Excerpt: 'Moments of Clarity'

Read an excerpt of a collection of stories on the struggles of addiction.

ByABC News via GMA logo
January 5, 2009, 7:48 PM

Jan. 6, 2009 — -- Twenty-seven million Americans struggle against addiction to alcohol or drugs.

It's a struggle that can affect everyone -- famous and nonfamous. Tom Arnold, Jamie Lee Curtis and Elaine Stritch are just a few celebrities that have fought addiction.

They and many others talk about their experience in a new book by a member of one of America's most famous families: the Kennedys.

After detailing his struggle and recovery from addiction in "Symptoms of Withdrawal," Christopher Kennedy Lawford wrote "Moments of Clarity: Voices From the Front Lines of Addiction and Recovery," a collection of stories from across all segments of society with one journey through the harrowing life of addiction.

Read an excerpt of the book below and click here for more excerpts from "GMA's" library.

Stand upright, speak thy thoughts, declare the truth thou hast,
that all may share; be bold, proclaim it everywhere.
They only love who dare.

The biggest mistake, sometimes, is to play things very safe
in this life and end up being moral failures.
—Dorothy Day

After writing my memoir, Symptoms of Withdrawal, the last thing I wanted to do was write a book about recovery. I thought I'd covered that already. When I first contemplated writing Symptoms I was seventeen years sober, recently separated from my family, living in a teardown on the Westside of L.A. that my cousin owned and was letting me squat in until I put my life back together. My career was in flux and I had just begun therapy for hepatitis C, embarking on a course of treatment that would save my life but leave me feeling really angry and depressed for close to a year. My only friend seemed to be a mouse that lived in the decaying chimney of the practically empty house I was living in.

One morning I received a call from a writer who was doing another in a long line of books about my family and he wanted to talk about what it was like being a Kennedy male. I wasn't in the mood and told him to write me a letter explaining why the world needed another book about the Kennedys. He recalled what he thought was a heroic story involving one of my cousins. I didn't know the story, nor did I think it particularly heroic. I told him if he'd said he needed the money or was trying to impress a girl I would have talked to him, but the only reason that story needed to be told was if my cousin wanted to tell it. And then I had a flash—maybe I had a story to tell and maybe I should write it before the virus attacking my liver killed me. That was the moment I had to become public about my recovery because any story I told would in large part be about my recovery from addiction to drugs and alcohol. I also knew any publisher who might publish that story would insist I do my part to promote it—publicly.

Two months and fifty pages later I received another phone call. This time it was a treatment center in Indianapolis that wanted me to come speak at their annual fund- raiser. I had been asked many times to do this, the offers usually coming with large sums of cash attached. I had always said no, firmly believing that my recovery was private, anonymity a preference if not an obligation. I said yes to the good people in Indianapolis not because of a conversion in my thinking but out of necessity; I would have a book to promote in a year and the sooner I was comfortable speaking publicly about my recovery the better. At six o'clock the morning of my speech, I found myself in an Indianapolis television station being interviewed by a well- meaning young news reporter who wanted to know what it was like being a heroin addict.

"Oh my God," I thought. I didn't want to be on TV talking about that.

What had I done? Why did I open my mouth? Maybe I shouldn't write a memoir after all. How the hell am I going to get out of this? These were the thoughts racing through my mind as I settled into the hot seat at my next interview in a radio station studio, facing the large picture window that looked like something on the Today show. The host of the radio program picked up where the TV reporter had left off: "Did you take LSD, Chris?"

I'm sitting there thinking "Beam me up, Scotty!" when a homeless man walks up to the window holding a sign that reads, "Can you help me get sober?" His name was Lawrence, he was fifty years old, and he'd been living drunk in a Dumpster for five years. In an instant I knew why I was on the radio and television that morning. I was there to speak to Lawrence and others like him. I haven't shut up since.

So, I told my story of recovery, and found, surprisingly, that that was the part of my life that fascinated people the most—the part that resonated more profoundly than any other. Everywhere I went on the Symptoms publicity tour, I was asked the same question: "What happened to you on the morning of February seventeenth in 1986?" I had written about that day as the moment I had the revelation that resulted in my continuing sobriety and people wanted to hear more. In fact, they asked me about that moment with a need to know bordering on desperation. It seemed like they were dying for me to share the secret that allowed me to change from hopeless addict to someone who had stayed sober for twenty years, lived a productive life, and written a book about it all. Everywhere I visited, I ran into folks thirsting for some reassurance that change might be possible. It was clear there was a powerful need for a message of hope and inspiration.

I had told my tale, but recovery is a bigger subject than just one person; there's a community of voices out there, and each voice has a different story. The message couldn't come only from me. I knew a lot of people who had put down the booze and chemicals—people who took their own path toward sobriety—and all these different experiences were important. I realized that a collection of these stories, in different voices, would be more meaningful and powerful than any single recollection could be. There were two things that united us all: one, we were all addicts, and two, as recovered addicts, we had all experienced some form of what I call the "moment of clarity." So I decided to interview those people I knew who had something to share and who were willing to open up their lives in order to serve as inspiration to others.

I sent out e-mails to four people I knew in recovery. The response surprised me, leaving me with a sinking feeling that getting people to share an intimate, profound moment that altered their life forever might not be as easy as I had imagined. The movie star I had known for years and who I was sure would say yes—said no! He didn't want to make pronouncements about recovery or pose as an expert. The other movie star, someoneI barely knew at all, said yes without reservation. A man I'd known in recovery who had a story to tell wanted to keep it private. Then there were the journalist and the rock star, both of whom I never heard back from.

Clearly the road to getting people to open up about their "moment" was going to be bumpy and full of unexpected turns.

A good friend told me, "Don't worry, Chris. Whoever's meant to be in the book will just show up." And that's pretty much what happened. I kept asking people, looking for people, letting people show up.

An old friend I had no worries about pulled out at the eleventh hour, saying, "I just don't want to dredge all that up again. The last time I talked about my recovery the newspapers crucified me." Several others had second thoughts as well and pulled out of the project at the last minute. I began to understand why it is so difficult to change the way we view addiction in this country. If accomplished, talented, well-thought-of members of society are wary about the stigma of the disease of addiction, what about those with less power and standing?

I came to understand in doing this book just how difficult it is for addicts and alcoholics to stand up and talk about their disease, whether because of stigma, misunderstanding the tradition of anonymity in twelve-step programs, or the very real threat of losing one's livelihood or insurance coverage. Claiming one's recovery publicly is an act of moral courage often resulting in nasty consequences, occasionally coming from those in the recovery community itself. A friend sent me an e-mail where he went on a bit of a tirade about the "racket" of the new wave of "I'm in recovery," where addicts and alcoholics play fast and loose with programs founded on anonymity. I didn't write back to explain that the tradition of anonymity in twelve-step programs didn't mean one could not speak publicly about their recovery but that it simply governed their anonymity with regard to their membership in the particular twelve-step program.

In fairness, though, there is a more fundamental aspect of anonymity than whether you tell your story or claim your recovery publicly. I interviewed someone who's very open about his recovery, and also a great storyteller. I sent back the edited interview and he said, "I can't do this. Reading the words on the page, I realized that my story is really just for the guys in my recovery group, not for anyone else."

Saying you're an alcoholic or a drug addict, claiming your disease in public, is one thing. Telling any part of your story to the public is another. There's something very powerful about the telling and sharing of stories from one addict to another. It's powerful enough to change lives. The guy who decided not to participate because he didn't want to dilute that power has a point, and I can't say he's wrong. The question of anonymity is important, not solely in the sense of whether one is publicly known as an addict or alcoholic but because sometimes it's difficult to reconcile the spiritual remedy to this illness with a public profile—difficult but not impossible, as those in the pages that follow have demonstrated.

Finally, I did what I've learned to do in my recovery: I turned the problem over to what ever higher power is out there. If the book was meant to happen, it would happen. And so it has, and for that I am very grateful.