Pat O'Brien Exclusive: Betty Ford and the Power of 24 Hours

It's amazing what 24 hours can do.

By , Columnist

She lived to be 93 years old, but the number I associate Betty Ford with is 24. Twenty-four, as in 24 hours… or as many of us recovering alcoholics like to describe it: one day at a time.

That’s how Betty Ford helped teach recovering alcohol and drug addicts around the world deal with the terrible disease of alcoholism and addiction. Yes, she was The First Lady of the United States, but she would always tell you that her biggest accomplishment was getting sober. And thanks to her efforts and courage, her name will forever be associated with recovery.

I’m one of the graduates of the Betty Ford Center and it's arguably one of the only places where you walk in as one person and out as another. Most people stagger in lost, desperate, humiliated -- and when they walk out, they have self-esteem and a new life that is accompanied by grace and hope, and humility.

It doesn’t take long for Betty Ford stories to surface once you are a resident there. My favorite is the “four bed room” story. When Mrs. Ford checked into the Long Beach Naval Hospital for addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs, they showed her her new home. It was a small room and it had four beds. Mrs. Ford explained to them that there was just no way she would stay THERE because, after all, she was the First Lady of the Untied States. No, they explained, when you are here you are like everybody else, and this is your room.

Four years later, when she opened the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California, she insisted that each dorm have a “four bed room.” Most of the rooms are for two people… but the one nobody ever wanted to be in is that one with the four beds. That’s three roommates. Strangers. For at least 30 days. It’s not exactly the ideal condition anybody would invite, but that’s the way Mrs. Ford wanted it and that’s the way it is to this day. And you learn very quickly that recovery is not about comfort, but about changing your habits. It’s about learning structure. It’s about humility. The way Mrs. Ford got sober herself.


Liz Taylor, Robert Downey, Jr., and Drew Barrymore are graduates of the Betty Ford Center.

Betty Ford was one of those pioneers who made it a little easier to help. You can only imagine how much courage it took for somebody so public to publicly admit that her wonderful life was, in fact, out of control and unmanageable. Many celebrities have followed her through the doors of rehab. You can find the lists almost anywhere and you can hear our names as punch lines of mindless jokes and the whispers of people who don’t understand alcoholism. Mrs. Ford helped change that, not only for the public BFC graduates, but also for millions of people who garnered the courage themselves to seek help.

Not everybody is “cured.” In fact, nobody is. Alcoholism is a brain disease and it takes a lot of work and a lot of focus and a lot of day-to-day prayer and meditation and service to stay sober. It's not easy, but Mrs. Ford never said it would be. What she did do is help explain to us all that it's okay to get treatment, and its okay to sleep in a four bed room while getting treatment, no matter where you end up.

The path is ugly for a lot of us. Think Lindsay Lohan. But then think of all those fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters who have turned a hurricane lifestyle into a gentle wind. Think of all those people who at one time were embarrassed to say “I am an alcoholic,” until a woman named Betty said, “My name is Betty and I’m an alcoholic.”

To this day, the Betty Ford Center remains one of the gold standards in recovery. But to each his own. Hazelden is arguably equal, if not better. And then there are the hundreds of rehabs that welcome newcomers every day and send them on to a new life. No matter where the recovery center, they all have a Betty Ford stamp on them. To those of us who have had success, Mrs. Ford is nothing less than an angel.

Back in 1976, when Gerald Ford was running for President against Jimmy Carter, I was a political reporter in Chicago. After a long campaign day, I had the chance to spend about 20 minutes with the President at his hotel suite in suburban Chicago. It was just the two of us and it was late in the day. Finally he said, “You wouldn’t mind if the President of the United States had a drink, would you?” Which meant, don’t report this. I said, “Of course not, Mr. President” and so we sat there and sipped a couple of scotches.This was about two years before Mrs. Ford checked into the Long Beach facility.

I think back on that night often. Little did we know then that nothing we had done up to that moment would ever be on the level of what his wife did about two years later.

I love that she lived a full 93 years, but it’s the 24 hours that I really admire. Thank you, Mrs. Ford. Rest in peace; you’ve earned it.

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Pat O'Brien, Emmy-award winning reporter and anchor, joined FOX Sports Radio and the Loose Cannons in August, 2010. O'Brien is widely known for his 16-year association with CBS Sports, where he worked from 1981 until 1997.

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