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The Simple Truth of Mary Kennedy's Suicide

Another tragedy befell the Kennedy family with the suicide last week of RFK Jr.'s wife. The media may be dwelling on the "Kennedy Curse," but the curse in this case is all too common.

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Robert, Jr., and children at Mary's casket photo via

By Susan Cheever

05/21/12

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At first, the Mary Richardson Kennedy story seemed like the same old tragic same old. Yes, she had it all: the handsome husband whose family was American royalty; the four beautiful children the house surrounded by woods and lawns in Westchester’s horse country. But in the kind of reverse Cinderella, riches-to-rags story the media loves, it turned out that even all those wonderful things were not enough to make the 52-year-old Mary Kennedy want to stay alive. Let’s pray that her soul rests in peace while her story continues to whirl through the tabloids and gossip magazines like a dervish of confusion and obfuscation even after her star-studded funeral on Saturday. (The Richardson family holds its own separate services today.)

Every suicide has its own specific causes, the chain of events that leads up to a moment when life becomes unbearable, but Kennedy’s is less a mystery than many. Alcoholism, especially coupled with chronic depression, is a fatal disease that requires treatment. Why is that so difficult to understand?

There had been plenty of unhappy moments in Kennedy’s recent years. She had twice been arrested for driving under the influence—once for alcohol and once for prescription drugs. Her husband, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., had separated from her and was suing her for custody of their children, a particularly frightening and shameful attack for any mother, let alone one who lived in the public eye. Her husband was also being photographed dating perky blond television star Cheryl Hines. American Express was after her for unpaid bills. Her lovely house had been the setting of terrible scenes; her husband had called the police to intervene in an argument he said was started by her crazy behavior. Once, when he was driving her to Northern Westchester Hospital for psychiatric observation, he reported, she had tried to jump out of the moving car. Her husband’s sister Kerry, who had been her best friend since childhood, said she was sometimes paralyzed with depression. There had reportedly been other suicide attempts. Mary Kennedy was so desperate that she even tried going to Alcoholics Anonymous.

When an alcoholic is a "dual diagnosis" and famous, we skip over the real cause—alcoholism—and revel in the delicious circumstances of their downfall. 

By focusing on these and other painful details of Kennedy’s life that the media has so voraciously hunted down, we can distract ourselves from the simple truth: Most suicides are drug and alcohol related. Mary Kennedy was an alcoholic and probably a drug addict, with the common complication of depression. (Counselors call this a dual diagnosis.) She had a disease; she needed treatment. Like a majority of people who have a dual diagnosis, she apparently didn’t get treatment for any of her problems.

When someone has a disease like diabetes that is not socially stigmatized, we focus on their lifestyle choices and we send them to a doctor. When someone has cancer—which was once so frightening as to be almost unmentionable—we immediately talk about where they should be treated and choosing among the medical options. The diagnosis is discussed with sympathy. But when someone has alcoholism, suffers from depression and is suicidal, especially when that person is privileged or famous, we skip over the real cause of their actions—the disease of alcoholism—and revel in the delicious circumstances of their downfall. This is even more true if they actually take their life—in Mary Kennedy’s case, by hanging herself in the barn on her estate. And of course our endless fascination with the Kennedys and their so-called curse—alcoholism runs in families—only further stokes the fire.

Kennedy seems to have followed the heartbreakingly predictable path of millions of alcoholics. At first alcohol works beautifully. Bill Wilson, the cofounder of AA, wrote that when he had his first drink, he thought he had found the elixir of life. With a drink, depression seems to lift; the anxious become relaxed, the shy become social, the uptight become expansive and funny. My father handed me my first real drink, a cool gin and tonic on a hot summer day. Within a few swallows, my perspective did a wonderful somersault: I went from being an unpopular loser to being a glamorous literary princess leading an adventurous life. Needless to say, I had another drink.

But inevitably alcohol turns on you. “Alcohol gave me wings to fly/and then it took away the sky,” they say. Slowly but progressively, drinking stops being the magnificent solution and becomes the deadly problem. (As a depressant, it is especially dangerous for someone who is depressed.) For an alcoholic this is a frightening and confusing process. The drinks that used to make everything possible stop working. As with all addictions, seem necessary for even normal functioning. After 30 years of using alcohol to solve my problems, I was so depressed that I did not see how I could continue living. I had a glamorous husband and beautiful children, but alcohol had turned on me. Through a series of miraculous accidents, I got treatment for my disease. Mary Kennedy was not so lucky.

Mary Kennedy reportedly went to AA and got sober for a while. But somehow the 12 Steps and the meetings didn’t take.

I am still amazed at how many people misunderstand alcoholism. The press often reports it as a loss of self-control, and many people I talk to agree. If the alcoholic isn’t drunk, they seem to think, there is no problem. But an alcoholic is impaired all the time. It takes days for alcohol to clear the system; the damage to the brain can take months to heal and the psychological wounds much longer.

Mary Kennedy reportedly went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and got sober for a while—ironically she lived in Bedford, New York, just a few miles from Stepping Stones in nearby Bedford Hills, where Bill Wilson spent his last 30 years. But somehow the 12 Steps and the meetings didn’t take. Perhaps like many alcoholics, she needed to spend a few months in rehab. Sometimes, especially with a dual diagnosis, a second course of treatment is required. (At the funeral on Saturday, Kerry Kennedy told to the New York Daily Newsthat Mary Kennedy had gone to AA, had been sober for the past five months and had been seeing doctors who were trying to get her on a psychiatric medication combination that worked. These new details made Mary Kennedy's problems appear better managed by all concerned, thereby only deepening the confusion and obfuscation surrounding her suicide.) 

What remains the real mystery is the fact that someone with the brains, money and resources to have the best treatment available somehow missed getting it. Certainly living in a culture where alcoholism is still thought to be a shameful loss of control didn’t help. When are we going to take this disease seriously?

In the past few decades we have made dramatic strides in the way our culture treats once-stigmatized issues. For example, we know now that smoking is unhealthy and we have banned it in many places. We know now that sexual orientations are as natural and various as eye color, and this recognition has resulted in a huge increase in tolerance. But we don’t seem to get it when it comes to alcoholism and addiction. Why not?

Susan Cheever, a regular columnist for The Fix, is the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous. 

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