CPPNJ - The Center for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy of New Jersey

Saturday, July 9, 2011

What we can learn from Betty Ford

By Eric Sherman, LCSW

With her death at 93, Betty Ford leaves behind a legacy of grace and courage that can be a lesson for us all.

Her ability to overcome cancer, depression, and, addiction -- and to turn these personal struggles into a public commitment to help others -- is nothing short of inspirational. Few of us will ever be thrust into the public spotlight the way the former First Lady was, but there is much we can learn from her unflinching honesty in struggling with, and ultimately overcoming, adversity.

Mrs. Ford became a role model when, in 1974, she underwent a radical mastectomy for breast cancer. She used the opportunity to speak openly about her experience at a time when such a topic was taboo. As a result, tens of thousands of women sought out breast exams in the months after her surgery, undoubtedly saving many lives.

But she is best known for her decades-long battle with addiction to alcohol and painkillers, a problem that began in the 1960s.

"From the outside, (my) life looked like a Norman Rockwell illustration," she said at one point. But despite her seeming fairytale life and public outspokenness, privately she harbored debilitating feelings of loneliness, self-doubt and shame. She questioned her intelligence, and began to feel useless and empty as her children left the house and her husband became more successful in his career, and later was defeated for reelection. "I'd lost my feeling of self-worth."

Like many others, she turned to alcohol and painkillers to numb her insecurities. The more she drank to escape her self doubts, the more they intensified -- a spiral well known by many addicts, as well as to others who suffer from insecurities that seem too overwhelming to combat.

"Now I know that some of the pain I was trying to wipe out was emotional," she wrote in her autobiography, "Betty: A Glad Awakening." "I was convinced that the more important Jerry (her husband) became, the less important I became."

Ultimately, after a painful family intervention, she chose to face her problems by entering rehab, a decision that would forever change her life and sense of self.

These days, public figures entering rehab are about as common as humidity on a summer day, but at the time to go public about one's battles with personal demons was largely unheard of. Mrs. Ford did more than just gain and maintain her sobriety. She found a sense of purpose by using her experience and influence to found the non-profit Betty Ford Center, a rehab facility, and to speak openly about her struggles.

Hers is both a cautionary and inspirational tale about the corrosive nature of self-doubt and what it takes to overcome it. Low self-esteem leads to anxiety, depression and, often, avoidance. Overwhelmed, many people turn to substances, sex, food, shopping and other obsessive-compulsive behaviors to fill the emptiness within. This may work temporarily, but soon leads to greater shame. Some, like Mrs. Ford, put on a brave face and keep their pain a secret. Others retreat from family and friends, while some wield their insecurity as a weapon, proclaiming their victimhood as loudly as possible in a misguided attempt to be rescued. Unfortunately, they end up feeling all the more isolated, fraudulent and hopeless.

Until these patterns can be addressed, they are likely to intensify. Ironically, in the midst of such shame and despair, the person may need to find whatever hope and strength they can muster to risk looking at their problems, often through therapy. I say risk because the process is uncertain and at times can be painful -- the very feelings the person is trying to avoid. But facing our shame and fears can not only detoxify them, it could make us feel stronger and more confident. Therapy can help us find our voice and a sense of purpose.

That is the legacy of Betty Ford -- a woman who found a way to use her triumph over pain to not only find personal meaning, but to help others in their struggles as well.

-- Eric Sherman, LCSW

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