Patrick Kennedy and the Jersey Girl

Two years ago, Patrick­ Kennedy, a troubled scion­ of America’s greatest­ political­ dynasty,­ walked into an Atlantic City ballroom­ and met a local schoolteacher who would become his wife. Now he’s reinventing­ himself—while living ­in his in-laws’ house in Absecon.­ An unconventional­ love story.

PATRICK KENNEDY IS ACCUSTOMED TO PEOPLE knowing his backstory before he meets them. He recalls being taken to psychotherapy at age 13 by his mother, Joan, during his parents’ high-profile split in the early ’80s, and feeling unsure he “could trust the psychiatrist to keep things private, so I would edit things out. Then one day I walked into a bookstore and browsed the Kennedy section and saw that two-thirds of the books had more of my family secrets than I thought I could tell my therapist. I thought, Why am I feeling so burdened by these secrets when everyone already knows them?

Amy didn’t know much about the Kennedys, and she had no idea who Patrick was. “I know it’s strange, because I teach six classes a day of American history,” she jokes. “But the textbook covers so much time that you hope you get to World War II by the end of the year.”

About three weeks after they met, Amy called him. After a good long talk, they agreed to get together. He took the train from D.C. to Philadelphia, then had a car take him from 30th Street Station to Atlantic City, where he’d made reservations at the august Knife and Fork Inn. Because Amy was “really excited but a little nervous,” at the last minute she decided to turn it into a cozy dinner … for five. She showed up with one of her brothers—as well as her best friend and the friend’s husband. “It was, like, really innocent,” Amy recalls. In fact, so innocent that she then worried: Jeez, maybe he just came to be social.

He stayed at Caesars, she in Linwood, and the next night the two couples met for a prizefight at Harrah’s, where Patrick had arranged for ringside seats. “It was one of the bloodiest­ fights ever,” he remembers. Amy’s friend’s husband, who was wearing a white polo shirt, “got covered in blood.” He took it off, and they had the winning fighter sign it.

The trip a success, Patrick kept coming back—and because he wasn’t running for reelection, he could actually take weekends off. Only his close aides were aware of how often he was making the trek to the Shore. “Luckily,” he says, “nobody knows what I look like around here.”

The couple’s courtship felt as therapeutic as it was romantic. “He was tired,” Amy says, “and really emotional. Not a regular guy. He didn’t sleep well, and he talked a lot about his dad. It was a big departure for me, because—well, my last relationship was not very much about feelings. I liked that kind of openness.”

By this time she had, of course, googled him, and knew about the darker days of his life, his history­ with bipolar disorder and self-medicating­ with drugs and alcohol. He was two during Chappaquiddick; six when his older brother, Ted Jr., lost a leg to cancer; eight when he developed severe asthma; 15 when his parents finally divorced and his mother’s alcoholism became overtly public; 20 when he had surgery to remove a non-cancerous growth from his spine; 23 (and already more than two years into serving as a state rep in Rhode Island) when he was a little too close for comfort to the rape scandal involving his cousin William Kennedy Smith; 25 when he first publicly acknowledged his struggle with depression in a letter to constituents; 32 when he revealed even more while appearing with Tipper Gore at a Rhode Island senior center; and just about to turn 39 when a highly publicized D.C. auto accident led to his readmission for rehab at the Mayo Clinic and a DUI guilty plea.

Amy wasn’t scared off by any of this. None of it was new to her. She had been attending meetings of Al-Anon—the support­ group for those helping others­ deal with addiction—for some time before meeting Patrick. She prefers not to reveal whom she was there to support; it was a “family member,” she says, and not her ex-husband. “I had grown up around alcohol,” she admits. A friend had encouraged her to try Al-Anon as “a tool kit”; the meetings were in the same nearby church where Patrick now attends AA.

At that time, Patrick was still in his Capitol Hill AA group, was regularly seeing a psychiatrist, and, as had been true since his teenage years, was taking medication for his mood disorder. He has been diagnosed “bipolar II,” which means that while his moods swing, he is far more prone to full-blown depression than full-blown mania, and can sometimes sustain periods of highly productive hypomania. “I’ve had a lot of high-risk behavior and can be very manic in my approach to life,” he says. “But I’ve never had the classic manic spending or shopping.”

As they got more involved, he asked her to attend a few meetings on his condition. “I had my cousin Chris Lawford”—Lawford,­ the son of actor Peter Lawford and Ted’s sister Patricia, has written two best-sellers about addiction—“talk to us. I just wanted her to know what she was in for. I wanted truth in advertising.” He introduced her to his friends, to people who had supported him through it all. “I wanted her to see she wasn’t taking such a leap of faith,” he says. “I needed a couple of good validators.”

It was a young, long-distance relationship,­ and still a secret to a press corps increasingly focused on covering the official end of the Kennedy era in Washington. Patrick’s longtime Congressional friend Rob Andrews, who had invited­ him to speak at the dinner where he’d met Amy, was one of the few who knew. “Patrick came up to me on the floor of the House one day,” Andrews recalls, “and said, ‘You’re my yenta.’”

The couple would meet in Philly or New York for the weekend. But most of their time spent together was around Atlantic City, where he was getting to know Amy’s daughter and her family. He spent his first-ever Jersey Shore summer with the Savells, hanging out on the beach in Brigantine, eating “hard-core pizza” on the Boardwalk (“Boardwalks are totally foreign to me,” he laughs. “I had no idea”), taking Harper and Amy’s brother’s kids to pick blueberries or visit Storybook Land in Egg Harbor Township.

The biggest difference between Cape Cod, where he’d gone as a kid, and the Jersey Shore turned out to be how late in the season people swam. “Around here,” Amy says, “we mostly stop going in the water after August. Patrick stops in November. When he first started coming here [in the spring of 2010], we went on the beach one day and I thought he was trying to be tough, going in when it was freezing. But that’s what his family does.”

At the end of the summer, Patrick was feeling so well, so safe and supported, that he talked to his doctor about weaning himself off his meds, relying primarily on 12-step meetings, intense daily exercise and healthier living to control his symptoms. With his responsibilities in Congress soon to be over, he felt he could handle it.

“I’m not taking anything today,” he says. “And for the first time in many years, I’m putting my weight behind not only daily attendance at meetings but daily rigorous exercise. If I wasn’t exercising every day, I’d definitely have to be on antidepressants. If I go two days without working out, I literally can feel myself sink, in an inconsolable way.”

“He has doctors here as a fallback if he needs it,” Amy says. “But now we’re relying on AA and a totally different lifestyle, so he doesn’t feel as much need for all the things he was doing to manage the stress. And,” she smiles, “I’m nice to him all the time.”