Betty Ford, the former First Lady of the United States died Friday at the age of 93. Dr. William Van Ornum gives this succinct summary of her life in a tribute on the website of the American Mental Health Foundation (AMHF):
Mrs. Ford was born in Chicago, grew up in modest circumstances, became a dancer, and married Mr. Ford shortly after he returned from the Navy in World War II. She thought she was signing up for a life with a mid-western lawyer; instead he chose politics and she was thrust into the role of a political wife, all the while raising 4 children and trying to keep her own interests as well.
Political life became difficult for her and she felt an emptiness inside from which she sought solace in alcohol and prescription pills. She was open about her addiction at a time when others weren’t. This courageous outlook gave others the encouragement either to seek help themselves or to be open about it with their families and communities.
In 1982 she founded the Betty Ford Clinic (now Betty Ford Center) in California. This nearly 200-bed program offers inpatient detox, follow-up and aftercare, an assessment program for pilots and professionals to diagnose and treat addiction problems, as well as other customized programs including one for young men and women ages 18-25 who are financially dependent upon their parents.
Although Betty Ford was admired for many reasons — as an advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment and a woman bold enough to discuss premarital sex and legalized abortion — I respect her most for all the rehabilitation work she did for those addicted to drugs and alcohol, and for educating the public about this misunderstood disease, especially among affluent, successful folks. This First Lady made it possible for women like me to embrace sobriety at a very young age, because she helped eliminate the stigma associated with alcoholics.
The New York Times published a beautiful recollection of her life, pulling quotes from her autobiographies and other interviews. I thought the following comments best illustrate her compassion and selflessness, her dedication to the cause of recovery:
“It’s hard to make anyone understand what it’s like to have your name on something, to be given credit for things you haven’t done,” Mrs. Ford wrote. “I’ve been at meetings where someone turned and thanked me, and I hugged the person and said, ‘Don’t thank me, thank yourself, you’re the one who did it, with God’s help.’ From the beginning, we have wanted every patient at the center to feel, ‘I’m important here, I have some dignity.’ ”
Click here for the full Times tribute to Ford.
Photo courtesy of Pete Souza/Chicago Tribune via AP.