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Betty Ford led the way to sobriety 18 years ago

The Betty Ford Center offers retreat and recovery from addiction

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”Hello, my name’s Betty Ford, and I’m an alcoholic and an addict.” Every month, the 38th First Lady of the United States introduces herself that way to patients at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Back in 1978, however, Ford had a tough time admitting those facts even to herself. It was the intervention of her family that brought her into treatment for her addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs. But by the time she left the Long Beach Naval Hospital on May 5, 1978, Elizabeth Anne Bloomer Ford had admitted her problem to an entire country.

Ford, who during her husband’s 1974-77 administration had set a new standard for White House candor by speaking openly about her breast cancer and mastectomy, brought addiction out of the closet as well. At the end of her four-week stay, the 60-year-old detox graduate waved to reporters and said she felt ”just fine.” Within four years, Ford had raised nearly $6 million in private funds to build the 14-acre facility, now the world’s most famous clean-and-sober retreat.

And money wasn’t all that Ford raised. The positive response to her honesty inspired and, dare we say it, enabled celebrities to come out of hiding. So much so, in fact, that in 1983, when Elizabeth Taylor checked in for the first of two stays, the Betty Ford Center became the world’s most famous celebrity retreat as well. Don Johnson, Liza Minnelli, Ali MacGraw, Mary Tyler Moore, Johnny Cash, and Chevy Chase are among the high-profile names in the guest register. ”Betty Ford is responsible for taking the life-crippling stigma and shame out of what we now know to be a disease,” says alum MacGraw.

”No stigma” is right: Addiction has become so accepted since Ford’s rehab stint that it’s PC to joke about it in prime time. Take, for example, John Larroquette, a real recovering alcoholic whose self-titled sitcom is about a guy in recovery. Murphy Brown and NYPD Blue‘s Andy Sipowicz are proudly sober. And Al Franken’s 12-step wunderkind Stuart Smalley, who first appeared on Saturday Night Live, even got his own movie last year. (And doggone it, people like him.) Whatever form it takes, this acceptance of addicts and their disease means that high-profile rehab grads have Betty Ford, along with their Higher Power, to thank for their continuing careers.