Betty Ford, Addiction Pioneer and Patron Saint of Modern Recovery Movement, Dies at 93

By Dirk Hanson 07/08/11

The first lady took her addiction to pills and alcohol public in an era when doing so required considerable courage.

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Tireless in her addiction activism.
Photo via gettyimages

Former First Lady Betty Ford, who courageously went public with her addiction to alcohol and prescription pills and founded the prestigious treatment center that bears her name, died Friday at 93. As a public figure, she may have focused more attention on addiction than anyone since Bill W.

In 1982, Mrs. Ford co-founded the non-profit Betty Ford Center, along with Ambassador Leonard Firestone, in Rancho Mirage, California. She devoted the rest of her life to the cause of drug treatment and recovery. One of the most outspoken First Ladies in American history, she was a symbol for women, because of her independent life, and for addicts, because of her honesty. "I'm not out to rescue anybody who doesn't want to be rescued," she once said, according to ABC News. "I just think it's important to say how easy it is to slip into a dependency on pills or alcohol. And how hard it is to admit that dependency." The New York Times obituary for Mrs. Ford notes that her “dependency on pills began in 1964 with a medical prescription to relieve constant pain from a neck injury and pinched nerve. Her drinking, which became troublesome as she was faced with her husband’s frequent absences on political business, grew increasingly serious as Mr. Ford’s Congressional career advanced.”  Gerald Ford was a long-time Congressman in Washington before being named in 1973 as President Richard Nixon's vice presidential running mate. Less than a year, later, Mrs. Ford became First Lady after President Nixon’s abrupt resignation. Divorced in her 20s, an early career in dance stifled, her role reduced to “wife of President Gerald Ford,” she suffered increasingly from self-esteem issues.

By the late 1970s, her drinking had gotten out of hand, and her family staged an intervention. Even though Mrs. Ford resisted, calling them “a bunch of monsters,” she ultimately underwent treatment at the Long Beach Naval Hospital. “Getting sober is tough, tough work,” she once wrote. And she was not afraid to hit the publicity trail and talk about it, on TV and in countless print interviews, carrying her message of hope and hard work. The Wall Street Journal quotes appropriately from her book A Glad Awakening, where Ford writes that addiction “impacts women faster and more intensely, so when we finally seek help—and we hide in our denial longer than men do—we’re sicker physically and emotionally.”

The Betty Ford Center was modeled on the so-called Minnesota Model, the 12-Step approach made famous by Hazelden in Minnesota. Though it caters to a varied clientele, the Center became a preferred haven for rich and famous addicts, from Elizabeth Taylor to Lindsay Lohan. Other illustrious alumni include David Arquette, Ozzy Osbourne, Robert Downey Jr., Drew Barrymore, Liza Minnelli, and Johnny Cash. But the atmosphere has always been egalitarian: As the late Warren Zevon, another famous alum, used to sing: “Well, I'm gone to Detox Mansion/Way down on Last Breath Farm/I've been rakin' leaves with Liza/Me and Liz clean up the yard.”

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]