Patrick J. Kennedy knows unequivocally that it is a miracle he is still alive.
The 48-year-old son of the late Sen. Edward "Ted" Kennedy was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and social anxiety in his teens. For more than 20 years, he self-medicated with alcohol and a litany of prescription painkillers, and was in and out of treatment programs — always in secrecy — before he'd play the system and start abusing again.
Today, the former U.S. Representative from Rhode Island is a family man and public speaker, devoting his life to fighting for equality in care and coverage for those facing mental illness or addictions.
Kennedy will be at Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis at 7 p.m. Tuesday to talk about his new book — "A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through The Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction" — and his new life.
He talked with us about the toughest years of his life, his family's reaction to his raw and honest book, the joy his children provide to him on a daily basis, and his devotion to a few Minnesotans who helped to change the trajectory of his life.
Q: Most families have a loved one facing mental health issues. And, yet, here we are in 2015 still fighting for mental health parity. Are you optimistic that we are, in fact, making progress?
A: We are in the battle. A lot of people pay lip service to this as a disease. We get anemic policy proposals from our leadership and we're supposed to be happy. If this were any other illness, like diabetes or cancer, we'd be declaring it a public health epidemic.
Q: Why do you think most people are still reticent to talk openly about mental illness?
A: It's such a threat to who we are as people. When we're perceived to not have control over our actions, it's terrifying. No one wants to get close to that. The paradox is that, by avoiding helping ourselves and others become mentally well, we actually are becoming what we fear becoming.
Q: After every mass shooting, a discussion of mental illness comes up. Is there misinformation you'd like to clear up about gun violence and mental illness?
A: The way the media covers these issues perpetuates the mythology and stigma and prejudice.
Most people with mental illness are not violent. More than twice as many people die by suicide each year than by homicide, and that's probably undercounted. Read the obituaries about a young person who "died unexpectedly" or "died suddenly." Those are the telltale signs.
Until we get over the shame that we feel around these issues, we'll never be able to expect policymakers to act differently.
Q: Many families are fully aware and engaged, but still are devastated that they couldn't stop just such a tragedy. What do you say to them?
A: The reason I'm telling this story now is because, with the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (which passed in 2008 and is starting to be implemented), it is illegal to cover mental illnesses and addiction any differently than any other medical conditions.
Eight years ago, people would say, "That's fine, Patrick. Your family can afford the treatment." And they'd have a point. But today under the law, their insurance is required to provide the whole spectrum of services in the same way they would if you had diabetes or asthma. I understand that the system has not built out the infrastructure to make good on that law, but the only way for us to make that happen is to enforce that law.
We can't just have more anti-stigma candlelight marches. We have to tell our attorneys general and our insurers that they have a responsibility to protect us. Our brothers and sisters are dying because they're not getting the treatment they need.
Q: You write that you "grew up among people who were geniuses at not talking about things." I think that is true for many families. How do we get the conversations started?
A: We have to internalize how life and death this is. By living in the darkness and keeping these secrets, there is a price to pay. It's corrosive to every single person in the family when they deny the illness of their loved one. It's a family illness. No one escapes being impacted in the most profound way. You don't have to force a conversation. You just have to be open to the moment when that conversation is possible. And you have to not let that conversation pass you by.
Q: How were you able to recall so many details from those addicted years?
A: Living a public life meant that I had a lot of things that were on the record, such as my medical history, all my doctors' notes, therapist and psychiatrist's notes. I met with all my providers and asked them to provide me with my notes. Also, serving for 16 years in Congress, I had a computerized schedule. I periodically kept a journal and correspondences that I threw into a box. You add all that together and it provides a pretty full picture. Stephen [co-author Stephen Fried] did a terrific job of weaving it all together.
Q: Minnesota and Minnesotans have been good to you. You did four stays at the Mayo Clinic. You knew the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, who co-sponsored the Mental Health Parity Amendment. Jim Ramstad is a father figure in your life.
A: I was next-door neighbors to Paul in an apartment called Justice Court. You can't make this up. I used to see him practically every day. We'd walk together in the morning or the late evening. Obviously, he was a hero of mine. My ultimate question is, What would Paul Wellstone do? He would not be sitting down while this [mental health disparity] was happening. That's for sure.
Jim? I can't say anything except that Jim was all heart. All heart. He went to court with me. He was a witness for me, in terms of lending his power and credibility to me as a fellow suffering alcoholic, standing with me as the world's press corps was interrogating me on my DWI, and then personally introducing me to his network of friends in recovery.
Q: Some of your family members are not happy with the book. How are you dealing with that?
A: It's difficult. My in-laws love the book. My wife, who is not accustomed to all this attention, married me and she's stood by me. It's a very hopeful thing. I want to live in this new space. That doesn't happen without throwing yourself over the wall. This book is throwing my life into a new place and now I have to catch that and live in a new space.
Q: Your relationship with your father was complex and painful, but ultimately redemptive. What did you learn from him that you hope to instill in your children?
A: I naturally grab my children and kiss them every moment of the day. I read them stories and they sit on my lap. No matter what important e-mail or phone call I have to return, when I am with them, I focus on them. I turn my phone off. I don't look away. I have to say I give my dad a great deal of credit for giving me this internal guidebook on how vital is it to physically embrace your children.
Q: You left congress in 2011, are happily married with three young children and another on the way. You are founder of the Kennedy Forum, which is dedicated to mental health issues. You're four-and-a-half years sober. How did you get here?
A: I think that God was with me all along. I mean, there is no way I could have planned this life to work out the way it did. Today, I try to align myself with that plan by getting out of the way and trying to do the next right thing.
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