(Chicago, IL) — “I was born in a family where addiction doesn’t just run – it gallops. We had fame, we had power, we had wealth. What we didn’t understand is that addiction ignores all that.”
This was the life of Christopher Kennedy Lawford, who shared his story of addiction recovery with more than 300 guests at TASC’s 2012 Leadership Awards Luncheon on December 12.
Lawford was in Chicago to accept TASC’s Public Voice Leadership Award, presented annually to an organization or person who has advanced the dialogue around addiction recovery and related public health issues. TASC also presented the agency’s signature Justice Leadership Award to Cook County Presiding Judge Paul P. Biebel, Jr. (Please see article highlighting Judge Biebel’s remarks.)
“As far-reaching and devastating as addiction and mental illness are, recovery is much more powerful,” said TASC Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Peter Palanca in introducing Lawford. “Our 2012 Public Voice Award recipient is an individual who is well acquainted with the journey of recovery.”
Son of actor Peter Lawford and Patricia Kennedy Lawford, and nephew of John F. Kennedy, Christopher Kennedy Lawford’s struggles with addiction are detailed in his bestselling book, Symptoms of Withdrawal. With more than 26 years in recovery now, Lawford is engaged in worldwide efforts to erode the stigma surrounding addiction, expand access to evidence-based treatment services, and promote the societal benefits of recovery. His latest work, Recover to Live: Kick Any Habit, Manage Any Addiction, has just been released.
In a luncheon ballroom filled with judges, service providers, community partners, individual and corporate donors, and TASC staff, Lawford’s remarks drew a standing ovation. Here is part of what he said:
It is an honor to be here and to be given this award by TASC, whom I’ve known about for a long, long time… I hear about them from my friends at the White House and the UN and everywhere. To be in this room and receiving an award from you is really meaningful.
From the moment I found drugs and alcohol, the only thing that mattered to me for the next 17 years was where I was going to get my next drink or my next drug. The world was suddenly not so scary. Better living through better chemistry became my credo. I didn’t feel like there was anything I couldn’t accomplish if my medicine cabinet – or yours – was fully stocked. Of course, it was an illusion.
Drug addiction took me to three jails and three intensive care units; landed me in newspapers and on the evening news; damaged and permanently scarred my liver, heart and lungs; significantly reduced the opportunities that I was lucky to be born with; drove away most of the worthwhile people in my life, leaving behind a posse of lower companions of drug dealers, pharmacists, and bartenders; and killed my best friend and my father. This is the road for many confronting the disease of drug addiction. I should have died many times but I didn’t. With desire and access to treatment, I lived and found my way into recovery.
Today, I speak out so people know that addiction is an equal opportunity disease, that recovery from addiction is possible, that recovery is not just about staying away from a drink, drug, or behavior a day at a time, but also about restoring and enhancing the lives of those afflicted as well as the lives of those around them. And I speak out to urge others to do the same, because the awareness that recovery is possible, along with the spreading knowledge that science has proven—that addiction is a brain illness—will help to dispel many of the myths, and much of the stigma surrounding diagnosis, treatment, and recovery.
If you remember only three things from what I say today, it should be the following:
The first is that in order to make a difference in the lives of those suffering with drug dependency, we need to address the structural and moral obstacles that stigmatize and discriminate against those who need our assistance.
Second is that we know drug treatment works. There is an undeniable body of research, evidence, and practice that can make a difference, if allowed. Drug treatment services should be available to all, just as we treat other chronic illnesses.
Third, it is imperative that we stay focused on and address the underlying societal causes and conditions that lock people in the hopelessness and despair of the addictive cycle, keeping their recovery illusory and unattainable.
The challenge before us lies in creating long-term, sustainable change to provide a means of helping those who need it most.
I applaud those of you on the front lines of TASC and other agencies, battling to bring services to those in need. Drug dependence is destroying the very fabric of society, present and future. So why, given the tremendous need and availability of proven treatment protocols, do we continue to struggle with having treatment investments commensurate to their importance? We need to fundamentally see the issue of addiction through a different set of lenses. We need to see it devoid of stigma and discrimination. We need to see it as a health issue, and not just a criminal justice issue… We need to reject the dichotomy of treatment versus enforcement, since we know that done right, the criminal justice and health systems can work together harmoniously. We’ve seen that here today with the work of Judge Biebel and TASC.
Punishment and prison rarely work as an effective response to someone with a drug addiction, and can have lasting impacts on the family. We know that drug problems don’t discriminate and can happen to anyone and any family. Drug users are often among society’s most scorned and shunned. Many in our world believe those struggling with addiction have no willpower or are morally noncommittal, are a drain on our society. I’ll tell you what. You show me someone who has battled a drug dependency for five, ten, fifteen, twenty years, and lived to tell their story, and I’ll show you one tough, willful, committed human being whose recovery can be a benefit to society.
The journey to recovery is not linear or predictable, and it isn’t easy, but it is possible, and millions have and will recover, but they need our help and our understanding. They need access to programs that are based on evidence, not on ideology. They need to know that they can reach out without fear, ridicule, persecution, or worse – violence. They need to know that they can once again become productive members of society, that society values them and wants them back. We must build awareness that sustained and positive outcomes from treatment and assistance requires the community to accept people back into their community, and understand the importance of meaningful work as a critical part of that acceptance. There are many who have been saved from the ravages of addiction and return to productive and meaningful lives.
My journey to recovery started well before I stopped using drugs. It began when I knew I had a problem and began my struggle to do something about it. I may have appeared lost, but from the moment I understood what my problem was, I was looking for the solution. The fact that it took someone like me—who had all the resources and desire to get better as long as it did—reflects the immense challenge facing anyone with the courage and the will to confront this illness.
In many places in our world, there is little to no access to quality care, and where there is, it often lacks the effective integration within the health care system. As a result, people face considerable gaps in services and barriers to accessing the help they need.
It took me nine years of trying before I found my way to recovery. During that time, I tried everything possible to stop using drugs and alcohol and nothing had worked. And if you had met me back then, you might have thought to yourself, “You know, that Chris Lawford sure is a nice guy, and he’s tried really hard to do something about his problem, but he’s probably going to die.” Indeed, this is often the headline related to addiction – that any effort or investment is squandered… Standing here today before you, 26 years in recovery, I can tell you emphatically that this is not true.
Access to treatment and care doesn’t only make good health sense, it makes good economic sense. Put simply, treatment improves health outcomes and fosters healthier individuals, families, and communities while lowering the social and economic costs of addiction… An individual in recovery contributes to society economically and in many other ways. One of the most profound ways occurs in families… One of the great gifts of recovery is breaking the chain of addiction in a family. A father or mother in recovery will have a profound effect on what kind of life their children will have, on whether or not their dreams will come true.
We simply cannot ignore the complex interplay between biology and life experiences when it comes to this illness. One would not look at my life and necessarily think of the underlying societal stresses that contribute to drug dependence, but they were there.
My uncles John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy were political figures, but they were family members first. Both of them were murdered. And that violence contributed to the onset of my drug dependence as well as others in my family. I was 12 years old when my uncle Bobby was killed running for the presidency of this country. I had no idea at that time that a 12-year-old kid with a genetic predisposition toward this illness, who suffers trauma in their adolescence, is much more susceptible to this disease later in life.
There are millions of children throughout the world who are victimized by societal forces they have no power to control – forces that can have a great impact on whether they become addicts in later life.
Addiction may be an equal opportunity disease, but that does not mean that those who recover have the same equality of opportunity when it comes to the life they come back to in recovery. There are millions of us who are not only ravaged by addiction, but who are also ravaged by the circumstances of their lives… There is much to do. I am committed in my work to develop innovative ways of bringing better circumstances to more people in recovery, to raise awareness, reduce stigma and discrimination, calling for society to treat this illness the same way it treats other chronic diseases, while making that treatment affordable and universal.
I am grateful to TASC for their courage, their leadership, and their vision when it comes to confronting this most complex health issue. Their example challenges and inspires me and I hope many others in the world to do more, and to do better. I have no doubt that if we do, we will impact many lives.
My Uncle Jack Kennedy, President Kennedy, said the true measure of a nation is its success in fulfilling the promise of a better life for each of its members. Let this be our measure too, to strive to fulfill the promise of a better life through access to treatment and care for the millions suffering from drug dependence throughout the world.
Christopher Kennedy Lawford Accepts TASC’s 2012 Public Voice Leadership Award. Left to right: TASC Executive VP Peter Palanca, Christopher Kennedy Lawford, TASC President Pamela Rodriguez, TASC Board Chair Jim Durkan