Betty Ford had a unique celebrity. She never shied away from having the nation know her views on addictions, depression or mental health. Ford was a First Lady who could have chosen to be quiet and remain secluded from the public eye. Instead, she willingly revealed her own addictions and embraced her unique opportunity to remind others that addictions are treatable illnesses. Her courage and honesty impacted so many, especially women at the epicenter of the America family.
Betty Ford not only spoke about her alcoholism publicly, but openly admitted she had an opiate addiction. At the time Betty Ford admitted she was an alcoholic and drug addict, most women who were suffering from alcoholism and other addictions felt like bad wives, mothers, daughters or even grandmothers. These women chose to keep the "elephant in the living room" secret, but when Ford sought help, she was deluged with letters and words from women all over the country who felt the same guilt and shame about their own lives.
Taking care of her own sobriety first, Ford then stepped into an iconic role of creating awareness. She maintained her role with grace and class over the next 30 years. By taking her public stand, Betty Ford reduced the shame and stigma associated with the treatment of chemical dependency. Her legacy continues to make the world a better place for those struggling with alcohol and drug addiction and their families.
Treatment and Recovery Debate
Today, the debate about drug control still rages between two old-school extremes -- drug legalization on one hand and heavy law enforcement on the other. What is seldom considered is the great value of a policy guided by science and the tenets of mental and behavioral health. How can Americans neglect the hundreds of thousands of people in treatment and recovery who are working hard to break free from the grips of substance use and reclaim their lives?
America must view and support those in recovery from active addiction and, in fact, also support the way the recovery community itself views and supports each other.
In a recent New York Times article David Colman quotes American writer, editor and entrepreneur Maer Roshan as saying, “The recovery world is now where the gay world was then,” he said. “Back then, there was a still a stigma to saying you were gay. There was a community, but it was mired in self-doubt and self-hatred, and it’s changed considerably. Not just gay people, but the perception of gay people has changed. There’s a lot of secretiveness and shame in the recovery world, too, but that’s changing.
“There’s not a day that goes by that some major figure doesn’t announce himself as a substance abuser. There’s a community of people who don’t see it as shameful. These are people that have learned from challenges who have a hunger for life and money to spend, and who want to make up for lost time.”
(David Colman, "Challenging the Second 'A' in A.A." The New York Times, May 6 2011)
America needs Betty Ford’s brand of courage and leadership when it comes to changing the way recovery from addiction is viewed and treated in broader society. People who have confronted addiction need not be pitied, praised, or treated with "kid gloves." Addiction is an illness like any other illness.
As actor, author, activist Christopher Kennedy Lawford says, "Nobody congratulates cancer patients for dealing with their cancer. They may comment on the grace or fortitude with which they approach treatment but that’s a different thing. Those in recovery from addictive illness are only different from our fellows in the way that our biology relates to the addictive substances or processes."
(Christopher Kennedy Lawford, "Betty Ford: Bringing Addiction Recovery Out of the Closet," christopherkennedylawford.com, August 2 2011)
Director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy Gil Kerlikowske cites the importance of expanding access to recovery support services; identifying and addressing barriers to recovery in the community, and fostering the development of recovery-oriented systems and services.
“This country hasn’t looked at recovery in a way that makes a lot of sense,” Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief, told an audience mostly of addiction scientists gathered at the Betty Ford Center.
Recovery was “kind of an afterthought” and “often overlooked,” he said.
("Long Term Recovery Advocated By Drug Control Policy Director,"bettyfordcenter.org, June 28 2012)
Kerlikowske asked the millions of Americans living in recovery to help reduce addiction’s stigma by sharing their struggles publicly. “The country needs to hear your stories. It also needs to hear your setbacks,” he said. “The more we talk openly on substance abuse, the better we can actually treat it.”
He also touted a federal voucher program that recovering addicts use for counseling, transportation, transitional housing, child care, work clothes and other services to stay clean and sober after treatment. Some $30 billion has been spent on such programs in the past three years, Kerlikowske said.“The federal government should expand access to a drug-free life and not diminish it,” he added.
Kerlikowske hopes his “third way” approach, advocating neither full- blown drug legalization nor an emphasis on arrests and incarcerations, can make a difference curbing drug abuse.
My Final Take
Thank God for courageous people like Betty Ford who, despite their disease and all the stigma associated with addiction, openly face treatment and recovery. Ford was a true pioneer in the fight against drug abuse who set an example: "If Betty Ford can do it, I can do it. I don't have to be ashamed of my problems."
Candor worked for Betty Ford, again and again. She built an enduring legacy by opening up the toughest times of her life as public example.
And, most importantly, Betty Ford didn't just lend her name to the cause and to a wonderful facility, she became actively involved, showing up in person to help others. In her book, A Glad Awakening, she described her recovery as a second chance at life. And in that second chance, she found a new purpose. "There is joy in recovery," she wrote, "and in helping others discover that joy."
We must take a new view of addiction to meet the needs of those struggling to find "that joy." No longer can we be divided into two camps of thought about solutions to the problem: (1) legalization, or (2) overwhelming law enforcement. Drug addiction is a complex illness that too often goes untreated. It is our problem. It is a problem we must prioritize and work to fix. The repercussions of ignoring it are unthinkable.