Clearing through the fog of addiction

In Moments of Clarity, his latest tome on alcohol and drug addiction, author Christopher Kennedy Lawford offers a new, voyeuristic approach to the realities of what can be a dark lifestyle.

Each chapter is devoted to a different addict. Lawford has his subjects discuss that moment when a person opens up to being saved from addiction, when he or she knows there is no turning back. The author sat down with a variety of people, including actors Alec Baldwin, Kelly McGillis, Jamie Lee Curtis, Martin Sheen and Richard Dreyfuss; author and talk show host Greg Berendt (He’s Just Not That Into You); and politicians such as former Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.) and former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.). Cleland’s emotional issue is depression; he has not suffered from the traditional addictions.

Lawford, himself a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, is a first cousin to Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), who wrote the forward to the book. In it, the congressman, who has had a public bout of drug and alcohol addiction, discusses his own “moment of clarity.”

In fact, he admits to more than one.

In his first, he writes, he realized he had a problem he couldn’t manage and sought treatment for it. A few months later, however, came the epiphany. He writes, “I have never experienced anything more frightening than having to admit to myself, my family and the world that I was struggling to stay healthy. … It was a moment of pure fear. But it also was a moment in which I realized that I didn’t have to hide anymore, I didn’t have to try and deny to myself or others that I was suffering from this disease. In front of all those cameras, I took a great step forward in my life, and I shed the burden I had carried for so many years.”

Later he admits, “My capacity for denial had been enormous.”

Kennedy alludes to the incident where he drove intoxicated into the Capitol barricade in the wee hours of the morning, but doesn’t discuss it in specific detail except to say: “I’m not proud about how all this happened. If I were writing the script I would write it differently. But I wouldn’t change the ending.”

Lawford is well-versed in politics. In the recent presidential election he sided with part of his family and supported Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). “Was never a big Hillary fan, not for any particular reason,” he said. “I’m pretty far left. I understand how things work. I want to see change. I want to see radical change. And I felt Obama, outside [Ohio Democratic Rep.] Dennis Kucinich, who would never be elected, was the best hope for that.”

He has visited Capitol Hill numerous times in support of the Kennedy-championed Mental Health Parity Act, which addresses healthcare funding of recovery from addictions, and has spoken openly about his afflictions at press conferences on the Cannon Terrace. His book recently landed on The New York Times best-seller list, where it stayed for three consecutive weeks.

Lawford calls his own recovery “a miracle.” He went to a treatment center in 1979. He got sober in 1986. “I have no illusion that I have changed,” he says in a phone interview from his home in Marina del Rey, Calif. “I basically have that addictive personality.”

His own moment of clarity came in 1986, he says, when he realized he had to change or die. “I awoke with a dread like nothing I have ever felt,” he writes in the book. “The jig was up and the only answer for the pain was to put a gun in my mouth. The problem was I didn’t have a gun.”

These days, the extent of his addictions appears to be minor in comparison. “There is no middle road for me,” says Lawford, who has worked extensively as an actor in Hollywood and is a public advocacy consultant with Caron Treatment Centers. “Lifesavers are a hell of a lot better than heroin. Not many people get 22 years of sobriety.”

Having previously written the best-selling Symptoms of Withdrawal, in which he chronicles his own addictions and childhood, Lawford says he is working on a novel about sex and love. He says it is about “a guy trying to figure out his relationship with women.”

Is it autobiographical? “No comment,” says Lawford, who has three children. “All I can say is all fiction comes out of nonfiction. It’s a novel.”

Aside from writing, Lawford’s great life pursuit is his recovery.

“It’s not something that occupies me on any level, but I am very respectful of the illness that I have,” he says of his addictions. “I have no illusion that if I were to pick up a drink or drug I would come back to where I came from. I love my life today and I don’t want to risk anything I have.”

None of that means he feels completely normal. “I have never felt normal,” he says. “I have always felt a hole. My experience has been dealing with life on life terms [and people who] have spent a good part of life anesthetizing themselves against the slings and arrows of life. Being a human being isn’t an easy thing for any of us.”

Certainly not for Cleland, who fell into a deep depression after losing his Senate seat to Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) in 2002. In Lawford’s book, Cleland says, “When I lost that election in 2002, I went into a massive depression, a deep misery. I had never struggled with my own emotional health. … But that was gone. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t function mentally anymore, and I had always depended on my mind to bail me out.”

Cleland says the loss triggered the initial Vietnam experience of “life blowing up in my face, instantly.” He explains, “The fear is lodged in the base of my brain. My body knows it. I know it.”

Cleland, who lives in Atlanta, says he slowly came out of his depression. He was in Washington last month when new lawmakers were sworn into Congress. “He’s doing great,” Lawford said. “I’m hoping President Obama has something for him to do.”

As for Rep. Kennedy, Lawford says he keeps in close touch. “I have a lot invested in Patrick,” Lawford admits. “His mother got me sober. His mother saved my life.”

He is referring to Joan Kennedy, ex-wife to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). “She introduced me to all the people in Boston in recovery. God bless her, she has never been able to stay sober, but she has helped thousands of people around the world. So obviously him [Patrick] staying sober means a lot to me.”

He repeats the mantra of recovering addicts: “It’s a day at a time. For all of us, it’s a day at a time. This is the tricky thing about being public about it. If you’re out there saying, ‘This thing saved my life’ and the next day you’re drunk, people say it doesn’t work. I have 22 years of sobriety, but I have today.

“I could be drunk tomorrow. God willing, that won’t happen.”