Right now, addiction is a hot-button topic – and for good reason.
Increasingly, we hear of drugs such as heroin and benzodiazepines, or benzos, like Xanax, valium and Klonopin entering the community; drugs that weren’t prevalent just 15 to 20 years ago. These statistics do not discriminate, and even people within upper-class communities are not immune. That includes former Congressman, current brain disease advocate and upcoming Jefferson Series speaker Patrick J. Kennedy, nephew of President John F. Kennedy.
According to the National Institutes of Health, all categories of drugs have seen an increase in overdose deaths since 1999. Between 1999 and 2014, cocaine saw a 42 percent increase in overdose deaths, and that’s the smallest increase. Prescription drugs saw a 242 percent increase in overdose deaths. Heroin saw a 439 percent increase, from nearly 2,000 deaths in 1999 to more than 10,500 in 2014. Benzos saw an even larger increase at 600 percent, from 1,135 deaths to nearly 8,000.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 2,744 people in 2014 in Ohio alone died of a drug overdose, making Ohio second only to California as the state with the highest number of deaths by drug overdose.
Often, addiction ends in tragedy, and Kennedy – a U.S. representative from Rhode Island from 1995 to 2011 – considers himself lucky that his ended with recovery. Kennedy’s addiction began when he was just 12 years old. He says he didn’t understand his emotions, and self-medicated in order to cope.
In an episode of The Axe Files earlier this year, Kennedy told host David Axelrod that he used all types of drugs to fuel his addiction. OxyContin was his drug of choice, but he also used alcohol, stimulants, cocaine and others. During the show, he spoke of his legal problems stemming from his addiction, including being arrested in Los Angeles, once by the Coast Guard and even by U.S. Capitol police when he crashed his car into a barrier on Capitol Hill under the influence of drugs, including alcohol.
However, like many struggling with addiction, Kennedy wasn’t ready to admit it was a problem, even when his family members were, causing a rift.
“Family members have to remember that no one wants to be addicted and no one chooses depression or other mental illness,” says Kennedy. “We don’t wake up and say, ‘How can I push away everyone who cares about me?’”
Kennedy says his breaking point, which helped kick-start his journey toward recovery, was during the last year of his father’s life.
“I saw him surrounded by people who truly loved him,” says Kennedy. He realized that he desired the family structure that his father had made, inspiring Kennedy to seek treatment.
Kennedy’s father, Ted Kennedy, died in August 2009. Ted Kennedy served as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts for almost 47 years.
Patrick Kennedy retired from Congress at the end of his term in order to dedicate himself to sobriety. Kennedy still struggled, but managed to get and stay sober on Feb. 22, 2011 – his father’s birthday. He has now been in recovery for over five years, and has hit some significant milestones in that time, including marriage to his wife, Amy Savell, and the birth of his three children.
“Maybe I’m a late bloomer and didn’t meet the love of my life until I was 43 years old, but I’m making up for lost time,” says Kennedy. “My children also give me a sense of purpose.”
In addition to his family, Kennedy has hit the ground running in his work to fight addiction and lobby for mental health reform and awareness. He and the Kennedy Forum created a National Behavioral Health Platform, which highlights 12 steps to take on the path to understanding and changing mental health legislation for the better. Kennedy will explore these topics during his Feb. 1 appearance on the Jefferson Series at the Jeanne B. McCoy Community Center for the Arts.
The National Behavioral Health Platform follows the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008. The Parity Act, aimed to equalize the playing field between medical and surgical benefits and mental health benefits in terms of health care. The act was signed into law by President George W. Bush, and was amended in the Affordable Care Act. Right now, Kennedy says he is devoting his life to ensuring the Parity Act is enforced.
“To me, there is nothing more important than ending discrimination against people with mental illness, addiction and other brain diseases,” says Kennedy. “The bottom line is that everyone who needs treatment gets it. No exceptions.”
And, as always, Kennedy advocates for those struggling with addiction to overcome, and says it may be hard, but it can be done. Kennedy himself is living proof.
“I know how lucky I am, but you shouldn’t have to be a former Congressman or come from a famous family to get care,” says Kennedy. “The recovery I have, I want that for everyone. Everyone deserves to live a life of love, joy and contribution.”
1. Are there any foods you avoid or emphasize?
Many of the foods people started eating to improve their heart health also promote brain health. I’m a big fan of the Mediterranean Diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, lots of salmon and other foods that have Omega-3s. Berries of any kind – strawberries, blueberries – are great for a number of reasons, including support for brain health.
2. What are your favorite ways to stay active?
I’m a runner. In fact, if I miss a day, I can feel the stress building. It’s a must-have.
3. What do you do to relax?
Like everyone else, time with my family recharges my battery. We still love to sail and spend time at the beach.
4. How do you incorporate wellness into family time with young children?
My kids are still at the age where their energy is boundless. I stay in shape by trying to keep up with them! We talk about everything – what it takes to stay healthy, why diet and exercise are important. I think if you model good habits, your kids will grow up with those habits.
5. In what ways do you stay active during busy travel periods?
Fortunately, running takes no equipment, except a good pair sneakers. I’m lucky I can run anywhere, even when traveling.
Amanda DePerro is an assistant editor. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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