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Originally published Sunday, March 17, 2013 at 6:09 AM

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Christopher Kennedy Lawford: In recovery, life and a life’s mission

Son of Hollywood and Washington royalty, Christopher Kennedy Lawford talks about his family, his yoga addiction and life in recovery.

Seattle Times columnist

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Christopher Kennedy Lawford sure doesn’t sound like a member of America’s royal family. He drops f-bombs like his cousins drop anchor off Cape Cod, and has the kind of scruffy, weathered voice that comes when you’ve been up for anything, at any hour, for far too long.

Kennedy secrets are dredged up ad infinitum — books, auctions, and the occasional tertiary tell-all — but generally the family keeps their own counsel. Lawford, 57, is the black sheep. The one with nothing to lose, because he has almost lost it all.

According to him, he’s written books and spoken publicly about how he drank and drugged through the seemingly soundproofed rooms of privilege because it helps him stay sober. It may help someone else.

“My mother hated psychiatrists and my father got high with me, so I was (expletive) from the get-go,” said Lawford, the son of actor Peter Lawford and Patricia “Pat” Kennedy, sister of John F. and Robert F. Kennedy.

“The only thing I did right is that I didn’t die,” Lawford said, “and I always stayed connected to the part of me that wanted me to get better. And it took 10 (expletive) years of working my ass off.”

Lawford was talking from his home in Maui, where he is working on a follow-up to his new book, “Recover to Live: Kick Any Habit, Manage Any Addiction.”

The book, his third, brings together self-care treatments for the seven most toxic compulsions: alcohol dependence; drug dependence; eating disorders; gambling; hoarding; smoking; sex and porn. Lawford, who has a master’s in clinical psychology from Harvard, interviewed 100 experts about the way to recovery.

He will speak at Youth Eastside Services’ “Invest in Youth” breakfast, to be held at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue. (For tickets, go to www.youtheastsideservices.org) That day at 7 p.m., he will read and sign at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.

“People need entertainment,” Lawson said of his talks. “I have a context that people appreciate, and I don’t mind talking about the people I came from. That’s part of my story.

“But what gets me off is talking about solutions.”

His stories have been told (most notably in his best-selling 2006 memoir, “Symptoms of Withdrawal”), but they’re worth repeating.

When Lawford was 6, Marilyn Monroe taught him how to do the Twist. He was roused from his sleep to watch his Uncle Jack announce his candidacy for president.

Then in 1963, his Uncle Jack was killed in Dallas. He was 8.

“November 22 changed my life completely,” Lawford said. “It went from light to dark. I mean really (expletive) dark. I started medicating with sugar.”

Four years later, when he was 12, a friend offered him acid. He said no.

“I came from a place where I wanted to make a difference,” he said. “I wanted to become a war hero like my Uncle Jack. Write a book and become President of the United States.”

A year later, in 1968, his Uncle Bobby was shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel while campaigning for president. He died at a nearby hospital.

“My Uncle Bobby was my mother’s best friend,” Lawford said. “Her life was over.”

So when the same friend offered Lawford acid again, he said yes.

“I was an angry, scared kid looking for a way out, and drugs and alcohol were perfect,” he said. “I think they always saved my life, because they took the pain away, but they almost killed me.”

His family didn’t know what to do, but they, too, were all suffering. And there was the publicity to worry about.

“Look, I grew up in a time when there was very little awareness,” he said. “My family really wanted to help me, but this is a family illness and back then, nobody knew what they were doing.

“My family was too obliterated by real (stuff) that happened. They didn’t have the time or the inclination. There was just a lot to overcome.”

And let’s not forget: The Kennedys were — and still are — a proud Irish lot.

“They didn’t believe in talking about their feelings,” Lawford said. “My Uncle Teddy was emotional, but unable to be vulnerable. You have to be vulnerable to hear things you don’t want to hear.”

Lawford has been sober for 27 years, and attends three or four recovery meetings a week.

“That is the center of my life,” he said of the recovery community, “and it is where I have learned most everything I do.”

The recovery community, he said, is becoming more “defined and visible,” which is good. But it is not enough.

“We’re a little bit out of the closet, but we need to come out a lot more” he said, and fight to make addiction and mental-health treatment part of basic health care coverage.

Lawford, who earned his membership in the Screen Actors Guild with various movie roles and a three-year stint on “All My Children,” is outraged that the union dropped addiction treatment and mental-health services from its coverage last year.

Folks who are in recovery, he said, can decide to work their programs and help each other, Lawford said.

“There is nothing more profound than one alcoholic helping another,” he said. “But you need to know that there is a problem out there not being addressed” by the lawmakers who are hammering out health care.

“To me, there is no more fundamental issue,” he said of recovery services. “It’s a social justice issue.”

At home, he is “constantly moving”: paddleboarding, hot yoga (“It shuts my brain off”). He lives in three shacks that were renovated from top to bottom, collects photography and writes.

He loves it in Seattle, by the way. His girlfriend is from here, and they’ve talked about getting an apartment in Fremont, where he has a favorite bikram yoga studio.

“The last thing in the world I wanted to be was the (expletive) poster boy for addiction recovery!” he insisted. “But I found me. I want me, I want my life. I love my baggage and what I come from and the ability to do what I want to do.”

Lawford used to joke that one day, when his kids were grown, he would go to an island and drink himself to death.

“I know enough today that that is a choice,” he said. “I also know that it is not going to work.”

Nicole Brodeur: nbrodeur@seattletimes.com

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