It’s been 40 years since First Lady Betty Ford bravely admitted she was an addicted to pain medication and alcohol. Yet for her daughter, Susan Ford, 61, her family’s efforts to stage an intervention and get their mother the help she needed remain etched in her memory.
The biography details Betty’s life in the White House after her husband, Gerald “Jerry” Ford, became the 38th President of the United States following Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation, and her groundbreaking candor about her addiction, as well as her breast cancer. The then-first lady sparked a national conversation about both issues, and later founded the Betty Ford Center for alcoholism and drug addiction in 1982.
Before the family intervention on April 1, 1978, Susan, the Ford’s youngest child, along with Betty’s personal assistant, and a family doctor, confronted her mother.
“Mom, you need to stop taking all these pills,” Susan told her. “I don’t like what it’s doing to you. “
Betty Ford, then 59, was already under the influence of the pain medication she’d taken that morning and lashed out on the defensive. “You’re all a bunch of monsters!” she shouted. “Get out of my house and never come back!”
Two days later, this time with the entire family present, Susan, then 20 years old, along with her father and her three brothers, Mike, Jack and Steve, tried again.
The Fords had gathered at their parents’ home in Rancho Mirage, California, for an intervention, under the guidance of a Navy physician, Dr. Joseph Pursch, who would oversee Betty’s care.
Jerry Ford was the first to speak to his wife. “Betty,” he said, “the reason we’re here is because we love you.“
Each child then spoke from the heart about their concern for their mom, who had become addicted to pain medication which had been prescribed by doctors for neck pain and arthritis, and which she had combined with alcohol.
“Mom, now you’ve got to the point where your lifestyle is destructive,” her eldest, Mike Ford, told her. “It’s hurting your relationship with Dad, with all of us, and with your friends…”
Her son Jack told his mom about the times he’d been embarrassed by her behavior. “I was always peeking around the corner into the family room to see what kid of shape you were in,” he said. Their brother Steve followed.
At first, Betty was hurt — and angry, thinking to herself: “How dare they?”
Susan was shaking and crying as she said, “Mom, when I was little, and even as I grew up, I always admired you for being a dancer. I wanted to be just like you. But now…these days, you’re falling and you’re clumsy. You’re not the same person…”
The intervention lasted for two hours.
Dr. Pursch then asked Betty if she was willing to go into treatment, and she agreed.
But first, she went to her bedroom. “I got dressed and put myself together to prove how really well I was,” she later recalled. And then, she went to the bathroom, took the four or five pills she usually took at noon, and swallowed them with water.
Betty Ford entered a Navy run rehab clinic based on the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, where she stayed for four weeks.
On April 21, 1978, she admitted in a statement: “I have found, I am not only addicted to the medication I have been taking for my arthritis but also to alcohol.”
The country had embraced the first lady after she opened up about her breast cancer and mastectomy, and they did again after her courageous revelation that she was addicted to pain medication, and an alcoholic.
Looking back, Susan says of the intervention: “Even though my mother had raised me to speak up and be honest, to sit there and tell her, someone who had been a dancer and was graceful, and that she wasn’t that anymore —and the reason I was telling her was because I loved her, was probably one of the hardest things I ever did.”
That conversation had a ripple effect that lasts to this day. The Betty Ford Center, which opened in October 1982, has helped more than 100,000 addicts and Susan is proud of her mom’s efforts to take away the shame of speaking about addiction. “I am grateful she accepted help that we offered her,” says Susan Ford. “She took the help that was offered to her and offered it to others.”