Personal Low, Career Peak

After Drug-Fueled Crash, Patrick Kennedy Turned Focus to Mental Health-Care Reform

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 28, 2009; 12:21 AM

Political aides counseled Rep. Patrick Kennedy not to mention the incident when he was campaigning for reelection in 2006. "Don't bring it up," they insisted, as Kennedy recounts their reaction. "Everybody already knows about it." Talking about it only reminded Rhode Island voters of other Kennedy family misdeeds and misfortunes, they said.

The incident was the pre-dawn drive the congressman took straight into a security barrier outside of the Capitol on May 4, 2006. At about 2:45 a.m., the bleary-eyed scion of America's royal family staggered out of his green 1997 Ford Mustang convertible and informed police he was late for a vote.

The incident prompted another national rolling of the eyes over the foibles and addictions of the well-loved and well-ridiculed Kennedy family. When Kennedy held a news conference 36 hours later to announce that he was on his way to the Mayo Clinic to treat an addiction to prescription medication, fresh obituaries were written -- again -- for the once-glorious Camelot legacy.

But Kennedy's story didn't end at the wall. The congressman -- who had already disclosed a battle with bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, as well as treatment for cocaine use during his teenage years -- chose not to listen to the advice of his handlers on the campaign trail nearly three years ago. He may have sensed an opportunity, or decided to make the best of a personal tragedy or realized he had no option but honesty. Whatever the reason, he chose to reshape the incident as part of a broader story about the need for better insurance coverage for mental health issues, one of several issues he'd been championing for years. Now that pet concern had become a cause.

Last September, the Rhode Island Democrat -- together with colleagues including his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, former representative Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.), former senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and, crucially, his ailing father, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) -- pushed through a bill, signed by President Bush last October, that requires equal coverage of mental and physical illnesses by insurance companies.

In turning his crash into a crusade, Kennedy, who at age 41 is serving his eighth term, performed an act of political jujitsu that transformed one of the lowest moments of his life into his greatest political achievement. And he made a powerful argument for mental-health parity as a civil-rights issue for his generation, giving voice to the idea that the stigma surrounding alcoholism and mental illness is akin to the prejudice experienced once upon a time by gays, African Americans and Irish Catholics back in his uncle John's day.

"In our heads we knew better than to treat this as a second-class illness," said Kennedy during one of two interviews last fall. "We just couldn't get over the prejudice. That nagging sense of judgmentalism. Far be it for those winos -- those people who are drunkards that can't hold their liquor -- for them to get treatment, because they should be able to pick themselves up by their bootstraps."

This is the story of how Patrick Kennedy, in just more than two years, got from the wall to a higher ground.

Politician and Addict

During most of his adult years, Kennedy had been leading two lives -- the life of a politician and the life of an addict. For years, he abused "the whole panoply of pain medication," from codeine-fortified Tylenol to oxycodone, he told the Providence Journal after the crash. At times, he said, he would binge-drink. While he'd disclosed some of his problems before the crash, he'd never before admitted to binge drinking or said that substance abuse was the cause of his erratic behavior over the years. Now he spoke about it all with brutal honesty, embracing a new persona as "the public face of alcoholism and addiction." The crash had forced his reckoning onto a much more prominent stage.

"He and I had similar experiences," said Ramstad, who was arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest during an alcoholic blackout on July 31, 1981. "It was law enforcement officials who took care of any problems we had maintaining anonymity."

The arrest, Ramstad said, was in some ways liberating, as was Kennedy's incident for him. "When I could finally tell the truth about my drinking and for Patrick to tell the truth about his addiction made both of us whole," he said. (Although Kennedy's participation in AA has been well-publicized, he still abides by the organization's anonymity rules, generally referring to it as "the program.")

Being a Kennedy means living not only with the legacy of politics and social progressivism but with the legacy of substance abuse. It has affected several member of his family, including his own mother, Joan, who has struggled with severe alcoholism.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company