In the years after the White House, Betty Ford's dependence on alcohol and prescription drugs would lead her family to conduct an intervention. But her recovery and the founding of the Betty Ford Center would emerge as one of her greatest accomplishments.
JANE ALEXANDER: The Fords retreated to the sunshine and palm trees of Rancho Mirage, California.
BETTY FORD: When we came to the desert we had some very good friends out here that tried their best to make us feel very welcome and very much at home but deep down inside there is being refused an office, there is a deep hurt and it's there until you finally get rid of it.
JANE ALEXANDER: Within months president and Mrs. Ford were writing their White House memoirs and it wasn't long before President Ford's schedule filled up with more than just golf. Betty, who thought she'd see more of her husband, discovered that was not the case.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Simply because their geographical location had changed, didn't mean his DNA changed, and he was going be as active and well traveled a former president as he had been in Congress, or in the White House. Your children have basically grown up and moved out. You're suddenly more alone than you've been in 20 years.
SUSAN FORD: They were having a good time. But it was also a very lonely time because he was gone. And she didn't travel with him all the time.
JANE ALEXANDER: Alone and without the daily White House schedule, Betty Ford's dependence on painkillers and alcohol grew worse.
BETTY FORD: I tried to combine all that pain medication with drinking at social events. But it was having a very strong impact on me and my family could see that I wasn't handling it very well. Of course I thought everything was fine.
SUSAN FORD: I saw a very sluggish person. It was like watching a robot in slow motion.
STEVE FORD: There was some of that during the White House years. But it wasn't often or prevalent, you'd see her seem to be drowsy at dinner or slur her speech. And at first you're in denial about these things and even within the family you don't want to talk about it. It evolved so slowly. It wasn't until later that when they got out of the White House that there was an alarm that went off in our family. That gosh something's wrong here
JANE ALEXANDER: Susan arranged an intervention in which all of the family would confront Betty Ford about her addiction. On April 1, 1978, they all gathered in the Ford's living room.
BETTY FORD: April 1st I had always had the children play kind of jokes on me, like all kids do. But this was no joke.
SUSAN FORD: We were honest. We told stories from our heart. We told the truth. But it was also told with love.
BETTY FORD: I was quite angry with them to think that they could criticize anything that I had done as a mother or a wife or whatnot because I had spent my life time trying to make it all well for them.
STEVE FORD: Dad's love for her that calmed her down. He kept cutting through that wall. She'd want to bring the wall up and get mad. And he just coming in there with love and, you know, that's what kept her going.
JACK FORD: If we hadn't gone through the intervention process, I'm sure that Mother would have died.
BETTY FORD: I was totally destroyed to think I would do something that would have a negative impact on my family. I had to eventually get over that and realize that this was a disease I was suffering from. You know eventually I realized my father had been an alcoholic and I had a brother who was an alcoholic.
JANE ALEXANDER: Two days after the intervention, on her 60th birthday, Betty Ford checked into a treatment program at the Long Beach Naval Hospital. When she was admitted she courageously allowed her doctor to tell the public about her drug dependency. But it wasn't until later that she would admit to her alcoholism and discuss it with Barbara Walters.
BETTY FORD: This was a shock when it said Alcoholic Rehabilitation Service.
BARBARA WALTERS: The toughest part for you was to admit that you were alcoholic.
BETTY FORD: The alcohol was something I selected by choice. I thought how much more do they expect of me. I've been public about everything and now they want me to suddenly be public about this.
BARBARA WALTERS: About being alcoholic.
BETTY FORD: And they said until you admit it publicly you will never start to get well. I would've gone home and said I can't take pills you know I have a chemical dependency for pills. But I would have substituted. I would have gone back and used alcohol instead.
JOHN SCHWARZLOSE: When Mrs. Ford came forward in 1978 and announced her alcoholism/drug addiction, it was like a shockwave. All of a sudden this hidden disease, this disease that people worked very hard to keep secret came out of the closet and her announcement truly made it okay for men and women to ask for help. And still today it has that effect.
JANE ALEXANDER: Betty Ford's disease would once again give new meaning to her life. Three years after recovery, along with the help of friends and others, she raised millions of dollars to open a pioneering treatment center.
BETTY FORD: I wasn't very comfortable with the fact they wanted to put my name on it. I felt that it gave me a great deal of responsibility as for how it turned out and how I turned out.
JOHN SCHWARZLOSE: As a woman still early in her recovery she felt like that was a little grandiose, a little too personal. She was very aware that people relapse from this disease and so she would, you know, my name's out there as big as life and I take a drink and what happens then?
JANE ALEXANDER: But President Ford convinced her to put her name on it telling her it would be a beacon of light.
JACK FORD: It's not the buildings, it's not the facilities. All of those things are exciting and fun and promising. But I think it was about helping other people. She would go over there daily and sit with patients and talk to them. Share experiences and provide hope.
GERALD FORD: From the bottom of the collective hearts of the Ford family, we're very proud of you mom.
MICHAEL FORD: She was taking the brokenness in her life and facing that head on.
JANE ALEXANDER: During her own therapy, Betty Ford saw that many of the treatment facilities catered predominantly to men and she set out to build a center that was welcoming for both women and men.
The Betty Ford Center would go on to pioneer gender specific treatment, separating the therapies and living quarters of the men and women.
SUSAN FORD: What we also discovered in studying these patients, is that the women who were in women-only halls and the men that were in men-only halls were doing better. Women wouldn't discuss certain issues with men in the room and men kind of felt like they had to be the pumped up macho.
JANE ALEXANDER: Betty Ford was a career woman and pioneer once again and in their last years together she got more attention than her husband. She lobbied Congress for health care coverage. She also received many accolades over the years, one of which was the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
ANNOUNCER: The United States honors a generous citizen, a creative spirit, a valiant woman, who has struggled for the dignity essential for true freedom.
JANE ALEXANDER: Although she wasn't responsible for the passage of any bills Betty Ford was still having an impact even after the White House.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: How many first ladies have their name added to the language? To go to "Betty Ford" means something everyone understands. I mean that's a unique legacy.
ANN CULLEN: President Ford used to kid a little bit about the fact that she was the chairman of the board and he had only ever been president. And I think the bottom line was he was so incredibly proud of what she had done at the center, that he didn't have any ego about the fact that she was getting the press and the publicity.
JANE ALEXANDER: On December 26, 2006 Gerald Ford died. He was 93.
SUSAN FORD: I miss him. We all miss him desperately and I know she does too. They were true soul mates. And I think that's very hard, to find in any relationship.
BETTY FORD: I'm sure they will remember me in recovery and perhaps with the Equal Rights Amendment and certainly the breast cancer. Those were all big things for me but if I hadn't been married to my husband, I never would have had the voice that I did when those things arose. So being married to him was probably the biggest decision I made and the best decision I made.
JANE ALEXANDER: Betty Ford remained Chairman at the Betty Ford Center until she was 88.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I think it could be argued, that she had made more of a contribution to the way people lived their lives, and literally extend their lives, than not only most first ladies, but probably most presidents.
STEVE FORD: She took two of the biggest stigmatized diseases or whatever you want to call it and lifted the shame off of them.
JANE ALEXANDER: More than she could ever have imagined, the dancer from Grand Rapids has left her mark. Betty Ford's honesty and courage has saved the lives of millions and earned her a special place in history.