Rep. Kennedy: Addiction 'stigma' fuels mission to help others

In a family whose history is woven into the woodwork of 20th-century American history, Rep. Patrick Kennedy is going against the grain.

In January, the Rhode Island Democrat will retire from the House of Representatives after serving 16 years as congressman for the state’s populous 1st district, stretching from East Providence down to Newport. When he does, it will mark the first time since 1945 no member of the Kennedy family is serving in Congress.

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Kennedy is only 43, and single, and seemed primed for a longer congressional career. While his most recent approval polls were disheartening, he still commands much of the Rhode Island electorate he first won over at just 21 years old. Yet he sounds energized, if also apprehensive, about the coming changes to the youngest member of the Kennedy family ever to win election to Congress — and, notably, the only one to win eight straight elections.

Wearing dark jeans and a light blue shirt under a dark blazer, Kennedy sat down with The Hill in his former Cannon House Office Building quarters to reminisce about what’s behind and what lies ahead. After his father, Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.), death last August, Kennedy waited only five months before announcing his own retirement this past February.

Kennedy doesn’t explicitly rule out another congressional campaign someday, but said for now he’s upbeat about a chance to spend more time on his signature issue — mental health and addiction issues. Kennedy led the fight for the 2008 Mental Health Parity Act, which afforded mental illnesses the same benefits as those provided to bodily health detriments. He has also founded a congressional caucus on the issue of addiction and recovery, and has co-sponsored several House bills on the issue.

Yet Kennedy is equally upfront that the coming month will mean major life changes within himself, most notably surrounding his battle with addiction. Kennedy was honored by addiction and mental health advocates only last week at the Capitol, but he has battled demons in well-publicized contests before: cocaine use as a teenager, other drugs and alcohol during his college years, an infamous night of drinking in Palm Beach, Fla., in 1991 that resulted in his cousin William Kennedy Smith’s rape trial, a prescription drug addiction in 2006 and other subsequent controversies.

Ironically, Kennedy said, it was only when he acknowledged his addiction and faced down the subsequent challenges that he felt worthy as a congressman. In doing so, he said, Rhode Island voters rewarded his candor with full-fledged support that brought him his biggest electoral margins.

“I didn’t hit my stride until my public challenges with addiction and mental health struggles that I’ve had,” Kennedy said. “I got the DUI. I got arrested. It was all over the place. And the irony is, instead of running away from it, I ran toward it in terms of my constituents in Rhode Island, and I talked about it. And it stimulated a dialogue among my constituents that I never could have imagined. Then they would come up to me and tell me not just about their own challenges, but those of their families.”

Kennedy paints a picture of congressional life as too consuming for issues that require specialized attention, such as mental health. While he said he doesn’t yet have a specific job or title to jump to after leaving Congress, he is clearly passionate about the chance to spend more time on the issue of mental health.

He has been well-awarded on the effort — a public service award from the Society for Neuroscience in 2002, a similar award from Eli Lilly in 2003, a president’s award from the American Psychoanalytic Association and an alliance award from the American Psychiatric Association, both in 2003, as well as a mental health award named after the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, also in 2003.

Specifically, Kennedy said he has been discussing with his cousin Caroline the opportunity to mark the May 25, 1961, anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s so-called “Moon Speech” — in which the president pledged that America would put a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s — with a similar pledge to mark a commitment to mental health. He calls it “inner space,” as a pun on the phrase “outer space.”

“It’s a scientific endeavor of equal significance, if not greater, and of equal if not greater complexity,” he said. “I’m telling you, the power of that JFK moniker is all the power you need. And I know it, because I’ve been living with this name for my whole life. I had nothing to do with its creation in terms of its political power, but I’ve sure been witness to it, just by dint of carrying this name. Just by accident of birth.”

Presidential adviser David Axelrod has known Kennedy since 1994, when he was a media representative during the congressman’s inaugural campaign. In an interview with The Hill, Axelrod calls Kennedy “as good a person as you’ll ever meet,” and salutes him for turning his personal challenges into a national advocacy effort.

“Patrick's turned his own struggles into a national campaign on behalf of people with mental illness,” Axelrod told The Hill. “His voice, his passion are hard to ignore. And he has made an enormous difference … Addiction is a lifelong struggle, and it is a challenge about which he'll always have to be vigilant. Because he is a public figure, his battle against drugs and depression have gained a great deal of attention, and brought those issues to the fore.”

Kennedy himself acknowledges his personal demons will make his lifestyle change leaving Congress particularly difficult. He refers to “vulnerabilities” to which he feels susceptible after his father’s death last August.

“I’m approaching a period of enormous transition, and I know from the field of research and the studies that ... life changes like this are enormous stressors, enormous triggers,” he said. “And I’m basically doubling down on my support systems, because frankly I know leaving office is going to trigger a lot of other losses, and particularly a way of life that I lived with my dad my whole life.

“That’s why I’ve tried to keep focused on a few things that will keep me looking forward and keep me focused. But I also know I need to sit with what I’ve gone through. Because I also know enough about this to know it will catch up to you some way or another if you don’t address it and come to grips with it … I’ve got vulnerabilities, and for me to avoid those, I’ve got to be on top of this every day and in front of it.”

Axelrod speaks simply of Kennedy’s retirement, saying Kennedy “made a very healthy decision that after 16 years of all-enveloping service in the House, he wanted the time and space to pursue other things in his life.”

Kennedy describes his battle with addiction as “one day at a time,” and calls his sobriety coach “the most useful person in my life.” Beyond addiction, he said, he plans to keep a single-minded focus on mental health issues. He readily rattles off a long list of mental health advocates to whom he has instant access, as well as a variety of related boards that he has been invited to join.

“I don’t need to hold public office to have a platform,” he said. “Essentially, you know, in this business you’d like a platform where you can continue to be heard, not ignored. But you know what? I’m blessed. Because it’s not like I’m not going to have a place to speak from. And with mental health parity, how many people are privileged to have an issue identified with them?”

Asked about his biggest regret over his 16-year congressional career, Kennedy is equally forthright.

“I live with a stigma of addiction, alcoholism and mental health, and I’m the guy who’s out there trying to knock it down,” Kennedy said. “I feel like I’ve let staff down. I feel like I’ve let supporters down. I feel like I haven’t been the honorable, you know, self-respecting member of Congress that you aspire to be by dint of holding this office. This disease manifests itself as a stigma and it just buries you in terms of your own self-definition.

“The irony is, you couldn’t have more people thanking me for my work surrounding what is my greatest liability. In a way, it’s become my greatest asset.”