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Monday, October 22, 2007

Her bravest act: Betty Ford’s recovery from addiction

From Nan Robertson:

Rancho Mirage, California

I sat with Betty Ford, the wife of the 38th President of the United States, a recovering pill addict and alcoholic, in the soothing beige and pink interior of the intensive rehabilitation center named after her. She is a vital part of that center, informing and inspiring patients by her own example of steadfastness and honesty. "I was in a little euphoria of my own once," she said, "functioning but less than aware."

Just before her 60th birthday, in April 1978, her children and her husband, Gerald Ford, only 14 months out of the White House, confronted her. With them was Dr. Joseph Pursch, then head of the Long Beach Naval Hospital's Alcohol and Drug Rehabilitation Service. He had carefully rehearsed the family, all its members armed with written lists detailing specific instances of Mrs. Ford's drugged, drunk behavior as each had experienced it.

The President recalled times she had fallen asleep in a chair, her blurry speech, her memory lapses. Her son Mike and his wife told her why they hadn't wanted to have a child—because they didn’t want it to have a grandmother who was not there for the baby. Another son, Steve, remembered bringing a new girlfriend home and cooking dinner for his mother while Mrs. Ford slipped into a haze in front of the TV with one drink, two drinks, three. "You hurt me," Steve said.

Mrs. Ford collapsed in a storm of weeping and shock. But, she said, she had enough sense left to realize her family was doing this because they loved her and wanted to help. She entered the Long Beach hospital for treatment and issued a statement to a stunned nation. She confessed to “overmedicating” herself: "It's an insidious thing, and I mean to rid myself of the damaging effects." But she resisted any suggestion that liquor was also a major problem. Dr. Pursch ordered her to read the basic text that Bill Wilson had written for A.A, known informally as the Big Book. Just substitute "chemically dependent" for the word "alcoholic," he told her. Mrs. Ford comforted herself with the thought that she never needed to take a drink in the morning to stop the shakes. She found people who knocked back Bloody Marys well before lunch "pathetic." She could admit to the pills, prescribed for arthritis, a pinched nerve, muscle spasms in her neck. After all, the doctors had done it to her. She could not face the alcoholism—because that meant she had done it to herself.

Finally, after further treatment at Long Beach, with her husband's assurance that it would not embarrass him, she issued another statement: "I have found that I am not only addicted to the medications I have been taking for my arthritis but also to alcohol. I expect this treatment and fellowship to be a solution for my problem, and I embrace it not only for me but for all the others who are here to participate." I said to Mrs. Ford that it was hard enough for ordinary people to confess they are drunks and then set about to rebuild their lives. "I think it was my bravest act," I told her. "What it must have been like for a President’s wife!?"

She replied, "Granted, I had the advantage of being the wife of a former President, which put me, in the eyes of others, in a special place. But I never could have found recovery if I thought myself to be in a special place. I am just a recovering woman."

Advice to problem drinkers: Share your story with others to help them heal, like Betty Ford has done.

Read another famous person’s recovery story, or read the source, "Getting Better: Inside Alcoholics Anonymous" by Nan Robertson.

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