MILWAUKEE — Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who is running for re-election this year in Wisconsin, opened up Tuesday about her mother's mental illness and prescription drug addiction, in a moment of candor Baldwin hoped would empower others with similar experiences to come forward.
"This epidemic hits close to home for me and for so many others," Baldwin said, sitting across the table from a Milwaukee woman who also told her story of her father's struggles with addiction.
Baldwin, who described herself as a "pretty private person" despite the public life she leads, said staying silent about mental illness and the struggles of drug addiction is no longer an option.
"What good does it do if everyone just keeps their little secrets? How are we going to really understand that this affects all of us?" Baldwin said. "I've seen it over and over again, the power of telling your story."
Baldwin is a major target by Republicans in the November election, with outside groups spending twice as much against her than in any other race in the country. Two Republicans — state Sen. Leah Vukmir and Delafield businessman Kevin Nicholson — are running for a chance to take her on.
Nicholson's spokesman Brandon Moody sent Baldwin well wishes, calling her mother's addiction a tragedy and saying "the opioid epidemic is affecting far too many families in Wisconsin."
Vukmir did not immediately return a message.
Baldwin's Republican critics have hammered her for not responding quickly to reports of over-prescription of opioids and other drugs at the veterans hospital in Tomah that led to three deaths. Baldwin sponsored a bill signed into law to change the way opioids are handed out at facilities for veterans.
She's also been holding discussions with people including law enforcement officials and families torn apart by deaths caused by opioid abuse. But Tuesday marked the first time Baldwin told so much of her family's story.
Baldwin, 56, said she felt compelled to open up after her mother, Pamela Bin-Rella, died at age 75 in August.
"I think she felt a sense of stigma in terms of why wasn't she able to raise her own daughter," Baldwin said. "I wanted to respect her privacy."
Baldwin said she was also moved to talk about her mother's addiction after hearing powerful testimony from people affected by the opioid crisis during a Senate health committee hearing in February.
Baldwin's mother was 19 when she was born and was going through a divorce. While her grandparents raised Baldwin, the senator said she spent Saturdays with her mom at her home in Madison.
Baldwin said she knew as a young child that something was wrong with her mother, but that she didn't know until later she had been prescribed "powerful narcotics" to deal with chronic pain. Baldwin described her as being debilitated, sleeping in bed, while Baldwin was left alone. Later, her mother was diagnosed as bipolar, Baldwin said.
As a child, Baldwin said she wanted to make her mother feel better and worried about whether she would be OK when she left after her weekly visits.
"As a little kid, I felt like I was trying to fix things and I always failed," Baldwin said.
Baldwin said she wishes she could now tell her younger self: "This isn't something you can just come in and fix."
As she got older, there were times she would convince her mother to get treatment. When she was 15, her mother was in recovery and able to go back to school to get her master's degree in family counseling. But Baldwin said in recent years her mother was back in treatment.
"It's a difficult problem," Baldwin said of opioid abuse. "But the more we realize we're all in this together to help the people we love, the better."