Remembering Betty Ford

“Children are a blessing, not a duty,” Betty Ford, who will be memorialized today in Palm Desert, California, famously said in one of many candid comments. In another comment for publication, she told a magazine that she had sex with her husband, the President, “as often as possible.” The late former First Lady’s plain, insistent talk is one reason to like the lifelong Republican, who is preceded by her late husband, former President Gerald Ford, and survived by her children, Michael, John (known as Jack), Steven, and Susan. As I posted on Facebook and Twitter when she died last week: “Betty Ford was a leader with grace, candor, and independence during difficult times; she personified the Serenity Prayer and she was one of my heroes.”

And she was, primarily for her commitment to addiction recovery. Having been affected by those who suffer from addictions, I know firsthand the value of her type of work, and I have gained enormous value from those whose lives have been recovered at the treatment center co-created by Mrs. Ford, an alcoholic whose own recovery toward sobriety began when her family, including her husband, boldly and bravely conducted an intervention. Among her center’s reported 90,000 patients: Stevie Nicks, who declared upon hearing about Mrs. Ford’s death that the Betty Ford Center had practically saved her life, Kelsey Grammer, NBC’s Frasier, Liza Minnelli, Mickey Mantle, Mary Tyler Moore, and the late actress Elizabeth Taylor (BUtterfield 8). Mrs. Ford co-founded the Center with industrialist Leonard Firestone.

As addiction recovery expert Dr. Drew Pinsky recently wrote, it is difficult today to conceive of a First Lady publicly acknowledging a condition that was at that point shrouded in shame and secrecy. “Betty understood that many refused to admit they had the condition or seek treatment because of the legacy of shame associated with alcoholism and addiction,” Dr. Drew observed. “An especially biting stigma had always been reserved for women with this disorder who could only dream of a day when a revered and prominent woman would come forward to advocate on their behalf. Betty’s deep appreciation of the pain of addiction sufferers motivated her to simply put aside her fear of personal harm and tell her story. With that one gesture of courage and honesty Betty Ford swept aside an eternity of discrimination. She knew that in doing so she would give millions of addicts and especially women with addiction, the opportunity for recovery and a flourishing life.” Dr. Drew added that he suspected that even she would not have foreseen that addiction would become the disorder of our time. As she had similarly done when she was diagnosed with cancer, Betty Ford demonstrated that taking that first step toward one’s self-improvement means acknowledging reality first. Mrs. Ford will be buried beside her husband in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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