Saturday, July 9, 2011

Remembering the Brave Pioneer in Betty Ford

Betty Ford at the center she founded.
The death of Betty Ford yesterday is significant for the nation in general, since she was a memorable First Lady, but it is perhaps even more of a loss for those of us who are recovering alcoholics.

Betty Ford helped bring alcoholism out of the 19th Century and into the present by courageously going public with her disease and striding a long step further when she started the Betty Ford Center, where several of my friends and associates have cleaned up their lives.

When I entered AA the first time in the early 1970s, it was a different place than it is now--and it was not especially welcoming. I was sentenced to AA in about 1972 by Judge James Bryce for driving drunk (a second offense, the first being on a wedding night a couple of years earlier--I spent that night in jail. The story's another seminar and maybe we'll get to it some day). Judge Beverly Fitzpatrick, bless his heart, had begun the practice of giving drunk drivers the choice of jail or AA around that time and Bryce took up the call. Fitzpatrick established in Roanoke a Friday night "honor court" for drunks, a sort of AA meeting for them that dealt with life issues on all levels.

Ad for the Betty Ford Center
At the time, AA meetings were nearly all-male. The men were older, poorer and much more gruff and worn than those you will see in well-lit, smoke-free, upbeat meetings today. Cigarette smoke hung heavily in the air (I contributed substantially to that), the voices were gravely and crusty and there wasn't much positive going on that I could see. I remember one old-timer telling me--I was in my 20s--"Boy, you keep coming to these meetings and you'll get to be just like me." He meant that to sound positive. I looked at him and others in the room and had a different impression. I wanted to leave and did, drinking hard for a lot more years before getting sober.

Betty Ford and a legion of strong and brave women like her turned recovery into something trendy. Women had a civilizing effect on AA (much as they did on newspaper newsrooms when they came into them in full force at about the same time). The smoking calmed down a bit and so did the language. People didn't yell at each other quite so much and the edgy, macho, testosterone-soaked stories became more human and vulnerable. Betty Ford told thousands of women--maybe millions--that it was OK to get well, that they had a disease, not a moral lapse.

Lady Bird Johnson literally cleaned up the country; Jackie Kennedy gave us grace; Eleanor Roosevelt infused us with compassion; Michelle Obama has presented self-confidence and style. Betty Ford gave lives back to some of our most vulnerable and sickest women. She should be remembered for that first.


  1. Dan, this is beautifully and masterfully written.
    Andrea Brunais

  2. Dan,
    This is beautifully and masterfully written.
    Andrea Brunais

  3. Andrea:
    Thank you. You are a generous sweetheart to say so.