Sick Celebrities

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Alan Alda’s childhood plagued by polio and mother’s schizophrenia

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Alan Alda is an acclaimed actor, screenwriter and director. Perhaps best known for his role as Hawkeye Pierce in the TV series M*A*S*H, he boasts a total of six Golden Globe Awards and five Emmy’s for his outstanding achievements within the TV and film industry.

In 2005, the now 74-year-old published his first autobiography, titled “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: and Other Things I’ve Learned”, giving readers an intimate insight into his life as a child: suffering from polio, travelling with his actor father and trying to deal with his beauty-queen mother’s mental illness.

Alda contracted polio at the age of 7. “There was an epidemic in those days, and that was before the vaccine,” he told Tavis Smiley in an interview following the release of the book. “And there really wasn’t any treatment except Sister Elizabeth Kenny,” he added.

This treatment, developed by the eponymous Australian nurse, involved wrapping burning hot woollen blankets around the limbs and administering extremely firm massage in order to stretch the muscles and prevent them from going lame.

The actor described his therapy as “extremely painful” and remembers having to endure it “every 2 hours, for months”. He said: “Everybody who went through those treatments knows what I mean. They were just awful. And my parents, who had no money, had to–they didn’t have anybody to administer these treatments. They had to do it themselves. So here your parents are torturing you against their own will. You know, they don’t want you to hurt.”

Yet, polio is not the only pain Alda associates with his childhood. In his autobiography, he talks frankly about his mother, a former Miss New York, and her serious mental health problems.

“As a boy, I didn’t understand how ill she was. … It’s hard to understand what it was like in those days — no one spoke about mental illness. It was a thing to be ashamed of,” CNN cites the author.

Alda goes on to admit to his own anger at and shame of his mother, whose manic episodes were sometimes so severe she tried to stab his father and attempted to escape from a moving plane.

“I couldn’t have written [this book] 20 years ago. I couldn’t even talk about it 25 years ago. I not only wouldn’t talk about it in public, I had friends I wouldn’t talk about it to,” he writes.

Despite this, the star claims to have drawn a lot of strength from Joan Alda, who he says was tireless in treating his polio and “tried really hard to be as good a mother as she could…despite the fact that she was so incapacitated”.

Images: Wikimedia Commons

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