William C. Moyers
Beyond Addiction by William C. Moyers
Improving our understanding of alcohol and drug addiction
Crusader to Critic
There is never a time or place to publicly "out" somebody in the throes of a private, personal health crisis. But when that struggle erupts in front of an audience, calling out that person's actions is not only necessary. It is the right thing to do.
The other day, Rep. Patrick Kennedy slammed addiction treatment in front of federal officials at a House subcommittee hearing. According to Congressional Quarterly, Kennedy said, "I've made a very close personal analysis of treatment centers. I've gone to the best in the country myself -- Mayo, Ashley, Sierra Tucson, others -- it's all based upon ... treating your weakness instead of your strengths, and it's outside where you live. So it doesn't help you in the course of your life." He also called these programs "losers" because they don't do enough to help people recover after treatment.
To people who don't know his own story, it might seem as though Kennedy's "analysis" was part of a congressional investigation into how these facilities treat people with mental illness or addiction. It wouldn't be surprising, either, for a politician looking for a photo op to make a fact-finding visit to such a place.
The truth is Kennedy knows these places and what they do because of his own problems over the years. After he crashed his car on Capitol Hill in 2006, Kennedy announced he was off to treatment because of an addiction to pain medication. And he also has bravely shared his struggles with depression and bipolar disorder. Last year, he told the world again he needed treatment for alcoholism.
That's how I got to know him professionally and admire him personally. Along with his father, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, and Minnesota Rep. Jim Ramstad, the Democrat from Rhode Island championed the final push to persuade Congress to expand access to treatment by ending discrimination by private insurance companies against people with mental illness or addiction. Hazelden and other treatment programs, including some of those Kennedy ranted against, were part of that effort, too. The parity law took full effect July 1. And now millions of Americans can use their health insurance to get the help they or their families need and deserve.
Ironic, isn't it? From crusader to critic, Patrick Kennedy has turned on the very counselors, doctors, nurses, therapists, administrators and programs dedicated to people like him and the legions of others who, unlike him, lack the stature or resources to easily find hope, help and healing. His scorn probably has done more to stigmatize treatment programs than any of his opponents in Congress or the lobbyists who spent millions of dollars in their shameless fight against the legislation.
I don't doubt that the ignorant skeptics who still believe depression and addiction aren't legitimate illnesses deserving of treatment are quite pleased, too. Their argument that treatment doesn't work has a new poster child.
And that's the worst part. Over the decades, the Kennedy legacy has been about helping people. But those who still suffer won't find inspiration in this Kennedy's public meltdown on Capitol Hill.
Kennedy is wrong. Facilities don't treat a "weakness." They treat an illness while also helping to strengthen a person's mind, body and spirit for the challenges of staying the arduous course of recovery later.
I hope it isn't too late for my friend and fellow traveler Patrick Kennedy to find that strength, too.
July 3, 2010