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The Painful Life of First Lady Betty Ford

First Ladies don’t always get the credit that they deserve. That’s probably because they are typically living in the shadows of their presidential husbands. It’s not always fair either. Some first ladies have matched or surpassed their husbands in terms of smarts, political astuteness, and achievements. Even so, it’s pretty hard to compete with the most powerful person in the world.

Our 38th First Lady, Elizabeth Anne Ford, wasn’t afraid to push tradition aside and break the mold so-to-speak. Most people knew her as Betty and boy was she opinionated, outspoken and strong-willed. She became a legend of sorts – not because of her flaws – but for how she faced those flaws with integrity, strength, candidness, and dignity.

Betty Ford did her part to normalize the concept of addiction as a disease. She was such an advocate for that idea that she even lent her name to the recovery center that’s still synonymous with addiction treatment.

Betty Ford had a long, fulfilling life before her private struggles became a matter of public knowledge and her husband became president of the free world. Instead of being defined by her husband’s political achievements and failures, Betty carved out her own path and left behind a legacy of excellence.

A lot of people are unfamiliar with her story. There’s no shame in that. You’ve probably got a lot on your plate. Fortunately, you’re good friends over here at Facts Verse have got you covered. This is the real-life rollercoaster story of Betty Ford.

Her Dad Died When She Was A Teenager

Elizabeth Anne Bloomer was born in 1918 in Chicago, Illinois. She was the third child and only child of Hortense Neahr and William Bloomer. The Bloomers were a very wealthy family. Her mother owned a lucrative furniture business and her father worked for the Royal Rubber Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Her family moved from Illinois to Colorado and then finally to Michigan when she was just a child. She attended Central High School. Even from a young age, Betty saw what it was like to struggle with addiction. Her father was likely an undiagnosed alcoholic for the majority of his life.

Betty was 16 in 1934 at the height of the Great Depression. Her father had just lost his job and leaned heavily on the bottle to ease his anxiety. The day before he turned 60, William Bloomer went out to the garage to work on the family car. When Betty came home, she found her father dead with the keys still in the ignition and the gas tank empty.

The official cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning but it was pretty apparent that he had taken his own life. Sadly, the first time that Betty ever heard anyone refer to her father as an alcoholic was at his funeral.

Betty Wanted To Be A Professional Dancer

Hortense, Betty’s mother, was the kind of lady that valued what some might refer to as ‘social graces’. She wanted Betty to grow up to be a traditional high-society housewife. She started training her daughter for that role early on in her life. When she was 8, her mom signed her up for dance classes at the Calla Travis Dance Studio in Grand Rapids.

Betty quickly developed a passion for dance. By the time she was 14, she was already training the younger dancers in ballet, tap, and modern dancing techniques. After she graduated, she traveled to Vermont to attend the prestigious Bennington School of Dance. She was so committed to dance that paid for her own tuition by working at a local department store. When she turned 22, she moved to New York City to pursue a career in dance.

Her mother was not happy with her life’s trajectory. She never expected Betty to get so caught up in dancing. She convinced Betty to move back to Michigan in 1941. She got another job at a different department store and earned several promotions in a relatively short period of time.

She may have given up on her dance career, but not on dance entirely. She persisted in giving dance lessons and danced recreationally for the rest of her life.

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And don’t go anywhere just yet. We’re just about to get to the more tragic chapters of Betty Fords life

Her First Marriage Wasn’t Exactly A Good One

When Betty moved back to Michigan in 1941, she was a hot commodity of sorts. She had all kinds of potential suitors interested in her but she had her eyes set on someone in particular. Betty started dating William Warren, an old friend that she knew since she was 12, and before long things started getting serious.

Betty’s mom and new stepdad, however, didn’t exactly approve of Warren. He was a heavy drinker and was known for being a ‘free spirit’. Despite their lack of approval, Betty and William announced their engagement in 1942 and were married shortly thereafter.

Bill was a traveling salesman and changed jobs quite frequently. That meant that he and Betty had to move a lot. Every time they would move to a new town Betty would find work at a local department store, but things weren’t exactly how she hoped they would be when they exchanged their vowels

Bill would stay out late drinking the night away and lived a pretty unhealthy lifestyle. His health went downhill due to his heavy drinking and diabetes. Betty became more and more unhappy with the situation and deeply desired more stability in her life. She wanted a permanent home where she could raise kids.

After a few years of heartbreak and misery, she decided that she had to get out of the marriage. But as luck would have it, as soon as she wrote her husband a letter asking for a divorce, he slipped into a diabetic coma. Betty stepped up to the plate and cared for her sick husband for several months but as soon as he was back on his feet again, she filed for divorce.

Betty’s Marriage To Jerry Was Affected By Politics

After divorcing Bill Warren, Betty didn’t stay single for very long at all. Divorced women back in those days were treated with scorn and carried a bit of stigma, but that didn’t stop a young hotshot politician by the name of Gerald Ford from barking up her tree.

Jerry, as Betty lovingly referred to him, was a former college football star athlete and one hell of a lawyer. And it sure seems like their romance was enduring, passionate, and made to last, but from the very beginning, it was also mucked up by politics.

Jerry asked for Betty’s hand in marriage in 1948, but they delayed their wedding plans because he was running for congress at the time and wanted to focus all of his energy on his campaign. But there was another reason why he felt it best to delay their marriage until after the election. Jerry was worried that his conservative Republican constituents might be put-off by his marriage to a divorcee ex-dancer. The way he saw it, delaying the marriage was the most prudent decision at the time.

It wasn’t the last time that politics would interfere with their relationship either. When it came time for the couple to finally tie the knot, Jerry was late to the ceremony. He had attended a campaign event earlier that day which had held him up but Betty decided to turn a blind eye to these offenses and married him anyway.

Betty Ford Spent More Than Half Of Her Life In Crippling Pain

Betty was active and healthy as a young woman. She always was doing something physically active. Maybe It was the dancer in her, but she was one athletically capable young lady. If she had pursued her dream of becoming a professional dancer, she would have likely found a great deal of success in that career path.

Everything changed when Betty was in her mid-40s. In 1964, While cooking dinner in her kitchen, she leaned over the sink to open up a window. Later that evening she woke up in an excruciating amount of pain. Her doctors diagnosed her with a pinched nerve which isn’t very uncommon of an injury. It should have been fairly harmless and easy to deal with but instead, her pain only got worse.

She was in constant agony and could barely even stand up on her own. Doctors continued to give her pain meds until they discovered that she was actually suffering from an early case of osteoarthritis. Betty lived the rest of her life in excruciating amounts of pain. She relied heavily on narcotics and alcohol just to get by. Eventually, these things would nearly consume her, but we’ll get to that in a second.

She’s A Breast Cancer Survivor

In 1973, Jerry Ford Became Vice President of the United States after Spiro Agnew, Tricky Dick Nixon’s running mater resigned in disgrace. About a year later, Richard Nixon himself announced his resignations in the wake of the Watergate Scandal.

Even though he never expected to find himself in such a lofty position, just like that, Gerald Ford suddenly became President of the United States. That also meant that Betty Ford was then the nation’s First Lady.

You would think that this would be a time for celebration for the Fords, but shortly after the inauguration, a tragic health crisis almost cost Betty her life.

Betty joined her friend for a breast exam and decided on impulse to have one as well seeing as she was already there. That impromptu decision might just have saved her life. They ended up finding a marble-size tumor in her breast and a couple of days later she had a mastectomy. The docs removed her entire right breast, some pectoral muscle tissue, and some lymph nodes.

Betty wasn’t about to keep her health problems a secret either. In fact, just the opposite. She used her position as First Lady to raise awareness for breast cancer and the value of self-examination. She is sometimes credited as being one of the early leaders in the women’s breast cancer movement. Seeing as how she normalized the discussion surrounding cancer and the value of performing self-exams, she likely helped save numerous lives.

She Was An Addict And An Alcoholic

As we already touched on, Betty lived her life in constant pain. She turned to pain pills and alcohol for some relief but it was never quite enough. She managed to cut back on her drug abuse when she was First Lady, but after she left the White House, her problem got worse.

Her family organized an intervention in 1978 and she agreed to enter a rehabilitation center. At first, she struggled to admit that her problems were as severe as they were. She rationalized her addiction to prescribed medication as being normal and she refused to admit that her drinking had become problematic.

After observing another patient denying their own substance abuse issue and the pain it caused others, she was finally able to see that she was doing the exact same thing. At the age of 60, she finally admitted that she was an alcoholic and addict and got the help she desperately needed.

Betty Ford passed away on July 8, 2011, of natural causes. She is remembered as being a tireless advocate for women’s issues and for her support for the rights and dignity of those afflicted with the disease of addiction.

What about Betty Ford’s life inspires you the most? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

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