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Patrick Kennedy discusses leaving Congress after 16 years

The senior congressman from Rhode Island is retiring at the end of his term and ready to open up about the decision to leave the family business.

"He's bared his soul to the whole country," says former congressman Jim Ramstad, a Minnesota Republican and recovering alcoholic who became Kennedy's Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. "Were President Kennedy to write a sequel to 'Profiles in Courage,' his nephew Patrick would occupy a full chapter -- no question."

The 2008 Mental Health Parity Act, which mandated that health insurance plans cover mental illness like they cover physical illness, is Patrick Kennedy's greatest legislative achievement. His father helped secure passage in the Senate, but Patrick's openness about his own battles helped pull back the veil of shame.

"Just in the last few years, I have begun to see the stigma lift a little bit," says Rosalynn Carter, the former first lady and longtime advocate on mental health issues. Adds David Wellstone, son of the late senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, another advocate:

"The air that we breathe with respect to those issues has been changed because of Patrick Kennedy -- not his family, but him."

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By leaving politics, Kennedy is free to discover who he is and what his place is in this world.

"We grew up in a family where there was very little tolerance for self-exploration," says a cousin, Christopher Kennedy Lawford. "I think now he has this freedom . . . to do some real exploration of who he is and what he wants to do in his lifetime. That's a valiant exploration, and a needed one.

"Gandhi," he adds, "said the man who conquers himself is greater than the man who conquers 10,000 armies."

Patrick Joseph Kennedy II was 2 when his father drove off a bridge in Chappaquiddick, Mass., and the young woman traveling in that car drowned. He was 6 when his big brother, Ted Jr., had part of his leg amputated because of bone cancer. He was 11 when his parents separated; his mother, Joan, was a chronic alcoholic, she acknowledged.

As a child, Patrick Kennedy suffered asthma attacks at night, and it was his father, friends say, who rushed him to the hospital and learned to give him injections. A poster of a grumpy nurse with a gigantic needle signed "To Dad, my night nurse. Love, Patrick" hung on the wall of Ted Kennedy's private Senate office for years.

Kennedy says he contemplated his decision to give up his House seat for a year. He didn't immediately confide in his dad, the man he calls his closest confidant and political guide. Then, last summer, his father asked Patrick to clear his schedule. Ted Kennedy was dying, and he wanted his youngest to join siblings Ted Jr. and Kara at Hyannis Port, Mass.

"That was the nicest thing he's ever done for me," Patrick Kennedy says.

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