Patrick Kennedy believes his father suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder following his brothers' assassinations

By Tierney McAfee
Updated October 07, 2015 06:50 PM
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Pam Berry/The Boston Globe/Getty

Patrick Kennedy is done keeping secrets.

The former Rhode Island congressman, 48, is opening up about the Kennedy family’s struggles with mental illness and addiction in his controversial new memoir, A Common Struggle, as well as in this week’s issue of PEOPLE.

At the forefront is his father, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, whom Patrick now believes suffered not only from a serious “drinking problem” but also from untreated post-traumatic stress disorder following the assassinations of brother and President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and brother Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.

Patrick goes on to paint a raw and unsettling portrait of his father, a man he says suffered “in silent desperation for much of his life, self-medicating and unwittingly passing his unprocessed trauma onto my sister, brother and me.”

The self-medicating included a “drinking problem” so severe that Patrick and siblings staged an intervention for their father in 1991. It was not well-received. “He took it the exact opposite way we had hoped,” Patrick writes of his dad, who responded by chastising them and walking out.

It was “family code” to never talk about the many tragedies the Kennedys endured, Patrick explains to PEOPLE.

It’s a code he has now broken, much to the dismay of his loved ones.

His brother, Ted Kennedy Jr., said he is “heartbroken” by the “inaccurate and unfair portrayal of our family” and his mother, Joan, has denied participating in the project.

Patrick, who also shares his own story of addiction and mental illness in the book, accepts what he describes as his mother’s instinct to “distance” herself from the historically stigmatized diseases.

His shocking revelations about America’s famous family are part of his efforts to accelerate brain research into addiction and mental illness through his One Mind initiative, and to ease the sense of shame that plagues those who suffer.

“Most families are frozen by the shame and hostage to the silence,” he says.

Patrick tells PEOPLE that the “closest my father ever came to acknowledging anything to me about his own struggles” was when the senator, shortly before he died in 2009, gave his son a copy of Bobby Kennedy’s book about union corruption. The book, The Enemy Within, included an inscription from Patrick’s uncle: “To Teddy, who has his own enemy within.”

“We still have a ways to go, both in society and within my own family,” Patrick says.

But “the older I get, the more I see secrecy as ‘the enemy within.’ ”

For much more of Patrick’s exclusive interview, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

Reporting by LIZ MCNEIL