Just before former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy delivered the closing speech to attendees of the National Council for Behavioral Health conference, my daughter and I had a warm, light-hearted conversation with him outside the hall about my daughter’s work in peer services in Texas, about her anticipated motherhood, his young children, and about a Texas ranch he visited once that is bigger than the entire state Rhode Island. We stuck around to hear him talk, even though we thought we could probably miss it since it was part of the send-off for attendees going on visits to Capitol Hill and we weren’t going. We were grateful we stayed; here’s why.
Kennedy gave a raw and revealing talk about his mental illness, addiction, and the “God-sized” hole in his soul before his recovery. He said his illness is “bio/psycho/social”, but added that it is also “spiritual.” After achieving successes in his political career—election to the Rhode Island state legislature at 21, Member of Congress at 27, master fundraiser for Democrats—you “would have thought that would have filled the hole in my soul but it didn’t.”
After being arrested “on the high seas, in airports, and by traffic cops,” and being in rehab over and over again, he felt that as long as he was re-elected, he was managing. He was, after all, meeting the family’s definition of success by winning elective office and serving the public.
“Would I have freely chosen to bring such disregard, such disdain, and antipathy for me and bring shame on my family, like I woke up one day and said this is how I want to be perceived — as an alcoholic, drug addict who can’t get his life together? That’s not what I want for my life. And yet it was the inevitable result of me living in my illness and not knowing there was a solution. And of course I was given solutions and pointed to rehab over and over again. You would have thought I would have gotten it through my thick head that I had a problem. But my real problem was denial, thinking that if I could just continue to function and manage—continue to get re-elected—then I must be okay.”
Then three years ago, after crashing into a barrier at the U.S. Capitol, he waited for the “final jackpot.” He woke up, not remembering what had happened the night before. Did he have a Chappaquiddick of his own (a referral to an accident that involved his father, Sen. Edward Kennedy)? Fortunately, the event took place at 3:00 a.m., when the streets and sidewalks, were empty and no one was hurt.