And she said, “Quit Feeling Sorry for Yourself”

It was August 1952, and one of the worst outbreaks of polio on record was taking place in America. 58,000 cases were reported that year. Children were susceptible to the virus and I was no exception. I was seven years old when I contracted the crippling disease. I was taken to Los Angeles General Hospital when I first came down with the virus. The polio ward where I was housed was isolated from other parts of the hospital because of Poliovirus’s contagious nature. Our hospital beds were lined up one beside another in five or six rows in one large room. There must have been 25 to 30 of us in the room. It was crowded, and no toys were allowed. Nurses and doctors dressed in white gowns and wore white surgical masks. The children were dressed in white gowns that were open in the back. Parents were not permitted to visit. And, we were not allowed to get up out of our beds, even if we could, which most of us couldn’t. Even though I did not see it for myself, I heard doctors and nurses talking about children who had died in the hospital.

After seven days, I was transferred to Long Beach Community Hospital, which was closer to our new home. It was much different than what I had just experienced. There were two children per hospital room, and my parents visited me regularly. My sister and cousin, both younger than me, were able to talk to me while standing outside the opened screened window of my hospital room. Graham crackers and milk were served each evening, and during that time, we were taken by wheel chair to watch TV in a cozy room at the end of the corridor with six to seven other children on our floor. I began to receive gifts and get well cards from family and friends, and the hospital staff made sure that our beds were covered with colorful blankets. I would spend four weeks in Long Beach Community Hospital.

Next door to the hospital was Tichener Children’s Orthopedic Clinic. From the first day I arrived at Long Beach Community Hospital I was taken to this clinic. Each day I would be lifted out of my bed by hospital orderlies, placed on a wheeled stretcher, and pushed over to the clinic by them. There, I would receive different types of treatment. The first one consisted of being wrapped in “hot packs.” Hot packs are squares of wool blankets boiled in hot water, wrung out and then wrapped around the limbs and torso of the polio victim’s body. The smell of the wool being boiled, plus the intense heat of the packs against the skin, produced so much anxiety in children like myself that gas was administered to relax us before each pack was applied. Because the gas was so soothing, the treatments became tolerable, and caused the ongoing pain and twitching I had been experiencing in my legs from the polio to stop. When we were fully wrapped in the hot packs, we looked like mummies with our naked heads sticking out.

Because I was transported each day between the two buildings I was exposed to the outside air and sun. I can remember being impressed with how beautiful the two buildings were. The hospital had Spanish arches that reminded me of my last home in Huntington Park. The clinic, on the other hand, looked like a building out of a Flash Gordon spaceship movie. It had horizontal lines with curved corners and silver chrome on the doors. I began to feel much more relaxed and happy during this period.

The hot pack treatments lasted for about a week; thereafter, pool therapy began. For about three weeks the same routine would be repeated, except that instead of going to the clinic on a stretcher, I was now placed in a wooden wheel chair, and wheeled to the clinic by the orderlies. And, instead of going to the hot pack room, I was wheeled into the pool room which was across the hall. There, a very energetic and pleasant looking nurse helped me change from my hospital robes to a bathing suit. She would then carry me over to a metal gurney, and place me on it. The gurney was then swung around until it was over the pool and then hydraulically lowered into the warm pleasant water. From there, a female physical therapist who was in the pool would slide me off the gurney, and carry me over to a metal exercise table that looked like an ironing board. The table was tipped so that the narrow end was deeper in the water than the broader end. The physical therapist placed me on the table so that my head was on the broader end. From my neck down my body was fully submerged in water. The therapist then began to gently work on my legs by raising one leg then the other out of the water. This had the effect of loosening the muscles in my legs, which had started to tighten up due to the after effects of the poliovirus. She had a very reassuring voice, and called me Blondie. “Don’t worry, Blondie, everything is just fine,” she would say.

For about half an hour each day she would work with my legs, stretching and lifting them slowly until the muscles were limber. After that, she would let me play around in the pool for another thirty minutes. Even though the pool only reached a depth of three to four feet, the first time I did this, I told her that I didn’t want to play around in the pool, because I didn’t know how to swim. That’s when it happened! She appeared.

I’ll Teach You to Swim

Standing along the pool was this thin, tall, stately looking woman dressed in a starched white nurse’s dress, white shoes, white hose, and silver white hair. In a clear, somewhat high pitched voice, she declared, “I’m Mrs. Neff. I’ll teach you to swim.” With that she abruptly went into one of the dressing rooms and reappeared minutes later in a yellow one piece bathing suit. She entered the pool from the end closest to the exercise table, walking down the pool’s stairs making ripples as she did. I popped my head up from the table like someone who had just had their relaxing vacation interrupted. Mrs. Neff confidently waded over to the exercise table and with a commanding voice told my therapist, “I’ll take over from here.”

In the exchange I quickly noticed the difference. Mrs. Neff’s hands were firm, her fingers long, and her grasp secure. She lifted me off the table and carried me over to the end of the pool where she had entered. There, she placed me on one of the pool’s stairs, where the water came half way up my chest as I sat there. Mrs. Neff then stood directly in front of me, bent over, so she could speak directly to me and said, “Roger, I’m going to teach you how to stroke.”

With that, she turned so that I could see her from her left side. She then bent over again, until the end of her chin touched the water. She put both of her arms out in front of her, and pushed one arm through the water until her elbow came out of the water followed by the rest of her arm. She then stretched the entire arm forward, and gently placed it back in the water, and repeated the same motion with her other arm. At that point she sped up the motion. After a few seconds, she turned to me and in a matter of fact tone said, “That’s how you stroke. Try it.” From where I was sitting, I mimicked her motions. “Good, now practice that until you feel like you can push off from the stairs and swim over to the wall,” she said.

That was it. My first and last swim lesson. Within two days I was slowly easing off from the stairs and swimming over to the wall.

The Boss

I was soon to find out that Mrs. Neff was the boss. She was over everything at the clinic. No one dared cross her, not even the doctors.

After a month at the hospital and clinic, it was Mrs. Neff who informed me that I would be going home.

“But,” she said, (there was always a “but” with her), “you’ll be coming back every day for exercises.”

She told my mother that I was to be exercised at home and be limber by the time I reached the clinic. If that happened the clinic session would only take about an hour or so. If not, the session would take longer.

In the beginning I was pretty good about doing my stretching exercises at home. But there was one day about two weeks after I returned home that I refused to stretch and went to the clinic with tight muscles. The therapist who was working with me in one of the exercise rooms remarked, “Roger, you’re pretty tight this morning.” From nowhere, and to my great surprise, Mrs. Neff appeared and in her no nonsense tone said, “I’ll exercise him.” For over an hour she stretched my legs like you would see a football player stretching before a football game, only mine were tougher, because Mrs. Neff was taking me through them. When we were done, looking straight at me with her steely grey-blue eyes and thin lips, she said in a slow, deliberate, firm voice, “I don’t want to see you arrive here tight anymore.” After that, I never did.

After four or so months of daily exercising at the clinic, I graduated to only having to come to the clinic twice a week. It was at about that time the physical therapists started me walking on crutches. Up until that time I was wheel chair bound. Again, Mrs. Neff showed up for my first crutch session. There was a large room that looked like a dance studio with full length mirrors on the walls facing each other. There, I had to walk with the use of the crutches from one wall of mirrors to the other wall of mirrors staying between two lines drawn on the floor. The distance was about twenty five to thirty feet.

“Stand up straight as a board, Roger. Don’t slouch as you put the crutch forward,” Mrs. Neff would bark out like a marine drill instructor.

I soon learned that as I took a step with my left foot, I had to put the tip of the right crutch down firmly on the floor, and had to repeat that the same way with my right foot and left crutch. I felt stiff. I looked like a wooden toy soldier marching. But I didn’t dare deviate from the routine as long as Mrs. Neff was there.

“Stand up straighter Roger, straighter,” was her command.

After about five months the therapists took the crutches away and had me start walking freely. Again, Mrs. Neff showed up and took personal control of my first free standing steps.

“Don’t look at me, Roger. Look at yourself in the mirror as you walk. Don’t dip your shoulder. Don’t let your right leg swing out. Heel toe, heel toe. Try it again.”

I felt like I must have walked between those two walls of mirrors a thousand times. Even more, Mrs. Neff would say over and over again, “Be perfect at practice, Roger. Practice, practice, practice, perfect, perfect, perfect.”

Time Goes By

Four years had now passed since I had started coming to the clinic for treatment. I was now eleven years old, and in seventh grade. The clinic had up until recently been my home away from home. But I was now required to come to the clinic only once a month. School was now becoming my second home. So much was going on in seventh grade. Girls were now wearing make-up, gym clothes had to be worn, showers had to be taken after gym, you had to attend different classes each hour, and there were sex education classes. It was mind boggling.

As if this were not enough, there began to be competition among students as to who was the toughest, who was the cutest, who wore the neatest cloths, who was a hood, who was the most popular, who was the best athlete, etc. In other words, school was a time to experiment with social rolls, or as I call them, scripts. I was no different. I had several scripts I had been playing with; unfortunately, one was the “polio victim” script. “Why did this happen to me? Why did I have to be the one who caught polio? Why does my leg have to be weaker and smaller?”

It was around this time, when I was feeling like a polio victim, that I had one of my monthly visits to the clinic. It was on this occasion that I decided to try out the victim script on my therapist. But, as luck would have it, Mrs. Neff decided to be my therapist that day. I hadn’t seen her in over a year. Other therapists had been caring for me, while Mrs. Neff was busy making sure new children coming in were taken care of when they started their therapy and possible recuperation.

“Roger, I haven’t seen you for quite some time, how are things going?’ were her first words to me.

“Fine,” was my nonchalant reply.

“Good,” she declared,” let’s get started, I’m anxious to see how limber you are,” with no sign of diminished resolve in her voice from the first time I heard her speak to me four years earlier.

Small exercise rooms were built around the larger mirrored walking room. Each of these smallerrooms contained one bed with a wooden top on which was placed a firm leather pad covered with a clean, white sheet. At the end of the bed was a wooden board attached to the bed at a ninety degree angle. In these rooms you would strip down to your underwear and do your exercises on the pad.

“Ok, Roger, let’s see you bob,” Mrs. Neff ordered.

With that order, from a sitting positioning on the pad, my feet firmly placed against the board, my hands clasped behind my neck, I began to bend forward until my head touched my knees. I did that five times, when Mrs. Neff caught something she didn’t like.

“Roger,” she said, “your right heel is not touching the end board.”

She then asked, “Can you make that happen?”

I tried but I couldn’t. Mrs. Neff then said in a reflective tone, “It looks like your right foot is drawing up into a claw. I want the doctors to look at that. They may have to operate and stretch out the tendon.”

With that said, I decided this was as good a time as any to voice my victim’s script.

In a low whisper loud enough to be heard by Mrs. Neff, I lamented, “Why does this have to happen to me? Why did I have to be the one to get polio?”

I barely got the words out when Mrs. Neff snapped her head back, looked at me straight in the eyes and blunting stated in a firm and very directed voice, “Quit feeling sorry for yourself. I don’t want to hear that again.”

Her words shocked me. I looked over to my mother who was sitting in a chair observing. She looked down, refusing to make eye contact with me. For all that I had experienced with Mrs. Neff, this comment bothered me the most. I considered it a put down. It was insensitive and embarrassing, and I told my mother so as we were driving home that day. My mother suggested I bring it up to Mrs. Neff the next time I see her. I retorted, “Why don’t you, you’re my mother.” My mother’s reply was crisp and to the point, “ I agree with her.” Those were the last words spoken on the subject, and as you may expect the last time I used the victim script.

Years pass away

As the years went by, I had fewer and fewer occasions to be with Mrs. Neff. At nineteen I was released from the clinic all together and never saw her again. However, her impact on me had been made. I first noticed it when working with my own children. For example, one of my daughters was in a foot race with her classmates at a school picnic when she was in fourth grade. Half way through the race she quit.

As she walked over to me, she complained, “I’m not a good runner.”

My reaction was immediate and precise. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself, and, no matter what, finish what you start.”

This was a sweet child, and my temptation after saying that was to put my arm around her, and tell her something comforting. But I didn’t. And I didn’t because what I said was what I believed was the best for her. Where did that belief originate? More than likely it probably came from my experience with Mrs. Neff. As upset as I was at the time she told me to quit feeling sorry for myself, it had connected with me at an important emotional level, and evidently I had internalized it, and I put it into practice with my daughter.

I have also used this same approach when working with business executives as a management consultant. For example, the CEO of a fairly large corporation was having conflict with the Chairman of the Board of the same company. Both were major shareholders, but the Chairman held the majority of the voting shares. For some inexplicable reason, the CEO felt that the Chairman wasn’t treating him well enough. So the CEO went and confronted the Chairman, and in the process broke down and cried. Later, the CEO, in turn, shared this with me and asked for my reaction.

“First of all”, I said,” I’m stunned. Why would you cry? Looks like you’re feeling sorry for yourself. You’ve got to knock that kind of stuff off.”

He sat in silence after I said that. Then with disbelief written all over his face, inquired, “What did you just say?”

I responded without hesitation, “You heard me. Knock it off.”

After I said that, not another word was said on that subject. We then moved on to other issues.

So, what’s it all about?

So, what’s the point I’m trying to make? My hunch is that most of us, if not all of us, face challenges. And it’s probably fundamental to our personalities, at one time or another, to indulge in self-pity or feeling sorry for ourselves.

While self-pity may not be the worst of human frailties to possess, it’s certainly not a very healthy way to behave in today’s society. In fact, social psychologists believe that if taken too far it becomes a tool of social manipulation. If one becomes too practiced in self-pity, it may evolve into a pathological means of receiving attention.

If we are not careful we can use the rough times of our own lives, not as empowering experiences that aid us in maturing, but as subtle tools to prey on the sympathies of others, in order to build an environment where our needs are met at the expense of others.

With that, I consider myself fortunate indeed. At a critical time in my life, a very tough lady, who definitely wasn’t one of my favorite people growing up, cut me no quarter. With a directness I have seldom experienced, she reared back and let me have it. “Quit feeling sorry for yourself.” I implemented the command then, but understand its import now. Mrs. Neff put me on notice. As far as she was concerned I would not be allowed to use self-pity as a means to receive her sympathies.

I am pleased it happened. Very pleased!