Former first lady a beacon of hope for addicts

Betty Ford, the former first lady whose triumph over drug and alcohol addiction became a beacon of hope for addicts and the inspiration f

Former first lady Betty Ford during an interview in New York

Former first lady Betty Ford during an interview in New York

DETROIT — Betty Ford, the former first lady whose triumph over drug and alcohol addiction became a beacon of hope for addicts and the inspiration for her Betty Ford Center, has died, a family friend said Friday. She was 93.

Mrs. Ford’s death was confirmed by Marty Allen, chairman emeritus of the Ford Foundation. He did not comment further, and said he expected the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum would release information later.

Betty Ford, whose husband, Gerald, died in December 2006, had undergone surgery for an undisclosed ailment in April 2007. During and after her years in the White House, 1974 to 1977, Mrs. Ford won acclaim for her candour, wit and courage as she fought breast cancer, severe arthritis and the twin addictions of drugs and alcohol. She also pressed for abortion rights and women’s rights.

But it was her Betty Ford Center, which rescued celebrities and ordinary people from addiction, that made her famous in her own right. She was modest about that accomplishment.

“People who get well often say, ‘You saved my life,’ and ’You’ve turned my life around,”’ she recalled. “They don’t realize we merely provided the means for them to do it themselves and that’s all.

“That’s a God-given gift as far as I’m concerned. I don’t take any credit for providing anything that wasn’t provided to me.”

After the former president died Dec. 26, 2006, at age 93, his widow said: “His life was filled with love of God, his family and his country.” They had been married in 1948, the same year Gerald Ford was elected to Congress.

As she and their children led the nation in mourning him, Americans were reminded anew of her own contributions, as well as his. It was calculated then that the Betty Ford Center had treated 76,000 people.

“It’s hard to imagine a more important figure in the substance abuse field than Mrs. Ford,” Rick Rawson, associate director of the integrated substance abuse program at the University of California at Los Angeles, said at the time.

She and her husband had retired to Rancho Mirage, California, after he lost a bruising presidential race to Jimmy Carter in 1976. She went to work on her memoirs, The Times of My Life, which came out in 1979. But the social whirlwind that engulfed them in Washington was over, and Betty Ford confessed that she missed it.

“We had gone into the campaign to win and it was a great disappointment losing, particularly by such a small margin,” she said. “It meant changing my whole lifestyle after 30 years in Washington, and it was quite a traumatic experience.”

By 1978, she was addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs. She would later describe herself during that period as “this nice, dopey pill-pusher sitting around and nodding.”

“As I got sicker,” she recalled, “I gradually stopped going to lunch. I wouldn’t see friends. I was putting everyone out of my life.” Her children recalled her living in a stupor, shuffling around in her bathrobe, refusing meals in favour of a drink.

Her family finally confronted her in April 1978 and insisted she seek treatment. She credited their “intervention” with saving her life.

“I was stunned at what they were trying to tell me about how I disappointed them and let them down,” Ford told The Associated Press in 1994.

“I was terribly hurt — after I had spent all those years trying to be the best mother, wife I could be. … Luckily, I was able to hear them saying that I needed help and they cared too much about me to let it go on,” she said.