An Exclusive Interview with Susan Ford Bales: The Story behind the Betty Ford Center

Let's Talk Addiction & Recovery Podcast
Blue sky

Photojournalist, author, philanthropist and daughter of Former First Lady Betty Ford, Susan Ford Bales recounts the 1978 family intervention that led to her mother's treatment for addiction. Listen in as she tells host William C. Moyers the moving story behind the founding of the Betty Ford Center—her family's unconditional love, her mother’s extraordinary courage, and the never-give-up legacy of healing and hope exemplified and endowed by Betty Ford.

We didn't have those little labels on the side of pill bottles that say 'Do not drink alcohol while taking this medication.'

Susan Ford

0:00:14 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, and today we're coming to you from the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California. My name is William Moyers, I'm your host. And we're joined today by none other than Susan Ford. Susan Ford, welcome.

0:00:39 Susan Ford
Thank you.

0:00:49 William Moyers
You are the photojournalist, author, member of the Board of Trustees at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, and of course you are the youngest child of President and Mrs. Ford.

0:00:50 Susan Ford

0:00:50 William Moyers
What is it like to be here on this campus with that legacy?

0:00:55 Susan Ford
I really feel like I can feel her. Her presence. I miss her desperately. And each one of these patients is an ambassador to what they have and what they've learned here. And what they're gonna carry on for the rest of their lives. And so, she will touch each and every one of these patients.

0:01:22 William Moyers
I know it might sound trite or silly but do you feel her spirit when you come onto the campus?

0:01:27 Susan Ford
Oh absolutely. Just like when I go to Grand Rapids to the museum—

0:01:31 William Moyers

0:01:31 Susan Ford
—And I see pictures of them and there's recordings of their voices. Which I miss. You get a sense or it's a reminder more of they're still here. Their—their impact is still here. And that's the important thing that each one of us children try and continue is their legacy and their impact.

0:01:59 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmm.

0:02:00 Susan Ford
To the next generation. To my—to my children, to my grandchildren. That's the important thing. Is to continue that legacy.

0:02:10 William Moyers
And you've certainly done that through all of your work here at the Betty Ford Center and with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. We'll come back to that in a little bit. I wanna go back and talk about those formative teenage years that we all have. You spent those formative teenage years in the White House. Tell us about those years.

0:02:28 Susan Ford
I did and I am so glad that we don't—or didn't have—the 24/7 media that the White House children have to participate or be victimized, would be a better way to put it. It's brutal. It's very hard on a family. It's—my mother always said 'Leave my children alone. They were not elected to be here.'

0:02:49 William Moyers

0:02:53 Susan Ford
So, I would have been in so much trouble. [Moyers laughs] I just—I was not a perfect child.

0:03:01 William Moyers
Welcome to the crowd.

0:03:02 Susan Ford
To the club.

0:03:03 William Moyers

0:03:04 Susan Ford
It's just very hard on a family to be in a fishbowl like that. And to be judged 24 hours a day. We were criticized for wearing blue jeans. Now my dad didn't wear blue jeans and I don't—there was a President who was the first one to wear blue jeans, but my dad didn't wear blue jeans. But us kids wore blue jeans and we were criticized for it. Look where we are today. So, it's—it's very difficult. It's very difficult.

0:03:32 William Moyers
'Course your father was the President of the United States and that by itself carries with it a tremendous amount of responsibility and influence. But your mother was as influential as your father was particularly in well a number of areas, but the two areas that I wanna talk to you about today is the fact that she was very public about her struggle with breast cancer.

0:03:52 Susan Ford

0:03:53 William Moyers
Talk about that.

0:03:54 Susan Ford
Six weeks after we moved into the White House, she went in for a routine physical which you do in Bethesda Maryland at the hospital there. And they found a small lump and you know within days, of course she said she didn't have time and she had a very busy calendar.

0:04:16 William Moyers

0:04:17 Susan Ford
She said I don't—I don't have time for this. And back in those years, 'cause we're talking 1975-ish, the—you didn't know if you were going in to get a mastectomy or come out with a band-aid. Because when they did the surgery, they did a biopsy and then if they found something, you got a mastectomy. If they decided that the biopsy was clear, then you got a band-aid. So that technology, that medical technology, has been incredible. We've come a long way with breast cancer and thanks to Betty Ford, but thanks to all the other celebrities who have opened their mouths and shared their stories and donated their dollars and everything else. That's what makes a difference and that's how we change things.

0:05:06 William Moyers
And things change as it relates to how we see—talk about and view cancer, particularly breast cancer—

0:05:11 Susan Ford

0:05:11 William Moyers
—And your mother was an advocate for that. Then—then she became an advocate again for another medical condition: substance use.

0:05:20 Susan Ford

0:05:21 William Moyers
Share with us a little bit about when you began to perceive that perhaps your mother was struggling with something you weren't ready for.

0:05:29 Susan Ford
Mother got sober April 1st. Happy April Fool's Day.

0:05:32 William Moyers
Yeah. [chuckles]

0:05:33 Susan Ford
1978. And as you know, William, it's a progressive disease. I really wasn't paying attention to it. I was in college at the time. And part of my college experience I was living at home but then I went away to school. So I didn't see her on a day-to-day basis. I—I personally feel that the move from Washington to Rancho Mirage was devastating to her. She had lived in Washington forever. Since all of us children were born there.

0:06:07 William Moyers
Because your dad was a Congressman!

0:06:08 Susan Ford
He was a Congressman.

0:06:09 William Moyers

0:06:10 Susan Ford
And then he was Vice President—

0:06:10 William Moyers

0:06:11 Susan Ford
And then he was President. So, Washington was home to her.

0:06:13 William Moyers

0:06:15 Susan Ford
So, to move out here, even though they had come out here for vacations, they had friends out here. Moving is difficult. It's a—it's a traumatic experience. I think that was very difficult for her. My dad was traveling a lot. He was sitting on boards, he was playing golf, he was, you know, a busy, busy man. He—they both were writing books. I don't think she was prepared for the life change, I guess would be the best way to put it.

0:06:42 William Moyers

0:06:43 Susan Ford
They were building a home here. So she was busy with architects and interior decorators and all kinds of things. And she was still speaking and—

0:06:51 William Moyers
Sure. Yes.

0:06:51 Susan Ford
—Doing a lot of breast cancer work. And my parents grew up in the era of cocktails. Everybody had a cocktail at 5:00. My mother was a smoker, my father was a smoker. So, when you go back to the pinched nerve that she—when she fell, back in I don't know what year it was, I was young. Opening a window over the kitchen sink and pinched a nerve in her neck. Which was a—a very real problem—

0:07:17 William Moyers

0:07:18 Susan Ford
—So she would go into traction a lot. But to relieve that nerve. And doctors wrote prescriptions. And back then, we didn't know that when you mixed alcohol with medications, and some of those were muscle relaxers and that sort of thing, 2 plus 2 doesn't equal 4 anymore.

0:07:40 William Moyers

0:07:41 Susan Ford
And we didn't have those little labels on the side of pill bottles that say 'Do not drink alcohol while taking this medication.' I feel my mother was a victim of doctors. And that's how it happened and it progressed, so.

0:07:59 William Moyers
And yet she took responsibility for it and she—and her memoir if I remember reading—Betty: A Glad Awakening, she talked about what it took for her to take responsibility for confronting her illness and she gives you a lot of credit for it. Share that.

0:08:13 Susan Ford
Well, the first time I confronted her, her assistant and I were—she—Caroline was living in my condo. We were thrown out of the house.

0:08:25 William Moyers
By your mother?

0:08:25 Susan Ford
By my mother.

0:08:26 William Moyers

0:08:27 Susan Ford
Which was devastating. 'Cause my mother and I were very close. And I thought I was doing something to help her. So to have her throw me out of the house, I was like, okay, this is going really well. So, then I got my dad involved. Because I had met Dr. Cruz in the meantime—

0:08:46 William Moyers

0:08:47 Susan Ford
—And that's a whole 'nother story. And Dr. Cruz and I sat down with Dad and I—and he explained to us what an intervention was. And we went that, 'That's what we need.' It's going to take all of us and brothers, sister-in-laws, at the time, Clara who had been our housekeeper for 25 years was visiting. And we all sat down with her and confronted her. But we told her how much we loved her. And that's what made the difference. We loved her and were doing this because we love you. And, here we are.

0:09:28 William Moyers
And it worked.

0:09:29 Susan Ford
And it worked. We're lucky. Doesn't work for everybody.

0:09:34 William Moyers
And sometimes it doesn't work the first time.

0:09:35 Susan Ford
Right. And then there's relapse there. I mean—

0:09:38 William Moyers
Right. Yes.

0:09:39 Susan Ford
Relapse is part of this disease. And so, just because it doesn't work the first time, don't give up. Continue. Go get help for yourself. Go to Al-Anon and counseling or whatever. Until the right combination happens. But don't give up on that patient.

0:09:59 William Moyers
And it worked for your mother then even though it's funny in a sense that a lot of people think that she went to the Betty—she went to it—the Betty Ford Center to get better. [chuckles]

0:10:08 Susan Ford

0:10:08 William Moyers
But the Betty Ford Center of course as we know and we'll come back to that didn't exist then. She did go to treatment.

0:10:14 Susan Ford
She went to treatment. We detoxed her at home. With a nurse. And a doctor. And then she went to Long Beach Naval Hospital. Because first families get military medical support, I guess is the best way to put it. And so she went to Long Beach. Doctor Pursh was Head of the Long beach Naval Hospital. And she thought when she went in that she was just confronting the pills. And about a week to ten days into her treatment, Doctor Pursh and my dad confronted her about her drinking. And that explained to her that you can't give up one without giving up the other one.

0:11:01 William Moyers
Oh, how interesting.

0:11:02 Susan Ford
That it's, you know, but that was a long time ago.

0:11:05 William Moyers

0:11:05 Susan Ford
And treatments changed. It's still very much the same. But, you—you can't give up one without giving up the other one.

0:11:13 William Moyers
Right. We talk about a drug is a drug is a drug—

0:11:16 Susan Ford

0:11:16 William Moyers
And if you have that genetic predisposition, if you're vulnerable to substances, if it's—you give up one but not the other one, you're gonna be just as vulnerable.

0:11:22 Susan Ford

0:11:24 William Moyers
When your mother was at Long Beach Naval Hospital and she was getting the care that she needed and deserved, family was part—a "family program" quote unquote was part of the experience.

0:11:35 Susan Ford

0:11:36 William Moyers
You and I have talked a little bit about it, but I—I think it's very important that—that our viewers and our listeners understand what that experience was like. Could you share that with us?

0:11:45 Susan Ford
Well, when I went to Family at Long Beach, 'cause I was living in California at the time, you were family members were put with patients. So it was patients and family together—not your patient, but, other patients. And you—Long Beach Naval—so we had a lot of sailors. We had military in there. My mother learned to—to cuss like a sailor while she was in treatment. [Moyers laughs] Which—another added bonus to it. But it was very confrontational. And Family today, at the Betty Ford Center, at Hazelden Center City, and all the rest, is not. I've been to Family here, I've been to Family at other treatment centers. Family treatment has changed drastically over the years. And for the better. I promise.

0:12:35 William Moyers
Your mother came out of treatment and she loved her sober life.

0:12:39 Susan Ford

0:12:40 William Moyers
How did that manifest itself as you—as her only daughter, the youngest of four siblings, how did you see your mother in recovery?

0:12:49 Susan Ford
We did some dancing around.

0:12:53 William Moyers

0:12:54 Susan Ford
Because when she was drinking and using, I became the parent in our relationship. So, when she couldn't go do something because I was living here in the desert, I would go with my dad to an event. I covered for her. I was the best. I was the best and so was my dad. We covered for her big time. She was the elephant in the room. Everybody in the desert knew she had a problem.

0:13:21 William Moyers
Really. Worst kept secret.

0:13:24 Susan Ford
Best kept secret. So, we had to learn how to communicate again. And in the beginning, the first year, all's I heard about was her AA friends and AA this and AA that, and I was like well, you know, what are we, chopped liver? [Moyers chuckles] But that's—she had grabbed onto that group as her support system. And so Mother and I had to learn how to be friends again.

0:13:52 William Moyers
Yeah. Yeah.

0:13:52 Susan Ford
Because we—I had been her support system before. So we—it was an interesting dance. And we learned and took some of the tools that we learned in treatment and we both got some counseling and we figured—and you know it worked out. But it's—it's hard work. That's—it's hard work.

0:14:12 William Moyers
And just like addiction is a family illness, recovery is too in terms of being part of the process. Recovery has to include the family. And so you've had to recover in your own right! Right?

0:14:22 Susan Ford
I have. I've had to—I've had to recover and I continue it. My recovery is—there is no end-date to it.

0:14:31 William Moyers

0:14:32 Susan Ford
Because, you know, I have been to other treatment centers for family. I'm not—

0:14:37 William Moyers

0:14:37 Susan Ford
You know, I've had other family members—

0:14:39 William Moyers

0:14:40 Susan Ford
—That have needed treatment. So, my recovery continues forever. I'm always recovering. I'm always changing, I'm always learning. I'm always listening. And it's—it's actually the best thing that ever happened to me.

0:14:57 William Moyers
Well thank you for sharing your recovery with us today on this Let's Talk podcast. I think so many people take for granted that your mother had a problem and got well and that's all there was to it. But for you to be able to share those details today I think really resonates with well certainly resonates with me and with all the people that will hear this and listen to this. And on that note, before we close, there are gonna be people who wanna tune in today because you're the daughter of. There are people here who wanna tune in because they love the Betty Ford Center. There are people who know about addiction and so on. But, there are gonna be people who tune in because they're struggling. Either in their own lives or in the lives of the loved ones—what would be your messages in closing, Susan, for people who are listening and need to grasp onto something?

0:15:46 Susan Ford
Never give up.

0:15:47 William Moyers

0:15:48 Susan Ford
Never give up. Keep trying. Just keep trying. Keep reading, keep talking, keep—keep—don't give up. And you, too can find the peace and serenity that so many of us have.

0:16:04 William Moyers
Peace and serenity. Thank you, Susan. Susan Ford. Mom, daughter, member of the Board of Trustees at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. And a very powerful advocate for what we represent. Thank you for being with us today. Thank you all for tuning in to another edition of Let's Talk, a series of podcasts that brings the issues that we've talked about right to you. If you've liked this podcast, please feel free to share it with your families, your friends, your fellow travelers, your colleagues, your communities. On behalf of Susan Ford, I'm your host William Moyers. Thanks for joining us, we'll see you again.

Want to learn more? Select a Tag to explore a particular topic or browse articles.