A different recovery act

Rep. Mary Bono Mack had to do what no mother ever wants to do. She kicked her son out of her house.

Bono Mack’s teenage son Chesare had just gotten out of the Betty Ford Center for treatment for an addiction to prescription painkillers. He relapsed shortly thereafter.

“That was the time I had to let him hit bottom,” the California Republican said in an interview in her Capitol Hill office. “That was when I had to kick him out of the house and say, ‘You know, it’s time for you to go.’ ”

Bono Mack’s story has a positive ending — Chesare returned to a rehabilitation program and has been sober since August 2007.

Now the two have decided that they have no choice but to share their struggles so that, in the future, others won’t have to.

In the past six months, Bono Mack and her son have talked to People magazine and several national news networks about their experience with prescription drug abuse, getting the word out to general audiences about The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, the Ford center and other resources that helped them begin recovery. Bono Mack now wants to incorporate this work into her daily life as a lawmaker, with the twin hopes of toppling the stigma she sees as a hurdle to advancements in drug-abuse prevention and recovery and reaching out to colleagues who might share her experience.

“I am the first person on the Hill that I know of saying, ‘I’m not the addict or the alcoholic, but I have a form of the disease in codependency,’ ” she said, “and I have had to manage that as well as people have had to manage their addictions.”

If anybody were a natural to take the lead on this issue on Capitol Hill, it would be Bono Mack. Her son’s addiction to painkillers is the congresswoman’s most recent experience as a codependent, but not her only one. She grew up in an alcoholic family, and has previously talked about her mother’s drinking. And after the freak 1998 skiing accident that killed former GOP Rep. Sonny Bono (Calif.), her first husband, she said that she believed a drug addiction played a role.

“I’ve been around addiction my entire life,” she said.

Bono Mack now sees an opportunity to combine her personal experience with drug abuse with her position as a legislator to raise the profile of the discussion around treatment.

“I have found in Washington that there are the issues that you do, and then there are the issues that you are,” she said. “And for me, this is one of the issues that I am.”

In spite of her deep personal connection to the issue, Bono Mack has begun to take a headier legislator’s view of prescription drug abuse among teens. With healthcare reform gaining steam, she sees an opportunity to promote preventive policies — like overall health and wellness for children — but also to get more people involved in discussing solutions.

“If you have enough bright minds looking at an issue from enough different angles, you generally come up with a great idea,” she said.

At least one VIP has noticed Bono Mack’s interest in combating drug abuse. She said President Obama brought the subject up with her when she was at the White House last week for a meeting on healthcare reform.

“When the president repeats back to you what your interest is,” she said, “you know you’re getting through.”

She has another strong ally in Betty Ford. The Betty Ford Center is in Bono Mack’s district, and Betty Ford recently agreed to become the honorary chairwoman for the congresswoman’s 2010 reelection campaign.

Yet Bono Mack sees a great deal of work ahead. She applauds Obama’s selection for drug czar but thinks the government needs to launch a fresh public awareness campaign to include prescription drugs.

“I think [the] ‘Just Say No’ [campaign] way back when was a great starting point,” she said. “It needs to be updated. Kids need to learn that it’s not just street drugs, it’s not just meth.”

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to progress on this issue, Bono Mack said, is the stigma attached to drug abuse. The congresswoman remembers getting a phone call in her office a couple of years ago, when steroids was a hot topic on Capitol Hill. On the other end of the line was an angry parent who disagreed with Bono Mack’s questioning in a hearing about how steroid use among professional athletes was affecting high school students.

“ ‘Do you want me to go ahead and tell everybody your son is a drug addict?’ ” she recalled the parent saying to her — “as if this was some terrible thing that I should be very, very embarrassed about.

“It was a hurtful thing to hear,” Bono Mack said.

One of the congresswoman’s mantras about drug abuse is that nearly everyone has been touched by it in some way. Members of Congress are no exception, she says, and now she hopes to help her colleagues who might be going through similar situations in their own families.

“We go home to our districts and are battling getting reelected and all sorts of work-related issues, and sometimes we have these issues that members are dealing with,” she said.

Her desire to take a public role in drug-abuse prevention and recovery is “to some degree to be a support for anybody who’s going through this.”

That has already happened. Bono Mack has begun speaking at conferences and events related to the issue. She told her story at the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America’s conference in March, and this month she received an award for her work from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. In June she is scheduled to speak at the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare’s Hill Day.

“If I could do a speech a day on this topic, I would be happy,” Bono Mack said.

Feedback has been strong.

“A lot of what I’m getting is, ‘Thank you for talking about it,’ ” she said. “Some of what I’m getting is, ‘Help — what do I do?’ ”

The way forward is unclear. Bono Mack hopes party politics won’t come into play on this issue but recognizes that “you run into ideologies and philosophies on all sorts of different angles” on Capitol Hill. Bono Mack, who is a vice chairwoman of Congress’s Addiction, Treatment and Recovery Caucus, already has spoken to several other lawmakers about joining her on this issue and reports that she’s gotten a positive response.

“I hope members of Congress do tune into this and use the bully pulpit of our positions to speak up about this and let people know that it’s OK to get help,” said Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), a child psychologist by training. He and Bono Mack have discussed how Congress can address prescription drug abuse.

“We should just throw off the party mantles and really see how we can reach families,” he said, “because the cost to families is just too great.”

As for her family, Bono Mack says she and Chesare are in a good place. He turned 21 in April, and the two spent Mother’s Day together along with her daughter Chianna and their half-sister Chastity.

“It was a great Mother’s Day weekend,” she said. She and Chesare talked on the phone two days later, she said, and he told her, “Mom, when I had to leave, I actually had a tear in my eye.”

Bono Mack’s response was simple.

“Gosh, thank you.”