May 22, 2006 12:00 PM

For six years, Rep. Patrick Kennedy has spoken openly about his battle with bipolar disorder and depression. But it wasn’t until May 5, the day after he crashed his green Mustang convertible into a Capitol Hill barrier at 3 a.m., that the six-term Rhode Island representative owned up to another demon: a pain-pill addiction. At a press conference, Kennedy, 38, said that last Christmas he checked into Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic to address a years-long “addiction to pain medication.” Now, unable to remember any part of his nocturnal misadventure—which resulted in police citing him for three offenses—the youngest of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s three children said, “I do know enough to know that I need to seek expert help.” Then he checked back into rehab—leaving some questions in his wake.

By his own account, Kennedy, who is single, wandered from his bed under the influence of the antinausea drug Phenergan, which he was taking for a stomach ailment, and Ambien, a sleeping aid that has drawn attention lately after users reported driving in their sleep (PEOPLE, April 3). Taken together, says Gene Lutz of the American Pharmacists Association, “it could make you sleepy and disoriented.” But neither drug is a painkiller. Friends, who trace Kennedy’s painkiller addiction to surgery he had as a college student to remove a tumor from his back, see why the car crash propelled him back into rehab. “His reaction to [these] prescription medications scared him,” says pal Jack McConnell. “I think he realized how volatile it still was.”

For many friends, the bigger surprise was a May 6 report in the Providence Journal that Kennedy had also admitted to binge drinking. “I’ve never seen Patrick drunk, and I’ve seen him in plenty of private places where there was no political reason not to drink,” says former Rhode Island governor Bruce Sundlun. As for Kennedy’s political future, on May 8 state Democrats endorsed him for reelection after party chairman Bill Lynch vowed, “We don’t walk away from our friends.”

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