Trey's Days No. 16
Betty Ford and Julia Hagerman: a legacy of recovery
"I'm having an eclipse of my own!" The living room was completely dark. I wouldn't have known she was there except for the orange glow coming from the tip of her Kent. "C'mon granny, we're going outside to see the lunar eclipse!" Her reply was startling to me as a young child, but now I understand it completely.
Betty Ford died on July 8th, and left a legacy of recovery. When I was growing up in the era of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, our family didn't talk about addiction or alcoholism. It was a dirty little secret, like being gay, or having a mental illness. There were lots of dirty little secrets that families suffered with in silence, or more likely, with whispers.
"Your grandmother is an alcoholic. She's had too much to drink. She doesn't mean what she's saying and she won't remember it tomorrow." My mother knew enough to tell me as a child that Granny's behavior had a cause. Her rants, her ramblings, her nonsensical goings on came after an afternoon of drinking Scotch and smoking cigarettes, a daily event that began with an oh so gentile, "I believe I'll have a highball. Would anyone else like one?" That highball was followed by a succession of "patches" which consisted of an ice cube or two and a splash of Scotch. Her glasses were etched with pink elephants. Her stories were of things that happened long ago, or never.
"I wish you could have known my mother before she got like this. She used to be a lot of fun." We had gone to the coast for the day. We had family in Pass Christian, and the beach was not far away from my grandparents' South Mississippi home. Granny had not gone with us that day, preferring to stay home and drink and visit with the maid, which is how she spent every day. Upon returning at dark thirty, we found my grandmother, walking in circles in the kitchen, the floor covered with smudges of blood and broken glass. One more patch was too many and the pink elephants had shattered all over the floor. Too drunk to clean up her mess, she had walked around in broken glass for who knows how long. My mother spent the rest of the evening picking glass out of her feet. "I wish you could have know my mother before she got like this."
No one ever suggested to my grandmother that she might have a problem with alcohol. Betty Ford hadn't sobered up yet, hadn't founded her famous hospital. AA had been around for decades, but in that small Mississippi town such things were far far away, or at least not mentioned. It was Betty Ford who changed all that. What Bill W. had started in 1935, Mrs. Ford took public in the 1980s. Suddenly it was not only okay to get help, it seemed like addicts and alcoholics were coming out of the woodwork, their disease to expose. Recovery happened. As a society we started to get well together.
So when it came time for my family's disease to manifest itself in me, help was everywhere. At work, at my church, at school, in the grocery store, on facebook, everywhere I go, there are people who walk the walk of recovery with me, and we see each other getting better, we listen to each other's stories and hear ourselves there. We see a fellowship growing up around us like a miracle we never could have imagined while in our disease.
So rest in peace Betty and Julia, and thank you a million times thank you for your legacy of disease and recovery. Things will never be the same for those of us who get a second chance, and we can never repay the gift you have left us. May we ever have the Grace to keep passing it on.