Relevations: `The Betty Ford Clinic changed my life'

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The time: 1984

The place: Palm Springs, USA

The woman: Lorna Luft, singer (daughter of Judy Garland)

"THE Betty Ford Clinic kept calling me and calling me. I'd arranged for my sister, Liza Minnelli to be admitted, but they wanted me to go through their family programme. I kept saying: "Wait a minute, it's my sister who's got the problem - not me." What a stupid thing to say, boy was I wrong! When there's addiction, you don't know how it affects the whole family - how it affects you.

To reach the clinic you have to drive down a long driveway in the middle of the desert, until you reach a one-storey building which does not look like a hospital. It is a little stark, but has a beautiful lake and nice grounds. Elizabeth Taylor, who had just come out, had told me what could happen between my sister and myself. It was just as well she prepared me because Liza was angry and poured out all sorts of resentments. The one thing I didn't know was that my life was about to change.

I'd been told that we started at 9am and finished at 5pm, so I'd brought a best girlfriend to babysit my son, who was only four-months-old. I thought: what could we possibly do all day? My dear, what we did. To be sitting in a room with complete strangers, from all walks of life, but who had all done the same things, was mind-blowing. As a child I had never said a word to anyone about my mother's problems. I could never call an ambulance, in case the press found out, I never told anybody at school. From an early age I learnt how to lie. We would go round the room and tell our stories, I discovered we'd all covered up. There was a wonderful lady who said: "I would take all the booze in my house and put it in pots on the stove, burn the alcohol off and put it back in the bottle." We all went: "wow, that's a really good idea." But the counsellor was not so impressed: "Did you think about the four bars he stopped off at on the way home?" We all cracked up laughing. I would check the seams of my mothers' clothes and the curtains for hidden pills - but at that time I didn't know better.

When the staff told me that 98 per cent of the kids of addicts are going to be addicts themselves, suddenly the lightbulb went on. No wonder I'd had my own problems with cocaine. I was in denial even when snorting up half of Peru at Studio 54. Some people, not a lot because most were also doing it, would ask if I was doing the same as my mother did. I would reply: "No way, I don't have a problem because I only do it at night." You actually say this crap and believe it. Fortunately, by then, I had already stopped taking cocaine; the hangovers were getting too much. I couldn't take the throwing up or the headaches and exhaustion. I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.

Slowly I discovered that all my behaviour was textbook - the biggest release and relief ever. I learnt: I didn't do anything wrong, I didn't cause it. I couldn't have cured it and I couldn't have controlled it. For the first time since my childhood I did not feel alone.

I'd understood, but putting everything I'd learnt at Betty Ford into practice was quite another thing. I had one last battle. I'd chosen a husband who needed a partner with the training I'd received as a child. He was an alcoholic and I was an expert co-dependent. The lies I went through: he could control it and stop whenever he felt like it. The hardest part of the programme is letting go. We were on a flight to London: I went to a seat further back because my daughter was tired and there was room to lay her out. I saw the stewardess go up with a glass of red wine. I knew one drink would lead to another. I thought `no, I'm not going to deal with this anymore'. I walked up to him, he'd pulled a blanket over his head.

I pulled the blanket away and underneath he was all bleary-eyed with this glass. Standing in the aisle of that 747, I finally got it. I told him: "That's it. I'm out of here." Perfectly calm, I walked back down the aisle to my seat and my daughter. I felt great. Even though I didn't know where I would go, beyond an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, when I stepped off that plane.

There have been 40-odd books written about my family but none of those authors have lived in my house. I wanted to set the record straight. Everybody else has told about the crazy part of my mother, I want to show how much of the sane part there was to look after me. I loved my mother so much, she would do anything in the world for her kids. She had such a wonderful sense of humour and was so warm. Sadly she did not have a Betty Ford Clinic: we had no help and no education. Nothing.

When people ask `did my mother ever have a chance?' I say: `No - she had no choice.' Yet she is always with me in the face of my daughter and the heart of my son. I knew Judy Garland the person, everybody else knew the legend."

Me and My Shadows, by Lorna Luft, is published by Sidgwick & Jackson, pounds 16.99.