I have been practicing social work since March 16, 1981. In 1981, it was cool to do a lot of stuff that we don’t do at all now. It was cool to tease your hair up as high as you could possibly get it without tangling it in a ceiling fan. It was cool to stop at a telephone booth to call someone from the road. It was cool to drive a baby blue Camaro with T tops. It was not, however, cool to counsel alcoholics and drug addicts. Like it or not, we (everyone who had a pulse in this country) thought that to be an alcoholic, you had to be lying in the street, missing a leg, dirty and home-less. And I was a professional! My peers asked me thousands of times “how can you work with “those people’?” They did not think my work was cool.
Pro alcohol ads were full color page scenes with beautiful people on sunny beaches or at disco clubs with seductive messages. Pro sobriety ads were tiny black and white ads in the very back of magazines. Betty Ford changed all of that by announcing that she was a drug addict and an alcoholic. A DRUG ADDICT AND ALCOHOLIC! Our vision of drug addicts were dirty people with needles sticking out of their arms. Well, with grace and elegance, Betty Ford set us in the substance abuse community, in the world, straight.
I heard Betty Ford speak at a women’s conference in north Atlanta in 1982. She candidly discussed the intervention that her family had held with her way before interventions were a weekly series on TV. She told an audience of several hundred professional women that her children were afraid to leave the grandchildren with her. After her husband left the presidency (Who was he anyway?), they moved to Palm Beach and lived a lifestyle of leisure. She was drinking way too much, way to early in the day and mixing alcohol with prescription medication. And she referred to herself as a DRUG ADDICT and ALCOHOLIC! I was tremendously impressed with the way she shared her darkest self shamelessly with those few hundred women that day.
Well, we in the counseling community had to do a bit of a double take and redefine our definitions of alcoholics and drug addicts. Because Mrs. Betty Ford was certainly not lying in a gutter with a leg missing. We had to open our minds to the fact that a CEO of a company could be an alcoholic, a sports star could be a drug addict, even the king of rock and roll could be an acceptable drug addict. I have a saying that if only Elvis had lasted about 5 more years. He could have been hospitalized at the Betty Ford Center for de-tox and extended treatment. Why, he would have developed his own rehab facility located in Memphis, named Graceland. Rock stars and blues singers, truck drivers and servicemen from all over the south would have followed his footsteps in recovery. But, alas, Elvis was a few years too early with his addiction problems. It wasn’t cool in 1978. Well, it really wasn’t cool in 1981, but Betty Ford did it.
As an addiction counselor for the last 32 years, I am extremely grateful to Mrs. Betty Ford. How brave she was to step forward at a very difficult time in her life. She has helped so many hundreds, maybe thousands of people look at themselves in a different light, a less harsh light of addiction. I use her as an example whenever I am able in my groups and talks. She truly was a woman who changed the world. Thank you Mrs. Betty Ford!