When Gerald Ford became president in 1974 after Nixon’s resignation, I was seven years old. Sadly, it took Betty Ford’s death last Friday, July 8, 2011, for me to understand fully her legacy and how aligned her worldview was with mine.
Here’s what pierces my heart.
- In 1964, Betty became dependent on prescription pain pills, originally administered for a neck injury and continuous pain from a pinched nerve. Over time, and with her husband increasingly absent from their marriage as his political career grew, she drank. “Now I know that some of the pain I was trying to wipe out was emotional,” Betty described in her 1987 autobiography. She faced and shared frankly her personal struggle with alcohol and prescription pills, and later founded the Betty Ford Center outside of Palm Springs, a 12-Step in-patient recovery center that was the first licensed Addiction Hospital in the world. Her willingness to face her addiction publicly forever changed addiction care for the better, and brought the hidden aspects of addiction to the light. Powerful legacy, Betty. We’d have no Dr. Drew without you!
- Throughout her career in the public eye, Betty showed a lack of pretense. She was outpoken and frank about all of her personal struggles. She took over the stiff and formal White House from Pat Nixon, and nixed Richard and Pat’s requirement that staff remain silent and invisible. She kept Pat’s formal furniture, but playfully placed a cigarette in the outstretched fingers of a Greek Goddess in the Yellow Oval Room.
- Betty started the dialogue on Breast Cancer. In 1974, after her husband assumed the Office of the President, Betty underwent a radical mastectomy, followed by two years of chemotherapy. The prevailing sentiment at the time among women was that they’d rather lose almost any body part rather than a breast. Asked if she felt sorry for herself during the trauma of losing her breast, she replied: “No! Oh, no — heavens, no. I’ve heard women say they’d rather lose their right arm, and I can’t imagine it. It’s so stupid. I can even wear my evening clothes.” Plucky.
- As a Republican, her popularity and appeal crossed party lines. And she spoke her mind, even when it was inconvenient and cost votes. Pivotal stands on key issues: she endorsed legalized abortion (this was the Roe v. Wade era) and the Equal Rights Ammendment.
Have I personally struggled with breast cancer? Uh, no, but I’m grateful that we can talk openly about it in 2011. Am I addicted to alcohol or prescription drugs? Not that I know of, but the 12-Step process is a gallant, proven method for spiritual conversion, and really, I don’t see a down side. We’re all addicted to something, some little thing that helps us adjust to life. Maybe it’s an addiction to negative thought, or an addiction to online communication, or to chocolate or overnutrition. Yoga and meditation help me. The Betty Ford Center helps others. We all benefit from the spotlight Betty shined, with dignity and aplomb, on the emotional underbelly of addiction.
I stand inspired. Thank you, Betty Ford.