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Former first son Steve Ford uses fame to help others deal with issues

| Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012, 9:15 p.m.
James Rogal, Steve Ford and Dr. Ken Ramsey during Hope Has a Home - Gateway Rehab Center at the Westin Convention Center on Wednesday, December 5, 2012. Mike Mancini | For the Tribune Review

Steve Ford

It's hard enough to struggle with an addiction in the privacy of your home. Now, imagine going through it as someone who is used to being in the public eye. As if that weren't enough pressure, add in the fact that your family spent time in the White House, and your mother's name became synonymous with overcoming alcohol addiction.

Welcome to Steve Ford's world. As the son of former President Gerald Ford and first lady Betty, his struggles as a binge drinker were hard for even his family to digest. As a matter of fact, even his mom wondered whether he really had a problem. Nineteen years of sobriety later, he's proved that resilience runs in the family.

Apart from being a well-respected and popular motivator for others struggling with addictions, his television and film credits round out an impressive entertainment resume; “Black Hawk Down,” “Transformers,” “Armageddon,” “Walker, Texas Ranger,” not to mention a supporting role as Meg Ryan's boyfriend, Joe, in the romcom “When Harry Met Sally.”

Whether he's on a soundstage or speaking at a juvenile detention center, his down-to-earth perspective translates into relatable experiences that inspire people to take an honest look at themselves ... just as his mom did four decades ago.

Question: When did you first sense that you had a problem with alcohol?

Answer: It wasn't until my late twenties/early thirties. I can trace back, and college years were very typical of any college student, but for me, mine was binge drinking. It was very different than others who would drink every day. At home, my family, friends, never really saw me drink. And when I got on the road and traveled into a different city, I would binge drink there. So I kind of had two lives. And that secret life, that's the one that had to get exposed. I'm sure if Mom were here today, she would tell you the same thing —– that it was a way to escape from emotions and to self-medicate.

Q: Did you put a lot pressure on yourself as the son of Betty Ford, worried that you would slip?

A: Oh, sure. I just think that's smart for anybody. Too many times, you get famous people coming through a center ,and 30 days later they're on the cover of People magazine saying, “I'm cured.” And they're like 30 day wonders, and you just shake your head as a recovering alcoholic. Thirty days ... that's not the program. You shouldn't be on the cover of People magazine. So, I went the other direction.

It's funny. When I went through my alcoholism, which was about 10 years after Mom got sober. But my mom was just like everyone else. I remember going to my mom and saying, “I think I'm an alcoholic,” and she was just like every other mother and said, “Oh, no, you're not an alcoholic. My son can't be an alcoholic.” And I'm like, “Mom, you're Betty Ford, you cannot be in denial. You're the poster child for this thing … stop!” But at that moment, she becomes just like every other mother.

Q: You bring an interesting perspective, not only because of your family ties, but the fact that you're in an industry that tends to breed addictions.

A: I think it's very different than the corporate world, because there's much greater permission given to be out of bounds in that industry. You cannot get that same permission in a corporate-world setting or an academic setting.

Q: Is there a pearl of wisdom that you give people who are going through similar issues?

A: The most important element that covers all of those things is that you can't do it alone. It's a community disease. You need to be surrounded by people that speak the language you're talking and who understand what you're going through. It's not willpower, or “I'm not just strong enough.” The best description I can give you is it's like a big burning fire and you pull one coal out and put it off by itself and what happens? It goes out. But if you keep it in the fire it keeps going.

Q: Did you ever get the sense that your mom felt some pressure as the first lady to come out and deal with this openly?

A: I think it was just in her DNA, the way she did things. When they were in the White House, and the first month she was in the White House, she got breast cancer and had to have a mastectomy. Instead of keeping it a secret, Mom and Dad stood on the front lawn of the White House saying, “We're going to take the shame off of this disease for women.” God thrust upon her two big issues — breast cancer and alcoholism — and she was very transparent about both of them.

Q: Your mom was a tough cookie.

A: She was a tough cookie! I'll tell you that. The great thing that comes out of the story is that we woke her up — she did all the work. And I know, personally, that it's hard, hard, hard work to get sober and stay sober. But for me as a son, the neatest part of the story in both of those cases, whether it be breast cancer or alcoholism, was how Mom and Dad did it together. And how Dad stood with her on both occasions and just honored her. So many letters came to Dad, saying “Thank you, Mr. President, for showing me how to stand next to my wife.” He was so proud of her, so he's part of that story because not every husband would want to have his wife out there going through those things so publicly. He was her biggest fan.

Kate Benz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 412-380-8515.

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