Christopher Kennedy Lawford is 26 years clean. Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) has hit the two-year mark. Both men are serious about their recoveries from drugs and alcohol. Both believe strongly in 12-step programs. Lawford, a big gum chewer and the UN’s Goodwill Ambassador for the Office on Drugs & Crime, has written a few books on the subject, including a memoir. Now he has a comprehensive guide to addiction and recovery called Recover to Live: Kick Any Habit, Manage Any Addiction. Lawford is the author; Kennedy wrote the foreward. They will appear together tonight at Politics & Prose at 7 p.m. to discuss the book. They insist the book is part of a preventative outlook in the next wave of the recovery movement. So not only is it meant for those who might be addicts; it’s for their family members and friends as well and anyone who might be headed down a destructive path. FishbowlDC sat down with the Kennedy cousins Thursday afternoon at the stylish Hotel Helix in northwest Washington for a candid discussion. Lawford’s next proposed book: What Addicts Know: 10 Lessons From Recovery to Benefit Everyone.
(For the purposes of the interview, Christopher Kennedy Lawford will be CKL and Patrick Kennedy will be PK.)
FBDC: With all the books already out there on addiction and recovery, including your own, why the need for a new one?
CKL: Well, first of all, I wanted to publish a book that was accessible, complete. In other words, that dealt with all the manifestations of this illness and I wanted it to be the most credible in terms of the information in it. I watch television and see people selling rehab and books that are less than credible. I felt I was in a unique position as a UN Ambassador and a person with this illness and my legacy because people trust my family not only to access the best and brightest, but to put together a book well. [I imagine they think], if he did this and those people were in it, it must be legitimate. It doesn’t have an agenda where I am selling one thing over another. We have to come together as a big tent and put our differences aside.
PK: I started One Mind For Research to do the same thing when we passed the Mental Health Parity Act. In other words, bring people together on the same sheet of music. It talks about he phenomenon of addiction — sex, food, hoarding, alcohol. Today there is still a notion that these are separate diseases. What Chris addresses is the fundamental commonality, that recovery can also be viewed in the same way. We can take lessons learned.
CKL: It was difficult to sell this book because of the broadness of it. All the majors passed. I went to a small publisher. Two months after I started writing this book, the American Society of Addiction Medicine redefined addiction as a brain illness.
FBDC: What are your thoughts on Alcoholics Anonymous?
CKL: The thing about this book is it’s not written just for addicts, it’s written for addicts, for family members, for friends, for friends, for everybody. If you want to know about 12 step, I like 12 step programs. They’ve had a profound effect on the world since 1935. I’m a big fan. I think they are misunderstood by a lot of people. There’s a lot of resistance to 12 steps. It’s unfounded fear in my opinion. This book seems to demystify and explain. Yes, I do go to 12 step programs. I believe in keeping that anonymous.
PK: The main basis for 12 steps is cognitive behavioral therapy. In layman’s terms, you treat this chronic illness as a common illness, taking all the steps to prevent it. Just like I have asthma, I treat it everyday. I find 12 step meetings the center of my recovery because they, in my view, address the illness of alcoholism as a threefold illness — a physical allergy, a mental obsession and a spiritual malady. This is a complex kind of illness but it’s solution, as far as my experience has shown me, is basic if you know that you’ve got to address all three of those aspects. You need to change the way you live. It allows you to reorient yourself every day to the new life you’ve decided to live for yourself.
FBDC: Did you ever worry about your anonymity being broken in meetings or the things you might say reported to the press?
PK: I worried about that when I was in Congress, and then I realized when I didn’t treat my disease, everyone found out anyway because I was loud and obnoxious and a mess and seen at a Capitol Hill bar. It was shaming and disheartening to me. What’s the worst that could happen, someone says I was trying to treat my disease by going to a meeting? The benefit of having a cousin with 26 years of sobriety is not only has Chris been there and done that, but he also shares a lot of my family story. He is absolutely someone I can confide in.
FBDC: Can people really distinguish between good and bad recovery programs?
CKL: This is not only a book about good information. People can assess where they are problematically. Nobody is going to pick up this book because they’re having a good time out there. There are seven tools to help them get to recovery. Not everyone has $30,000 to get into treatment. Good outpatient can cost 5 to 10 thousand.
PK: People Google. You can’t determine the good from the bad often times. There’s no consumer reporters. There’s no way to discern. There’s a vacuum in mental health because of that. Books like this begin to set the standard. It identifies who the thought leaders are and what they have to say. You can now be a more discerning recoverer [sic] and not wait. The key to mental health in the future is intervention and not letting people get into full disease mode.
Do you think people are born addicts?
PK: I think people, like in every other physical illness, there is genetic and environmental. Now with the human gene we can see who is predisposed to certain illness and then you can begin to adopt behaviors and action to preclude you from pulling the trigger on those genetic trip wires. We do know that when you take a genetic predisposition, you add trauma and you surround someone with family members and friends who are addict users, you pretty much have a perfect storm for developing the disease. Chris talks about protective factors – art, music, supportive parents. You can become an addict with no predisposition.
CKL: There’s one gene that determines whether you are lactose intolerant We have markers as Patrick says. From my own experience, both my parents had this illness. There was an acceptance about this kind of behavior. I was 12, and I still resisted it. My friends were trying to get me to use drugs for months. In 1968 my Uncle Bobby was assassinated.. That’s trauma. Two months later I was asked again by these friends and I said yes. People use these substances to medicate underlying causes and conditions. I think the reason why people throw their hands up around addiction because there’s no easy fix here.
FBDC: Do you feel that Washington politics and media is a difficult environment in which to get and stay sober?
PK: I’ve had the longest period of sobriety since I left Congress. If you’re living in an environment that is stress-filled it makes it difficult to get into a new routine.
(Discussion led to the movie Flight and Denzel Washington’s role in the movie as a pilot and addict. Both men saw and loved the movie. Patrick says he had major deja vu watching Denzel’s hotel room scene where he relapses just before court.)
CKL: The truth is, addicts are pretty extraordinary people. They’re often times medicating something if they learn how to deal with it can lead to extraordinary things in the essence of who they are. That’s what you often find with people who are dealing with these illnesses. You root for him [Denzel] and then you also really don’t like him. We present really badly. We’re exasperating, we’re frustrating, arrogant and talented and wasteful. It’s a mental illness. Even me. I’ve been in this for 26 years. People are relapsing and I start sounding like Nancy Reagan. I know you can’t just say no. I don’t know why some people stay sober and other people don’t. If we knew better we might not be so frustrated by this illness.
PK: The future of this is prevention. Nine out of 10 addicts started when they were teenagers. You’ve gotta help kids with coping mechanisms, with anxiety. You can inoculate them. We don’t want to wait until they are out in the street or in the emergency rooms. It’s destructive and costly on society.
What about the Internet? Do you think that has become addictive too?
CKL: If I’m unplugged for a period of time, I go nuts. Being connected feeds into some of my stuff. I definitely notice that I have a proclivity to a dependance in this way. My phone, technology, it affects my mood if it’s not available. I know enough to know that that the initial feeling state will pass. It’s like a craving. Craving is hard for everything.
PK: I say I’m in recovery and that includes recovery from being wired for a public life my whole life. I no longer have a staff. No one is returning my phone calls. I’m waiting in grocery line like everyone else. I lived in a bubble. But the tools I was developing also serve me in every other aspect of life. That’s why people say they are gratefully recovering alcoholics. Life is lifey [sic] and it gets stressful and you deal with all of it. You feel the little things so much more. You start feeling the other things that much more acutely. Your sensitivities are heightened, sharpened. You’re not unconscious to what’s happening to you. I’m relieved to be coming up on two years of continuous sobriety. I’m relieved to have a life partner that is the best person I could have met and the mother of my children. The other day, peering through the shower curtain as I took my shower was my 9-month-old son. And I thought, I’m the luckiest person I know.
FBDC to Christopher: I hope this is not too awkward to answer, but do you ever worry that Patrick will relapse?
CKL: Whether you have 26 years or two years, this is a day at a time. I don’t take it for granted for me or with him. I check on him. The first thing I say is, are you still sober? This is not a foregone conclusion for me or for him. You can have family that will live with this in its horror or fullness and not say anything. People ask me all the time, do you mind if I drink? I’m 26 years into this. If I minded, I would have killed myself 26 years ago. Absolutely we watch each others backs.