The Kennedy Clan Combats Addiction
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.