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If you’ve seen Ken Burns’ newest documentary, The Roosevelts, you know about the part where FDR was stricken with polio. He woke up one morning, unable to move his legs. What followed was a terrifying and painful ordeal. It took doctors weeks to diagnose the problem and then years of grueling physical therapy with little success. He didn’t want anyone to know how difficult it was for him. Eleanor and his mother both despotically forced him to do his exercises. It all but broke up their marriage. It was not until he fled both of the women and moved to the Warm Springs Institute, that he began to recover.
The reason FDR improved was not because he was performing better exercises, or doing them more frequently. He made progress because of a little appreciated factor in recovery we call Mutual Help.
At Warm Springs, Roosevelt was surrounded by other polio victims, so he did not have to be self conscious of his withered legs. He could attempt the difficult without humiliation because others were attempting around him. It was a safe place. Moreover, he had important work to do. He was not just a victim and a patient, he was also there to coach and encourage others. Gregarious by nature, he learned everyone’s name. He called himself the vice president in charge of picnics because every time someone fell into despair, he would take them on a picnic on a high bluff and show them the view, just to get a different perspective.
Objective measurements of the strength of Roosevelt’s legs before and after Warm Springs showed little improvement. However, what did change was FDR’s attitude towards his disability. He had taken something evil and parlayed it into something that could benefit others.
Fortunately, you do not have to be stricken with polio to profit from Mutual Help. Identical curative factors can be found in all the groups similar to AA, as well as many other environments where even the very sick are able to contribute to the welfare of others.
This Friday, I will begin a series about when illness takes over a relationship. It is one thing to be ill: to have polio, an addiction, a mental illness, or some other malady; it is quite another thing when the illness takes over, so there is little of the original person left. Before Warm Springs, polio had taken over FDR, as well as his relationship with his wife and mother. Afterwards, he was ascendant, even though the illness itself was little changed, and he went on to become president. I think, to the extent that Roosevelt had something to do with it, we can credit the non-judgmental mutual help of Warms Springs for getting us out of the Depression and winning World War II.