Like many who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, I was saddened to hear of Betty Ford’s death last Friday. For those of us from Michigan, we had reason to be especially proud of her role in our national life. Although I lived in a different Congressional district, Gerald Ford was the only Congressman I recognized growing up. His longevity in Congress made him feel almost like a family friend or neighbor – he was always around, affable and smiling. Gerald Ford and his wife Betty were dependable and likeable in that Midwestern way; in fact, they seemed a lot like my parents only with different politics.
When Gerald Ford was plucked from Congress to replace the disgraced Vice President Spiro Agnew, there was a new spotlight on Betty Ford. By then I was living in NYC, and I came to see Betty Ford as poised, personable and reflecting a brave honesty I hadn’t seen in our home state. I applauded her tenacity when speaking up on important issues, including the feminist issues that often put her at odds with her husband’s political party.
As the media focused on Betty, I learned some things about her that I hadn’t known before. After high school she went to New York City and trained in modern dance with the iconic Martha Graham, who was known for her searing criticism and relentless perfectionism. I assumed Betty Ford possessed a daunting degree of self-confidence to subject herself to the demands of Martha Graham.
Once, Betty was set to narrate a live televised performance of the Bolshoi Ballet from the former Soviet Union. As a young girl, I had seen the Bolshoi and was mesmerized by the power and precision of their movements. Of course, the Bolshoi was the epitome of the traditional ballet that Graham had rebelled against, so I was excited to hear what the First Lady had to say.
Soon she appeared on the screen, resplendent in a glistening, floor-length gown. At first I thought the reception was bad: Ford’s words were not coming out in any discernable manner. I pounded on the top of the TV trying to correct the problem, to no avail. I positioned myself squarely in front of the screen and prepared to concentrate and not get sidetracked by the poor sound quality. The camera swooped in for a close-up, showing off Ford’s chiseled features.
But the usual spark in her eyes was not there. She didn’t look well.
“She’s nervous,” I thought. “Who wouldn’t be? This is new to her.”
Paying closer attention, I noticed she was speaking slowly and her “s’s” slurred. She struggled from phrase to phrase. It seemed she could hardly read the teleprompter.
I remember becoming nervous for her, and embarrassed. I shouted to no one in particular, “Oh no! I think Betty Ford is having a stroke! They need to do something! She needs help!” But as I listened more closely, the realization hit me – she wasn’t having a stroke; the culprit must be that other famous Russian product – vodka!
The next day I scoured the newspapers and news magazines for a review or anything that would explain what had happened. Nothing – there seemed to be a code of silence in the press. Was I the only one to think she was inebriated? I resigned myself to the fact that I would never know what had happened during the broadcast.
Soon, Jimmy Carter was elected, and I lost track of Betty Ford. That was until the early ’80s when she established The Betty Ford Center, a state-of-the-art rehab center to treat addictions – addictions like her own. Now a mental health professional, I felt a sense of amazement and profound respect for this person who did not bury this issue, but instead continued to work on her own health and fight for the health of others.
No ordinary woman
It is well known now that Betty Ford considered herself an “ordinary woman.” Her addictions to alcohol and medications, she said, ultimately came from her “lack of self worth” and feeling “useless and empty,” feelings she and so many others have tried to manage in the same way – externally, by self medicating with drugs and/or alcohol.
Ford’s feelings about herself were so different from what I had imagined, yet her willingness to use her notoriety to openly talk about her vulnerabilities and equally, to stand up for her beliefs, was a gift for all of us. In speaking out, she made a huge contribution to changing how addictions are perceived and, I believe, helped advance parity for addictions so treatment would and could be covered by medical insurance. There really is no way to measure her influence, and I feel those of us in the mental health field owe her an enormous debt of gratitude.
When her husband became president, Betty Ford said that she was “called on stage,” but not in a manner she could have imagined when she was young. She was someone who weaved a special thread throughout my own life by proximity of birth and common interests. Now and again I had the opportunity to see how her talent, courage and grit came together in a dance much like those of Martha Graham’s – authentic, thought provoking and imbued with meaning, beauty and astounding grace.
Editor’s note: For more on Betty Ford, check out “Honor, grace and courage: a tribute to Betty Ford.”