Even My Husband Never Knew

It began with Vicodan. In 1989, I had ruptured a couple of disks carrying my 1-year-old, Bridget, in a pack on my back. I was in excruciating pain, even after two surgeries, so my doctors began prescribing painkillers. Instead of listening to me, they patted me on the head and said, "That's the neurotic politician's wife, let's give her more painkillers." In the beginning, I took them as needed, every four to six hours.

But my pain was more than just physical. The Keating Five savings and loan scandal had just blown up, and my husband was implicated. (I became a focus of the investigation when I couldn't find receipts showing that John and I had reimbursed the Keatings for a vacation we took to the Bahamas.) The first time I ever heard of the Keating Five, I was in the hospital, recovering from my first back surgery. A resident came in, threw a newspaper down on my bed and said, "Gee, I guess your husband's not so perfect after all." Throughout the investigation, the painkillers cushioned me. The newspaper articles didn't hurt as much, and I didn't hurt as much. I can remember sitting in the Senate hearings, listening to Howell Heflin saying terrible things not just about my husband but about me. The pills made me feel euphoric and free.

I knew I was an addict. By 1992, I was taking 10 or 15 pills a day. I was taking pills that were prescribed to me and pills that were not prescribed to me. Believe me, they're easy to get. I'd go in and legitimately complain to my doctors about my back pain, and I'd come out with a handful of pain pills. Also, I had handy access to pills through the American Voluntary Medical Team, the relief organization I founded, and I thought I was crafty enough to steal them and not have anyone know. I would make sure extra painkillers were ordered for our missions, so that I could take some of the excess but the missions would not be compromised. I knew what I was doing, I knew it was wrong and I couldn't stop.

I believed I was in control for one reason: my husband never knew. Most often, I'd lock myself in the bathroom and get them down--four, five, six at a time. If I had to take them in public, I'd say it was vitamins. The thing about pills is, you can take them without raising suspicion. Unlike alcohol, they don't smell. I was never stumbling around or passed out. Part of me thought, "Well, this is pills, this isn't illegal." The stuff wasn't wrapped in foil.

One night late in 1992, my folks came to the house after dinner, and my mother said she noticed I wasn't acting right. I'd lost about 25 pounds. "We want to know what's wrong," they said. I said I was just busy. But at that moment, I made a decision: "No more." I stopped cold turkey, and I succeeded because I didn't want to fail. I still didn't tell John; he was running for re-election and he had his hands full. But when he won and I saw the picture of myself and my family on the front page of The Arizona Republic, I thought, "God, I'm standing there and I'm drug-free." That was a great night. And now, thanks to subsequent surgery, I'm pain-free.

I had to tell John the next year, when the Drug Enforcement Administration began an audit of the amount of painkillers my charity had obtained, and the focus turned to me. I was in my office with my lawyer, who was filling me in on the DEA charges, and I picked up the phone and called John in Washington. He came home immediately. In the end, I agreed to do community service, submitted to drug testing and paid restitution. The U.S. Attorney in Arizona dropped the charges.

Before John ran for president, I sat down with Betty Ford to ask for her advice. I was petrified about how the news media would grill me about my addiction. Mrs. Ford said this: When you're tired, rest. When you're frustrated, walk away. That's good advice for anybody.

Join the Discussion