MY FOUR WEEKS AT THE BETTY FORD CENTER : A Legendary Drinker Goes Cold Turkey at 39000 Bob Hope Drive

January 11, 1987|BARNABY CONRAD | Barnaby Conrad is the author of 21 books, including the best-selling novel "Matador."

This article is adapted from "Time Is All We Have: Four Weeks at the Betty Ford Center," just published by Arbor House Publishing Co.

In deference to AA's practice of anonymity among alcoholics, some names and characters have been changed to protect the privacy of the patients and the personnel at the Betty Ford Center.

I WAS LOST. "WHERE'S THE CLINIC for drugs and alcohol?" I asked.

"The Center?" the policeman said.

That particular morning I wasn't afraid to pull up alongside the Palm Springs policeman's car; I'd had a few, but I wasn't drunk, not according to their little Richter scale anyway. Just hung over and shaky from the day before--the days, weeks, months, the years before. "Hell, mister, you're a ways from Betty Ford's--that's over in Mirage. See that road right there--it'll take you directly to it."

"Good name," I said. "Mirage."

He didn't seem to hear me.

I turned my car around and got on the right road.

It had taken me a long time to find the right road. Fear, more than hope, had brought me here.

The Betty Ford Center for the rehabilitation of chemically dependent people was established in 1982 by the wife of the 38th President of the United States, and in its few years it has established itself as the best-known and perhaps the most successful institution of its kind in the world. It usually has a waiting list of about 300 people, and when I went there, it could handle only 60 patients at a time. Part of its renown owes to the number of celebrities who have "graduated," such people as Robert Mitchum, Tony Curtis, Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Mary Tyler Moore and a top astronaut who requested anonymity. For anyone from any walk of life who had an alcohol or drug problem, the center's reputation for success, its geographical location and its physical layout held an undeniable allure.

I felt terrible and about to throw up. In front of my bloodshot eyes in Rancho Mirage was a mirage: Floating there in the desert in a sea of grass, newly cut, was what appeared to be a country club. Only there was no golf course. There are about 65 golf courses in the Palm Springs area, but this wasn't one of them. It looked like an elegant clubhouse in need of Robert Trent Jones. There were four other one-story buildings behind it, and off to the left was a large pond with three swans gliding gracefully on it.

How could any place with an address like 39000 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage, expect to be taken seriously?

A tall, white-haired man opened the glass door for me. "Hi, I'm Edward," he said genially, shaking hands.

A week later he would joke, "My own hand shook for an hour after that contact with yours!" One of several "graduate" volunteers, he took my suitcase to the registration desk. I was in Firestone, the nucleus of the rehabilitation center. As I looked around, my first thought was how very unlike a clinic it appeared. There were no visible white-coated doctors in the spacious lobby, no nurses in uniform, no patients in gowns, no hospital smell. Just several normal-looking, informally dressed people of various shapes and colors, wandering around, going into the little gift and candy shop, the cafeteria, the office doors, sitting on the couches talking or looking at the handsome framed prints on the wall.

After I signed in, a slim man in a sport coat and bow tie introduced himself. He was Malcolm. He led me to an empty office, put my suitcase on a table, and began to go through it purposefully, saying, "Sorry about this--standard."

He confiscated a bottle of after-shave lotion, aspirin, and some pills.

"I have to take those," I said. "Blood pressure."

"You can get them from the nurse every morning at 8 right here."

He took away the Listerine, saying with a laugh, "We get some beauts in here who actually drink this stuff."

I took heart that I appeared so normal that he and I could laugh about those others, those beauts.

I had six paperback books--two Elmore Leonards for fun, and four for self-improvement I'd been "dying to read" for a quarter of a century: "The Red and the Black," "The Idiot," "Lord Jim," and "Swann's Way." Here, with four boring weeks staring me in the face, I would finally get through them.

"Gotta take those," said Malcolm.

"No reading?" I exclaimed. "How about magazines and newspapers?"

"You can read the paper after 7 at night. No magazines. No books. No distractions."

If I felt sick before, I felt sicker now.

Malcolm closed the suitcase. "Let's go see the doctor."

"I'd like to call my wife," I said. "Tell her I got here OK."

"We'll call her for you," he said. "No phone calls till after the fifth day. In or out. No visitors for a week either."

As we started out of the office, I asked gloomily, "Any good restaurants around here?"

"A few," he said, "but, of course, you can't leave the premises. Not for a month."

I was in a concentration camp!

A SHORT WOMAN WITH BOBBED GRAY hair came out of her office and walked up to me with a smile. "Hi, I'm Jerry, your counselor. Come on in. We'll talk a bit before lunch."

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