"He asked if I'd be interested in getting in the business, and the Hartland House hired me.
"Kilian was the guy who really got me interested in the field and got me to stick it out. After a time being program director there, I left and went back to retail, stayed in that about a month, and realized I missed working with alcoholics a lot. I talked with him, and he said, 'Come on back.' So from that time on -- that was 1977 -- I stayed approximately three years, and then I came down to Volunteers of America at 1111 Island Avenue and worked my way from counselor to administrator.
"I was there for four years. It was mostly what they call a social model back then. There was no clinical anything. I was there from 1980 to '84. Then some friends of mine, guys I knew, some Vietnam vets, started Vietnam Veterans of San Diego, and they were looking for an admin-istrator.
"They had a recovery home site all picked out at a location called the Landing Zone, so they asked me to come down there. I was the director from 1984 to 1988. I kind of enjoyed that experience, but it got hectic after a while, a lot of pressure because you deal with -- not just issues of alcohol and drug disorders -- but a different crowd with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and other combat-related problems. There was a big demand on me at the time. Eventually a woman I'd known named Rose Jones, an administrator at Rancho L'Abri out in Dulzura, gave me an opportunity and I went to work out there for a man named Dr. John Milner -- another great teacher -- who taught me everything I know about the clinical part of alcohol and drug addiction. Also out there was a Dr. Macfarlane, now deceased, who taught me much about the medical aspects of the disease. I spent from about 1988 to 2003 there as a therapist. I retired once in 1988, and I missed it so bad I came back and just handed out meds and things to keep my hand in.
"In 2003, I decided I wanted to go fishing and just go to my own AA meetings and stuff like that, which I really like to do. In about a year I got bored again. So I sent a résumé in to the Volunteers of America. Full circle again. I started back with a Hispanic program they have, because they had no one at the time. This was Amigos Sobrios. It is still there, as you know. I was supervisor, the point man. My title here, as program director of Sobriety House, is registered addiction specialist.
"During that time, what it came down to was that I realized that my main job was to stay sober. My job is not just doing what I do as employment; it is part of my recovery. Sometimes it's very rewarding, and sometimes it's very disappointing. After ten years in AA, I quit carrying caskets, it just got too sad.
"My spiritual awakening consisted of, life goes on without my alcohol. There are still the bills, relationship problems, all the everyday things. The thing is that I don't have to drink."
This may sound elementary, unremarkable, but it is surprising how much of a revelation it can be to the active alcoholic. Kennedy once, in a group session, asked residents of the house, some 30 or so men and 5 women, "How many in here can't drink?" Nearly all of them raised their hands, certain it was the correct answer, the desired response, what they were supposed to say. "Wrong," Kennedy grinned. "Anyone in here can drink. It's legal, you're adults, you are physically capable of lifting a glass to your lips. You don't have to drink. You have a choice until you take that drink, and then you lose the choice."
Another of Kennedy's trademark routines is part of his talk to those in recovery. He will empty his pockets on a podium or table: wallet, keys, change, etc. Then he will ask the audience to imagine him setting his grandchildren alongside everything else and to pretend a few pieces of paper represent his marriage certificate, the deed to his house, bill of health, etc., all the things you might as well set on the bar and turn over to the bartender, along with your charge card and cash, when you order your next drink. His manner is consistently matter-of-fact, never evangelical.
"I know now that I have the freedom of choice, but if I go that way, that's all the stuff that's going to go with it. Maybe not today or tomorrow but sooner or later."
Kennedy feels he must include longtime sponsor in AA, John L., whom he considers "another great teacher. The man is 85 years old, with the heart of a lion, the spirit of a 25-year-old man. His whole mission in life is to help people recover from this disease."
I ask Kennedy how much time he spends outside of recovery circles, and the answer is, "Quite a bit. I go to movies, I go out to dinner a lot with my wife. I like to do that a lot."
I tell him that I am still amazed, stunned really, at the level of ignorance that still surrounds alcoholism and drug addiction at this late date. "It's a disease of denial," he says. "Anybody can stop drinking. Anyone can achieve abstinence. The trick is, how do you stay stopped for the rest of your life?" I tell him that I meant, for example, the myth of willpower that continues and that I mean among those outside of recovery, among nonalcoholics. Kennedy continues in his vein. His concern is with alcoholics and not anyone else. "Alcoholics are egotistical and self-centered, and they think they can do all this stuff themselves. To admit they have a problem in this way is a sign of weakness. The whole thing is to develop some humility. AA is the only place I know where I've developed humility without being humiliated. The key is the thought process: I can't, God can, I think I'll let Him. Those are the first three steps of AA.