On February 17, 1986, after years of addiction and self-destruction, Christopher Kennedy Lawford reached a turning point in his life. At 31 years of age he could only look back on a decade of dangerous addiction, hospital emergency room visits and the utter heartbreak he was causing to the people who loved him. In his recent New York Times bestseller, "Symptoms of Withdrawal," he vividly outlined his descent into near fatal drug and alcohol dependency, but until now he has never tackled what happened to trigger the understanding within himself that he needed to change. Partly it was external events, partly internal. Kennedy Lawford's decision to take control of his destiny was taken in the weeks after the unforgettable, ill-fated space shuttle Challenger explosion, which killed all seven astronauts aboard. Every day for weeks the television news had been saturated with images of that spectacular fall to earth, and the metaphor was hardly lost on him. "I didn't really realize where I came from in terms of addiction and recovery until I was older and my dad ended his life pretty sick in his illness, which was alcoholism," Kennedy Lawford, now 53, tells the Irish Voice in a phone interview from Los Angeles. "So I saw where alcoholism would take you, left untreated. My dad (the famous actor, "Rat Pack" member Peter Lawford; his mother was Kennedy sister Patricia Kennedy) tried to get sober for a long time but nothing ever worked. Seeing how alcoholism could take someone who virtually had everything and just reduce them to nothing, dying a pretty horrible death, that was a huge pat of me being able to get sober finally. I saw where I would go. My dad died in 1985 and I got sober in 1986." But where does the addiction come from? What makes one person susceptible to it and another not? If alcohol is, as some psychologists contain, just a poor man's attempt at self-medication, wouldn't it be better to seek professional help first? "Ultimately all addicts and alcoholics are either trying to escape their lives or fill a hole in their souls. I think that ultimately that's what we're dealing with," says Kennedy Lawford. "In my own case it was a spiritual malady - whether that was created by the circumstances of my life, or whether I was born with it is not really germane. I just know I have it. Drugs and alcohol work for a little while. They kill the pain and fill that hole, but then of course it stops working." Could growing up as a member of America's most elite Irish American family, and in particular coming face to face with the many tragedies that beset it, have taken a toll? Was the so-called Kennedy curse a part of what drove him to drugs and drink? "Not at all. I mean by the time I was 13 two of my uncles had been murdered and I was also the product of a divorce. We know today that by age 13 if you suffered some kind of major trauma you're at a much higher risk of going down a dark road," he says. "Those were my circumstances but plenty of people have similar circumstances and stayed straight. It contributed, but I was blessed with the life I was given. It was not burdensome at all." At Georgetown University, when he was 21, Kennedy Lawford already knew he had a problem. "I went there to study Jefferson and ended up moving in next door to a frat house full of heroin addicts. That was my introduction to police stations and emergency rooms," he recalls. "I didn't intend for any of this to happen, and I did everything humanely possible to change course but nothing worked. I'm a very willful, resourceful guy with a lot of assets at my disposal, but I couldn't do it." In "Moments of Clarity," Kennedy Lawford's new book about overcoming addiction, he argues that an individual has to hit rock bottom and achieve what he calls "surrender" before he or she can see a way toward healing. "That's a spiritual thing and a mental thing and it's not something you can plan for - it just happens. You can't heal yourself until you do." In the book he talks to 43 people - most of them famous, including Irish author/raconteur Malachy McCourt - about their own hard struggles with addiction. In each case they write riveting accounts of their flirtation with complete disaster and they share what helped them to overcome the doom staring them in the face. Happily, they also share how much better their lives become when they save themselves, a bright change in fortune that Kennedy Lawford shares. "I was 31 years old, and I discovered I had missed the last 17 years of my life. So I was finally in a position to do what I wanted for the first time. In a moment of complete insanity I became an actor, right after when my first child was born and most people are getting real jobs. Because of my elongated youth that was my path," Kennedy Lawford says. His path also included studying for a master's certification in clinical psychology from Harvard University. He could certainly argue that he had done the research. "The only thing I really knew was addiction and how to overcome, it so I decided to put my own life experience to work. I can now work in the field I was ostensibly a part of," he says. Anyone can fall on hard times, anyone can empathize with stories about people falling off the wagon, because most people have at some point in their lives. But the truly spectacular falls from grace that Kennedy Lawford is talking about are much more complete, and far more painful. Alongside the heartbreak there's also a cycle of fear and shame that can be almost impossible to break out of. "It's the moment of clarity that is ultimately freeing. People labor under the guilt of addiction for years and that shame, that fear and regret can prevent you from recovering. "But when you're blessed with a moment of clarity, which allows you to radically alter the trajectory of your life, there's ultimate freedom in that. For the first time in years you can start feeling really good again. And then in recovery you can start to look back and discover why you used drugs and alcohol in the first place. There's usually a reason why people can't deal with life on its own terms." The Irish, and in particular the Irish male, has an often remarked-upon tendency toward stoicism and insularity. Even today most Irish people still have a horror of psychiatry and what they see as touchy-feely quack psychology. That makes them leery of shrinks and far too fond of drinks. Kennedy Lawford thinks that a balance between the two would be much better for their health. "I think the Irish live with their hearts. That's why alcohol is important to them, it allows them to unlock the doors to who they really are. But I think the trick really is you have to learn to do everything sober that used to do drunk," he says. A lifelong Democrat, Kennedy Lawford also has words of encouragement for his cousin Caroline, currently under consideration to replace Hillary Clinton as senator from New York. "I think she's made an impression on New York and the governor, and I'm certain that she'll make a terrific senator. Of course nothing has been decided yet, but I'm certain she's the right choice," he feels.
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