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.
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, someone I 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.
I made the decision to be public about my recovery when I recounted my story and my moment of clarity as part of my memoir. My intention then was to begin a career as a writer, not to make a statement about recovery. The forty three individuals in this book and the tens of thousands who stand up every day to claim their recovery publicly have no other motive than to share their experience, strength, and hope with others in the hope that it may be of some help. I am humbled by their willingness, awed by their courage, and grateful beyond mea sure for their participation.
It seemed as though whenever I doubted the wisdom of doing this book, a lightning bolt of inspiration would be delivered in the form of one of those I interviewed. I cried with Jamie Lee Curtis in gratitude and solidarity over our common path. My faith in my humanness was bolstered by the unwavering courage and integrity of Martin Sheen. I sat in wonder at the energy and unquenchable desire for betterment of Elaine Stritch. I was amazed and inspired by a Native American woman named Marie Morning-Glory, who endured unspeakable tragedy only to transcend it brilliantly in a life of love and service. And Jim Vance, who after reading the transcript of the interview we did together sent me an e-mail saying, "Damn, it is rough seeing that stuff in print, but it's true. I sure do hope the guy was right, whoever it was who said the truth will set you free."
The risk of doing this book was worth it because of those who are in it and because I've seen the desperation in people's eyes when they asked me, "What happened? How did you change?" I heard them tell me to write about recovery so that others might get the message and find what I have found. There are an estimated 22.6 million people in this country (9.2 percent of the population age twelve and older) struggling with substance abuse, and many more family and friends who often are just as tormented by the addiction as the person who is afflicted. It became apparent to me that with so many suffering and fewer than 10 percent getting any treatment at all, a book like this might not only be useful to those touched by addiction but also be instrumental in the effort to change public health policy, and to address the bigger question of what we, as a nation, pay attention to.
I remember showing up on the Washington Mall in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol to interview my cousin Congressman Patrick Kennedy, who excitedly told me that in 1969 Bill Wilson (the cofounder of AA) had spoken in front of a subcommittee of the United States Senate where he said that in the future, "AAs" would be free to express opinions about alcoholism if they spoke not as members of the group, but as private citizens." That future is here.
The doing of this book was both a giant pain in the ass and a gift of indescribable proportions. Asking for and scheduling the interviews was just as bad as I'd thought it would be, but every single time I sat down with one of these brave human beings, all the frustration fell away and I got caught up in the great drama and beauty of their "moments." Each conversation, for me, was a spiritual experience, one that enriched my own journey.
Based on his treatment of alcoholics, the psychologist Carl Jung was convinced that recovery was impossible without "a transforming experience of the spirit,"* and that was my focus of inquiry with each of the interviewees. I asked them to describe their moment of clarity—when that transformation began—in as much detail as possible. Then we talked about the changes in their daily lives, and what they understood about their transformation now that wasn't obvious to them then. Many of the people in this book felt it important to contextualize their experience of spirit and tell, to one degree or another, what it was like before their moment occurred. I left portions of these passages in, so far as they illuminated the experience.
These moments are as unique as the people who experienced them, and that's part of the magic. Some people embrace the notion of a Christian God, while others explicitly reject organized religion. Some are led to sobriety by dramatic, even near-death experiences, and others begin the journey with purely internal changes. But these moments share a deep, profound power, one that ignores class and celebrity, changing the lives of those in desperate need.
That change isn't—can't be—instantaneous. In that moment, we feel something powerful at work, and yet, being addicts and being human, we don't fully trust it. We fight it, we question it, we fear it's just one more dead end. Still, that moment is all we have to believe in. Over time, the real miracle happens, as the influence of that moment not only persists but lives and grows in us. It's only in retrospect that it becomes the moment, the beginning of a new life. In a way, it's like the first sight of someone you fall in love with, or your first glimpse of your child. Those moments are precious in and of themselves, but their deepest value and meaning comes from the journey that follows, the path they set us on. In this case, it's a journey away from isolation and addiction toward profound peace.
The stories in this book were told to me directly by the people who experienced them. I chose that approach because I wanted to get as close as possible to having readers hear the intensity in their voices as they talked about those first steps out of the darkness.
Then, as it often does, something unexpected happened. Over and over, people told me that talking about their experience one-on-one, answering questions about it, brought them fresh insights and enriched their own understanding of their journey. Jim Vance told me after our time together "that all of what we talked about was only a snapshot. There is so much more that, in fact, needs to be revisited. Recalling it helps me not to repeat it." I didn't want to miss out on that, so I decided to use the same method to tell my story. I sat down with my collaborator, Jan Werner, who asked me the same questions I'd been asking all these other people. It was a valuable experience for me, and I hope you gain something from it too. Here goes. . . .
By February of 1986, I'd been trying to get sober for nine years; for two of those years I'd even been going to mutual support groups. There was a program for recovery, which I was trying to do piecemeal, trying to do my way—again. I'd use Valium for a couple of days, then narcotics, and then I'd use booze for a couple of days, so I didn't get addicted to any one substance. That was my whole thing—I was always concerned about the physical aspect of addiction, not the mental or spiritual. I was desperately trying to control my usage so that I could function a little bit and not be completely physically dependent.
I was white-knuckling it and it was absolute misery—worse than being a stone-cold junkie, because at least the other way you can be out of it all the time. But I couldn't do that anymore, because the little recovery I had ruined my terminal uniqueness. See, I thought that I was the only one with these problems, that I had gotten myself into this mess and therefore only I could get myself out of it. As addicts, we really believe we are the centers of the universe. Nobody feels like we feel, nobody understands us, nobody can do it but us. All of that me me me me thing, which is the thing that kept me sick.
When I went to this group, I sat in a basement with a bunch of other people who were just like me and yet they'd found a way out, and it ruined my drinking and using. I could no longer just lie in the gutter with a needle in my arm. At the same time, I was incapable of understanding what I needed to do. Basically I had to accept that I had a spiritual malady as well as a physical malady. That meant surrendering, which I was unwilling to do.
I didn't want to be "addicted," but I couldn't give up, couldn't surrender my will. I just wanted to be out of myself, because all I'd ever wanted was to not be here. If that's how you feel, then being here without knowing how to be here, and trying to control your use of the only thing you've ever known that helps you cope—that's a recipe for putting a gun in your mouth, which is basically what I was left with.
I was thirty years old, and my whole life had been a series of "This isn't so bad." I graduated from law school. So I didn't learn anything, so what. So I was arrested for buying heroin in Roxbury. That's not so bad. At least it was in the Boston Globe, not in the New York Times. The morning of February 17, I woke up, as usual, with that weight in the pit of my stomach, knowing that all I had in front of me was another day of dancing with the 8oo-pound gorilla of addiction. I got out of bed and walked over to the windows that looked out onto Commonwealth Avenue—I was living in one of those beautiful old Boston brownstones, and it had giant picture windows, floor to ceiling. I just stood there and stared out at the city. Everything was gray, gray and bleak and freezing cold, and that matched what I was feeling inside.
I thought, "This is bad. This is as bad as it can get." What I felt was just a little bit darker than what I'd felt the day before, but that little bit was enough to finally put me over the edge. I knew I could not exist anymore in that state. I had to either die or change, and I didn't have a gun to put in my mouth, so I had to change, and the only way I could change was to surrender. So I did. I said, to what ever was out there, "You know what? I give up. I absolutely, unequivocally give up. I'm not talking about, 'I give up so I can fight another day.' What ever you want me to do, I'll do it." And I realize now, that was it. That was the opening through which grace entered my life.
What grace looked like that morning was me walking across the room and picking up the phone. I called a cousin I admired, with whom I had competed my whole life and who was the last guy in the world I wanted to listen to. A couple of years before, my cousin David had died of an overdose. David and I had been best friends our whole lives, which of course involved drinking and drugs, but a few months before he died, I started pulling away from him . . . part of my plan to cut back on using, but I didn't tell him what I was doing. I thought, "It'll help him too. He'll figure it out for himself." Later, I realized David was becoming the version of me I didn't want to see. And my pulling away just made him more isolated, and I felt like it pushed him down into the abyss faster.
So after David died, this cousin I called said, "You know, we've gotta stay sober." He'd gotten sober a while before and was actually the only person who'd said something to me, tried to stop my downward spiral. He had made a quantum leap ahead of me, and on some level I probably knew that, but I wasn't willing to admit it. And so when he said that, I just said, "Fuck you. I'm not staying sober through this. My best friend just died. If you think for one minute I'm gonna lose my other best friend too, you're crazy."
But on the morning of February 17, I called him up and said, "Tell me what to do. Just tell me what to do. What ever you say, I'll do." And he told me to go back to that group of people who were in recovery and to do what they told me to do. If I hadn't completely surrendered I would've said, "I've already done it, it didn't work." Instead I said, "Okay." And I did it.
There was an enormous relief in the surrender. I remember feeling that something changed, something shifted. I had tried many, many times to get sober, so I didn't completely trust this. But there was something deep down inside me, just a glimmer, where something shifted. I didn't understand it, I just had some awareness of it and how profound it was. God, or what ever you want to call it, had given me a glimmer of hope.
So I knew intuitively there was something different going on, just a sliver of understanding, something so deep that it was undeniable, and it was totally different from anything that I'd ever experienced before. Just a glimmer. Just a taste.
And it grew exponentially every single day, because the surrender gave me the key of willingness to engage this new life. It's like a starving guy who gets to have a little piece of something, and that's when he realizes just how ravenous he is. That's what it was like, pulling my seat up to this new table and beginning to eat, and then just stuffing my face. Which proves I'm an addict. I'll stuff my face with anything.
The woman I was with was using at the same time, and she didn't stop right away. She tried to get me to use with her. She said, "Do you want to take this?"—a Quaalude or what ever. And I was like . . . "No." I had never said no in a context like that before, ever. When somebody handed me something, I put it in my mouth, always. But at that point I could say no.
Even so, the obsession was not lifted immediately. The thing that had driven me for seventeen years, ever since I was twelve years old and I took that first tab of acid—"Oh my God, I want to do this again," "When can I do it again?" "How can I get more?"—that thing, which is the obsession, which is the 800- pound gorilla, which I know is the weight that no human power could relieve (because I had tried everything), that thing didn't disappear right away. That thing was still there.
I remember coming to New York, which was always the place I'd go to get high, and I had a lot of prescriptions still. And there's this thing. I was enmeshed in recovery, talking to people, and this guy said to me, "You need to get on your knees." I went, "Wh-what?" And he said, "No, you need to get on your knees, and you have to ask to have that lifted. If you have to, throw your shoes under your bed as a way of getting you on your knees. What ever you need to get down there. To humble yourself. To actually, physically humble yourself. It's all well and good to think about it, but unless you do it . .."
I did it. I went to my mother's apartment and I was humiliated and I was terrified but I got down on my knees and I asked for this thing to be removed, and it was. Not immediately, but within the next couple of months, it was gone. That thing that I was absolutely powerless over, that had vanquished me for seventeen years, was lifted out of my life. And it hasn't come back since, in over twenty-two years.
The moment I realized it was gone, that was like a burning bush. That was nothing short of a miracle.
Bill Wilson, the guy who founded Alcoholics Anonymous, said, "You sober up a horse thief, and you've got a sober horse thief." And that was the case with me. I came to sobriety thinking I was a pretty good guy who hadn't done anybody any harm. I came in with that kind of self- delusion and also an enormous sense of entitlement, of self- centeredness. And I still have all that. I've chipped away a little bit at those faults, and I keep trying, but I'm the same flawed human being I was. The difference is, now that I'm sober, I'm closer to realizing all parts of who Chris is, the good and the bad. That's the great gift of recovery. To discover yourself and also where you come from—it really is a remarkable gift.
If the darkness is down there below and the light is up there above, I'm going from darkness to light. It's not a straight line and it's not a fast journey, but it's going up. I have a set of spiritual principles that I try to live by. Very imperfectly, but I try. Try to do no harm. Have a power greater than yourself to rely on. Serve other people—that's a big thing in terms of your contentment. And clean your house. Clean your own house, and don't worry about other people's houses.
What I realize now is, I could not navigate my life. I couldn't do it. I didn't understand how people did the world. I was a law school graduate, I had this résumé I'd managed to put together, but the basic mechanics of navigating the world—I had no idea. You schedule a business meeting and you show up. You get a part in a movie and you show up. Even if you're terrified, even if you're afraid you'll fail. Even if you do fail. You show up.
Right now, I'm a productive member of society. I'm involved in other people's lives, I have three great kids, I write books, I make movies, I speak all over the world. I get to do all this stuff because I'm in recovery and I've learned how to put one foot in front of the other. Normal people probably already know this on some level. Addicts and alcoholics, we've got to learn all that.
What I think happens for a lot of people, people who've had a road like mine, is that at the end you're hanging out with users and dealers only. At the end I just had drug dealer friends, so I stopped calling them. It wasn't like they were big losses when they were gone, although there was a part of me that thought, "What about that guy, that really nice pharmacist that I used to know?" Because you have to come to terms with the fact that your relationships aren't really friendships, they don't really mean that much, they're just accommodations to the 800- pound gorilla.
The other thing that's hard is the whole family thing. This is not an individual disease, it's a family disease. Even if there's just one alcoholic in the family, everybody's affected by it on some level. I had a difficult time with that. Even though people were very happy that I wasn't ending up in emergency rooms or on the front pages of newspapers anymore, they didn't like how I was different. My mom once said, "You can't make the daiquiris anymore?" She didn't get it. "That's great you're not going to shoot heroin anymore, but that doesn't mean you can't drink, right?"
Plus other people who may have problems have to look at their own stuff when you're around. You become like a giant mirror. People start projecting their worries and problems on you. The fact is, I'm too busy worrying about my own problems to pay attention to yours. But if you decide you want to get sober, I'm your guy, on what ever level, what ever I can do—because what I've learned is that in order to keep this thing, I've got to give it away.
Somehow I was picked to move from the darkness into the light. I don't know why. I didn't do anything for it, I didn't "earn" it or "deserve" it. At all. At all. I just stayed alive. I stayed alive and I stayed connected to some kind of treatment, or some motivation, some goal. I hung on to hope, and hope opens you up to change.
That's what this book and the stories in it are about, and that's what I want people who read it to take away from it—the hope that this thing can change. No matter how long it's gone on, no matter how bad it is. And also, these are interesting stories. Lives that are transformed inexplicably are interesting. They're interesting to read about, they're interesting to ponder, they're interesting to meditate on.
But more than anything else, they show us that what's right in front of us is not all there is. There's something else going on out there. I have evidence of it in my life, the people in this book have evidence of it, and it's reinforced for us over and over again, as long as we keep ourselves open to it. And that is grace.
* In her biography of Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Susan Cheever quotes from a letter Jung wrote to Wilson, discussing this idea of spiritual transformation. Jung comes up with a great summary: "Alcohol in Latin is 'spiritus' and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum" -- spirit against spirits.
To read more of Moments of Clarity, click here.