Betty Ford Reflects on Center's 20 Years

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Oct. 20, 2002 — -- Twenty years ago this month, there was a revolution in this country in the way we view and treat substance abuse, and it was called the Betty Ford Center.

Named, of course, after the former first lady, the center, located in Rancho Mirage, Calif., has become affectionately known as "Camp Betty."

The center's goal is treatment without shame.

"Somehow, it was all right for men to kind of kick back and sow their wild oats, but as far as women were concerned it was a real stigma," Betty Ford said. "It's really awesome to me to be at our 20th [anniversary]."

The center is a haven where addicts are addicts, whether they're the former first lady, the guy next door, or the celebrities who seem to frequent the center.

The whole world knows Elizabeth Taylor's been to the center twice, and even met her last husband here.

Rocker Stevie Nicks checked in after a concert for cocaine addiction. Ozzy Osbourne got clean at Betty Ford.

Kelsey Grammer testified about the center to Congress after he got out.

"It takes a sense of community and faith to actually overcome this disease," he told the congressmen.

Ford is characteristically blunt about the mixed blessings of celebrity clients.

"We're happy that they're willing to talk about it, as long as they stay well," she said. "But if they don't stay well, then it's not a big plus for the treatment of this disease."

In a day when first ladies gave teas and cut ribbons, Ford weighed in about abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment.

She shared her breast-cancer diagnosis and mastectomy with the public. She also suffered excruciating pain from a pinched nerve and started to become addicted to painkillers and Valium, something she didn't realize when she was still in the White House.

"I never felt I was addicted to them," she said. "That was not something that went through my head."

But it did have effects.

"It slowed up the way I talked, and it slowed up the way I thought," she said.

After the White House, her drinking problem developed and her family finally confronted her, she said.

"I was very resentful, yes," she said. "I was very angry but we all came together. And my husband, in a very loving way, put his hand around me and he said, 'You know, Mom, we love you too much to let this happen,' and that is what struck home with me."

Today, her husband continues to stand proudly by her, and raves about her accomplishments.

"I'm very honored and proud to be the No. 2 in the Ford family," the former president said. "I'm Betty Ford's husband."

But back when his wife had a drinking problem, Ford said, he was "one of the typical enablers."

"I would apologize for being late to a party," he said. "I would cancel engagements."

The Fords noted that the current President Bush talked openly during the presidential campaign about his former drinking, and are "very proud of the fact that he faced up to the problem," Gerald Ford said.

"Everybody has their own personal way of handling those things," Betty Ford said of the current president not dwelling on the question of whether he might have been an alcoholic. "We don't all have to do it in the same way."

At 84, Betty Ford still runs the center, even dropping by on weekends if a patient needs her counsel.

"They're distraught and frightened and very sick," she said. "And then weeks later I see them, and they have a smile on their face, they're looking like a million bucks, and they're ready."

Elizabeth Anderson, 25, was addicted to marijuana and alcohol. She spent a month in the program last May.

"Not only do we have Elizabeth back," said her mother, Janice Stutts. "Elizabeth has her life."

"Thank you for being such an inspiration to me," Anderson told Ford.

"I appreciate that," Ford replied. "Someone was an inspiration to me, so we just pass it along."

ABCNEWS' Claire Shipman and Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.

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