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Ford’s Public Battle Molds Personal Cause Treated While Still The First Lady, Betty Ford Found A Way To Help Others Like Her

June 18th, 2010 – Posted by Betty Ford Center in Recovery News
Tags: alcohol alcohol dependence Betty Ford pills sleeping pills


Note:  Content in this article may be dated and include staffing and program information that is no longer current.

By Francesca Donlan
The Desert Sun
October 18, 2002

In 1978, one year after leaving the White House, former first lady Betty Ford checked herself into a treatment facility for drug and alcohol addiction.

She had grown dependent on “the sleeping pills, pain pills, relaxer pills and the pills to counteract the side effects of other pills,” she writes in her memoir, “Betty: A Glad Awakening.”

Add to that the vodka and bourbon she drank before and after dinner. Her family felt she had a serious problem and intervened.

Ford’s candor about her drug dependence broke the silence for women alcoholics and drug addicts.

One year after seeking help, she joined forces with Leonard Firestone, Joseph Cruse and John Schwarzlose to create the Betty Ford Center.

This month marks the center’s 20th anniversary.

“It’s much more than I ever imagined or dreamed,” Ford said last week.

More than 56,000 patients from around the world have sought help at the 14-acre center, which boasts nine buildings, dozens of medical professionals and 100 volunteers.

Executive president Schwarzlose has shared Ford’s vision since the beginning. They have a lot to celebrate during this weekend’s private events for the anniversary.

“When I reflect on these years, what overwhelms me is the number of lives that have been touched by the center today,” Schwarzlose said. “How many people are able to get up in the morning and live a productive life because they chose to get into recovery, and they chose to enter recovery at the Betty Ford Center?”

Providing a place for recovery in the Coachella Valley was the dream of those who created the Betty Ford Center.

“Three recovering alcoholics did this. Joe Cruse, Leonard Firestone and Betty Ford built this out of Joe’s dream and a patch of desert,” Ford recalled in her 1987 memoir.

Stellar opening

Ford, Ambassador Firestone, Cruse, founding medical director Schwarzlose and a stream of dignitaries including former President Gerald Ford, Bob and Dolores Hope, former President George and Barbara Bush helped dedicate the center Oct. 3, 1982.

The next day, two patients were admitted and three the day after that. In a week, 20 beds were full.

“I was here the day the first patients were admitted, and it was so exciting,” said Peggy Channing, executive assistant to Schwarzlose. “We were excited about a new beginning. It’s been such a success. To be able to see how touched the patients are by her presence and the staff – having such a leader as chairman of the board to admire.”

And now the center is usually full, sometimes with a waiting list. The cost of treatment is high, at $16,500 for a month, but not as costly as most treatment centers of its kind.

Unfortunately, most insurance companies don’t cover the treatment.

“In our first five years, 75 percent of insurance companies paid a portion of care,” Schwarzlose said. “Today, only 20 to 25 percent do.”

The price tag makes treatment of its kind out of reach for many people.

“Can the school teacher in Nashville still afford to come here?” Schwarzlose asked. “Probably not.”

28-day program

The center treats close to 160 patients at different levels of care and has about 100 beds on campus.

Patients – ages 18 to 84 – stay about 28 days. Besides the residential program, the center offers a family program, a children’s program and a variety of outpatient services.

More than 1,000 medical students as well as hundreds of alcohol and drug addiction research and treatment professionals have come to the center during the past 20 years.

As chairman of the board, Ford does not sit quietly behind closed doors. Last week, she breezed into the Betty Ford Center – her Secret Service detail inconspicuously placed.

“I really like to come over if I can and get around the campus and just visit when (patients are) out on the patio,” Ford said.

“And I also try and keep an eye on the campus, because I’m kind of fussy about everything being in good shape. My feeling is if my name is going to be on the center, I am responsible to make sure that things are up to speed.”

Ford’s impact

Sometimes Ford shares her experiences with patients one on one.

“She loves it when the counselor asks and she spends 15 or 20 minutes with a patient,” Schwarzlose said. “Those are the times that are so meaningful that she’ll remember forever.”

No one can deny the impact Ford has on alcoholics and drug addicts on and off the center’s campus.

Ford’s family confronted her about her prescription drug and alcohol use in 1978. She immediately sought help at a U.S. Naval hospital in Long Beach at age 60.

“For many people, it opened a door,” said Dr. Steven Ey, medical director at the Betty Ford Center. “If the first lady could be an alcoholic, maybe I could, too.”

“In opening up the center, it has allowed tens of thousands of people to come here without the stigma and shame and participate in treatment and in their own recovery. It legitimized the disease.”

And Ey sees recovery every day at the center.

He described one young patient who had struggled with addiction and had been disowned by his family before he arrived.

“He was on the verge of leaving on a daily basis, and one day we all went in and got him out of bed and told him it was time to participate,” Ey said. “He was rebellious and angry and afraid, and he blossomed here. He slowly became pleasant and upbeat and motivated for sobriety.”

Malcolm Butler, senior admissions counselor, has seen patients come and go for 19 years. He answers many of the 1,000 calls the center receives a month.

Most addicts pick up the phone themselves to make a reservation, and others are strongly encouraged by a formal intervention.

“When they only have a shaving kit and an angry look, we know it’s an intervention,” Butler said, with a smile.

Some families – like Ford’s – hold an intervention to help the addict understand how the disease is impacting themselves, their friends, family and co-workers.

And most people do call and speak with admissions before they arrive.

“Only two people have dropped by after the bars have closed in our 20 years,” Butler said.

Butler often is the first to hear from prospective patients and the last to see them leave.

“I call it a miracle to see what happens in such a short period of time,” he said.

Alum’s testimonial

Actress Ali McGraw appreciates the miracles that happen at the Betty Ford Center.

“I think it cannot be said enough that this beautiful, smart, interesting woman had the guts 20 years ago at the highest public moment of her life to say, ’This is what is going on, and I’m going to do something about it,’” said McGraw, who herself was a was patient in 1986.

“It is just one of the most important things that happened in the 20th century. To sit in the biggest spotlight in the whole U.S. and to have the follow-through she has had, and to make her life’s work these 50,000 of us and more to come.

“Lives have been dramatically improved by her vision.”

Entering treatment is difficult, said Michael Neatherton, executive vice president of the Betty Ford Center.

“This is where they find their voice and find their heart again, and that’s hard work,” he said. “It is a tough spot to be in.”

“So few escape this disease. It’s tough to open up and create a bond with another human being. Oh boy, when they’re leaving their eyes are bright, and they’re smiling, and they are connected, and they are feeling good. But it’s just a beginning.”

No one leaves the Betty Ford Center with a graduate degree, Schwarzlose said.

“No one graduates,” he said. “It’s about the beginning of the rest of your life.”


AA meetings

Call or go online for information on the nearest Alcoholics Anonymous meeting:

Palm Springs area: 760-324-4880

Palm Desert area: 760-568-4004

Alcoholicos Anonimos: 760-347-4070

Local website: hosted by the Central Intergroup of the Desert

12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked him to remove our short-comings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Source: Alcoholics Anonymous

Used by permission of The (Palm Springs, CA) Desert Sun.

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3 Responses to “Ford’s public battle molds personal cause – Treated while still the first lady, Betty Ford found a way to help others like her”

  1. Shelley P. says:

    When I wake up each morning without a bottle next to me, this is the true grace and blessing from my Higher Power, which I choose to call God! I thank God each day for AA, my sponsor, the fellowship of the program, and my journey of sobriety each day!

  2. Kari says:

    I have struggled with an eating disorder for 11 years and I have found help in an OA support group and will be in the Palm Springs area in February. I see the AA groups listed but just wondering if you can direct me to any OA support groups in that area to attend? And also any other eating disorder treatment or support groups available. Thanks so much.

  3. Betty Ford Center says:

    Hello Kari,
    Here is meetings within a 10-mile radius of Palm Desert. You may find a number on this site that takes you to additional support groups as well. Thanks for contacting us.

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