I had the opportunity to spend several hours with Patrick Kennedy in the late ’90s, when he represented Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Rev. James Miller, then executive director of the R.I. State Council of Churches, and I were in Washington, D.C., as guests of Kennedy at the annual National Prayer Breakfast. Both Miller and I were pleasantly surprised that our representative chose to spend a considerable amount of time with us: the breakfast itself, a brisk winter’s walk from the hotel to Capitol Hill, a conversation in his office followed by a gracious lunch in the Congressional Dining Room.
At the time Kennedy seemed so energetic, so attentive, bombarding us with probing and perceptive questions. Until I read his recently published book,
“A Common Struggle,” co-written with Stephen Fried (New York: Blue Rider Press, 2015), I could not have imagined that even as he was playing the perfect host, he was battling inner demons that were threatening to destroy him. “A Common Struggle” is an outpouring of years of personal anguish, a detailed account of his ongoing struggle with mental illness and addiction. From early on, Kennedy was a “vulnerable child,” suffering from debilitating asthma. As he moved into the teenage years, he developed an anxiety disorder coupled with bipolar II disorder, a form of bipolar disease in which the patient cycles rapidly between deep depression and a mania that falls short of florid psychosis – a mania that in some working environments can be productive. In addition, Kennedy became a binge drinker and addicted to opiates. A classic case of co-morbidity.
What impresses me about Kennedy’s book is his uncompromising honesty, his determination to break the silence about mental illness and addiction. As he tells the reader, “I grew up among people who were geniuses at not talking about things,” despite the fact that both his parents had what he describes as “mental health issues.” His mother Joan was a diagnosed alcoholic. According to Patrick, his father Ted suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder along with an unacknowledged drinking problem. Patrick emphasizes that “[o]ur secrets are our most formidable adversaries.”
As many Rhode Islanders will remember, Patrick Kennedy went into the “family business” of politics when he was a very young man; he was only 21 when he ran for a seat in the Rhode Island House back in 1988, winning the election by only 315 votes. Six years later, he won election as U.S. Representative to our state’s 1st Congressional District at the ripe old age of 27.
Looking back, Kennedy admits that his early political success was a cover for a host of inner insecurities: “I was trying to recreate my insides by recreating my outside – getting my life validated on the surface while minimizing the confusion of my inner life.”
Throughout his career in the U.S. House, from 1995 to 2011, Kennedy continued to be politically successful – winning eight successive elections. He was increasingly a prisoner of himself; his inner life was unraveling, becoming ever more chaotic. By late 2004, he admits to taking 15 to 20 drinks per evening. When he checked into the Mayo Clinic for the second time in eight months just after Christmas of that year, he was taking as many as 50 pills and puffs per day: Lithium carbonate, Lamictal, Prozac, Wellbutrin, Buprenorphine, Docusate, Clonazepam, Ambien, Caffeine tablets, Alka Seltzer, Ibuprofen, Proventil HFA, Advair, Singulair, Intal inhaler!!
Despite his inner turmoil, Kennedy continued to represent his Rhode Island district until January 2011. He worked tirelessly to ensure passage of the 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act – his most significant legislative accomplishment. From the time he entered political life, Kennedy demanded that those suffering from mental illness and addiction receive insurance benefits comparable to those with “purely” physical maladies – a fight for legislative parity fueled by his own personal struggles.
On March 31, 2010, Kennedy met Amy Savell, a middle school history teacher in New Jersey, and married her on July 15, 2011, about six months after he retired from elective office. The couple are raising their two young children, Owen and Nora, in addition to their daughter Harper from Amy's first marriage.
Fortunately, for all who have benefited from his efforts to break the silence, he continues to be an energetic advocate for a host of issues regarding mental health and addiction. His work with One Mind and the Kennedy Forum are but two examples of his ongoing commitment. At 48, Kennedy should look forward to many productive years ahead.
Though the title of his book is “A Common Struggle,” it seems to me that Kennedy’s struggle with mental illness and addiction has been anything but common. Though in many ways a child of privilege, he has had to bear the burden of being a member of the closely scrutinized Kennedy family, which has played a unique role in American political life. His identity has been informed by an intense vulnerability that comes from being a very public person doing battle with a very private – at times invisible to the onlooker – combination of illnesses.
Shortly after his father Ted’s funeral, Patrick received a condolence note from Minnesota’s Sen. Al Franken, which read in part: “I’ve decided that your vulnerability is a gift to the nation. I mean that in the most heartfelt way. You are a courageous man.”
Indeed, a profile in courage.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.