Patrick Kennedy opens up about addiction, pushes for mental health reform

Story highlights

  • Patrick Kennedy is a former congressman
  • He is on a mission for mental health reform

The Axe Files, featuring David Axelrod, is a podcast distributed by CNN and produced at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. The author works at the institute.

Chicago (CNN)Once a rising star of America's most prominent political family, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy left politics behind to focus on combating his drug and alcohol addiction and bipolar disorder. Now sober, healthy and happy, Kennedy is pushing for changes to mental health care and telling the story of his own high-profile battle.

"OxyContin was what I used for years, but I'm an addict so it doesn't matter what it is. I used benzodiazepines, alcohol, stimulants, Adderall, cocaine, you name it," Kennedy told David Axelrod on "The Axe Files," a podcast produced by CNN and the University of Chicago Institute of Politics.
    Despite the help of congressional colleagues who saved him from embarrassment and a staff that kept his office ticking when he was at "half steam," Kennedy still found himself in trouble, even crashing his car into a Capitol Hill barrier.
    Patrick Kennedy appears on TV in 2015.
    "I was arrested in the airport in (Los Angeles). I was arrested by the Coast Guard. The accident in 2006 (on Capitol Hill), I was arrested by Capitol police. I had plenty of ... signs that I needed help, but then of course ... you don't talk about these things," he said. "I was able to write my own personal narrative, but also highlight what's wrong with our health care system, which is that we look at this as a series of acute episodic situations, as opposed to something that needs to be treated on a chronic disease basis."
    After the death of his father, Sen. Ted Kennedy, in 2009, followed by his own retirement in 2011 after eight terms in Congress, Patrick Kennedy finally had the chance to step back and look at his childhood and the problems that ultimately plagued him as an adult.
    "I'd been charging along my whole life," he said. "Elected to the [Rhode Island] Statehouse at 21, to the Congress at 27, (congressional) leadership at 31. You know, it wasn't until I had a few years of continuous sobriety after I left Congress and was writing my book that I began to connect some dots and get some perspective."
    "Growing up in my family is obviously all I knew, so it was normal. But if you get a little separation from it, you're able to begin to identify what is normal and what isn't normal," he said. "I grew up and totally kind of dismissed the enormous impact that all this tragedy that my father had experienced, both my parents had experienced, my whole family had experienced. (It) was just kind of a constant backdrop to everything that was going on in our lives, but one that wasn't spoken about."
    "Until I wrote my book I didn't really think about the bulletproof vest in our family closet. I didn't think about the folks that were constantly rushing over and had guns just because of the worry that my father's life was always in jeopardy. I didn't really stop to consider how many times my mother, who had suffered really debilitating alcoholism and depression ... would come through the house while we were entertaining guests who were the luminaries of the day and no one would say anything," he said.
    He added: "Those are memories that were normal to me and when I began to piece through my background and how it was that I ended up having that same debilitating addiction alcoholism and mood disorder, I needed to kind of trace this without feeling as if I was whining."
    While Kennedy acknowledges that he "ruffled some feathers" with that book, "The Common Struggle," criticized by his older brother as an "inaccurate and unfair portrayal," he stands by his account.
    "It's that family ethos of you have to be quiet about this. And it's that family ethos that kept us all ill. This has affected my brother and sister and it may, David, affect our children if I'm not on it. This is generational, so there is a gnawing pathology to the silence of not acknowledging what is so devastatingly hurtful," he said.
    To hear the whole interview with Kennedy, which also touched on Patrick's current work leading the Kennedy Forum and how the country's mental health care system needs to change, click on http://podcast.cnn.com.
    To get "The Axe Files" podcast every week, subscribe at http://itunes.com/theaxefiles.