Ted Kennedy Was Not an Alcoholic

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Ted Kennedy Was Not an Alcoholic

By Stanton Peele 10/11/15

Was the Lion of the Senate, Ted Kennedy, a lifelong alcoholic? His two sons disagree. Why is that?

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Patrick Kennedy, former congressman, now a mental health and addiction advocate, claims his family hid his famous father’s alcoholism.

Speaking in advance of the release of his memoir: A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction, Patrick Kennedy recounted his parent’s alcohol problems on 60 Minutes, along with his own mental disorders and addictions.  

Joan Kennedy’s problems with alcohol are well known. She was frequently in rehab and, after repeated DUIs, in 2004, her son Ted Jr. was made Joan's legal guardian. 

Patrick actually declined at one key point on 60 Minutes to say that his father was an alcoholic, although he wrote that Ted suffered from “disabling alcoholism.” Kennedy claimed on television that his father drank to medicate himself: "My father went on in silent desperation for much of his life, self-medicating and unwittingly passing his unprocessed trauma onto my sister, brother and me.”

But did Ted Sr. meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder? There have been critiques since the newest edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual, DSM-5, was released in 2013 that it’s too broadly inclusive. This charge is linked to the classification of “mild,” “moderate,” and “severe” alcohol and substance use disorders. 

What is a “mild” alcohol use disorder, or AUD? Any AUD is a serious problem defined by life disturbances—health, work and family, craving and preoccupation. Drinking must disrupt the person’s life to register as a disorder in DSM-5. To be diagnosed, a person must demonstrate “impairment” and “distress.” The popular label, “high-functioning alcoholic,” makes little sense in terms of the psychiatric manual.

Ted Kennedy was recognized as perhaps the most effective United States Senator ever, the author with his staff of thousands of bills, often in collaboration with Republican colleagues, over 300 of which became laws. He was called the "Lion of the Senate,” and became a symbol of liberal activism. His tenure was the third longest in Senate history, lasting almost a half-century.  

Ted Kennedy did have serious problems earlier in life—notably, in 1969, when he drove his car into the ocean channel at Chappaquiddick, causing the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. Yet few doubt that Ted Kennedy had stabilized his life, particularly after his second marriage. He never entered rehab or joined AA.

Patrick reports that he and his brother and sister confronted Ted about his alcoholism, but that their father refused to listen.  As a result—as indicated in his quote above—Patrick blames his father for his own alcoholism and addictions to medications like Oxycontin and Ambien.

But, Ted Kennedy Jr., Patrick’s older brother and the one who has assumed guardianship of their mother, differs significantly from his brother in his view of their family: 

I am heartbroken that Patrick has chosen to write what is an inaccurate and unfair portrayal of our family. My brother's recollections of family events and particularly our parents are quite different from my own. 

Our father was a man with an extraordinary capacity for empathy and intimacy who cherished many lifelong friendships; my dad and I shared a deep, emotional bond. 

Ted Jr. seemingly points out that Ted Sr. did not meet the criteria for inclusion in DSM-5. He was not an isolated and bitter person, as Patrick indicates, according to Ted Jr. and many friends and colleagues. Ted Jr. apparently had a better relationship with his father than did Patrick. Family differences like that can happen, and can cause one child distress and impairment, as they may have done for Patrick. I cannot gainsay Patrick’s experience.

Ted Kennedy, Jr. remains a political figure, serving in the Connecticut Senate. Patrick meanwhile has retired from politics in order to present the view that addiction and mental illness, both of which he has announced that he suffers from, are brain diseases. In fact, Kennedy has been presenting this position publicly for many years. His message is thus that he inherited his disorders from his parents, at the same time that he says that his father’s denial traumatized him and caused his problems.

Patrick explains to his own children that they have a genetic susceptibility to addiction. He often sounds religious when making the disease case in line with his adherence to the 12 step, powerlessness philosophy: “Life isn't really in our control. There's a mover in the universe, a higher power, so to speak, and we can't imagine what we're going to find in our universe if we let go and just let God lead us.''

As I described in my last article, addiction-as-disease advocates are the fiercest opponents of marijuana legalization. For his part, Kennedy has joined forces with anti-marijuana absolutist Kevin Sabet to create Smart Approaches to Marijuana—or Project SAM. Kennedy had this description read into the Congressional Record:

Patrick Kennedy has been outspoken in his efforts to fight the marijuana legalization movement. He has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. He has bared his own struggles with addiction, offering himself up as a cautionary tale about the dangers of becoming addicted to marijuana and other substances. And he has broken with many in his party by speaking out against the President's permissive attitude toward marijuana use and the Obama administration's failure to enforce the Controlled Substances Act.

Yes, that means Kennedy wants you to go to prison if you smoke marijuana: “Incarceration is a powerful motivator,” Kennedy says, referring to his own probation after his late-night, intoxicated crash into a DC traffic barrier in 2006, which drove him into recovery, along with his receiving treatment at the Mayo Clinic (he had been in rehab previously).

Faced with the opposition of his closest family members, Patrick, of course, accuses them of continuing to practice either denial, or else that they are kowtowing to the stigma surrounding mental illness and addiction: “This is like breaking the family code here. I am now outside the family line.”

His mother has disputed Patrick’s claim that he consulted with her in writing his memoir. Speaking through a friend, she said that Patrick never spoke with her about the book: “I had no knowledge that Patrick was writing a book and did not assist him in the project in any way. I was not given a copy of the book and have still not seen it or read it.”

While we may be tempted to discount Joan’s account of her own experience, given her drinking history, it is good to consider Ted Jr.’s perspective on his mother’s claims to her own integrity: “I strongly believe that her story is hers and hers alone to tell.” Don’t recovery specialists believe that every individual should confront their own addictive demons?  

Of course, we may ask, is Ted Jr. himself in denial? Is he an alcoholic or does he suffer from mental disorders, due to the genetic inheritance and/or trauma of their upbringing that Patrick is at pains to point out? For what it is worth, Ted Jr. is a highly successful attorney, and he has had no public substance-related incidents.  

Nonetheless, Patrick is accusing Ted Jr. and other family members of denying reality and maintaining the family’s secrets. Ironically, Patrick’s behavior recalls the DSM-5 criterion, “causing trouble with your family or friends.”

For his part, Ted Jr. describes having had an entirely different family experience and relationship with his father than the one Patrick describes, one that left him more psychologically whole. Is that possible? If it is, does that mean that addiction and mental illness are not inherited and/or family-trauma-inspired diseases, the position Patrick is publicly promoting?

Ted Jr. faces a substantial PR obstacle to surmount, as do others (like myself) who oppose the disease model, and who find it harmful rather than helpful. For instance, does Patrick’s reiterating to his children their genetic inheritance and vulnerability make it more likely that they will become addicted themselves, rather than guarding them from their supposed inheritance?

Or must we accept Patrick’s views of his family, since he has suffered from addiction himself?

Finally, we may ask, does Patrick reflect the openness, healing and respect for the others in his family that he now demands on his own behalf? Some, including his brother, instead find Patrick shrill, self-centered, and closed off to other perspectives. And this view of Patrick’s positions may also hold for drug policy reformers and disease-theory critics.

Stanton Peele, Ph.D., is the author of Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict. He is the recipient of career achievement awards from the Center for Alcohol Studies and the Drug Policy Alliance. His Life Process Program for treating addiction is available online. He last wrote about Carly Fiorina.

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