How Betty Ford Helped Boomers Confront Their Demons
A fortysomething neighbor of mine recently posted a Facebook update in which he noted, "I have fourteen years today." He didn't have to explain that he was marking his years of sobriety, which is one indication of just how much former First Lady Betty Ford -- who died Friday at age 93 -- changed the world in a way that's particularly important for boomers.
Back in 1978, when Ford entered a treatment program at Long Beach, Calif., Naval Hospital to kick an addition to liquor and pills, she shocked the hell out of us. In those days, to many boomers, being a druggie was still a youth counterculture thing, a merit badge of rebellion against the establishment. Getting wasted was a way of showing one's allegiance to outlaw heroes William S. Burroughs and Ken Kesey, of riding that train with Jerry Garcia and joining Lou Reed for a walk on the wild side. Of course, it was all an act of self-delusion; we were just as much conformist consumers of intoxicants as the previous generation, the ones whose scotch-gulping, chain-smoking lifestyle we find so quaintly fascinating on the TV series Mad Men.
But Betty Ford burst our bubble. Here was the accomplished, totally respectable spouse of the former President of the United States -- to us, back then, the epitome of squareness -- admitting that she, too, had a drug problem. In one fell swoop, she took the edgy coolness out of the drug subculture. Ford wasn't eating Benzedrine with Jack Kerouac so that she could hear jazz in her head and stay up for three weeks straight writing the Great American Novel. Instead, in her own frank words, she was "self-medicating," trying to blot out reality and dull her physical and mental pain. Now, she was determined to beat "an insidious thing" that was ruining her life.
Moreover, after being confronted by her family in one of the first highly publicized interventions, Ford was brave enough to take an honest look at herself in the mirror and resilient enough to do something about her problem. Taking that step wasn't easy. Ford showed America that getting sober didn't require being locked in a rubber room with a straight jacket, but was more about hard work and resolve.
And to borrow a phrase from the old-school rappers Gang Starr, there was no shame in her game. In 1982, Ford lent her name and prestige to a new facility, the Betty Ford Center, which has become the world's most renowned program for addition treatment. More than 90,000 people have worked to conquer their inner demons there.
I think it's safe to say that many boomers over the years have been influenced by Ford's example. Today, of the estimated 2 million people receiving treatment for drug abuse each year, 24 percent are over 45, according to this report from the federal government's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. That's a 50 percent increase from a decade earlier. As this article from MSM Health details, today's boomer addicts tend to resemble Ford more than the hipster role models of their youth; increasingly, they're addicted to legal, easily obtainable substances -- booze and prescription narcotics -- and less likely to be smoking weed or snorting coke or meth. Instead of Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, today's boomer substance abuser is more likely to look like the 53-year-old grandmother from a small town in Idaho depicted in this recent Deseret News article, who says she became addicted to painkillers after she started taking them to cope with a hip injury she got while exercising.
But by the same token, Ford provided boomers with a classic template for both recovery and midlife self-reinvention. She not only cleaned up her act, but also went on to spend the final three decades of her life reaching out to others -- particularly midlife women, whom she felt were more likely, due to societal stigma, to conceal their problems -- and helping them to get sober, as well. As it turns out, she was a lot cooler than we ever realized.
BTW, if you've been touched by Betty Ford's example and activism, and want to let the world know, add your thoughts to this tribute book being compiled to honor her memory by the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
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