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Alcoholism, scandal and that day in Dallas... how Patrick survived life in the Kennedy clan

Patrick Kennedy, scion of the Irish-American political dynasty, has just written a shocking memoir in which he details his substance abuse battles and struggles with bipolar disorder, including details of how he got outrageously drunk on Air Force One en route to Northern Ireland with President Clinton for his historic visit. Donal Lynch looks at his complex relationship with his family.

It was early May, 2006, when Patrick Kennedy drove his shiny green Mustang convertible into the police barrier in front of the US Capitol Building in Washington DC. The Press had a field day. Patrick, son of Ted, nephew of US President John F Kennedy, had but a faint memory of "flashing lights and people in uniforms knocking at my car window." Beyond that the then-Congressman had no idea how he got there and when he woke up the next day, head throbbing, he shuffled into his congressional office, slurped some Red Bull, and braced himself for the call he predicted would begin, "you finally did it, you killed someone".

Instead the voice on the other end was a familiar, broad, Massachusetts drawl. It was owned by his father, Ted. "I saw a picture of the car and I don't know why they're making such a big deal out of this," he told Patrick. "It looked to me like it was just an old-school fendah bendah (fender bender)."

"I wanted him to understand that I was sick and that untreated mental illness was not about little fendah bendahs," Patrick writes in his explosive memoir, entitled A Common Struggle. "It was about multi-car pile-ups where people were injured and killed."

To Patrick, Ted's laddish dismissal of the latest drama to engulf him seemed emblematic of a lifetime of generation-spanning psychological trauma which had always been swept under the carpet. Patrick's own memories of growing up a scion of the famous dynasty paint a picture of family life darker even than most of the salacious books produced on the Kennedys.

He was born several months after his uncle Robert (Bobby) Kennedy, then a senator from New York, came out against the war in Vietnam and eight months before he declared his candidacy for the US presidency. JFK would be assassinated weeks before his nephew's first birthday. His mother, Joan, he writes, had "inherited her own mother's dark disabling alcoholism." His father, he felt, had undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, brought on by a serious back injury sustained during a plane crash in 1964 as well as the unending horror of re-watching the looping clips of his brother John being murdered and wondering if he was next. The death of Bobby also had a huge effect on Ted, Patrick says. "We were living in a limbo land where all of this chaos, this emotional turmoil, was happening. And we were expected to live through it."

When Patrick was two years old, his father was almost destroyed by the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a legal secretary who worked on Bobby's 1968 presidential campaign. A year after Bobby's assassination, a party was held to honour her work, as well as that of the other women on the team. Ted offered to give Kopechne what he would later say was a lift to the ferry, so she could get home.

In fact, she had left her belongings at the party and told nobody she was leaving and they took a route which was nowhere near the ferry port. En route, Ted drove the car off a bridge, killing his young passenger. He failed to report the incident until the car, along with Kopechne's lifeless body, was discovered by police. As rumours swirled that Ted had been trying to bed the young woman, his wife, who was heavily pregnant and had already miscarried several times, left her bed to attend the funeral. She promptly miscarried the child she was carrying and a few months later Ted's own father would pass away.

Growing up, Patrick witnessed the effects these events had on his parents. "My father went on in silent desperation for much of his life, self-medicating," he writes. Ted own anguish was, he adds, "palpable and unspoken".

"It was so tense," he told the American news programme 60 Minutes last week. "My mother clearly would be inebriated ... she would walk around in the middle of the day, you know, in a terry cloth bathrobe. And the amazing thing is, here you have all of these leading policy makers in the country in and out of the house ... watching this and no one's saying a word. You get infected by the pathology of silence."

In this environment, Patrick grew up a sickly child, who suffered greatly with his asthma, which was used to explain his mood swings (he now suspects these were a reaction to the strong asthma medication he took). Family holidays involved skiing trips and gatherings around the piano to sing When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. Often privilege seemed to intermingle with tragedy, however. His older brother, Ted Jr, suffered from bone cancer and had to have a leg amputated. One of Patrick's earliest memories was seeing boxing legend Muhammad Ali at the boy's bedside, comforting him.

Ted Snr generally subscribed to the suck-it-up-and-snap-out-of-it school of thought but by the time his political career kicked into high gear, Joan's alcoholism was an open secret in political circles and the press. In a 1972 edition of Good Housekeeping Joan gave a ground-breaking interview in which she revealed the "long emotional struggle that led (her) to turn to psychiatry". The word alcoholism was never mentioned. Just four years later his maternal grandmother, who had sunk deeper into her own battle with drink, was found dead in the bath at her home in Florida.

As a child Patrick received psychotherapy but even in the privacy of therapy sessions he never felt he could tell the truth. In 1977, Ted and Joan finally divorced and she moved from Virginia to Boston to enlist in a 12-step programme. "Her house became a recovery gift shop," Patrick recalled of the slogan-emblazoned cushions and framed pictures which decorated her new home. That same year, Patrick got drunk for the first time on his father's diplomatic trip to China. Over the following years, drinking and smoking marijuana, which aggravated his asthma, felt like his way of keeping up with the cool kids. It all felt like a "relief from the pain". Even in high school he went into rehab for cocaine use. In the book he writes, "it would be years before anyone suggested I had bipolar disorder" but diagnosis for that would eventually come, too.

He describes a time during his college days when he presented to emergency services at a hospital, where, because of his addiction issues, he was not considered a "reliable patient". In fact, medics identified a tumour on his spine and removing it risked "possible paralysis". Yet he was "thrilled because everyone could agree that this was something real". The diagnosis gave him a "strange peace" and he recalls telling his 21-year-old self 'thank God, I have cancer'. In the end, the tumour was benign and Patrick decided to run for the state legislature, as a way "to connect with Dad".

It would be the mid-nineties before Patrick would become the representative for Rhode Island but first he would connect with his father in a more visceral way, through an intervention which he and other family members staged in 1991. By then Ted's own boozing had made him something of a figure of fun in the US political landscape. Describing the scene that unfolded, Patrick said: "I remember him closing the sliding doors. And then sitting down in his big, blue suede chair and we all said, 'We're worried about your drinking. You need to get help. It's affecting us. It's affecting the family'. And he stood up, you know, opened the sliding door, and walked out."

Kennedy's relationship with his father was so fraught that Ted suggested that when Patrick was in Washington he stay with his sister, Kara, and when he was on Cape Cod he stay with his mother.

A fateful year for the Kennedy clan was 1991, bringing as it did the rape trial of Patrick's cousin, William Kennedy Smith. Patrick and Ted Snr were with Smith on the fateful night. Patrick met a 27-year-old waitress, Michelle Cassone, and Smith met another woman, Patricia Bowman. The women returned with the young Kennedys to the family's Palm Beach residence and a series of events transpired which resulted in William being charged with rape. He was later acquitted. Interestingly, Patrick barely touches on this incident, though he does write that he felt great shame about the episode. In the weeks after the incident, there was a national debate about his father's drinking, and his mother was arrested on a drink-driving charge.

Through the late nineties, Patrick became so dependent on alcohol that he eventually decided to become chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee - on the condition that he would not drink during his tenure.

Instead, he writes, he started abusing prescription narcotic painkillers. In one incident he describes vomiting in an Air Force One bathroom on the way to Northern Ireland, as part of Bill Clinton's historic last trip here while in office. Patrick knew that it was the most momentous trip here for a sitting US president since JFK came to Ireland in 1963. "So the atmosphere on the plane that evening was pretty charged. There was a lot of emotion and frivolity on the plane. I was pounding rum and Coke and Jack and Coke while Martin O'Malley, the then mayor of Baltimore, serenaded us with his guitar." The roaring hangover lives with him to this day.

After his aunt Rosemary, who had been born with intellectual difficulties, died in 2005, Patrick's grief-stricken mother, Joan, was found lying in the street with a serious concussion and a broken shoulder. In the aftermath of this, Patrick announced he wouldn't run for the US Senate, and instead secretly checked into the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where he told doctors that he was swallowing up to 20 painkillers a day. He would put vodka in water bottles and Oxycontin in bare Aspirin bottles. With his life in such turmoil, he hadn't managed to have a relationship in years.

He writes that he had contemplated suicide after a previous girlfriend found out he was cheating. After six days he checked out of the Mayo Clinic and it would be another year before he would slowly begin a more concerted and public journey to recovery. Patrick gave a long interview to a New York Times reporter, in which he was open about his struggles and was admonished by his father for doing so, especially after the article ran just days before the funeral of Ted's sister, Patricia Kennedy Lawford, in 2006. "He called the article a disaster - the word he always used to describe the most extreme situations," Kennedy writes. "How dare I talk about the family this way? How dare I discuss 'these things' in public? I stood there on the verge of disintegration. I was early in my sobriety and still pretty vulnerable."

Toward the end of Ted's life there would be something of a reconciliation, however. In 2009, shortly before Ted's death, he would support Patrick's mental health bill in Congress and Patrick said this gesture represented for him "Dad and me coming full circle". It would be 2010 before Patrick would undergo the "roughest" detox of his life and finally claim sobriety. When he married his school teacher sweetheart in 2011, he described himself as the "luckiest guy", and said he was sure his late father was watching over him.

Patrick sees himself as part of a wider Kennedy tradition - sharing personal stories to advocate for mental health reform. His book has caused much consternation in the clan and sections of the American media, however. Irish Voice publisher Niall O'Dowd called it a cheap shot and Patrick's older brother, Edward Kennedy Jr (Ted Jr), has released a statement saying that he was "heartbroken" over the "inaccurate and unfair portrayal of our family".

Their mother was quoted through an intermediary as telling the Boston Globe that she had "no knowledge that Patrick was writing a book and did not assist him in the project in any way". In an interview Patrick acknowledged that "this is like breaking the family code here. I am now outside the family". It would seem that Christmas in the compound just got a lot more awkward.

  • A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction, Blue Rider Press, £20

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