Given every noxious substance he’s forced into his body, Christopher Kennedy Lawford ought to be dead. So why isn’t he?
“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask God that,” he tells me. “Because, truly, I died basically four times and I should be dead. That’s what happens a lot. My father died of it. My cousin David died of it. I believe their deaths are what ultimately got me sober—and keep me sober today.”
“It” is addiction to drugs and alcohol, two of the seven “toxic compulsions”—including eating disorders, smoking, gambling, hoarding, and obsession with sex and porn—that this Kennedy cousin covers in his latest book, Recover to Live: Kick Any Habit, Manage Any Addiction.
“Behavior is really hard to change, so pick the hills you want to die on,” Lawford advises as his cousin and fellow addict, former Rhode Island congressman Patrick Kennedy, listens over breakfast in a Manhattan hotel dining room. “I have issues with food, no question about it. I inhale my food. It’s not healthy, not good, on a variety of levels. But how much harm is it creating? Not that much … I think with all these things, people have to give themselves a break. It’s a process. It took me 10 years to get sober.”
The winding road to sobriety began at Georgetown University in Washington. “I went there to study F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and I moved in next door to a commune of heroin addicts,” Lawford says. “That was the end of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and the start of a lot of cops and doctors and emergency rooms. So at that moment, I called a doctor I’d seen in Boston and said, ‘I’m in trouble. What do I do? Give me something to make me feel better.’”
As Lawford recounted seven years ago in his brutally honest, bestselling memoir, Symptoms of Withdrawal, it was the April 1984 fatal overdose of his best friend and cousin, David Kennedy, third son of the assassinated New York senator Robert F. Kennedy, followed by the Christmas Eve death of Christopher’s actor father, Peter Lawford, after decades of drug and alcohol abuse, that prompted him finally to seek help.
That book about Chris’s life in America’s royal family caused a bit of consternation among some of his relatives whose mantra was not only “Kennedys don’t cry” but also “Kennedys don’t dish.” But Chris mainly dished about himself. The gregarious Patrick, who retired from the House of Representatives after eight terms, heartbroken over the August 2009 death of his father, Ted, the liberal lion of the Senate, explains: “In our family we always felt like everything was a secret. And then all you needed to do was go to the nearest bookstore and realize that all the things you thought were a family secret are well published.”
“By somebody else!” Chris chimes in.
“This is the elephant in the room in everybody’s life—and they keep it a secret,” Patrick says about addiction. “Part of the disease is that it’s a secret. It isn’t being treated as a physical illness. If you kept cancer a secret or AIDS a secret or diabetes a secret, you’d die. And that’s what’s happening to people with these [addictive] diseases.”
Patrick muses: “It took me leaving Congress to have the chance of having the most uninterrupted period of sobriety. I went in and out of rehab centers my whole life.”
During Tuesday night’s New York book party (at which Chris got choked up when he declared that Patrick’s dad “was my hero”), the former congressman elaborated: “I’ve lived my life on a merry-go-round, as have many of us who’ve lived in the throes of addiction … I needed to hold public office to know that I was doing something in my life, that I was successful. I had to go to the voters every two years, and they told me, ‘No, Patrick, you’re all right. We’ll give you 70 percent of the vote, even though you got arrested for a DUI last year. You’re still on top. ’… But the great thing with Chris is he’s shown me you can still be all right and not have a big title. And you can still make a difference.”
At the end of February, Patrick will mark two years—730 days—of freedom from drugs and alcohol. In March he and his wife, Amy, will celebrate their second wedding anniversary and, in April, the first birthday of their son, Owen. “I got married first and then had the baby,” says the 45-year-old Patrick, formerly a wild bachelor. “In my old life, that may not have happened in the order that it did.”
Chris and Patrick share a laugh. Nearly 58—“I say I’m 55; nobody checks, so people are just going to believe me,” the former actor admits—Chris has been clean for 26 years. The son of Patricia Kennedy, one of President Kennedy’s younger sisters, and the British-born matinee idol who was a member of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, Chris looks pretty damned good for a guy who started using drugs and alcohol at age 12, dropped acid every weekend in the eighth grade, and spent the next 15 years snorting, injecting, and ingesting every conceivable brain-twisting poison, landing himself in the hospital—or jail—multiple times. A divorced father of three, he somehow managed to cheat death and not only obtain a law degree from Boston College, but also a master’s in clinical psychology from Harvard.
Pausing over his egg-white and goat-cheese omelet, Chris summons the mortifying memory of lying paralyzed on the floor of his Manhattan apartment, overdosed on heroin, and phoning his mother, herself an alcoholic, to come save him. (Even in his drug-induced miasma, he figured he didn’t want to dial 911, lest his desperate plight result in lurid headlines about another fallen Kennedy.)
“It’s also the horror of having your mother come and having to step over your body because you can’t move—and for her to call 911,” he says. “To see the terror and the disappointment and the sadness on her face. I can’t imagine what it must be like for a parent to watch their kid die of this … My parents didn’t know what to do with this illness. They wanted to help me—my mother did, anyway—but she was not really capable of dealing with it, nor did she ever get any information about it.” (Pat Lawford suffered from tongue cancer and died of pneumonia in 2006.)
Today Chris is slim and fit, but there was a time, when he was living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and enrolled in an inner-city methadone maintenance program to get himself off heroin, when he ballooned to 250 pounds due an overpowering sugar craving.
“I lived on 84th and Amsterdam, and I went into every bodega and shopping center within 10 blocks that had Brussels cookies and Reggie Bars,” Chris recounts. “That was all I ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
“What’s a Reggie Bar?” Patrick asks.
“It was named for Reggie Jackson”—the famed 1970s-era Yankee slugger. “It was this giant round patty of chocolate, nuts, and caramel.” There’s a yearning in Chris’s voice. “In recovery, you get to be conscious about the things you put in your body, about the behaviors you engage in. All of these things are manageable.”
Chris’s book—which he researched and wrote with the help of journalist Randall Fitzgerald—is a user-friendly roadmap of dependency and treatment, and relies on interviews with more than 100 experts to argue that while addiction manifests itself in a wide variety of harmful behaviors, from hoarding to anorexia, the root cause is similar: a physiological glitch in the human brain.
At the same time, Chris argues, addictions often go hand in hand with insight, brilliance, and even genius. “People go, ‘God, wouldn’t Bill Clinton have been great without Monica Lewinsky?’” Chris says, citing the popular notion that the 42nd president was a sex addict. “The point is, Bill Clinton wouldn’t have been Bill Clinton without Monica Lewinsky.” He adds: “Neville Chamberlain, as far as we know, was a relatively normal guy who didn’t have all these problems and didn’t understand Adolf Hitler. It took a depressed alcoholic [Winston Churchill] to really get how dangerous Hitler was.”
As the Obama White House considers the writing of various regulations to guide the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, Chris and Patrick have teamed up to lobby for the inclusion of addiction-recovery treatment as part of basic health-care coverage. They are trying to encourage a grass-roots effort among the country’s tens of millions of recovering addicts. “There are people who are affected by this disease and care about it,” Patrick says, “but they’re not vocal because of the shame and stigma of declaring yourself as someone in recovery.”
In the meantime, with the help of a network of recovering addicts, Chris Lawford is keeping a close watch on himself.
“I sit down with journalists all the time, and they ask, ‘Do you mind if I drink?’” he says. “Let me tell you something. If I minded if you drank, I would have killed myself years ago. Because I’m not thinking about what you’re drinking. I haven’t thought about using a drink or a drug. But that doesn’t mean I won’t one day, and it doesn’t mean I might not be drunk tomorrow. One day, I may just say, ‘The hell with it,’ and go do whatever I want to do. I hope not. But this is a brain illness. It’s also a chronic condition that I have to manage a day at a time—until the day I die.”