Memoirs of a first lady

March 30 1987

Memoirs of a first lady

March 30 1987

Memoirs of a first lady


Former first lady Betty Ford is no stranger to the public eye. Thirteen years ago the wife of President Gerald Ford underwent a much-publicized mastectomy—the surgical removal of one breast to prevent the spread of cancer. Ford, 68, also fought a successful struggle with her long-standing cross-addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs, and in 1982 she established the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., a small community outside Palm Springs. The centre, which treats alcohol and drug dependency, has been praised by patients, including performers Liza Minnelli, Tony Curtis and Mary Tyler Moore. Earlier this month an ABC TV movie about Ford's life was aired, and her second book, Betty: A Glad Awakening, has just been released. Ford recently spoke with Maclean’s Senior Researcher Sharon Doyle Driedger from the Ford home in Rancho Mirage:

Maclean’s: Were you frightened by the risks involved in openly discussing your addiction?

Ford: It was difficult to be public and

forthright about it, but I think having dealt with a mastectomy first eased the way for me to deal with my drug and alcohol dependency. I have had terrific support from my family, my friends and the press. Each day that I wake up, I am very grateful not only for my recovery but for my life. A lot of people have died from taking prescription drugs and then drinking as well. I am one of the survivors. Maclean’s: What did you personally learn in writing your latest book?

Ford: Any book that is a personal story has a therapeutic effect on the person writing it. I took a much deeper look at my own recovery—it was difficult but very rewarding. I hope that the book will make people realize that there is a lot of hope for alcoholics. Maclean’s: Did the pressures of life in the White House increase your alcohol and drug dependency?

Ford: No, I do not think so. As I look back, I think I was more preoccupied with alcohol before the White House, when my husband was away so much. During the White House years everything was much better. My husband was around, I was busy, I had responsibilities. As the First Lady, I was a recognized person, so I had no feelings of inadequacy there.

Maclean’s: What does your husband think of all the recent publicity about your recovery?

Ford: Well, he could not be more supportive. It has been very hard on him, to identify his own part in my alcoholism, as a spouse who did not know about my addiction. But our relationship is much better—more understanding, more mutual and certainly more loving.

Maclean’s: Where do you draw the line between the private and the public Betty Ford?

Ford: We do not discuss everything publicly, but we did come out and very openly exposed ourselves as a family in the hope that it would help people see that there is a way to interrupt the progression of alcoholism, that people don’t have to bottom out. People who really do care—family, employers, fellow employees—can intervene with a confrontation in a loving, caring way, and hopefully allow the alcoholic to see that they need help. They cannot do it on their own.

Maclean’s: Do you think most people regard alcoholism as a disease?

Ford: Alcoholism is a disease. But of course people look at it and stigmatize it because of some of the things they see people do when they are suffering from the disease. And women with addictions—no matter what the drug is— are more stigmatized than the males. Yet there is so much hope. They can

recover. For a short time I felt that

people were stigmatizing me. In truth, when I thought it through, I was the one who was putting the stigma on myself and my disease. I had a brother who had been a practising alcoholic and who had recovered—I had great respect for him. But I do not think I ever thought about it as a disease until I first went to the Long Beach Naval Hospital for treatment [in 1978].

Maclean’s: Do you ever feel like having a drink?

Ford: I am very fortunate because I don’t have that craving. We go to lots of receptions and dinner parties where alcohol is served, and it is not difficult at all. I realize that I am allergic to alcohol as well as mood-altering drugs. Were I to use them, I would be right back where I was before, and I would never want that.

Maclean’s: What is the philosophy of the Betty Ford Center?

Ford: It was eight years ago when I got sober, and there weren’t all that many centres directed toward the treatment of alcohol and drug addiction. I felt that all good medical centres should have a treatment facility, hence the affiliation with the Eisenhower Medical Center. It is based on the work of Alcoholics Anonymous, as most good treatments are. But our special emphasis was on a centre where patient care was foremost, and that certainly has not changed. We started with only five beds in occupancy and now have 80, with the family program, the outpatient program, the after-care program, the alumni program. There is a lot of personal care, concern and love that goes from the board of directors all the way down.

Maclean’s: What is your involvement with the centre?

Ford: I am there three or four days a week seeing to administrative matters. I speak to patients on a group as well as an individual basis. I really like to be in contact with all the patients. That is why we decided not to franchise the centre. I would have to travel. This way, it is close to where I live, and I am available. It is very close to my heart. Maclean’s: Do you think that celebri-

ties who attend the Betty Ford Center see you as a role model?

Ford: I don’t know about that. I think that people are hopefully realizing that to be an alcoholic or addicted person is unfortunate but not to do something about it is worse. Someone, at one point, accused us of being a celebritybased treatment centre. I checked on it, and in the last 4!/2 years only one per cent of the patients actually had celebrity status. Many people go through the Betty Ford Center and don’t mention it. Each individual has a choice—we never discuss any of our patients, whether they are celebrities or not.

Maclean’s: You have said in the past that during your years of addiction, in your own mind you did not “make the team. ” Have you made the team now? Ford: I have made a team. There is no such thing as the team, I found out. In my recovery, I found that I didn’t have to be perfect, to live up to unattainable goals I was setting for myself. I think of many things that I have done, and I guess my most significant achievement is my sobriety.

Maclean’s: How, above anything else, do you want to be remembered?

Ford: I want to be remembered as Betty Ford—mother, wife and grandmother. We have a strong family bond and that is the most important thing in my