November 10, 2015

By Luna Greenstein

Behind the Wall

A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness

By Patrick Kennedy


On Feb. 29, 2000, at the Woonsocket Senior Center in Rhode Island, Patrick Kennedy unexpectedly opened up to the public about his mental health conditions. While he felt somewhat relieved to finally let go of the secrecy, the media derided him with stigmatizing comments. The question in the air was what did a Kennedy have to be depressed about?

After being publically made fun of, the media started calling people in the mental health sphere for comment. They reached out to the NAMI deputy executive director at the time, Bill Emmet, who happened to be the first person Kennedy ever talked to about mental health parity. Emmet’s response to the media was simple, straightforward and, above all, brutally honest: “Saying Patrick has nothing to be depressed about is like saying Patrick has no reason to have heart disease, no reason to have cancer.”

To further this point, Kennedy mentions a time in his life when he learns that he has a tumor on his spinal cord as a happy occasion—it is the first time there is something wrong with his health that he could prove.

Throughout his new book, A Common Struggle, Kennedy chronicles how mental health influenced both his personal life and his career through these stories and others. He goes through his own personal mental heath journey living with depression, bipolar disorder and substance abuse while also highlighting the history and evolution of the mental health system.

An important element of the book is hidden trauma and the mental health conditions that resided within his family. “The more I was confronted in therapy…the more I had to admit that my family issues were not unique at all,” Kennedy writes. “Fathers and sons, worrying about expectations and legacies, speaking but not really talking. Families trying to ignore mental illness and addiction. These are common problems, really common.” In his family, standard protocol was to bottle up trauma, avoid publicity and self-medicate.

One of those family members deeply affected was his father, and Senator, Teddy Kennedy. Patrick Kennedy writes about how the assassinations of both of his uncles had a rippling effect on his father’s mental health. “My father went on in silent desperation for much of his life, self-medicating and unwittingly passing his unprocessed trauma on to my sister, brother and me… His own anguish was palpable and unspoken… Since he was the more emotionally available of my parents, I derived most of my emotional foundation from his strength and his turmoil.”

His relationship with his father is a critical aspect of the book. Almost every period of his life that he shares in the book connects back to their relationship in some way. His father’s political strength and power as a U.S. Senator was something he used as a model to follow and emulate. Unfortunately, he also followed in his father’s footsteps when it came to substance abuse. 

Kennedy is very open throughout the book about his struggle with substance abuse. His story goes back and forth through times of recovery and relapse. His poignant examples display the harsh reality that a person can face when struggling with addiction. For example, in 2008, Kennedy received a prescription for painkillers after breaking his hand. He knew they would send him into a downward spiral, but immediately made plans in his mind to abuse them. He writes, “I can still remember how much I craved those pills, how much one part of my brain wanted the drug, and the other part of my brain was telling me it wasn’t a good idea.”

Luckily, for Kennedy, his friend and office manager Terri was there to help. “I’m still amazed at how much courage it took for Terri to confront me, and how many acts of emotional bravery, large and small, it really takes to care about someone with these illnesses,” he proclaims. In the same passage, he commends all people who help to look after people who live with a mental health condition. He understands that it’s not an easy task and it should be appreciated.

Kennedy had to suppress his urges for alcohol and drugs while simultaneously serving as a public face trying to pass the legislation that could positively change the lives of millions of people who shared his struggle.

Parity for mental health care that included care for substance abuse disorders was something that Kennedy and his father fought for together. This issue carried an important weight for both of them because this was something that they themselves struggled with, along with numerous family members. He was never able to muster up the courage to point out to his father that the bill they were fighting for would also help their family. “Did he realize that one of the families that this bill was supposed to help de-stigmatize was ours?” he wanted to ask. “Did he know that making sure that the bill wasn’t only about mental illness but about alcoholism and drug addiction was about us too?”

Kennedy’s personal experience gives him an inside view to the parity that he is fighting for. Throughout the book, there are several points where Kennedy eloquently demonstrates how debilitating and challenging it is to not only live with a mental illness, but also be stigmatized for it. The wisdom he derives from his experiences with stigma and perception are woven through almost every page in A Common Struggle. This book is a candid and genuine depiction of Kennedy’s life living with numerous mental health conditions.

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