A recovered addict’s lessons in wellness
What do we not understand about addiction and how to avoid it? A lot according to JFK’s nephew Christopher Kennedy Lawford.
And Lawford, who was in Australia last week to launch the new South Pacific rehab clinic, would know.
For his 21st birthday, his father, actor and Rat Pack member Peter Lawford gave him a vial of cocaine. Many years later, as Christopher’s alcoholic mother Patricia was dying of tongue cancer, Christopher fed her cubes of wine to satiate her addiction.
Christopher himself also had the self-destruct button pushed in firmly. Having taken LSD as a 13-year-old, he later moved onto heroin and spent 17 years in the grips of addiction.
“People think, if they see someone drinking too much, acting strangely from chemicals, eating too much, sex addicts – they just think they’re perverse – people believe they’re enjoying themselves,” the 61-year-old says from his hotel room in Sydney. “That’s completely wrong. People who are doing this stuff, they’re not having a good time.”
Another misunderstanding, Lawford says, is that the behaviour of an addict is personal. “Their actions are not telling you how they feel about you, they’re telling you how they feel about themselves.”
The actor, who has appeared in the soap All My Children and movies including The World’s Fastest Indian and Terminator 3, says that it took him 10 years of trying before he stayed clean.
“Nothing worked,” says Lawford. “I went to grad school, changed girlfriends, locked myself in a room, went to rehab. I should have died … You knock on a door 500 times and it opens. What was different that day? Nothing.”
But, something, finally, was different because he returned to the 12 Steps program yet again and stuck to it.
“I hit that level of surrender. It was a spiritual experience,” says Lawford, who remains sober 30 years later.
Three decades of “active recovery” is a long time to ponder a complex problem that affects about 10 per cent of any population.
“There’s definitely a genetic component to it,” says Lawford, whose own daughter battled addiction as a teen. “There are a number of genes that determine how alcohol affects you when it gets into your brain.”
In fact, researchers believe addiction is about 50 per cent genetic predisposition. And the other 50 per cent?
It’s certainly not determined by material wealth. Addiction knows no socio-economic bounds: 10 per cent of teachers, 10 per cent of plumbers, and 10 per cent of CEOs have an addiction.
Growing up in an incredibly privileged family didn’t make Lawford or his family immune to struggle. “They were miserable too,” he says.
In the 2015 book Chasing the Scream, author Johann Hari argues that it is not the chemical that causes addiction so much as a sense of disconnection with others.
“So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection,” Hari says.
“The primary problem of alcoholics are defective relationships with fellows,” Lawford agrees.
Learning to develop better connections with others is one way to mitigate genetic predisposition towards addiction, as is understanding your own legacy and working on the aspects of yourself that will keep you mentally fit and able to cope with the challenges of life.
“Recovery has to be more than fear of relapse and working on defects,” adds Lawford.
“There are certain things [an addict] can do. They need to stop using, they need to trust somebody, they need something that’s bigger than them – their wife, their job, God – service helps; helping others is a big deal.”
For his part, Lawford helps others (and presumably himself in turn) through writing, (he has written five books on the subject of addiction and recovery, including a New York Times best-seller) mentoring and works as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
“People need skillsets, they need to learn how to build relationships, how to make and keep money, how to care for themselves.”
It provides necessary meaning and purpose, he says, noting that in one way or other “all people medicate the intolerableness of our lives”. He might still experience suffering – these days he just channels it differently.
“I don’t drink or do drugs but I go to Bikram yoga,” Lawford says, despite admitting he “can’t stand” it but enjoys the feeling afterwards. “I surf, I kite, I go to the gym sometimes. I medicate with activity.”
Although Lawford’s focus is addiction, his insight and advice are surely applicable for anyone trying to create a fulfilling life.
“I’ve come full circle,” he says. “I understand it.”
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