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Remembering Betty Ford's legacy

Betty Ford touched the lives of thousands of people she never met.

The former first lady's uncharacteristic honesty about taboo subjects -- battling addiction and surviving breast cancer -- paved the way for others to seek help.

When she died Friday at age 93 at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., she had outlived some of her most famous celebrity successes and saved the lives of many more, a legacy that inspired A-listers and ordinary people alike to pay tribute.

On Long Island, addiction specialists spoke of her legacy.

"She was a pioneer in getting the issue of addiction out into society at large," said Mary Silberstein, addiction recovery services director at the Pederson Krag Center, a not-for-profit mental health and substance abuse outpatient agency in Suffolk County.

"She was instrumental in really showing that addiction can happen to anyone at any time; it doesn't matter your social status or who you're involved with, or who you are, you can become addicted."

In Rancho Mirage, the unassuming desert golf community where she settled with former President Gerald Ford after he left office in 1977, residents were saddened by her death even as they praised her devotion to removing the stigma from addiction. The Betty Ford Center there has treated more than 90,000 people since it began in 1982 and, though it was most famous for a string of celebrity patients, it kept rates relatively affordable and provided a model for effective addiction treatment.

Silberstein said the facility was "far and away ahead of its time" when it began. "People in recovery need to feel honored and supported. . . . She really understood [addiction] as a treatable disease for which people need support and help."

One of Ford's defining characteristics was her candor, which included confronting her own addiction head-on. She revealed a longtime addiction to painkillers and alcohol 15 months after leaving the White House, and regularly welcomed new patients to rehab with a speech that started, "Hello, my name's Betty Ford, and I'm an alcoholic and drug addict." She also shared her experiences of breast cancer surgery, helping to bring the disease into the open.

Lisa Aiello, a licensed clinical social worker who for the past 10 years has worked at the Seafield Center that treats alcohol and substance abuse in Westhampton Beach and Patchogue, viewed Ford as an inspiration, particularly for women battling addiction.

"Women don't always seem to have the opportunity that men do to go into a treatment facility because their roles as mothers and wives often get in the way of them taking steps for themselves," Aiello said. "When [Ford] came out to say 'I'm an alcoholic and am addicted to painkillers,' I think it gave many other women the strength to seek help," she said.

To the rest of the world, the center was known for media coverage of its ties to Hollywood's elite. In 1996, Kelsey Grammer told Jay Leno how his treatment there helped restore his joy of living and quipped about the center's stature and famed patients.

"When I was on my way to the Betty Ford Center, I turned to one of my friends and said, 'You know, I've finally made it. I'm going to the Betty Ford Center.' "

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