Betty Ford’s daughter says substance abuse affects whole families

Former first daughter Susan Ford Bales lived scenes from her life on a national stage.

She was the first presidential teen to have a senior prom at the White House. She also had to grapple with an issue less celebratory — her mother’s addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs.

“To most people, the image of an alcoholic or addict is the bum on the street or the guy in the gutter,” Bales said. “They don’t think of them as a former first lady or a congressman. My mother was determined to change that image.” Former first lady Betty Ford, who later became an advocate for addiction recovery and shared her story about battling breast cancer, died in 2011.

Bales, who lives in Tulsa, Okla., will be the keynote speaker during the St. Jude’s Recovery Center’s Voices of Recovery Luncheon, which will be held Oct. 3. St. Jude’s, which is one of Atlanta’s largest and oldest residential recovery programs, is observing its 50th anniversary.

“What we know now is that a 12-step program works and has for a long time. … If the alcoholic or addict does not get help, the family members can get help for themselves,” said Bales, 55, an author and the former chairman of the California-based Betty Ford Center. “There is hope and help if people want it.”

Bales recently talked with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about how her mother’s addictions affected the family.

Q:It’s said that when one person suffers from substance abuse, the whole family suffers.

A: It’s not just a disease that affects the alcoholic or addicts. I know in my personal story that I enabled my mother. I covered for her when I shouldn’t have. … I went to events with my dad so she wouldn’t have to go. It affects people in different ways. My dad was traveling a lot, so he was probably less affected by it. It’s funny because even my brothers, who were living across the country, were affected. They were choosing when to have grandchildren. They wanted an involved grandmother — a grandmother who was involved in their children’s lives and not someone who wasn’t.

Q: When did you realize your mother had a problem?

A: We were all in major denial. I can’t pick a date. I can’t pick a year. It’s a chronic disease that just gets worse over time. The right pieces fell at the right time. I didn’t know about a 12-step program. … People didn’t talk about alcoholism. They didn’t talk about addiction. I met a doctor who started talking to me about recovery. He obviously had suspicions that we had a problem in our family.

Q: It seems your situation was probably more difficult because your mother’s substance abuse issues were played out in a fish bowl.

A: In 1978, we were out of the White House, but it still made headlines when she went into treatment at Long Beach Naval Hospital. … My mother admitted she was an alcoholic and realized she could make a difference to others. … People were always watching her. Has she relapsed? The same thing happens when you’ve had breast cancer. My mother said she walked down the stairs for a state dinner and people were looking at her like, “Which one?” You get very thick-skinned about it, and you know the kind of stuff that goes on. If people saw her with a glass of clear liquid in her hands, they would say, “I hope that isn’t gin or vodka.”

Q: How did her addictions affect your relationship with her?

A: I was the one who got the family together to do an intervention. Yes, we had to change our relationship. I had gotten very angry with her. All of us children had. She was not dependable. She would cancel things at the last minute. You would go over to have dinner with her, and she would lie down and take a nap and never come down to dinner. We all had to mend our relationships and change our relationships. … Now, when I look at it, it was the best thing that happened to our family. Everyone got honest.

Q: After your mother’s experience, were you very worried about following in her footsteps with pills and alcohol?

A: I educated myself enough to know what the signs are and what to be aware of. I did the same things with my children. There is a genetic link with addiction. I’ve got girls and we’ve had long talks about breast cancer issues and substance abuse issues. Education is the best defense we have.

Q: Let’s talk about your work with breast cancer. Would you do genetic testing to see if you’re at risk?

A: I’ve had it done. My daughters are nearly 30 and 33. The reason I had it was I’m the only female in my generation. … I have nieces, grandnieces and a granddaughter. There are lots of females who follow me. I feel a lot of responsibility for the women in my family.

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