Christopher Kennedy Lawford on Sobriety, Writing, and Relationships

By David Konow 12/02/16

The core issue for most people with a substance abuse problem is their inability to function in relationships.

Christopher Kennedy Lawford
One size never fits all with addiction. via Facebook

When Christopher Kennedy Lawford decided to write his memoir, Symptoms of Withdrawal, which was published in 2005, it wasn’t a heavy-handed warning against substance abuse or a nasty tell-all. Lawford told the truth about his life growing up in a famous political/Hollywood family (his father was actor Peter Lawford, and his mother was Patricia Kennedy), but he told the tale with class and wit, providing a fresh point of view on his family and his journey to sobriety.

Peter Lawford was an infamous addict who died in 1984 at the age of 64, looking old beyond his years. It’s also no big secret that alcoholism runs deep in the Kennedy clan, and his mother struggled with drinking as well. But Christopher looked at his addiction as a gift, even writing in Symptoms, ”If I could change anything in life, being an addict would not be one of them. Whatever wisdom I have gained has come as a result of my struggle with addiction.” Lawford finally cleaned up his act in 1986, and he’s been sober ever since.

Symptoms was a best-seller, and it lead to more books including Moments of Clarity, another best-seller, and his latest, When Your Partner Has an Addiction, which he co-wrote with psychotherapist and author Beverly Engel.

Lawford didn’t know that penning his memoirs would lead to a new career as an author, and much like sobriety is one day at a time, his path as a writer was one book at a time.

“At first I didn’t really like writing at all,” he tells The Fix. “I had to write a lot in school, but it was always something I had to do. I didn’t have a love for it until I wrote my memoir. I think that during that whole process, it was kind of a channeling experience. It was very cathartic, and something I had to do. What came back to me from the world was this enormous avalanche of need and opportunity to do more of it.”

With addiction, there are many pieces of the puzzle that need to be solved, and anyone covering the subject can always find plenty of angles within the disease to write about. “One size never fit all with this,” Lawford says. “It’s all personal. Addiction is filled with nuance, and it’s filled with individuality. That all needs to be addressed in order for it to work.”

An unexpected gift that came with writing about addiction is that it has kept Lawford in touch with his recovery, and deepened his understanding of the disease. In What Addicts Know, Lawford’s follow-up to Symptoms, he says, “I was able to inventory my recovery and write down all the things that have been beneficial to me. In that process, I realized a lot of the nuances, and I put that out into the world as a book that illuminated what I had been doing all these years. I didn’t think that writing would inform my recovery that much, although it absolutely has.”

In writing When Your Partner Has an Addiction, Lawford and his co-author Engel examine the role codependence plays in addiction, and it’s been a stubborn part of recovery for Lawford to work on as well.

“I think that, in my own experience, this has probably been the toughest piece of recovery to really get,” Lawford says. “The core issue for most people with a substance abuse problem is their inability to function in relationships. The disease itself thrives on isolation. Once you get into recovery, figuring that piece out is very, very challenging. It’s only now that we’re beginning to understand the relationships between these things. There’s a lot of nuance, and there’s a lot of experience that has to already happen in order for someone to understand this issue. In early recovery, you’re just hanging on, trying not to go crazy and use. After you hit 10 years, 15 years, whatever, you may be in a position to deal with some of this stuff.”

Lawford says that in working with Engel, “She brought a wealth of clinical experience to it that I didn’t have. I also had my personal journey at the time in my own relationship. I’ve matured in a way, and I don’t know how much of that maturation was instigated by this book, but I don’t believe in random connections. I believe that everything is connected and purposeful in this way, and I’ve grown greatly in the last two years in regards to this issue.

“Since I was 18 years old, I’ve never been alone for longer than two-and-a-half months. I needed to be in a relationship to feel okay, a woman took the pain away for me, and that’s not a good motivation for entering into a partnership. At 60 years old I finally dealt with that, which is really great. I wish it hadn’t taken that long, but there’s some people that never deal with that, ever.”

When Your Partner Has an Addiction also takes a different approach to codependent relationships. Instead of cutting a partner off, this book shows that a couple can get help, recover together, and potentially recover faster. And indeed, the subtitle of the book is, “How Compassion Can Transform Your Relationship (and Heal You Both in the Process).”

“We’re getting evidence now that people develop at a greater rate in relationships than they do outside of relationships if the relationship is healthy,” Lawford says. “A person needs to examine what kind of relationship they’re in, and how healthy it is. If there’s an active addiction in the relationship, or if there’s two people that are codependent, it has to be examined and worked on. We know that these things can work, they’re very challenging, and you don’t have to do it. You can make the choice that you don’t want this amount of work and effort in your life, and if there’s a piece of it that’s dangerous, then that’s a serious consideration. But if you want to do it, if you love the person, there is evidence now that people that stay in these relationships and work on this stuff together get better quicker.”

Engel’s been doing this approach clinically, and as Lawford continues, “There are others that have been doing this clinically as well. There are twelve-step groups like Codependents Anonymous that say you don’t have to leave, you just have to do what is right for you. And if you love the person and want to stay in the marriage for whatever reason, it’s possible to do that. The criteria there is not necessarily that the person stops using, it’s that the person enters some modality of treatment and that you do it together. You have your combined treatment, and you have your own treatment if you want it to work.”

Much like Engel and Lawford’s book take a new approach to codependence, Lawford feels that approaches to treatment have made big progress since he first got sober 30 years ago. He says today, “When I started this advocacy, basically recovery was you went to treatment, you left, they gave you a big book of Alcoholics Anonymous or a 12-step meeting list and said, ‘See you later.’ Nobody that provides good treatment does that now. What people are beginning to realize is that the recovery piece of it has to be as robust as the treatment part of it. This whole field is going to look a lot different in 10 years, and we’re already on the move. We’re getting a better understanding with the brain science, we’re understanding how the brain works much better when it comes to addiction, the pharmacology is getting way better. I think it’s evolving tremendously.”

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In addition to contributing for The Fix, David Konow has also written for Esquire, Deadline, LA Weekly, Village Voice, The Wrap, and many other publications and websites. He is also the author of the three decade history of heavy metal, Bang Your Head (Three Rivers Press), and the horror film history Reel Terror (St Martins Press). Find David on LinkedIn and Facebook.