin your life and they break your heart, and you have to learn to live with both.”

And then, the singer of “Both Sides Now” and “Send in the Clowns” — and the woman who broke Stephen Stills’ heart and inspired “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” — blessed her listeners with another song she made her own: “Amazing Grace.” It seemed so fitting.

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