White House anecdotes melded together Saturday night with stories of addiction and mental health, as the son of former President Gerald Ford and wife Betty Ford shared his story as part of Valeo Behavioral Health Care’s 50th anniversary.
Steve Ford, who was 18 when his father became president after then-President Richard Nixon’s resignation, didn’t hold back on discussions of his famous family, the addiction secret that plagued them and his own fight to find peace.
“Back in the late ’70s, my mother changed the face of addiction when a former first lady raised her hand and said, ‘My name is Betty and I’m an alcoholic,’ ” Ford said in an interview before the event. “At that point, the stereotype was the homeless skid-row bum was the only person that was an alcoholic, and here you had a former first lady raising her hand and saying, ‘No, this could be anybody.’ That started to lift the veil.”
Ford, an actor and recovered alcoholic, spends much of his time on the road talking to groups like Valeo, doing his own part to strip away the secrecy and shame that have kept people with mental health and addiction problems away from getting help.
“We were like any family in America that was confused,” Ford said of his understanding as a teen about his mother’s addiction. “The education at that time was not very good about what alcoholism or addiction looked like. We all knew we were losing on mom. She was losing her life. This happens over a several-year process, you see her cancel appointments, you see her stop meeting with friends, going to lunch with her women friends. All of a sudden, she’s not getting out of bed until late in the morning. Eventually, it gets to things like slurred speech.”
Betty Ford was combining alcohol with painkillers that she’d been prescribed for a severe pinched nerve in her neck, Steve Ford said.
“As we saw mother’s life slipping away, we didn’t know what to do,” he said. “Thank God, dad never gave up. He finally found a doctor that had the courage to say your wife is an alcoholic. That was just groundbreaking, as far as changing the perception.”
Ford not only shared his mother’s story Saturday night with about 150 people gathered at NOTO’s Serendipity as part of Valeo’s “Unmasking Stigma” event, but his own.
“My own story even highlights how powerful these diseases are. Ten years after mom went through sobriety, I, too, had to raise my hand and say, ‘My name is Steve and I’m an alcoholic,’ ” he recalled. “I should have known, but that tells you how sneaky a disease it is.”
Ford said the impacts of addiction on his family are why he particularly enjoys speaking at events that support community mental health systems like Valeo.
“My safety net was very, very good,” he said. “I had a supportive family. The good news is I got sober. I had a safe place to get some help. Valeo’s on the front lines of this. They’re rebuilding lives.”
Ford, who has 24 years of sobriety, said he always imparts the message no one but the addict can transform their lives.
“I can tell you from being an addict myself, you have to pick up the phone,” he said. “No one can do it for you. You have to get to that point in your life, and say I’m just sick and tired of being sick and tired. There’s no magic pill. This is hard, hard, hard work. Re-occurrence happens a lot. This is a lifetime commitment of transforming your life.”
In his talk Saturday, Ford didn’t shy away from the “underbelly” of what happens in families and what addiction can do.
“My disease didn’t care whether mother was a former first lady. It didn’t care,” he said. “We’ve all got these things we’re dealing with. The point is to be transparent and put some light on it so you can heal it.”
Although he hopes to make a difference in talking about addiction, Ford is aware people enjoy hearing the inside stories about the White House.
“All of a sudden, in August 1974, Nixon resigns and dad becomes president,” he said. “Literally, overnight, I get 10 Secret Service guys. And trust me, when you’re 18 years old, that is not really the group you want to hang out with.”
The Valeo 50th anniversary celebration included the presentation of the Hope Humanitarian Award to the Maxine and Jack Zarrow Family Foundation for their support of mental health programs and the work they do. Mayor Larry Wolgast, who worked at The Menninger Clinic during his career, also spoke of how critical the work Valeo does is to the community. He highlighted three programs in which the city partners with Valeo, including a co-responder program where mental health professionals go with police on calls.
“I can attest Valeo not only helps people, it saves lives,” he said.
Part of Saturday’s event was a live auction of masks decorated by various organizations that highlight Valeo programs, a poetry reading and a visit to the Creations of Hope Gallery.