PALM SPRINGS -- Former president Ford has canceled several personal appearances on the East Coast and returned to his desert home here for undisclosed "personal and private reasons," his staff said. However, sources close to the former president said Ford returned home because his wife, Betty, was ill. "She got a bad cold and her arthritis is bothering her and it caused a flare-up of nerves," said a friend of the family. "I think it's nerves more than anything else." --Associated Press, April 2, 1978

LONG BEACH, Calif.--Fighting what she says is an addiction to alcohol and medication, Betty Ford headed home yesterday from Long Beach Naval Hospital for a weekend with her family. She'll return Monday for "another week to two weeks" of treatment at the hospital, said a family spokesman. --News Dispatches, April 29, 1978

Betty Ford's recovery as an alcoholic began on an April day five years ago when Jerry and the kids told her that they loved her too much to let her get any sicker. R They could see, even if she couldn't, that she wasn't getting together with her friends anymore, that she was late to everything, that her mind was sluggish and her speech slurred and more and more she was retreating into herself.

"The fact was I was sort of zombyish," Betty Ford said in a recent interview here. "I call it a slow suicide. You're unhappy with yourself because you've lost control of what you're able to do and you realize it but you don't do anything about it because the disease, the body, is demanding. The more it demands, the more it complicates, the more you sink away from reality."

As she had revealed in her autobiography, "The Times of My Life," it had been Susan, the Fords' only daughter, who first sought professional help by asking her mother's doctor to intervene. In the language of alcoholism recovery programs, "intervention" is the moment of truth when, without criticism or finger-pointing, the family and others who care tell the individual he or she is an alcoholic.

"You don't ever do it alone but with several people and, generally, professional help to guide you," said Mrs. Ford. "They actually make a point of bringing specific episodes into focus, backed up by dates and events that the alcoholic can't deny."

So that day of intervention, she found herself surrounded by former president Gerald R. Ford and their children, Mike, Jack, Steve and Susan, and also by two professionals with whom she would later work closely, Dr. Joseph Cruse, her doctor on the staff of nearby Eisenhower Medical Center, and Dr. Joseph Pursch, then head of the drug and alcohol treatment center at Long Beach Naval Hospital.

None of it had been easy for Jerry Ford, no matter how much he appeared to be in charge that day.

"He was shocked," Betty Ford said in that forthright way she has of talking about their private lives, "shocked to be brought to a realization, himself, that I had this problem. He knew something was wrong, but he just figured that all these years I'd been sick it had been my neck a pinched nerve and my arthritis. Those were not the only complications."

She was standing in the small auditorium at the new Betty Ford Center at Eisenhower, where about once a week she tells the same story to others seeking help.

"Alcoholism was another," she said.

"What's amazing to the staff is the amount of time she spends here," said John Schwarzlose, administrator of the Betty Ford Center. "Last Thanksgiving, she had three or four of her own children home for dinner, yet she came over to the center to spend two hours with the patients and their families. She did the same thing at Easter, informally walking around and saying 'hello.' The patients just end up loving her."

The way Betty Ford explains the genesis of the Seven-month-old, $5 million, 60-bed chemical dependency hospital here that bears her name, members of The Eisenhower Medical Center board of directors didn't want anything to do with alcoholism at first.

"They were afraid it would give the center a bad name," she said.

A year after she underwent 28 days of treatment at Long Beach, during a meeting of the Eisenhower board one day, she and Leonard Firestone proposed that the hospital set up a similar treatment center. Firestone, the retired chairman of Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., was a fellow board member.

Dr. Cruse had been looking into the same idea for several years but had met with indifference. But when these two recovered alcoholics, Mrs. Ford and Firestone, offered themselves as examples of what treatment programs could accomplish, the board took closer look. If Mrs. Ford and Firestone could raise the money to build it, they were told by the board, whose chairman is Dolores Hope, wife of Bob Hope, members might consider the proposal.

"Frankly," said Mrs. Ford, who with Firestone went on to cochair the $5 million national drive that concluded successfully only a month ago, "many hospitals have an alcoholism recovery program now."

This four-building, white stucco complex, with its view of two mountain ranges--the Santa Rosa and the San Jacinto--is tucked away on eight acres beside a lake in the southeast corner of the Eisenhower Center. It is unlike other recovery programs, costing $200 to $400 a day and including such services as operating rooms, recovery rooms and X-ray equipment, which detoxification units neither need nor use.

According to Schwarzlose, the Betty Ford Center, at $110 a day, represents a new concept in hospital care that he and others here believe could set a precedent for treating other chronic illnesses such as cancer or arthritis. In 1980, Mrs. Ford was appointed to an 18-member California health advisory committee that wrote regulations to license such hospitals. Later that year, the California state legislature passed it as the Chemical Dependency Recovery Hospital act.

"Once patients have detoxed in a hospital so that they are not endangering themselves, from convulsions or withdrawals, they can come over here and learn to reevaluate their lives through therapy and lectures," said Mrs. Ford. "We provide the environment and the guidance to allow the patient to begin to rebuild their life in the physical, psychological and spiritual areas."

It is a highly structured and disciplined 28-day live-in of lectures, one-on-one counseling and recreational therapy. The three 20-bed living units of double rooms are designed to encourage individual responsibility through assigned chores, not dependency. Each dormitory has a single television set and one pay phone.

"They have to make their beds, or they may have the vacuuming chore, or the job of keeping the refrigerator full, or setting the tables," said Mrs. Ford, who performed similar tasks at Long Beach.

Patients' families are required to participate in their own treatment program one week out of the four, learning then how to unload all the buried or hidden feelings of anger and resentment that they haven't been able to deal with.

The largest single group of the center's patients are alcoholics, with tranquilizer addicts second and cocaine users third. They represent an economic and ethnic cross-section of society; some are self-referrals, others are there through the employe assistance programs many large corporations are setting up.

"It costs government and industry $62 billion annually in lost man-hours, accidents, injuries and poor job performance," Mrs. Ford said. "You not only have the employe but all members of the family that have to be treated."

Mrs. Ford has ruled out opening branches of the center because she would not be able to visit with patients as she does now. "When I'm in town, I spend two or three days over here, in and out. There is no schedule other than that I speak to them once a week and sometimes more often," she said.

She and Firestone share an office in the administration building that bears both their names (as a joke, the 35-member staff gave them matching nameplates but had his set in larger type). They are cochairmen of the committee that oversees the total operation, both inside the center and outside, because community outreach is considered an important educational element.

"The public stigmatizes the alcoholic because it lacks knowledge about alcoholism as a disease," she said. "Fortunately, we're getting that across and people are starting to talk about alcoholism the way we talk about cancer now. Remember when cancer was something you didn't discuss? You might know somebody who had it, but either you never brought it up, or you avoided it."

The 15-room Spanish-style Ford home here in retirement heaven for America's wealthy is a five-minute drive from Betty Ford Center. Situated on the grounds of the Thunderbird Country Club, it is little more than a splash of the swimming pool away from the Firestones. Protected by the Secret Service that keeps ordinary folks at a bay, the house shares the grounds with Jerry Ford's small presidential office building and Liberty's penned yard--the same golden retriever of White House fame but with an impressively expanded family.

Inside, the living room is decorated in cool greens and frosty white, with low-lying couches and chairs arranged in conversational groupings. On one wall is the larger-than-lifesize painting of Betty Ford that once hung upstairs at the White House.

The room that is clearly the Fords' favorite is a small den just off the foyer, a few steps up from the living room. Here, wearing a skirt and blouse and looking youthfully slender, Betty Ford sinks into a familiar-looking chair from the Fords' Alexandria, Va., days and begins talking as if there had never been a seven-year-long interlude.

Her father had been an alcoholic, as had a brother, though her mother had kept it hidden from her. She never knew about it until years later.

"I think I was an alcoholic probably many years back but I would say mine was disturbed with responsibility. I think my alcoholism was more active when Jerry was minority leader but I was always in complete control in Washington," she said.

"The responsibilities of the vice presidency and presidency were too demanding for me to be alcoholic. Plus, I had some illnesses and was taking medication--medication can be a very good substitute for alcohol. Dr. Pursch says that a Valium is just like a double martini. You get the same effect, so you don't have to drink," she said.

During the White House years, there had been the mastectomy--"a crushing blow to the family, a shock to all of us. That was a type of cancer that involved a part of the body that had sexual implications we didn't talk about. I just said I would rather lose my right breast than I would my right eye or my right arm. It came at a very opportune time, though, because my husband had just been sworn into office under circumstances that made up our minds there could be no cover-up," she said.

Later there was Carter's defeat of Ford--"such a terrible blow, with the readjustment of leaving 28 years of his being in government and my whole life being totally devoted to seeing that he was where he should be and everybody doing what they should do at the right moment."

Her life had been so structured--"and suddenly moving to California and starting a whole new life and the children suddenly no longer dependent upon Mother. Even Susan was starting on her own, spreading her wings. I think that in itself had a very heavy impact on me."

So on that April day in 1978, everything finally fell apart for Betty Ford. Then she thought, "Well, I'm going to do something about it," because she could see that the family was concerned, that they had not broken apart and had not hurt each other. "I did want help. I also figured it would be harder to worry about how I would cover up so I decided it would be a lot easier to just face the music."

When Betty Ford thinks about the last five years, which she often does, she has reason to be happy about a lot of things, she said. One in particular, though, is that those five years have been "constructive, creative and positive."

"I've helped others, and there is nothing more fulfilling than being able to help someone else," she said. "And I've been able to do it on my own."