Tom Kennedy, drug counselor for Volunteers of America, can see right through you

John Brizzolara meets him at Sobriety House

"I don't think I've ever met an alcoholic I didn't like."

Thomas Clarence Kennedy was born and raised in San Diego. A product of Saint Augustine High School in North Park and the United States Army in the 1960s, Kennedy is a program administrator and substance-abuse counselor for the Volunteers of America. He is also, and every bit as much, a product of the Vietnam War and blended Scotch whiskey. His middle name came courtesy of his Franciscan priest uncle. A first-generation Irish-American kid growing up in a fast-growing border town famous for tuna fishing, Sea World, and a zoo, Kennedy was a pretty good baseball player, maybe more than pretty good, but all he'll say about it is, "I know I got looked at [for the minor leagues] but..." and shrugs. This is typical of the Kennedy ego. Tom Kennedy is a tall man, several inches over six feet, with gray-blond hair cut short and a clipped Van Dyke beard. He wears glasses and speaks with a quiet hoarseness, possibly from doing so much of it in groups over the years. Seated in the lounge of Sobriety House, the residential treatment center at Second and Elm, in the same building that houses the San Diego Rescue Mission, he is quick to laugh and always greets co-workers and residents returning early from work or job searches. I've known him for seven years. My last stint in rehab resulted from flipping a bus token. It came up tails, and I visited Kennedy at Sobriety House's former location at 1111 Island Avenue. (You can guess at "heads.") Kennedy smiled, invited me over to a couch where he was watching his Padres do very well, and said, "C'mon," and walked me over to detox or "the Inebriate Reception Center." Kennedy got me into the residential program and assigned himself to be my counselor. His "One-on-One" schedule consists of no schedule in particular but an open-door policy whenever he is on the premises and not putting out fires with parole officers, relapsed clients, relatives, or any of a number of situations that daily demand thinking on one's feet, quick evaluations, and a large measure of humanity.

During the months I lived in Sobriety House, my relationship with Kennedy was casual in a sense, considering the situation, but gratifying, reassuring, and mostly funny. Kennedy's sense of humor, colored by his time in-country during the Vietnam War, is often black, sometimes shifting into ultraviolet, but he can in no sense be considered a negative man. He once backed me when a resident of Amigos Sobrios, along with a few of his friends from the Hispanic sister program to Sobriety House, threatened me with violence. But largely, our conversations have had to do with books. Kennedy brought a novel in for me that he recommended: The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas, and in exchange, I gave him C.S. Lewis's Great Divorce, which he later described as "one of the best books I ever read." The Thomas book had Sigmund Freud as a character, and Kennedy and I discussed Freud and his cocaine use on occasion, referring to him as "Ziggy." Kennedy called me Lazlo for a while, after I had expressed a now-foggy desire (I was probably detoxing at the time) to write under the name Lazlo La Torque. Later I became Big Bad John, after the Jimmy Dean record, I suppose. In some of our private conversations, Kennedy spoke more openly about Vietnam experiences that he did not wish to include here, and I also lent him Dispatches, by Michael Herr. Sobriety, for me, was an idea whose time had come, and there was and is something about Kennedy's sobriety that reinforces the idea as a good one.

When Kennedy freed some time for an interview, I was disappointed that he was not keen on discussing his Catholic background or war. We had talked about these things at some length, and I found them interesting and likely very much a part of him. Saying he wished to avoid getting on any negative tangents, he suggested sticking solely to recovery as a topic.

Born in 1940, he graduated from high school in 1959 and still belongs to the alumni groups attending sports activities, among other things. "I went into the Army in the '60s, and I think that helped to blossom my chemical dependency. Originally, I was a weapons specialist, and though I got through the Army unscathed, I think it contributed to my alcoholism. When I got out of the military I met a girl, got married, and had three kids. I have a son now who is 47 years old and an electrical engineer, a daughter here in San Diego who is an underwriter for a large insurance company, and another daughter who is a supervisor in the billing department at Alvarado Hospital. I drank my way out of that marriage. I was in and out of treatment at several locations [around San Diego] in the late '60s, early '70s. The county back then ran detox, and I believe I was in there over 60 times on three-day stays. There was one time I was in there twice in one day. I graduated at 8:30 in the morning, and I was back for lunch. I never got above Market Street. I was finally in there for the last time in 1975 and got into recovery.

"I went to a place, at that time called 'Twelve-Step House' -- it's now called 'Hartland House.' I went in there, telling myself, I'll live here a couple of weeks, get a paycheck, and leave. My prior job experience was in retail, at Kmart, as a store manager. I ended up staying at Twelve-Step for just about a year. Something happened to me in that house. I'd avoided recovery homes because I heard stories about them. But even after a couple of years, after I left Hartland House, I kept coming back and I'd help out. The manager that was there became the director -- he's deceased now -- Hobie Kilian. There was nothing clinical about this guy; it was either get in the program or die.

"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.

"I've been able to identify the negative of alcohol in performing my life task. What do I need to do to keep sober? A lot of people don't have the willingness to go past that. If anybody discovered how to do that, get that willingness, they'd become rich." At this point in the interview, we begin reminiscing about characters we both knew at Rancho L'Abri, where I had met Kennedy and spent six weeks in treatment that included, among other things, attending classes with the late Dr. John Milner. We commiserated on the sensibilities of this famous addictionologist and brought up other residents, including a wannabe Mafioso who had a habit of falling in love with female addicts and breaking down doors in their dorms. His family kept him there indefinitely. "This guy was so off the wall, they [his family] just kind of farmed him out to California and kept him in treatment centers. He actually did have a substance problem, but he had a whole lot more problems than that." We spoke of "med call," where I first encountered Tom Kennedy doling out my cardiac meds every day, and how the drug Haldol (a kind of tranquilizer) was so commonly prescribed to addicted residents that staff at Rancho L'Abri called it "Ranch Dressing." "Yeah, I learned a lot from Dr. Milner and Macfarlane and Al Perick, who wrote a lot of the state laws and regulations for alcohol and drug programs. He was a great man I worked for for about four years -- deceased now. He taught me volumes on recovery, stuff I never would have thought of.

"So I consider myself someone who has worked both sides of the street: social models and clinical models. Some people need more than to just stop drinking. I'm back at the VOA, where I started out some 30 years ago, whatever it is, and I'll say this: it's very effective. I think it's one of the finer programs in the field. It's one of the finer programs I've worked for. The curriculum is excellent. Of course, it's come a long way from the old social-model days; we call it 'treatment' now. Now we dispense medications to clients. We're in transition. We're trying to get our own recovery home going. That process is going on right now. It's going to be like Sobriety House but not at this location. The ten-day [known sometimes as "Boot Camp for AA"] program is back on Island Avenue now, though some of them are here [at San Diego Rescue Mission]." The Island Avenue location was slated for the wrecking ball on January 1, 2007, and a 180-plus condominium complex to be called "the Islands" was to be erected on that spot. That has changed, possibly because of the large number of already existing condominiums that are unsold, unleased, or unrented in the ballpark area. The politics are unclear at the moment, at least to Kennedy. "I stay out of that mix pretty much," he says. Near VOA, the next trolley stop north, in fact, is Homequest, a sober-living environment for recovering addicts and alcoholics downtown. Joanne Barenco has been living there as an assistant manager for Homequest for the past year. She considers Kennedy to be a vital part of her recovery, having herself graduated from Sobriety House in late 2005. "He's just a really good human being," says Barenco, 51. "When I first got there [Sobriety House], I wasn't very confident in my recovery. I remember, as one of the things that stand out, was when he looked me square in the eye in those early days and said, 'Look, you can do this thing. If I can do it, you can do it.' And I believed him.

"I still believe him. I have to attribute any success I've had in my recovery -- which is quite a lot, I believe -- to Tom Kennedy. I trust the man, I respect the man, and I'm grateful that Kennedy is part of my life. I still go down there to the new location for the Wednesday- night meetings when I'm not working. He means a lot to me. He's been through hell, and he's got it in him to help other people. It's great that God saw fit to let me cross paths with him. He's a special individual." Barenco presented Kennedy with his 31-year sobriety birthday cake at that Wednesday-night meeting in August of 2006.

In an attempt to gather quotes from those who might not be as sympathetic or kind, as approving or supportive of Kennedy as a professional or as a personality, I did find three dissenters, all of them former residents of Sobriety House. None were particularly articulate on the subject, but more to the point, none could cite examples or incidents that would indicate exactly why he was, in two examples, "an asshole," or in a third case, precisely what would give the impression that Kennedy's belief system included a delusional sense that his digested food would give off no offensive scent. Neither would they allow their names to be used, though one offered to be quoted as "Thrasher-Dog" or "Rig."

Rick Ortiz, in his early 50s -- a cook, writer, boxing enthusiast, counselor, and aspiring voice-over talent -- has known Kennedy for some 25 years. "Since 1981 or '82. Tom had worked there then. Went away and came back. Yeah, a quarter of a century. He's been very instrumental in the process of my recovery. He's helped me with drug addiction and alcoholism in my personal life. And when I was a novice clinical assistant at Rancho L'Abri, where he also worked, he mentored me. He helped introduce me to the concept of the 12-step fellowship program. Many years down the line, he helped when I was working in the field. Personally, he has a great sense of humor and a side to him that has extreme depth that can help direct you, solutionize. He can help you help yourself, help you see a clear and present picture of your current dilemma. He'll give you a road map to help you get out of that and find some resolve. He's very talented that way."

"Few people, very few people, that I've known in my lifetime have that ability.

"I've gone from being a client to coworker or protégé to friend. I've had a very interesting relationship with him. He has counseled me in areas other than drugs and alcohol, and as a result, things are good in my life." What, I ask, does Ortiz think of Kennedy's technique -- or non-technique -- of having no official therapy session at any given time, no 50-minute-hour approach? "He has a unique way of doing a one-on-one. It's almost as if he can see right through you. He's been doing this so long, it's like he can make an immediate assessment of what you're doing right and what you're doing wrong. In a few words he can redirect you. With me, he knows me so goddamned well, it's really hard to pull the wool over his eyes. When I was a resident, he never bothered me about anything as long as I didn't get loaded. He had enough faith and confidence in my ability to get back on my feet, which I proved I could do, to leave me to my own devices pretty much." This brought us back to Kennedy's hands-off treatment policy, which might well be summed up in a joke that circulates in recovery. It may not be original with Kennedy's co-counselor Bob Heyenga at Sobriety House, but he was the one who told it to me, and we may have been speaking of Kennedy: "How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?" The answer: "One, but the light bulb has to want to change."


"If you don't mind," I ask Kennedy as the shadows stretch in the basement lounge area of the San Diego Rescue Mission, "what made you want to change?" "Well, I'll tell you. My first marriage...not to break up my first wife's anonymity, she just celebrated 32 years of sobriety. She got sober six months before I did, and I saw her changing her attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, becoming the person I had met years before, and that was a motivator. The other thing was my oldest daughter, Maureen. I remember one incident years ago. I had told her I wouldn't drink, and I was really sick one morning. You know, sick?" "Yes," I said. He meant hungover to the point of ineffable physical, mental, and spiritual anguish; what the book of Alcoholics Anonymous calls "pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization." "I got up that way real early one morning and snuck into the kitchen to the refrigerator and got a beer. I stuffed a pillow around it and a towel so nobody could hear the phfffttt when I opened it. I sat on the couch next to this room-divider, drinking this beer and trying to get well, when I had the feeling someone was looking at me. I looked up at the room-divider, and peering at me from behind it was my daughter. Maureen was looking right at me, and she had tears in her eyes. 'I thought you said you were never going to drink again,' she said.

"And I knew then that I had to do something. I knew I had to do something before that, but I just couldn't stop.

"But that got my attention. What keeps me sober is -- of course, I've been remarried for 23 years, and I've got a 22-year-old daughter in this marriage -- Ashley. She doesn't mind if I break her anonymity. She's a chip off the old block, but she's taken to recovery like a fish to water. My other kids never had any problem with alcohol and drug addiction. Life is good. Life goes on."

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