The Kennedy Clan Combats Addiction

The Kennedy Clan Combats Addiction

By Susan Cheever 01/09/13

When Christopher Kennedy Lawford and cousin Patrick Kennedy, two ex-addicts from America's most famous family, sit down to discuss Lawford's exhaustive new book about addiction, they aren't afraid to make it personal.

Christopher Kennedy Lawford photo via

Christopher Kennedy Lawford is on a tour to promote a fascinating, perhaps definitive book about the full spectrum of addiction, called Recover to Live: Kick Any Habit, Manage Any Addiction. Joining him is his cousin, Patrick Kennedy, son of Senator Ted Kennedy and a former 16-year Rhode Island congressman who wrote the introduction. Together, Chris and Patrick make a formidable and entertaining pair, and may just be the hottest ticket in addiction advocacy at the moment.

In addition to both being Kennedys, the two share a history of multiple addictions, as well as public and private trauma—family traits that have been well documented and go back in some ways to grandfather Joe's days as a bootlegger. They also embody other Kennedy traits—a fierce commitment to public service, electrifying speaking talents, whip-sharp intelligence, and an absurd share of the world’s good looks. Lawford, the son of actor Peter Lawford and Patricia Kennedy, got sober 25 years ago and has devoted his life to addiction advocacy and education. He has a law degree, a master’s in psychology and is the author of the best-selling memoir, Symptoms of Withdrawal.

Kennedy, like Lawford, writes about addiction from personal experience. In 2006, then Rep. Kennedy famously crashed his car into a barricade on Capitol Hill in the middle of the night. In dealing with the scandal, he acknowledged that he had an addiction to prescription drugs and went for treatment to the Mayo Clinic. After a series of relapses, bad behavior and bad press, Kennedy got sober in February 2010—for what he hopes is the last time.

Recover to Live, Lawford’s third book, is more ambitious than the standard self-help book. He has set out to gather the best thinking and advice of 100 of the world’s addiction experts on the seven deadliest dependencies: alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, hoarding, sex and pornography and nicotine.

Minutes after the two appeared on The Today Show, they joined Fix columnist Susan Cheever for coffee in Manhattan.

Susan Cheever: Why did you write this book?

Christopher Kennedy Lawford: Like many people, I would sit in front of my television a couple of hours a day watching CNN or whatever. Then an ad came on of this guy selling the “Addiction Cure.” It occurred to me that guy was the face of addiction for a lot of people in this country. And he was giving marginal information at best. His purpose is to sell his rehab. I wrote this book so that people will have real, actual information about addiction. They can assess where they are on the continuum and they can do something about it. And all the profits are going to a nonprofit called the Global Recovery Initiative. I’m not going to make a dime.

Patrick, did you have a part in writing the book?

Patrick Kennedy: I did the introductory chapter. And addiction has been the cause of my life. When I was in Congress, I was the author of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, which was signed into law in 2008 by George W. Bush. It means that every insurance plan in the country will now have coverage of some sort. The question is, what kind? The law is five years old, and we are pushing to get a final rule, which will define the scope of coverage.

Can you footnote the relationship between mental illness and addiction?

Kennedy: They are both brain diseases. Many people who have addiction issues also have depression. That is why they get addicted. They are self-medicating. The big thing here is the earlier people experiment with substances, the more likely they are to become addicts. The big push now is prevention. Every parent just dismisses prevention. They say, Well, that is all part of growing up—it’s their rebellion. The prevention strategies we have used do not work, as evidenced by the fact of the escalating rate of use.

The truth is that getting up and talking about being in recovery is not inconsistent with the traditions of AA.

When did you start using?

Lawford: I was a teenager, 13 or 14.

Kennedy: I was 12.


Kennedy: A lot of factors go into creating an addict. You have genetic factors, environmental factors. Trauma is an environmental factor. If you add trauma to genetics—like a parent or a family member having it—you are really creating a perfect storm for addiction to take off. Unfortunately, we do not treat addiction as a physical illness. When we look at people like myself—I was in and out all the time—and ask, “What is wrong with them? Why can't they just decide to give it up?” That is the whole issue of where problem use turns into abuse and then addiction.

Chris’ book identifies how to determine where you fall on that spectrum. It’s such a useful tool. Where we need more hard science and evidence, Chris has assembled the best experts in the field to provide it. And we need to do more. That’s why I started One Mind for Research, which will funnel more research dollars into brain science.

One of the things in Chris’ book that I found very moving was when he talked about the traumas that he suffered both from his parents’ divorce and from the death of his two uncles, JFK and RFK. That is a trauma that you share, right?

Kennedy: Yes. And I had the genetics. In 1969, when I began my drug use, it was an entirely different culture. We didn’t know then what we know today. As a matter of fact, my parents did not have the ability or the information to really intervene in a meaningful way in my using. Things have evolved. Not so long ago, one of my kids presented with an anxiety disorder. Now I know, from this book, that as many as 70% of all people who present with an addiction also have a co-occurring mental illness. To complicate that—and this is where this book is different and new—not only do they present with a co-occurring mental disorder, but they often present with more than one! If you are an alcoholic and you show up at a treatment center, chances are that you might have a food disorder. You might smoke, have a sexual compulsivity or a gambling problem.

Lawford: You asked me why I did this book. There are lots of people in this world who believe in powerlessness and that people cannot really do anything about addiction, whether they are in a 12-step fellowship or not. The truth is that you do manage addiction. If you are in a 12-step fellowship you manage addiction with a 12-step program. That is a management program. I have gotten lots of blowback on this—usually from people who haven’t read the book. Or they’re in the treatment business. Treatment is expensive no matter where you go. It is expensive whether it is inpatient or outpatient.

Except for 12-step groups.

Lawford: I have seven tools, and the second tool is to go to a 12-step program. This book is really about empowering people to look at this thing in a way that is not so scary. I tried for ten years to stop using drugs and alcohol. I tried everything humanly possible, and nothing worked. I didn’t know about mindfulness techniques. I used to lock myself in a room for a week at a time so that I would not use drugs. When I came out, I would see the guys on the corner and that craving would return. I didn’t know there were techniques that might minimize that craving. We have tools now.

Right. The book’s view of 12-step programs is controversial. If you are in a 12-step program, you are told that this is the only thing that works. You are saying yes, it works, but many other things also work.

Lawford: Absolutely. I want to offer an alternative to that dogmatic approach–and the idea that the harm reduction people are fighting with the abstinence people who are fighting with the legalization people. This is meant to be a big tent. Everybody is welcome. Moderation management is in here. It is not up to me to determine what you should do.

You are a recovery activist. Who are your peers?

My dad lived with the trauma of seeing his family members die so violently. That played havoc on his life.

Lawford: Patrick is. Drew Pinsky, on some level. There are lots of people who come at this from different directions. We need all of them. Kevin Sabet, who worked at the Office of National Drug Control Policy, is working on anti-legalization.

Kennedy: Faces and Voices of Recovery is an example of a group that believes its obligation is not just to spread the word but to be good citizens, meaning to make sure that we communicate to our state representatives, our governors and our senators that we are in recovery and we vote. That means we want treatment dollars. We want training. We want screening tools and the mental-health things on the national agenda right now in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings.

I thought you were going to say something wild about anonymity.

Kennedy: I will say something wild about anonymity.

Both of you, together, in unison!

Kennedy: I did not have a choice about it. I was public. I feel like advocacy is part of what I need to do to spread the word. I also talk about my own continued relapsing. I am in the longest period of sobriety I have had in my life. Because I hang around with someone with real long-term sobriety, my cousin Chris, I have a better chance. The key to recovery is how to live life in a new way so that you do not pick up again.

Lawford: Let me say something about advocacy. Bill Wilson testified in front of a Senate subcommittee that AA members should come out and talk about recovery, because they know about recovery. They should not talk about their association with Alcoholics Anonymous, they should talk about recovery. The truth is that getting up and talking about being in recovery is not inconsistent with the traditions of AA.

I would go further.

Lawford: In 1935, when AA was started, there was a lot of stigma. There was a reason to keep AA out of the conversation.

Now there is a public education crisis.

Kennedy: I would honor somebody if they said they did not want to talk about their recovery on a public level because it will interfere with their ability to do that kind of work. I have felt it myself. The guide of the American Psychiatric Association has said that Alcoholics Anonymous is the most significant social invention since Christ. I would not disagree with them in terms of what it has done in the world. I do not want to mess with that at all. But I do not think they are inconsistent.

Chris, another really moving part of book is that picture of your mother. You are dying, at your bottom, and you called your mother, and she goes to you.

Lawford: She did.

And she saves you.

Lawford: She stepped over my body. I couldn’t get up off the floor because I had pleurisy and pneumonia. I was close to dead. What I saw in her face broke my heart. I was incapable of doing it any different. Is that really a choice? No. This is the thing that people have to understand about this disease.

What did you learn from writing this book?

Kennedy: There is a huge information vacuum out there. If you had cancer, asthma or diabetes, you would want clinical trials. We have never made the investment to do that. Why? We are not out there like AIDS activists are. Silence equals death. We are liars and cheaters. We are the lowest end of society, and we are treated as such. Our family members are ashamed of us. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that we can never get out from underneath this stigma. We do not have the money and we do not have the grassroots. We need both. Our advocacy is in church basements, not at the polling booths.

This is one of my arguments about anonymity. We do not have grassroots because we are not allowed to stand up and say, “I am an alcoholic and I went to a meeting this morning.”

Kennedy: The amazing thing is that Chris Lawford is writing the seminal book on screening and calling together the experts. I wrote the law banning discrimination of coverage by insurance companies. We are not top of the class! We have been given a great family name and connections to promote.

Oh come on, you are the top of the class.

Kennedy: Thank you. That was really a way for me to get you to say that. The point is that it is pretty scary that I was the youngest member of Congress, from the smallest state, and in the minority party. I got to be the number one name on the mental health parity bill. Why? No one else was running across the floor to sign onto a bill that they were worried was going to jeopardize their political careers. We have to change the attitude.

Would you guys say that we are misdiagnosing addiction—that instead of diagnosing it by substance we should diagnose it by intensity? In other words, if you stop eating, you start gambling. If you stop gambling, you start drinking.

We are in recovery when we go to the polls and vote. That means we want treatment dollars, training and screening. 

Lawford: It is true. It does not matter how much of what. It is the fact that you are looking to escape. A question Matt Lauer asked me on The Today Show is, "Tell me which drugs you were on and how much you used?" I said, “Matt, what color sneakers I strap on in the morning to run away from my problems is immaterial.” You will use gambling, sex, drugs, alcohol or anything to escape yourself.

Maybe there should not be eight programs.

Lawford: Pat Carnes, a pioneer in the study of addiction, said we are going to have one anonymous group and we can all go there. I think if we can get the food guys to figure it out.

The alcoholics do not want the sex addicts. The sex addicts do not want the fat people. The fat people do not want the potheads.

Lawford: Exactly right.

Can you give me two more minutes to talk about being Kennedys? You guys have done it before. You will have to do it again. Please don’t make me sweat.

Kennedy: I grew up in one of the most well-known families in the country. I thought that everything I saw in my house and that was going on in my life was a big secret. I had to go to a bookstore and peruse my family to figure out that all of these things that I held up as secrets in my life were constantly covered. That’s the thing with this illness: We keep secrets. That keeps us from getting the help we need. I still feel stigmatized. I am the champion of parity and I still feel hesitant to talk about this!

It is a family disease, right? Would you say that the famous Kennedy curse is really just a bunch of alcoholism and addiction?

Kennedy: No, they are talking about the assassinations of my uncles and the violent deaths of so many members of my family at a premature age. That is the Kennedy curse.

Does addiction have anything to do with it?

Kennedy: Not the assassinations, plane crashes or early death. The fact is that as a result of all of that, there has been a lot of trauma in my family. I would not say, even in my dad's case, he could acknowledge that. That played havoc on his life. He lived with the trauma of seeing his family members die so violently. That fed into my life. I protected my dad. I loved my dad. The pain is deep. We find ways of self-medicating, as opposed to talking about the pain.

The other thing I learned is that there are benefits to addiction. In terms the Kennedy legacy, I did not really understand my family's public side until I began this work, and the enormous amount of goodwill that comes back at me just because of where I come from. People listen to me. They talk to me. They trust me. That is a great honor, not for me but where I come from. My father and my uncles were amazing guys. There was no bullshit about the ethics of public service, giving back, and not being self-centered. It was a big messy dysfunctional family that had addiction in it. No question about it. It was also an amazing family.

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.