Wheeling Purple: The Making of a Sexologist

A former March of Dimes poster child, Royce-Nash nevertheless refused to be pitiful to the camera. "They wanted me to appear more vulnerable, weaker. ... I said no."

A former March of Dimes poster child, Royce-Nash nevertheless refused to be pitiful to the camera. “They wanted me to appear more vulnerable, weaker. … I said no.”

Gayle Royce-Nash remembers everything, even the nightmare of being attacked by the poliovirus at the age of 4 months in 1950. “It was a very painful process, the onset,” she says. “There were very severe headaches, and the process of becoming paralyzed and the deformities–I absolutely remember every bit of it.” Her diagnosis was bulbar paralytic polio, but her parents refused to accept the conventional prognosis. “They ignored the doctors who said to put me away in one of those hospitals because I wouldn’t live past the age of 2 and would never be socially functioning.” Now, looking back, after having earned degrees in transpersonal psychology and sexology, Royce-Nash, a certified sexologist, says of her living with a disability for more than 50 years: “If anything, I want to honor my parents. They made everything possible for me.”

For openers, they transformed their Elmhurst, Ill., home into a treatment center, applying Sister Kenney wraps (strips of wool soaked in hot vinegar water) three times daily, and patterning movement into their daughter’s paralyzed limbs five times a day–the same protocol of passive movement that contemporary SCI researchers have been touting recently. Royce-Nash’s father, a nuclear physicist, also invented a pulley system that ran around the outside of the house. “Attached to the pulley system was one of these canvas johnny-jump-ups, where you just put your legs through and it holds you really well. I was under 3. The genius of it was that I could sit and not be completely on the ground, and I could walk that way, too.”

The third of six children, Royce-Nash was treated like her siblings when it came to making her own mistakes and discovering her boundaries, which was hard on her mother, who didn’t like to see her fall. But unlike her brothers and sisters, Royce-Nash did not walk on her own until she was nearly 4, after her family had moved to Malibu, Calif., seeking a climate that was less extreme. She never did crawl because her arms were too weak, causing her to miss a developmental stage that could have limited her learning ability later. “A lot of dyslexics and people who have reading problems, it’s been shown that they didn’t go through the crawling stage. Their brains don’t understand the left to right and going forward that’s programmed in at that stage. But my dad patterned in the crawling movements, so that helped me a lot in school.” And beyond. Today reading and collecting books is one of her favorite pastimes.

Testing Creates Character
By the time Royce-Nash started school, she had put several surgeries behind her and been fitted with braces. “I could never use crutches because my arms aren’t strong enough. I had the use of one hand. The other hand is completely flat. My arm rotated at the shoulder so what’s top for you is bottom for me. You see my palm facing you.”

Despite her obvious differences, she remembers preschool and kindergarten fondly. “My mom went ahead and taught them what they needed to do to help me out. The kids were fabulous, they never teased me, they actually looked out for me.” She could not write on a blackboard, so she adopted a verbal learning style. “I spit out what I learned.” One early lesson that stuck with her had little to do with school: Although chosen as a March of Dimes poster child, she refused to go along with the program. “They have a picture of me with my best girlfriend, and I was standing and pouring her tea. They wanted me to appear more vulnerable, weaker, and bottom line, I said no. When the article came out, the March of Dimes took credit for making it so I could walk–If it wasn’t for the March of Dimes. … In reality I knew it had to do with my parents.”

Her fierce independence had surfaced even earlier, when she insisted on feeding herself even though it didn’t make a pretty picture. “My grandmother on my mother’s side–who I dearly love–didn’t like the way it looked. She wanted to help me out, and my mother just started laughing and said, ‘Go ahead, try.’ She did, and I bit her.”

With husband David Nash. We are completely open and honest," Gayle says, "whether it hurts or not."

With husband David Nash. We are completely open and honest,” Gayle says, “whether it hurts or not.”

Searching for a doctor, the family moved to Los Altos Hills in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the true testing began. She had to change elementary schools often because some teachers said they couldn’t deal with her needs. “I needed nothing. What I needed was at lunchtime to have someone open my Thermos. I needed maybe a girlfriend to go with me and help me pull my pants down to go the bathroom. That was it.”

In third grade she ran up against buildings with long flights of steps and kids with mean streaks who teased her, even dragged her across the playground. When her mother confronted the principal, she got an I-told-you-so response: “You really have to put her where she belongs.” In junior high she wasn’t allowed to take a foreign language– “They didn’t think I had the brains for it”–and throughout both junior high and high school she was made to bring a doctor’s note every month to prove she couldn’t participate in gym.

Like many kids who grew up with disabilities, Royce-Nash not only survived, she grew stronger.

Discoveries
Surprisingly, or perhaps not, Royce-Nash flourished in the turbulent teens. “In high school, my older sister and I never missed a dance, never lacked for a date, never missed a party. I was still wearing a brace at this time.” One friend, a cheerleader, one of the most popular boys on campus, took more than a friendly interest in her. They dated for the last year-and-a-half of high school, and she had her first sexual encounter with him at the age of 17.

Actually, she had discovered sexual pleasure much earlier. “I started masturbating when I was 3, when we lived in Malibu.” She had fallen and broken her arm, and the doctor, instead of setting her arm in a cast, taped it across her chest for eight weeks. Because her hand lays flat and doesn’t make a fist, a layer of skin grew her arm to her chest and had to be cut to release the arm. “I refused to cry because I didn’t want the doctor to win. When I went home, there wasn’t really a comfortable place to cuddle with my blanket and my teddy bear, so I tried to adjust, and my blanket and my teddy bear kind of went down someplace. What I felt and what stayed in my brain was something that wasn’t pain for the first time in my life. I guess you could say my first lover was my teddy bear. I still have him, and he’s got a really flat nose,” she says, laughing.

By the time she was a senior in high school, she had broken two taboos: sex and learning French. “They hired a new French teacher who was a little person. I saw her as someone who maybe I could share some stuff with, so I went over to her and told her they won’t let me take a foreign language because they don’t think I can handle it. She walked me right into the principal’s office and signed me up for French.”

After graduating in 1968, she enrolled at Foothill College, practically in her parents’ backyard. At first she thought she wanted to be a speech therapist, until she butted heads with an instructor who told his students they must stay distant from their clients. “I stood up in the middle of class and said, ‘How the hell do you think you can say that and get anywhere with a child? Look, I’ve got a disability, and if people didn’t get emotionally involved with me, I wouldn’t give them the time of day.’ And he said, ‘Well, then, you shouldn’t be a speech therapist.’ And I said, ‘Well, not taught by you anyway,’ and I walked out.”

Fuming, she went to her counselor, who encouraged her to try a child development class, which led to her not only getting a teaching credential but double majoring in child psychology. “I absolutely fell in love with the whole idea of working with kids,” she says.

Marriage … and Divorce
Soon after getting her teaching credential in 1974, she married a man she had met in college. “I thought I loved him. We lived together for two years before we got married. During that time he was very understanding of my needs, he was very cuddly. Cuddling is extremely important to me. You see, that early patterning for me was a good news/bad news thing–when you’re a baby and you’ve got five people five times a day for five years having control over your body, it’s very daunting. So I craved cuddling, the opposite of what I call medicinal touch.”

She taught for three years, then stopped working after getting pregnant. Several years later, after the birth of her second son, her husband, a cost analyst, insisted she go back to work. “This stunned my father and me–I didn’t have to work to make our bills–and I was already starting to show signs of getting a little weaker. At that time we didn’t know that overuse meant you could get in trouble (post-polio sequelae). We thought in terms of use it or lose it.” Not wanting to hand her kids over to somebody else, Royce-Nash opened a home daycare, which she ran from 1982 until 1986. The marriage, already showing signs of stress, started falling apart.

“Our sex life was perfectly fine. He was a very good, unselfish lover, but he never initiated it. It would always have to be me initiating it. That started to build up and make me feel unfeminine. I wasn’t liking that I had to initiate it, but I did, because I like sex!”

Royce-Nash’s need for surgery exposed more weakness in the marriage, beginning with her hysterectomy in 1987, one of several surgeries she had that year. “I got pissed because he didn’t come see me, he wouldn’t let the kids come see me, he didn’t even take me! The kids were begging to go. He took the phone off the hook, he wouldn’t even let them call me. They were 7 and 10. And they were devastated.”

According to Royce-Nash, this was when her husband’s passive-aggressive behavior toward her became obvious. “A lot happened during this time. He almost killed me with the garage door, and went, ‘Oops, sorry, pushed the wrong button.’” When she needed his help, she says, he would either take his time or make an excuse. He would never put things within easy reach in the refrigerator, to help her not have to use her arms. He made it almost impossible to get into the laundry room unless she pulled everything out of the way. Cuddling was now a thing of the past, and a deep rift had been exposed.

Still, it was hard to end it. “If I was married I was no longer my parents’ problem–not that they’d ever said anything like that. I just didn’t want them to worry about me. I had learned quite a while earlier to hold it in and never complain.”

Then one day she found herself saying to her husband: “‘You know, I wish you’d hit me just once, then I’d have proof for the abuse that I’m going through.’ When I heard myself say that, I said, ‘OK, that is not good.’” She laughs. “So I went to a shrink. He tried to save it for the first six months, but after my ex came in and my kids came in, he saw that it was not in the cards. So I started divorce proceedings.”

Starting a New Life
Now working in a brace maker’s shop, Royce-Nash bought one-half of a duplex with a colleague from work. Her youngest son moved in with her, along with a daughter she had unofficially “adopted.” Her oldest son, who was manic-depressive, did not want to leave the house he had grown up in, so her father helped out by loaning her ex-husband money to buy out her half, provided her oldest son could live there until he was 21. In 1990 the divorce became final, and Royce-Nash, her post-polio worsening, quit her job a year later, went on SSDI, and, once again with help from her father, started on a new career path.

Following her interest in psychology, she enrolled in the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, in Palo Alto, Calif. “I went there at the urging of my shrink. He said it’s a good school because they have you live out your life experiences like a family. And not only do you get more therapy that way for yourself, but you are also in a position where you can do other people even more good, because you’ve been there. I liked the sound of that.”

While at ITP, she learned about the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco. “It was there that I connected the dots for myself that this would be an important part of being a shrink.” After earning her master’s in counseling transpersonal psychology from ITP in 1994, she began her own counseling practice while taking classes in a Ph.D. program at IASHS. “My doctors advised me against doing my dissertation. I did all the work, all the reading, all the tests, and I got certified. I did everything but the dissertation.”

She began speaking to sexuality workshops at the sex institute, drawing on her own experience in dealing with complications from post-polio. “I didn’t grow up feeling disabled. But when my post-polio started hitting heavy after the divorce, then I started feeling disabled. I started thinking, God, who’s going to find me sexy with all this equipment–a wheelchair, adapted van, shower stools. It was hard to feel sexy in some of the clothes I needed to start buying, like elastic pants because I couldn’t snap snaps anymore, and I used to love wearing blue jeans with t-shirts! The one thing that I always had–because of the way I used my arms–is very firm, bodacious ta-tas. That’s what my mother calls them,” she says, laughing.

Because she could no longer hook her own bra, she had to look for tops that were not easy to see through. The thought of someone finding her sexy in a wheelchair, elastic pants and loose-fitting tops began to get to her, and she brought it all into her lecturing. She held nothing back. “It made me cry, I was furious, and I let that show. Some of those were the best lectures I’ve given.”

Maggie Rubenstein, who taught for 30 years at IASHS and ran the institute’s sexuality workshops before retiring in 2000, remembers those lectures: “Openness and honesty is what we need in our speakers, people who will be willing to personally share, people who won’t be shy about questions that may be asked about their sexuality. Even when Gayle first started there, she had that capacity, but later on when we began to invite her to speak, I was able to see how eloquent she was. She was just fearless. If somebody gets up and talks rather dispassionately about sex and sexuality or the importance of sexual expression in our lives, and they seem fearful of the material or tense or unwilling to take that extra step, it isn’t as effective.”

Royce-Nash became a certified sexologist while in the Ph.D. program at the Institute. At that time–June 1997–she answered a personal ad in the Palo Alto Weekly from a man who described himself as being kind, generous, and desirous of a relationship with open communication. “There was no other ad that said anything about open communication,” she says. “That intrigued me.”

David Nash was also intrigued. What first attracted him was the sound of her voice, bright and engaging, and her sense of humor. “She was also forthright about explaining her disability on the phone message before I even talked to her,” says Nash. So he returned her call the next night. They talked for two to three hours.

They talked two more times that week. “They were always long phone conversations and they always felt good,” said Royce-Nash. They decided to meet at a restaurant for dinner. “I was there first,” she says. “I wasn’t in the wheelchair because it was short walking … and he came down this long hallway with the sweetest, best smile you’ve ever seen in your life, gentle and kind and you could just see this aura, like a golden heart, I swear. That sounds so sappy, but that’s what I saw.” They talked over dinner, and the next thing they knew the only other person in the restaurant was a man vacuuming the rugs.

“So he walked me out to my van and I was sitting there thinking, I hope he kisses me. Then he opened the door for me and I stepped up into the van. Then he looked back behind me, several different times, and said, ‘Oh, there’s your wheelchair.’ And he kissed me. He kissed me 11 times that night. He was just adorable about it.” They agreed that something was definitely there and made plans to see each other again.

The Long Journey
Earlier, when Gayle’s first marriage was ending, David Nash was experiencing lean times himself. “I was very lonely. I wasn’t with anybody. I had really no sexual experience. I didn’t know about intimacy. My age–I was already 40–had become a barrier, an embarrassment. I was afraid, feeling clumsy, like a teenager. I wrestled with that for years and finally I picked a sex surrogate out of the Yellow Pages. That was extremely brave for me to do that.”

Nash, who is naturally shy, attended a conference in Hawaii where his sex surrogate was speaking. “I didn’t go with her, I went by myself. That was a huge step for me. We did some exercises that were kind of uncomfortable, where you kind of reveal yourself a little bit. I was surprised I did it. She helped bring me out of my shell.”

Once liberated, Nash was ready for a serious relationship, something Gayle had stipulated in the beginning: “I told him I was interested in commitment.” The two now found it hard to stay apart. Five weeks after they first met, they moved in together. Then, three months after their first meeting, Nash took another huge step.

“I was coming home from a meeting at night,” says Gayle, “and he had dinner ready for me, and he was kind of hemming and hawing, it was the cutest thing. He had run into a neighbor who asked my name–’What do we call her, is this your girlfriend?’ So he started to tell me that story at dinner, and I’m trying to be delicate. And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s kind of a hard one, I don’t know about you, but I don’t like old lady or significant other or any of those things.’ And he goes, ‘No I don’t either, at all’–and he said he had told the neighbor I was his fiancée. I kind of looked at him a little bit breathless, trying to stay calm, and said, ‘And what does that mean to you?’ And he said, ‘I would be so honored if you would be my wife.’ I started to cry. And he cried. And I said yes … and we didn’t finish the dessert.”

They were married on May 24, 1998, eight months later, in a private garden ceremony at a Palo Alto estate.

Wheeling Purple, Turning Gray
True to the personal ad that sparked their desire to meet, David and Gayle’s relationship is based not only on love, but on open communication. “We are completely open and honest, whether it hurts or not,” she says. She is especially appreciative of how he made it easy for her to ask for help, something she was reluctant to do before. “He said, ‘I don’t care how small it is, you need the help. We need you to keep going for as long as you can. And I love you and I don’t want to lose you.’”

David tries for total honesty, but his gentle nature sometimes makes it difficult, especially if he thinks it might hurt her. Her training, though, helps him open up. “If something’s bothering me about her,” he says, “she can see it, and helps bring it out. She’s very good at doing that.” She’s also good at making people feel at ease. “No matter where we go, she makes people feel comfortable. It’s intriguing to see how she affects everyone in a positive way.”

David works as a computer programmer for a health care company that operates a dozen kidney dialysis clinics, while Gayle counsels her clients from home. She has learned to set her hours to include rest, but she feels energized by her work. “I am just as busy now as when I first started, and the simple truth is, I love helping people. It is a natural high for me, part of a deep spiritual feeling, a purpose to give back, when I had so much with my parents.” Her parents still live close by. She recently attended her father’s 86th birthday. Her mother is 81. They’ve been married 58 years.

Gayle and David will celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary in May, and they hope to do it in Hawaii, with help from an unexpected windfall from an amended tax return. They have their hopes set on visiting the island of Kuaii. “We love the beach,” says Gayle. “We hope to get one of those beach wheelchairs, and I want it to be purple.”

Purple is not just a favorite color, it represents a special moment, a precious relationship. Years earlier, when she finally realized that her post-polio made having a wheelchair a necessity, a number of power chairs were brought to her home to test out. “My father had told me, ‘When you say it’s time, it’s blank check.’ And he was with me that day, and the one that fit absolutely to a “T” was purple. It was perfect. Purple means to me that my father was with me that day, and he cried for joy, just like the time when I first walked,” she says, her voice breaking.

And the hard times in dealing with post-polio, in facing all over again what she thought she had once conquered? “That’s all gone,” she says.

Time, though, moves on. Just recently her hair has started turning gray. Maybe now all that practice in dealing with life’s little surprises will come in handy: “I love the gray,” she says. “I’ve earned it.”

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