20 Questions: Christopher Kennedy Lawford

This week 20Questions chats with Christopher Kennedy Lawford, cousin to Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) and nephew to President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). Lawford visits Capitol Hill today to discuss his experiences with hepatitis C and the importance of a public health response to the disease. Five years ago, Lawford was diagnosed with hepatitis C. He received treatment and is considered cured. He lives in Los Angeles.

You’ve been to Washington a lot lately, for addiction-related press conferences, the Capitol File after-party in conjunction with the White House Correspondents’ dinner, and now as spokesman for hepatitis C. Is Washington becoming home away from home for you?

Well, I love going to Washington. But I wouldn’t want to work there, it’s not a home away from home. It’s one of my homes away, unfortunately.

When were you first diagnosed?
In 2001, I was getting a physical. My doctor told me he was going to test me for HIV and hepatitis C. I told him not to bother. He did it anyway. He called me two weeks later and said, “I have good news and bad news.” He said, “You are not HIV-positive, but you have hepatitis C.”

How did you even know to be checked, since it’s a silent disease? You had no symptoms, right?
No, no symptoms. I was tired. It’s a pretty asymptomatic sickness. Fatigue is the major symptom. Most people in their 40s who are working [and have] children are tired. I had been exposed to one of the major risk exposures.

What were you exposed to?
I used drugs when I was younger, both IV and inhalant. But it was in my distant past — 20 years earlier. I had no idea that something I’d done 20 years earlier could come back to threaten my life.

What kind of drugs did you use?
I used pretty much all kinds. I started using drugs when I was 13 and stopped when I was 30 — IV drugs, inhalants, cocaine. All addicts are running away from something, they just use different-colored sneakers. And I pretty much used every colored sneaker in the closet.

Did the diagnosis frighten you?
I was shocked and pretty afraid. There’s a lot of misinformation out there.

How are you related to the Kennedys?
My mom, Patricia, was a sister of John F. Kennedy, Robert and Ted Kennedy. She was the sixth child of Joseph and Rose, my grandparents.

How’s your acting career going?
It’s good. It’s hard to be an actor and a busy advocate at the same time. I did a movie last summer called “Slip Stream” that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s in theaters in September [and stars] Anthony Hopkins and Christian Slater. I wrote a book, Symptoms of Withdrawal, a couple of years ago. Right now I’m writing Moments of Clarity, about spiritual epiphanies that allow people to move from addiction to recovery. I’m interviewing 50 well-known people who have had that experience.

Will Patrick Kennedy be one of those 50 people?
He will be.

Do you play a role in your cousin Patrick’s recovery?
I love Patrick and I support him in his work on [mental health] parity legislation whenever I can. I prefer Patrick’s bill to the Senate bill because it doesn’t allow the insurance companies to reveal what the mental illness is. I am a friend to him and we walk this path together. I do cherish my relationship with him.

Do you ever worry about him?
No, he’s doing great. This is an illness that is contingent on spiritual recovery daily and working a program daily. I have been doing it for 21 years. He has been doing it for a year. I worry as much for him as I worry about all alcoholics and addicts who are struggling.  

What kind of advice to offer to people about hepatitis C?
The reason I’m coming to Washington is because I’m supporting my uncle Ted’s bill, the Hepatitis Control and Prevention Act. The biggest thing about it is if you have exposure to one of the major risk factors, there’s a risk you might have this illness, so you ought to get tested. This is the largest blood-borne illness in the country.

Once you have it, do you always have it or do you take medication and everything is OK?
You need to see a liver specialist about getting treated. There is good treatment out there. I did the treatment. I had genotype 2. Just next week we’re going to release a study that basically says if you’ve been virus-free for five years, we consider that a cure.

Have you been virus-free?
I have been virus free for five years, so I consider myself cured.

So good news, yes?
Very good news.

Do you still have to take medication?

No, not at all. You take it for six or 11 months and if it works for you, you’re done.

Is it hard to be a spokesman for this cause because it forces you to reveal your own experiences?
That’s the good part. Look, I have credibility with this thing because I had it. I can talk about my own experience. I can also talk about the legislation. It’s a blessing to have your own personal experience to come from.

Would you ever consider running for office yourself?

A lot of people ask me that now because I spend a lot of time on the road, giving speeches on a lot of different things. I have a strong ethic in my life of public service. I like trying to effect change. [But] the political process right now seems so difficult and not what I would want. There’s too much money in it and too much scrutiny. People are not allowed to be who they really are.

But all your shortcomings are already out there.

Absolutely. You still have to be careful what you say and how you say it. I’m not good at that. [Pauses.] Well, I am good at it. I think we need fewer focus groups and polls. We’re missing a real connection between the people and their leadership. If I ever did, I would let it all hang out.

So you’re not ruling it out.
Not ruling it out, no.

Are you supporting anyone in the presidential election?
Not yet. I am a third-party guy. I get mad when I see people hedging their true selves and true positions to get elected. I love [Rep.] Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), you know what I mean? I love Dennis, he’s great. He’s never in a million years going to get elected. I want to see the Democrats win, so I’ll support the nominee.