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Betty Ford remembered as a 'pioneer'

July 13, 2011
by Gary Enos, Contributing Editor
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Late First Lady’s honesty 'paved the way' for treatment programs to reach women

As a minister’s daughter who battled shame in her fight with alcoholism, Mae Abraham found it remarkable that one public figure could do so much to strip away stigma for so many women who followed her.

In an interview with Behavioral Healthcare this week, the co-founder of the Father Martin’s Ashley facility in Maryland recalled the effect the late Betty Ford had in making the road to recovery much easier for a large segment of the population.

Abraham said of Mrs. Ford and of the late Father Joseph Martin, “They were the pioneers.” She added, “Dr. Bob and Bill W. maybe didn’t even have the impact they had, although their program certainly does.”

Mae Abraham (left) presenting an award to Betty Ford.

Abraham’s recovery journey predates Mrs. Ford’s by about a dozen years, and she recalls how Mrs. Ford’s honesty about her battle with alcohol and prescription drugs immediately allowed everyone working with women in treatment to have an easier time reaching them. For many the thought became, “If it was all right for the First Lady to be an alcoholic, it must be all right for me to be an alcoholic,” said Abraham.

Numerous tributes from the field to Mrs. Ford, who died July 8 at age 93, have been issued in recent days. Most focused not only on her honesty in addressing issues most public figures found it easier to skirt, but also on her approachability on these topics despite the loftiness of her position.

“I found her to be a tremendously gracious woman; she was entirely at your disposal when you needed her,” said Damian McElrath, a spiritual care professional at Hazelden who wrote a history of the Betty Ford Center and profiled Mrs. Ford in an article on women in recovery.

Abraham recalled meeting with Mrs. Ford in conjunction with events on both coasts. In the early 1980s, after one of Father Martin’s speaking engagements, he and Abraham were invited to the Fords’ California home. A decade later, the Fords would travel east to attend the dedication of the main building on the Father Martin’s Ashley campus.

“When she came out to dedicate the building, our facilities had just been listed as being among the five best,” Abraham recalled. “When Mrs. Ford got up to make her comments, she said, ‘I’m not about to tell you which I think is the best.’ She had a great sense of humor.”

Abraham also emphasized that Mrs. Ford served as a pioneer both for addiction and for cancer treatment, as she talked plainly about her treatment for breast cancer at a time when stigma was prevalent there as well.

In discussing the trials of her life, “She admitted everything,” Abraham said. “There was no shame there. She talked about it with her children. And she fit in AA just as any person.” Said Father Martin’s Ashley CEO Father Mark Hushen, “The treatment community, the recovering community, in fact the nation itself owes a debt of gratitude to Mrs. Ford for bringing addiction out of the shadows of stigma and into the light of grace, where healing and hope can be restored.”

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