Christopher Kennedy Lawford describes himself as the product of an “addictive perfect storm.”
The eldest child and only son of Patricia Kennedy (sister of slain President John F. Kennedy) and actor Peter Lawford, the 60-year-old says addiction runs in both sides of his family. He’ll talk about his battles and his sobriety at the O’Brien House breakfast fundraiser on Wednesday, Sept. 30.
Lawford was only 8 when his uncle, President Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. In 1968, another uncle, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated in Los Angeles.
“We had to relive those events over and over,” says Lawford on a call from his home in Hawaii. “That’s brutal PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) by the way.”
“In 1969, when it began for me, we had an entirely different culture,” he says of his first foray with drugs. “It was a time of experimentation, permissiveness and, frankly, ignorance of what this disease is. I remember doing cocaine because everyone said it wasn’t addictive.”
Over the years, people tried to help Lawford but intervention was unheard of back then.
“If it had been, I would have been OK,” he adds. “Now, we’re free to talk about it and act, to help determine whether someone’s life is a tragedy or success.”
In 1984, Lawford’s cousin, David Kennedy, who also battled substance abuse issues and with whom Lawford had a close relationship, died of a drug overdose. David’s death prompted Lawford to seek professional help for his issues.
“I’m in recovery now for 30 years,” says Lawford, who had a 15-year career as an actor (including three years on the hit soap opera “All My Children”), lawyer, executive and producer. “For about 20 of those, I was anonymous, speaking in church basements and other 12-step programs. In 2005, I wrote a book, ‘Symptoms of Withdrawal,’ a New York Times bestseller. There was such an avalanche of response that I began speaking publicly … It was important for me to give back, to be a part of the solution.”
That response led to his second book, “Moment of Clarity: Voices From the Front Lines of Addiction & Recovery,” another New York Times bestseller. It’s a collection of stories from 44 people who share the spiritual epiphanies that enabled them to move from addiction to recovery.
“Addiction costs this country $500 billion a year,” says Lawford. “It’s the No. 1 public health issue.”
So what do we do?
“I don’t know,” says Lawford frankly. “I believe the recovery community is really going to have to effect change. We can’t expect government to deal with this. If we want to get a handle on addiction, we have to make a serious commitment. We don’t have the money or the focus right now, but I believe it will happen in increments.
“It’s a really complicated problem,” he continues. “Can we (government) actually make a difference? Yes, but we have to change the focus from source eradication to one of treatment, prevention and education. Those are things that will make a difference.”
Lawford is starting to investigate other opportunities. He’s letting cousin Patrick Kennedy, founder of the Kennedy Forum, which unites the mental health community, and co-founder One Mind for Research, whose mission is to track research in traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress, take the spotlight in speaking out on addiction and mental health. Both are taking part in UNITE To Face Addiction in Washington, D.C., Oct. 4. Organized by an independent coalition of national, state and local nonprofit organizations, the mission is to “produce a collaborative and unifying event to collectively raise awareness and reduce the human and social costs of addiction.”
“We know addiction and mental health issues run in families … those who know best about this issue are the ones who’ll drive the conversation toward a solution,” says Lawford, who plans to continue sharing his story. “I enjoy speaking and writing and I have a brand that people trust.”