When thinking about celebrities that have struggled with addiction in the past, your mind might come across popular musicians and actors, but the truth is, one of the first public figures that struggled with addiction in the limelight was actually a First Lady.
It’s very hard to describe former First Lady and advocate for addiction treatment, Betty Ford, in one word, but it seems like “brave” would be a solid word to choose. In the 1970s, the War on Drugs was in full effect partly due to President Nixon’s public remarks, calling them America’s public enemy number one. Education about drugs during the decade was spotty and inaccurate. The 1981 book, The Truth About Drugs: The Body, Mind, and You written by Gene Chill and John Duff, even said that cocaine wasn’t addictive, and in the same breath, addiction and recovery were very much taboo topics.
Betty Ford was an anomaly; she decided to live her truth in the limelight. She used her addictions to opioids and alcohol as opportunities to help others grow and succeed as individuals while shedding light on a topic that needed to be put on a pedestal. Through her troubles, Ford showed us that you don’t have to be perfect to make a difference.
Struggling with Addiction
In the early 1960s, she was prescribed opioid analgesics by her local doctor for a pinched nerve injury in her neck. With time, she began to become more and more dependent on them, but she didn’t see it as a huge problem. Ford even visited a mental health specialist during her stint as First Lady but didn’t think to mention this growing dependence on opioids.
Ford dealt with a lot during her time in the White House; there was constant pushback from the Republican party due to her many liberal beliefs on social issues and she became the first First Lady to be appointed into the First Lady position instead of being voted in after the Watergate scandal completely exploded the White House. The instance brought an insane amount of media attention at her doorstep.
At the same time, she began to deal with a growing alcohol addiction, but she didn’t think much of it and didn’t see it as a problem. She later wrote about her alcohol addiction in her 1987 autobiography Betty: A Glad Awakening stating, “My makeup wasn’t smeared, I wasn’t disheveled, I behaved politely, and I never finished off a bottle, so how could I be an alcoholic?”
But it wasn’t until she and her husband left the White House that her addiction to both of these substances reached an all-time high.
Life After the White House
In 1978, a year after she left the White House, Betty Ford’s family staged an intervention. The whole family was present, including Former President Gerald Ford and all four of Betty Ford’s children.
In a September 2018 interview with People magazine, Betty Ford’s daughter, Susan, looked back on the intervention and explained that the family was coming from a place of love, “Even though my mother had raised me to speak up and be honest, to sit there and tell her, someone who had been a dancer and was graceful, and that she wasn’t that anymore – and the reason I was telling her was because I loved her, was probably one of the hardest things I ever did.”
She ended up accepting treatment and started her slow and steady journey through recovery. Ford could have utilized this experience as a reason to step away from the limelight permanently and maintain her privacy, but she bravely chose to share her story and express her life experiences.
Through her bouts with addiction and her life in the White House, she wrote her first autobiography, The Times of My Life, in 1978. This candid book detailed her struggles with her first unsuccessful marriage, her battle with cancer and her bouts of addiction.
The Betty Ford Center
After she recovered from her addiction, her main focus became shedding a light on substance abuse treatment and helping those dealing with those problems live the best lives possible. In 1982, The Betty Ford Center was co-founded by Ford, Leonard Firestone and Dr. James West.
The center has helped thousands of people across the globe, including a variety of celebrity patients including Lindsay Lohan, Elizabeth Taylor and Johnny Cash. The center, located in Rancho Mirage, California, offers a variety of different programs for individuals dealing with substance abuse.
In 2003, Ford used her platform to showcase the stories of other women who have dealt with addiction at The Betty Ford Center, through her third book, Healing and Hope: Six Women from the Betty Ford Center Share Their Powerful Journeys of Addiction and Recovery. In 2014, the center combined with the Hazelden Foundation to create the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Currently, the foundation includes a graduate school of addiction studies, a center for research, and rehab centers all across the United States.
Betty Ford died in 2011 from natural causes, but her influence lives on to this day. Through her openness and vulnerability, she has made a difference that stretches far beyond the realms of the illuminated White House walls. Ford was one of the first who made it okay to ask for help, even when you’re a public figure in the limelight. Her story is rarely talked about amongst the general public but it’s a story that everyone needs to hear.
If you’re struggling with addiction, know that it’s okay to ask for help. There are options open to you at every price level. So even if you can’t afford a multimillion-dollar rehab center, like the Betty Ford Center, you can still get help.
Use Betty Ford’s story as a source of inspiration and know that you always deserve a second chance at life. Betty Ford explains this sentiment perfectly in her 1987 autobiography Betty: A Glad Awakening, “You can make it, but it’s easier if you don’t have to do it alone.”