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Patrick Kennedy on addiction, recovery

The Rhode Island Congressman talks about his depression and dependence on painkillers.
/ Source: TODAY

U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy says it took a bizarre late-night car accident near the Capitol Building last May for him to finally realize that his long-time bout with depression and painkillers would likely kill him if he swerves off the road of recovery again.

"I certainly know that this is a life or death situation for me. This is a fatal disease," Kennedy, a Rhode Island Democrat and son of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said Friday during a candid interview on TODAY.

"I know the seriousness of this illness and I am certainly determined, having come so close so many times, to not let this disease take its toll on me ever again," said Kennedy, a seven-term lawmaker who has been treated several times during his life for addiction to cocaine, the painkiller OxyContin and other legal and illegal drugs.

Kennedy, 39, was cited for three minor traffic infractions following a May 4 crash of the 1997 Mustang convertible he drove into a security barrier about a block from the Capitol. Police were criticized for not giving Kennedy a sobriety test, and he later blamed his erratic driving, slurred speech and stumbling on "sleep driving" caused by a sleep aid and prescription medicine for stomach inflammation.

Kennedy, who referred to himself as an “addict," said the incident taught him that there are many narcotic medications that are legal and easily accessible, and that he and others battling addictions need to be careful about substituting one addiction with another.

"In my case, I had been in rehab previously that winter for addiction to pain medication, for OxyContin. What I came to realize was that I had substituted Ambien and Phenergan, which was for my [upset] stomach," he said. "I couldn't afford to take anything that was mood altering or that changed my brain chemistry ... One thing you learn as an addict is that you can substitute anything for your main addiction."

Kennedy, who said he feels great now and frequently speaks publicly about the importance of having health insurance help defray the cost of mental health treatment, appeared on TODAY with his recovery sponsor, Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn.

His bond with a fellow politicianRamstad, who chairs the House Addiction Treatment and Recovery Caucus, told TODAY host Matt Lauer that he has been sober ever since he woke up in a Sioux Falls, S.D., jail cell in 1981 and faced disorderly conduct and other charges.

A recovering alcohol, Ramstad said Kennedy's struggle with addiction and his work spreading the message that severely addicted people have places to turn would warrant an entire chapter if his late uncle, President John F. Kennedy, were alive to write a sequel to his famous book, "Profiles In Courage."

Kennedy, who said voters in Rhode Island have clearly given him one more chance when they elected him to a seventh term in Congress in November, appeared agitated and raised his voice while answering questions from Lauer about why he waited a day after the May crash to publicly disclose the circumstances surrounding the accident.

"Like other Americans, there is a great stigma attached to addiction, and I'm not immune to it either, even though I am a champion for mental-health parity. I'm fighting the stigma myself," Kennedy said. "I am also feeling that shame and sense of stigma in my life. That's why I am empathize with millions of Americans who feel that sense of shame at calling themselves addicts and alcoholics."

In 1969, Edward M. Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of one of history's most-famous traffic fatalities, which came to be known simply as Chappaquiddick. A young campaign worker, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned when the Oldsmobile the young senator was driving plunged off a narrow bridge into a pond in Martha's Vineyard. Kennedy, whose presidential ambitions also drowned that day, had been at a party for hours but insisted he was disoriented and not intoxicated at the time of the accident.

On March 7, Patrick Kennedy and Ramstad introduced the “The Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act,” a House bill to improve the overall health of Americans by granting greater access to mental health and addiction treatment. The bill would also prohibit health insurers from placing discriminatory restrictions on treatment, according to Kennedy’s Web site.

Kennedy also recently hosted a screening of the new HBO documentary series “Addiction.”

— John Springer, TODAY contributor, and news reports