Susan Ford Bales was 25 years old, the baby of the family, when her father, former President Gerald Ford, and three older brothers — Steven, John and Michael — asked her to orchestrate an intervention with mom, Betty. The family had become alarmed with the former First Lady’s drinking, addiction to prescription drugs and erratic behavior.
“I was almost too young to know any better and too clueless to say no,” said Bales, with a laugh . “So, I took the bull by the horns.”
Bales will share the family’s story of her mother’s very public struggle with and recovery from alcoholism and addiction at the 12th annual O’Brien House Breakfast at the Hilton Capital House on Sept. 25. Bales was living in a condo a few miles away from her parents in Palm Desert in 1982 when the intervention took place. As the only daughter, she and her mother had a “special relationship,” but that didn’t fill the lonely nights Betty spent alone as the former president traveled making speaking engagements.
“Alcoholism is an aggressive, chronic disease,” said Bales. “Mom’s dad died because of alcohol; her brother was an alcoholic … Dad was on the road a lot and I think she found great comfort in that (drinking).”
Fortunately for the Fords, Betty agreed to seek treatment, which she got at a Naval hospital. Never one to back away from an issue, she came out believing there was a need for a residential treatment facility outside of a hospital setting. “When she decided to do the Betty Ford Center, she came to us kids and asked if we had a problem with her doing it,” said Bales. “None of us did. I know she saved so many lives with her sharing her experience.”
Indeed, “The Betty,” as it’s often called, has saved countless lives over the years — Robert Downey Jr., Stevie Nicks, Kelsey Grammer, Chevy Chase, Drew Barrymore, Billy Joel, Liza Minnelli, Ozzy Osbourne, the late Elizabeth Taylor and the late Johnny Cash all sought treatment there.
“Mom made it OK to talk about alcoholism and addiction,” added Bales, who succeeded her mother as chairwoman of the board of the Betty Ford Center, a position she held until 2010. “She did the same with breast cancer. She really changed so many things in health care, and she did a lot during her two very short years in the White House.”
In 1984, Bales and her mother helped launch National Breast Cancer Awareness Month with a joint appearance in an ad campaign. In 2010, at age 53, Bales went into sudden cardiac arrest while exercising on an elliptical machine. Luckily a surgeon was also at the gym and revived her with an electronic defibrillator. After her recovery, she was given a heart stent and pacemaker. Like her mom, she shared her story on June 4, 2013, at the American Heart Association’s Heart Ball in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the hope of saving another’s life.
“I’m grateful I have the job of continuing my mother’s mission,” said Bales. “They’re some pretty big shoes to fill and I’ll never fill them but it’s an honor to be able to do it (represent the former president and first lady).”
Representing her parents is almost a full-time job for Bales. As the sponsor of the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford — which she christened with a bottle of champagne Nov. 9, 2013 — Bales spends a lot of time in Newport News, Virginia. “I’m the queen of packing but I’m not very tolerant of lost luggage,” she confessed with a chuckle.
Before she arrives in Baton Rouge, Bales will spend several days in the Dallas area taking care of her three grandchildren. Then she’s off to Atlanta, where she sits on the Journalism Fellowship Advisory Board for the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism, followed by a stop in Washington, D.C., to present an award to the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
“Then I come home for four days rest and spending a little time with my husband, Vaden, before heading to Baton Rouge.”
For information on attending the reservation-only O’Brien House Breakfast, email BreakfastWithSusan@obrienhouse.org.
Follow Pam on Twitter, @pamspartyline.