When I woke up last Friday, I was confronted with the news that Former First Lady, Betty Ford, had died. Tears came to my eyes. Her loss will be felt by so many.
Her vision and mission of the Betty Ford Center saved countless recovering alcoholics and addicts. An icon, she helped reduce the stigma surrounding alcoholism.
My personal memories of her were from 1979 and her announcement on TV that she needed Valium with her wine to sleep each night. “Look what the presidency did to that poor woman,” my denial thought as I reached for my Valium and wine to sleep.
I couldn’t identify with a First Lady, but by 1980 I could identify with sober friends in Hollywood who gathered around me as I careened to my alcoholic bottom. They helped me to discover the joy of sobriety and the necessity for it in my life.
Also I am inebted to Gordon MacRae, the musical comedy genius known for singing "Oklahoma," who took me to my first meeting. He was a friend of Betty Ford and reached out to her on occasion. I always felt if I needed her help and wisdom I had a link to her through Gordon who helped save my life.
Gordon chose not to be anonymous, as do I. “If you have another drink, I won’t take you to another meeting,” Gordon told me. He was offering tough love and it worked with my defiant self. Soon other recovering alcoholics came to my apartment and threw out my pills and became a part of my life.
Today I live outside of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and have a new set of recovering alcoholics for friends, but I dearly miss my Hollywood family. I have attended meetings in London, in New York and now Pennsylvania, but there is no place like Hollywood, California, to get sober. Practicing alcoholics come from all over the world to hear the message these sober souls deliver and to ask for their help.
Still that image of Betty Ford on the TV in 1979 announcing her problem with wine and Valium will always be imbedded in my consciousness. Thank God. I need to remember how fragile sobriety is.
The lingo referring to taking pills and alcohol is doing a "Karen Quinlan." Quinlan had been put in a coma from taking Valium and wine. Quinlan was a 21-year-old college student who in 1975 at a party ingested a combination of alcohol and drugs that caused her to stop breathing. By the time help arrived her oxygen deprived brain had put her in a vegetative state.
Quinlan was kept alive with the help of life support technology that enabled her to breathe. While there was some low level brain function, her cognitive abilities had been wiped out. When months passed without any improvement in her condition, her family asked that she be removed from life support and allowed to die.
Doctors refused. She did not meet criteria for brain death, meaning she could not be declared legally dead by existing medical standards. The state of New Jersey intervened stating it would prosecute any physician who helped to end Karen Quinlan’s life. Quinlan’s father, Joseph Quinlin sued to have life support discontinued, but was denied. He appealed to New Jersey’s Supreme Court where he based his appeal on First and the Eighth Amendments. The Court ruled in Joseph Quinlan’s favor, and his daughter was removed from the respirator.
Still Karen Quinlan did not die.
Instead she continued breathing and lived another nine years before infection and pneumonia finally killed her. She was 31.
Quinlan’s case is a milestone, a legal precedent for other right-to-die cases.
Betty Ford’s own addiction brought attention to Karen Quinlan’s suffering. It is a miracle that Betty Ford did not succumb to the same tragic death as Quinlan and was able to live through her addiction so that she could help millions of addicts and alcoholics.
There by the Grace of God went Betty Ford.