Patrick Kennedy, former congressman and son of the late Ted Kennedy, has taken the courageous step of speaking publicly about his addiction and mental health issues. I found his appearance on CBS’s “60 Minutes” this past Sunday night powerful and inspiring. The honesty and bravery he has shown in revealing his own challenges, and the steps he has taken to treat his illnesses, is an example to be emulated if we as a society are to move beyond the misguided stigma often associated with addiction. It is estimated that 20% of the US population has a substance abuse problem, yet it stays hidden in the shadows. It’s time to drag this issue out into the sunlight and confront it head-on and break the “Code of Silence”.
Listening to Patrick tell his story, I felt like he was talking about my family and my father. While we grew up on very different sides of the track and in very different circumstances, I too came up in a hard-drinking Irish-Catholic family that carried in its genes generations of alcoholism and dysfunction. My family had a “Code of Silence” just like the Kennedys. We never talked about my father’s dependency on the bottle; we never talked to each other about our own alcohol and drug abuse problems. We enabled each other and paid a terrible price for doing so. I lost a sister to a heroin overdose. That “code of silence” is what’s killing so many Americans today, just as much as the drugs and alcohol themselves.
If any other disease was affecting 643 million Americans or costing our economy $660 BILLION a year in lost wages, prison and medical costs, heads would roll across the government and private sector. But addiction is our dirty little secret. There was a time, not too long ago, when other diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s were misunderstood, considered shameful and families suffered in secret. But through education, compassion and political will these diseases have been destigmatized. The result has been great advances in treatment.
I commend Patrick Kennedy for breaking his anonymity and drawing attention to this public health crisis. Addiction is not a moral failing. Addiction is a treatable disease. I am a recovering alcoholic and addict. My sober date is August 2, 1990. People can and do recover. Together we can solve this problem. Remember, you are only as sick as your secrets.
Incase you missed the interview with Patrick Kennedy on 60 Minutes.