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Living through recovery: Christopher Kennedy Lawford on addiction

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One might think that being a Kennedy means a life full of leisure and empty of problems. However, one would be wrong.

In his newest book—Recover to Live: Kick Any Habit, Manage Any Addiction—Christopher Kennedy Lawford (who has been a recovering addict for more than 25 years) brings together the world's top experts in seven of the most prevalent addictions to help readers identify dangerous habits and understand self-treatment options. In a comprehensive interview with Windy City Times, the very forthcoming Lawford talks about the book, but also discusses his own life.

Windy City Times: There are so many books on addiction and recovery. What distinguishes this one from the others?

Christopher Kennedy Lawford: There are a couple things. One is that this is the first book that takes all of these toxic compulsions [alcohol abuse, drugs, eating disorders, gambling, hoarding, sex/pornography and smoking] together in a very systematic, individual way—which was actually the reason most publishers declined to publish this book. They said it was too broad, and I didn't want to [narrow things]. Sometimes, an addict will develop an addiction to something else in recovery; so an alcoholic will become a food addict or become a sexual compulsive.

WCT: I thought the interrelationships were pretty interesting.

Christopher Kennedy Lawford: Yes, and this is the first book to do that. Two months after the publishing deal, the American Society of Addiction Medicine came out and said, basically, that there is no difference between alcoholism and gambling; they're all diseases of the brain. They have their own idiosyncrasies but they're brain diseases.

The other thing about the book is that I did this book because I would watch TV and see the guy from Passages come on. He would say alcoholism and drug addiction aren't diseases. His book is basically a driver for his treatment. Now I don't know about his centers, but I also know there are a lot of people selling bullshit—and making money off of it. I have no stake in this book; the money I get from this book goes to the Global Recovery Initiative, which is a nonprofit.

So I think, "This [Passages] guy is the face of addiction." His book isn't half-bad. If he had just said, like I do in my book, that there are 20 million people with drug and alcohol dependency and they have a disease… In addition, there are 60 million people who have a "non-dependent use disorder," who just mess with the stuff but aren't hardcore. There are assessment tools in this book to show where you are in the continuum.

I have a really good brand: I work for the White House, I come from a family that people trust, I have 26 years of recovery. I do have credibility. So I thought, "Why don't I put a book together about what really smart people think [on the topic]?" I went and found the smartest people I could find—100 of them—and I said, "Talk to me." And I'm glad I had Randall Fitzgerald to help me put this book together; otherwise, it would've taken me seven years.

WCT: Regarding your own personal journey, what was your low point?

Christopher Kennedy Lawford: I had a lot of low points. I would say getting arrested in law school for trying to buy heroin in Roxbury [in Boston] was a low point. Being on the front page of the Boston Globe or getting arrested during my Uncle Teddy's presidential campaign [were low points]. I got arrested in Aspen, Colo., for trying to pass a phony prescription on a New Year's Eve. Overdosing three times was another.

The point is none of those was enough to get me to stop—even though I wanted to. This is the interesting thing about addiction. I didn't want to be doing [drugs]. … This is the power of these substances.

WCT: So what compelled you?

Christopher Kennedy Lawford: I started using drugs and alcohol when I was 12 years old. We know today that a kid who has the genetic predisposition to this disease (both of my parents were alcoholics) and who suffer trauma (I witnessed the brutal public murders of two family members, and was the product of divorce)… My friends had been trying to get me to join their LSD-dropping club and I said "no"—until one day, after my Uncle Bobby was shot. I didn't understand at the time that I was scared, angry and looking for a way out. Once I took that drug, I was gone. I kept a resume together and went to school, but I was an addict.

WCT: OK—so what compelled you to stop, with all of those low points?

Christopher Kennedy Lawford: Drugs and alcohol are solutions, and they work. I believe that they actually kept me alive.

WCT: Really?

Christopher Kennedy Lawford: Oh, yeah. You have to understand something: People are treating a condition when they use drugs and alcohol. There is an underlying depression, bipolar disorder, fear—whatever drugs and alcohol work for. These substances are not the problem, but are solutions—but they [eventually] become the problem. They're not the best solutions in the world, but they're solutions. Eventually, it's no fun and you can't walk away.

When it got bad for me, I was at Georgetown University. I wanted to study F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jefferson; I was going to write a book and become president. Then, when I went to school, I moved next door to a commune of heroin addicts. I was then, "Say goodbye to Jefferson. Say hello to cops and doctors."

I tried to do something about my [drug problem] for the next nine years. I saw doctors, I changed grad schools, I changed girlfriends, even tried detoxing. I had gone to 12-step programs, and tried to control [usage]. I didn't understand this was a physical, mental and spiritual disease.

At age 30, I woke up one day and thought I was going to kill myself. At that moment, I achieved a moment of surrender I had never achieved before. It was a moment of clarity. I called a cousin and said, "Tell me what to do." He was actually the last guy I wanted to call; I competed against him my whole life.

By the way, another reason I wrote this book is that it's for people without means; this isn't for someone who's going to spend $30,000 at Betty Ford. There are plenty of people who don't have [that money].

WCT: I think that's part of the reason for a stat in your book: that only one in 10 alcohol or drug abusers ever seeks help.

Christopher Kennedy Lawford: That's right. I wanted not to use drugs more than anything—and I couldn't, although I had all the advantages to do it. I asked the head of the Betty Ford what the outcomes were [for patients], and he said, "A third, a third and a third." I asked, "What does that mean?" He said, "A third die, a third goes round and round, and a third become sober." So your chances are not very good, [although] treatment is getting better. People have to understand that this is a process.

WCT: Does it ever get easier?

Christopher Kennedy Lawford: People ask me, "Do you mind if I drink?" I say, "Do you think for one second I'm thinking about what you're drinking?" I don't think about drugs and alcohol at all. My concern is about living life on life's terms, like every other human being. Today I relish life, but it's hard.

People like me have enormous gifts and capabilities, but we squander them. People out there walking around with beer cans—they're amazing, but they can't live on this plane. Some people have other issues, like poverty and abuse. I was really lucky.

WCT: I was looking at the chapter about self-care tools. Could you talk about mindfulness a little bit?

Christopher Kennedy Lawford: Sure. These are really hard things for me, even in recovery. Mindfulness is just paying attention to what you do. How do you eat? I inhale my food. Concentrating on inhaling and exhaling is mindfulness.

One of the things that mindfulness is good for is cravings. Craving is a reactive state; the connection between the drug and the feeling is so great. Before, I didn't have the mindfulness to breathe [to combat cravings]; being mindful takes some of the power [of the drugs] away.

Sex and food are issues that are parts of life, so they're a bit more challenging; you need sex and you need food. Engaging in the activity can set off cravings, so you have to mindfully relearn your relationship with that behavior or substance.

I hang out with people in recovery, because I like them and we have contacts. But also I feel supported. If I hung out with addicts, I'd eventually do it. It's the nature of being human. We're very influenced by our group.

WCT: Speaking of influences—and I'm thinking of smoking and drinking, in particular—what do you think is the responsibility of companies and marketing?

Christopher Kennedy Lawford: Well, they're doing their job. The question is, as a society, what do we allow our government, because the government is really responsible. I'm not going to allow the industries to self-regulate; industry is about making money. I think it's the government's responsibility, and we have done a good job. At the end of the day, regulation saves lives. Someone's gotta pay for car crashes and tobacco use—which is why I don't think the legalization of marijuana is a good idea.

WCT: I was going to ask you about drug legalization.

Christopher Kennedy Lawford: Well, we have two legal drugs in the world that create most of the problems: alcohol and tobacco. Do we need another one? And if that's not enough, consider that an adolescent's brain isn't fully formed until they're 25. If six kids start smoking marijuana, one will smoke it chronically—and chronic marijuana use obliterates ambition and leads to psychosis, schizophrenia (possibly). Is that something we want to do? And medical marijuana's bullshit because you can get the benefits of THC without smoking it.

I don't think gambling's a good idea to solve our education problem, but those seem to be the best ideas we have: gambling and the legalization of marijuana.

WCT: Is there anything you wanted to say in conclusion?

Christopher Kennedy Lawford: If you're in recovery, I want you to buy this book because we need to talk about this as a public-health issue and talk about the policies around this issue. The only time anybody in the media is interested in this issue is when a celebrity dies or goes crazy. We need to elevate our [recovery] community, and it's a way to be on the way to recovery without spending a lot of money.

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