Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Patrick Kennedy Discusses His Brain, Because He Fears Discussing Himself

Your TV guide to Dr. Sanjay Gupta's Sunday interview with Patrick Kennedy

Dr. Sanjay Gupta Reports debuts Sunday, May 22, 7 PM, with Gupta, a neurosurgeon and CNN's medical correspondent (and an all-around good guy) interviewing Patrick Kennedy, former Congressman, son of Ted Kennedy, and a famous alcoholic-addict, who describes his repeated stints in rehab and his depression. The show is titled: "Patrick Kennedy, Coming Clean," while CNN congratulates itself because the show "Brings Mental Health Out of the Shadows."

What the show actually does is to allow Kennedy to try to explain his life, to himself and others. Gupta sets him up with the question: "Is addiction a moral failure or a disease?" As though that were the only choice (shame on you Sanjay). Kennedy, a man whose life in many areas has been marked by hesitation and uncertainty, knows the definitive answer: "It's a disease of the brain...this is totally a neurological disorder."

The promos for the interview display PET scans -- you know, energy-sensitive pictures with drug-affected areas of the brain lit up. Are these actual pictures of Kennedy's brain? I ask because, although they generate pictures like these in Nora Volkow's NIDA labs, no treatment center that I am aware of relies on them. The following is not a realistic scenario: "Here is your brain, which shows you are addicted. Here is our treatment, and how it affects your brain. Here is your brain since we've treated it; see how the danger zones no longer light up?"

That doesn't happen anywhere in America; no Americans are diagnosed for addiction by scanning their brains. They are diagnosed by being asked how much of different substances they use and how that use is screwing up their lives.

But Patrick, like many people (and I suspect the Kennedy family more than average), doesn't like to talk about feelings and how these arise, other than to claim they are produced spontaneously by his brain. The program description says he speaks frankly about his family relationships, but I don't believe he can.

Here's what Kennedy says about his depression and upbringing: "I felt like a loser...I felt like...I'm not living up. What a shame. You know, I'm a shame on my family by needing treatment, for getting mental health treatment."

Here's what I hear: "I felt inadequate around the Kennedys, and especially my father." Ted Kennedy, a complex man, was perhaps the greatest U.S. Senator of all time. Of course, he also drove a car with a young campaign worker (a woman, wouldn't you know) off a bridge and she died, after which Kennedy rushed away without reporting the accident.

So, Ted Kennedy was a tough father, and not just for Patrick -- more especially for his wife, Joan. The Boston Globe reported that, at their wedding, a video (which Joan later heard) recorded older brother Jack telling Ted that marriage "didn't mean you had to be faithful." Good to know!

Joan had a rough life. Less resilient that Jaqueline or Bobby's wife, Ethel, she collapsed emotionally, and drank. And, despite receiving all the best treatment and brain scans, she eventually was declared incompetent by her children, who took over control of her life.

This Saturday, a number of people expect our mortal world to end (they don't say morning or night, so I can't tell you whether to cancel the babysitter), and are planning accordingly, quitting their jobs and preparing for the rapture. If history is any guide, on Sunday they'll be explaining why they were right anyhow, even though the world was not destroyed. These converts remind me of Kennedy, who has been in treatment any number of times, and whose mother never was able to recover, explaining how he knows the perfect way to treat addiction, a message he quit his job in order to spread.

Patrick can't talk about his father's impact on his mother, it's too challenging, in good part because his father was simultaneously so powerful and capable and yet so cruel. Children -- and I believe these unresolvable feelings were present throughout Patrick's life -- can't assimilate such disparate ideas about a person they love. Patrick never learned how. So, instead, he prefers pictures of brains, which are much safer.

Patrick could never be as good a legislator as Ted: he was an undistinguished, albeit well-liked, Rhode Island Congressman until he recently quit. And, the funny thing is, given his dad's own failures, it's impossible for Patrick to be as beloved as Ted. This is, in part, beause Ted was so powerful, and people love power, but also because the elder Kennedy had a gift for charming and befriending people.

Here's how I guess Patrick falls off the wagon. He goes to a bar where people know him, and he gets drunk, and friendly, and funny, and feels -- for a time -- like how he imagines his father felt, powerful and secure, in a way he saw the old man typically act. (Ted was regarded by many to be an alcoholic, but never sought treatment, to my knowledge, and reduced his drinking later in life -- you know, the way most people do.)

Drinking did for Patrick what nothing else could: make him feel less inadequate. And that whole nexus of feelings, including contemplating his mother's morbid alcoholism, is just not within Patrick's reach.

So he and Gupta will talk about those brains -- in some vague, unproven ways -- as though at some dim distant future point Dr. Gupta will be able to operate and excise Patrick's, and Joan's, addictive diseases.

Sorry, Patrick, that will never happen. And telling yourself and others that it will (which, along with raising money to fund this fantasy, seems to be his full-time occupation now) won't help you or your audience.

Follow Stanton on Twitter