Betty Ford's Healing Legacy: A Conversation with Susan Ford Bales

Let's Talk Addiction & Recovery Podcast
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Former First Lady Betty Ford put a stunning new face on recovery in 1978 when she openly sought treatment for addiction. Four years later, she cofounded the Betty Ford Center to help other women, men and families find recovery. Daughter Susan Ford Bales tells host William C. Moyers about Betty Ford's healing work and advocacy—from providing top-quality patient care to establishing innovative services for children affected by addiction to educating medical students about substance use disorders.

Mother's mission was always to serve as many people as she possibly could. And to help others.

Susan Ford Bales

0:00:22 William Moyers
Hello and welcome to Let's Talk, a series of award-winning podcasts produced and delivered by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Each podcast focuses on an issue related to addiction, treatment and recovery. I'm your host, William Moyers, and today we're joined by Susan Ford Bales. Welcome, Susan.

0:00:39 Susan Ford Bales
Thank you.

0:00:40 William Moyers
You are an author, photojournalist, the youngest of four children to President and Mrs. Ford. [Susan nods] We are appropriately here at the Betty Ford Center where you're also on the Board of Trustees of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Your mother's legacy was as a breast cancer survivor and advocate and as a woman in recovery and as an advocate for being a woman in recovery.

0:01:06 Susan Ford Bales

0:01:07 William Moyers
How has the legacy of your mother affected your role here at the Betty Ford Center?

0:01:15 Susan Ford Bales
Wow her shoes were really big to fill.

0:01:19 William Moyers

0:01:20 Susan Ford Bales
So when she stepped down from the Board and I became Chairman, I think it was harder than living in the White House actually. Because we—Mother and I come from two different parts of recovery. She as a patient and I as a family member. So we have very different opinions of things and what's important to us. One of the things that she made me do which was extremely painful was sit on every city—every single committee and participate.

0:01:57 William Moyers
Oh my goodness..

0:01:59 Susan Ford Bales
Finance—I hate finance. [Moyers laughs] But I learned it.

0:02:03 William Moyers

0:02:03 Susan Ford Bales
And so, I feel like she did a great job for preparing me to be Chairman. So it's just we come at it from a different angle. And a different perspective. Family and Children's Services is extremely important to me. 'Cause that's how was affected by this disease.

0:02:20 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. Did you come to the role of being the Chair here at Betty Ford—did you come to that reluctantly?

0:02:28 Susan Ford Bales
No because I had been on the Board for oh probably fifteen years. I mean it had just been a long process. Mother was gracious and allowed me to raise my children before I came on the Board. Because I was pregnant when the Betty Ford Center opened, so, I don't think I came on the Board until my youngest was first grade or second grade.

0:02:51 William Moyers

0:02:52 Susan Ford Bales
So she gave me some time to get my children raised and at least in school. Because it required several days' travel and all of that and childcare and you know, all the complications that we go through to—

0:03:04 William Moyers

0:03:04 Susan Ford Bales
—To participate in something like that.

0:03:06 William Moyers
Let's go back a little bit and talk about the history of the Betty Ford Center. There's a lot of people who think that when your mother found her own recovery in the late '70s that she went to the Betty Ford Center. [Susan shakes her head no, smiles] It wasn't even here.

0:03:17 Susan Ford Bales
No. It wasn't.

0:03:18 William Moyers
How did the Betty Ford Center come to be?

0:03:22 Susan Ford Bales
John Sinn from Eisenhower Medical Center decided that they wanted to have a treatment. And it had been in the plan at Eisenhower for some time. They wanted to have an alcoholic treatment center on the campus. And so, Leonard Firestone, Mother's dear friend, was also on the Board of Eisenhower. And so John Sinn and Leonard kinda tag-teamed her. And she was early in her recovery. About four years. But she agreed. And I—and I thought that was a very courageous step to be so early in her recovery. So she came to all of us children and she said, 'When I'm long gone, you're the ones that are gonna have to live with the fact that your mother had a drug and alcohol treatment center named after you.' [Moyers chuckles] How do you feel about that?

0:04:16 William Moyers

0:04:17 Susan Ford Bales
And we all said we don't care. I mean it's—what a great legacy, you know? She was one of the first to step out and share her story. So once we got past that, it was just a matter of Mother and Leonard raising the money to get this place started.

0:04:35 William Moyers
And of course way back when in the early 1980s, the Hazelden Foundation played a role also in the birth of this place. Can you share just a little bit about that?

0:04:46 Susan Ford Bales
Well, Mother spent quite a bit of time. Went back to Hazelden. Because Hazelden had done it so well. They were probably the leaders in the sense that they had been around the longest. And it was successful. There's lots of treatment centers that haven't been successful. So Mother went back and spent probably close to a week there visiting with the counselors, visiting with the staff, talking how do you do this, what did you do right, what did you do wrong, why—what makes Hazelden successful. Because we basically wanted to copy what they had done. But in a different location.

0:05:26 William Moyers
Sure. Who would have ever imagined that decades later, the two organizations would come together? And I wanna come back to that in just a minute but first, Susan, I wanna address an issue that always bothers me. [grins, Susan laughs] And that's that the Betty Ford Center is seen as a place for, you know, the rich and famous or the exclusive or those who can pay out of pocket. But that's not at all what's happening here, is it?

0:05:50 Susan Ford Bales
No and in less than one percent of the patients here are what we would think of as celebrities. Yes we've had some celebrities, but so has Hazelden. I mean, so has other places.

0:06:02 William Moyers

0:06:03 Susan Ford Bales
Everybody needs treatment. It doesn't matter what you do that determines you need treatment. So, and they don't get treated any different than—

0:06:14 William Moyers
Right. [chuckles]

0:06:15 Susan Ford Bales
—My mother didn't get treated any different at Long Beach [chuckles] than you know, the other people—the women that she shared a room with. So, it's the same.

0:06:25 William Moyers
Now your mother did take some of the—your mother and the team took some of the—some of the very best that Hazelden had to offer and made it part of what was happening here. And I say here 'cause we're in Rancho Mirage today. But there was a lot more to what was happening at the Betty Ford Center than just addiction treatment. Can you talk a little bit about some of the other components of the mission, such as SIMS and the Children's Program?

0:06:48 Susan Ford Bales
Well the SIMS program which is for medical students who are in Medical School and usually after their first year. We have medical students come out and spend a week total immersion, they sit with patients, they live—not live with patients but they are with patients from morning until evening to understand addiction. Because, in medical school, you don't get a lot of education about addiction. [Moyers nods] And so this is our way of teaching them about addiction. And in return, that as they become physicians, if they see a patient who they feel has a problem, they know where to turn to or where to send them to.

0:07:31 William Moyers
Right. Mmm-hmm.

0:07:33 Susan Ford Bales
So it—it serves both purposes. The letters that we get from the medical students—

0:07:37 William Moyers

0:07:38 Susan Ford Bales
—are incredible. What they've learned and that sort of thing. And some of 'em choose to go into addiction. Which is even better, so.

0:07:47 William Moyers
And the Children's Program?

0:07:48 Susan Ford Bales
The Children's Program. Mother hired Jerry Moe away from another center. [Moyers chuckles] Twenty…

0:07:56 William Moyers
—Two years ago.

0:07:57 Susan Ford Bales
—Two. Twenty-two years ago.

0:07:58 William Moyers
Yes. [smiles]

0:07:58 Susan Ford Bales
And Jerry runs our Children's Program. Jerry is a Pied Piper. I—I would—I'd follow Jerry anywhere. [Moyers laughs] And what he does with children is amazing. He helps heal their hearts.

0:08:13 William Moyers
Yes. Because as you know in your own experience and I certainly know in my own experience that addiction affects much more than just the person who suffers from it, it affects the entire family and particularly children.

0:08:25 Susan Ford Bales
Right. And so the Children's Program is for children from seven to twelve. You know when people hear about a children's—'You treat children?!' I'm like no, they're not addicted. We treat them because they are affected by this disease and they are part of the process.

0:08:40 William Moyers
And it's very exciting to know I mean while some of that original expertise came from Minnesota down into the desert here, to start the Betty Ford Center, some of it's gone the other way, too! The SIMS program is now in Minnesota. The Children's Program is now in Minnesota. So it works both ways.

0:08:56 Susan Ford Bales
It has worked both ways. And I think that's the real beauty of us being the largest non-for-profit.

0:09:02 William Moyers
Yes. Yes. [nods]

0:09:02 Susan Ford Bales
That we can serve so many people in so many different ways.

0:09:07 William Moyers
Another thing that's gone the other way if you will is your mother's real passion, well her recognition and her passion, for gender-specific treatment as it relates to women. Can you share a little bit about that?

0:09:19 Susan Ford Bales
Well first of all I think it started with her trying to get ERA passed.

0:09:23 William Moyers

0:09:24 Susan Ford Bales
Which still hasn't passed. [grins]

0:09:26 William Moyers
Yes. [chuckles]

0:09:26 Susan Ford Bales
So women get out there. [Moyers chuckles] But when she realized, when we started building our buildings out here, we had what we called a swing unit. All depending if we had more men in treatment or more women in treatment, that building became well it was co-ed, too. And all depending which beds were which way. And then we realized, as most treatment centers did, is that some women do better when they are not in a co-ed hall. Because they'd been physically abused by men. And the same goes for men. Men who go into a co-ed group sometimes pump up their chest because a woman is—is sitting in that group.

0:10:11 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmm.

0:10:13 Susan Ford Bales
So we learned that gender-specific treatment that both patients do better. And that's very important. Because you want your patient to leave here as well as they possibly can be. So she was a real pioneer in that and we have always had equal beds for women and equal beds for men here. The other thing is women—it's harder for women to get into treatment.

0:10:37 William Moyers

0:10:38 Susan Ford Bales
Of families. The family depends on them.

0:10:42 William Moyers

0:10:43 Susan Ford Bales
They're not necessarily the breadwinner, but, they're the ones who run the houses. And the kids. And so, it's much more difficult for them to take possibly 30 days, 28 days, 16 days, 18 days, whatever it is, to take off and come here to get well.

0:11:02 William Moyers
And now your mother's bust is up in Center City—

0:11:05 Susan Ford Bales

0:11:06 William Moyers
There on our campus for our—at our women's unit.

0:11:08 Susan Ford Bales
Right. And so we've—there is a Betty Ford women's unit up in Hazelden. So.

0:11:12 William Moyers
Yes. So the Betty Ford Center was here doing its good work in the desert from the early 80s up through the last ten years. You went, moved on and did some other things at some point, but a couple years ago and around 2013, suddenly there was the opportunity perhaps for the two organizations to come together. What was your first reaction when you heard that there was this notion out there, this idea that perhaps the Betty Ford Center and the Hazelden Foundation could come together and be one?

0:11:44 Susan Ford Bales
I was relieved at the time.

0:11:46 William Moyers

0:11:47 Susan Ford Bales
Because I saw the marketplace changing. As William you've seen how treatment has changed and now we're involved with insurance and used to be a self-pay mode.

0:11:57 William Moyers

0:11:58 Susan Ford Bales
The market has changed. And so this gave—Mother's mission was always to serve as many people as she possibly could. And to help others.

0:12:08 William Moyers

0:12:09 Susan Ford Bales
Family, children, patients. And, you know, everything. So this really offered that opportunity. My role in that was Mother created a trust before she passed away that just the two of us were the trustees of that trust.

0:12:24 William Moyers

0:12:25 Susan Ford Bales
And it controls her name. And so, when Hazelden wanted to do the merger, they had to come to me 'cause I'm the sole trustee of the trust—

0:12:36 William Moyers

0:12:37 Susan Ford Bales
—And get permission for the merger.

0:12:38 William Moyers
So it was a merger of two organizations but it was a collaboration of three.

0:12:44 Susan Ford Bales

0:12:44 William Moyers
Entities. Hazelden, Betty Ford, and the Ford family.

0:12:48 Susan Ford Bales

0:12:47 William Moyers
And I know that was important because your mother never wanted her name just to be tossed around or put on a signpost in Anywhere, USA!

0:12:59 Susan Ford Bales

0:12:59 William Moyers
It—it mattered to her! That Ford name and the Betty Ford name meant a lot when it came to addiction treatment, didn't it?

0:13:07 Susan Ford Bales
It did. And sad to say, there are T-shirts and boxer shorts and all kinds of things that say the Betty Ford Clinic, the Betty Ford Center, that we continually have to shut down.

0:13:18 William Moyers
I did not realize that.

0:13:18 Susan Ford Bales
Oh yeah. [chuckles] It's—it's interesting.

0:13:22 William Moyers
Does that speak then, the term—your mother's commitment to quality, your mother's sensitivity to what it meant to have the Betty Ford name on a treatment center. Does that speak to your commitment to quality? I mean I know you're the Chair of the Quality Committee of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in addition to being on the Board, you're also the head of Quality.

0:13:41 Susan Ford Bales

0:13:42 William Moyers
Why does that matter to you?

0:13:44 Susan Ford Bales
Staff and patient care and when I think of patients I think of the children and the Children's Program, the kids, the medical students in the SIMS program. Anybody who is involved with us. I want them to have the best quality. We are the largest non-for-profit organization who treat drug and alcohol addiction.

0:14:04 William Moyers

0:14:05 Susan Ford Bales
So we need to be the best. And so, Betty Ford has always been the best. We need to stay in the market. We need to not necessarily follow the trends, we need to follow the trends that work. But we need to be the best in the market. And so, that's why it's important.

0:14:25 William Moyers
Susan, do you feel any pressure as the daughter of President and Mrs. Ford, do you feel any pressure to maintain that legacy or does it just come natural to you?

0:14:40 Susan Ford Bales
There's a lot of pressure to it. And—and passing it down in the next generation—

0:14:45 William Moyers

0:14:46 Susan Ford Bales
—Is I mean you've seen it with your father. I have a daughter who's very interested in it. And she was very close to her grandmother. [tears up] But she's not ready. She has young children. She's not ready. So, I will carry the torch. See you have to understand when you go from so many people think well there was President Nixon, there was President Carter, and they forget about the two and a half years that we were there. So, all of us family members continue to carry that torch—

0:15:29 William Moyers

0:15:30 Susan Ford Bales
Yeah we did exist. Inflation was horrible. My mother had breast cancer. My dad had two assassination attempts. A lot happened in those two and a half years. And they changed—they made a difference.

0:15:44 William Moyers
Yes. They sure did make a difference. A difference to the continuity of democracy.

0:15:50 Susan Ford Bales

0:15:50 William Moyers
That is always critical no matter who's in the White House.

0:15:54 Susan Ford Bales

0:15:55 William Moyers
Because at the end of the day, democracy is about all of us, not about some of us.

0:15:58 Susan Ford Bales

0:15:59 William Moyers
And I think it's very powerful that you spoke that way, it was only quote unquote two and a half years, but it was two and a half years in the history of this country.

0:16:06 Susan Ford Bales

0:16:07 William Moyers
And from it, from that opportunity that came from the adversity of what—of President Nixon stepping down before his term was over, from it came not only the opportunity for your parents to be in the roles that they were, but for this to be here.

0:16:21 Susan Ford Bales

0:16:22 William Moyers
I would think. Because your mother became more prominent as a First Lady.

0:16:25 Susan Ford Bales

0:16:27 William Moyers
Who had overcome breast cancer and a First Lady who had overcome substance use disorder. And was willing not only to overcome it, not only have the ability to overcome it, was willing to talk about it.

0:16:37 Susan Ford Bales

0:16:38 William Moyers
And I think I wanna close here with a little bit about the advocacy. How important—I mean you know this, I know this, but the importance of advocacy around the illness of addiction. And the power of recovery.

0:16:52 Susan Ford Bales
It's extremely important. It is not my forte. I—you will not find me up on Capitol Hill pounding tables. 'Cause I've lived a lot of that. It's important because we have got to change the way people think about this disease. Breast cancer has changed in the 40-some years since it all happened. Drug and alcohol addiction has not changed at the same pace or rate that breast cancer has. It's still, you know, when you—when you think about 23 million people are touched or diagnosed with this disease and only ten percent get treatment, that has to change. And the only way to change that is through policymakers—

0:17:50 William Moyers

0:17:51 Susan Ford Bales
—And the public. We've got to change their attitude about this disease.

0:17:56 William Moyers
I agree with you on that. And not only do I agree on that with you, but I agree with everything else you've said. I disagree with you on one point: you are an advocate. Because here you are. Here you are, in front of the camera, on a Let's Talk podcast, sharing your own family's story, your story, the power of addiction in your family. And the power of recovery that's alive and well at the Betty Ford Center. So I would say you're a darn good advocate.

0:18:25 Susan Ford Bales
Thank you.

0:18:26 William Moyers
And I appreciate you taking the time out of your own busy life to be part of this and sharing your own experience, strength, and hope with our audience today. Susan Ford Bales, thank you for being with us.

0:18:36 Susan Ford Bales
Thanks, William.

0:18:36 William Moyers
[turns to camera]

And thanks to all of you for joining us on another edition of Let's Talk, a series of podcasts that brings these issues to you. On behalf of our Executive Producer, Lisa Stangl, and the great crew at Blue Moon Productions, I'm your host William Moyers. We'll see ya again. [smiles]

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