I was asked to tell the story of how I overcame adversity. You see, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s over 15 years ago.
I certainly thought I had overcome the adversity of my disease. Well, as it turns out, I’m not sure I have overcome anything. I am still as scared as I was that fateful day I was diagnosed. I am still as confused as I have ever been about how and why things happen both to me and to those that I love. Yes, I am fairly certain that I have not overcome any adversity of late, and certainly not the adversity of Parkinson’s. But that is not the end of this story. God willing, I would like to share with you all how Parkinson’s has helped me become the person you see before you today. I would like you to meet Gregory Layer.
It began when I was only 25, shortly before I graduated from Cal Poly in December of 1989. I noticed a slight tremor in my left foot. Over time, my tremor became more and more difficult to hide. During the next few years, I went to see a variety of doctors – neurologists, acupuncturists, chiropractors – none of whom could figure out what was wrong with me. My life began to change in significant ways. I spent a lot of energy trying to hide my shaking and I began to pull back from relationships and isolate myself.
At about this time, my father discovered a renowned clinic that specialized in movement disorders located just down the road from where I lived. In February of 1994, five years after first noticing the tremor, I had my first appointment at the clinic. I was put through a series of tests, each of which seemed to have a knack for unleashing the worst of my shaking. Seated, feet flat on the floor, hands palm down on my knees, they had me count backwards from 100 by 7s. I shook so violently I thought I would come completely unglued. After administering the last test, the nurse smiled cautiously and told me the doctor would be in shortly. I sat alone on the exam table and waited, entertaining desperate thoughts of simple cures for what had taken control of my body.
I was jolted back to reality by a thin, young woman who tersely introduced herself as my doctor. With no regard to transition, she bluntly stated, "Well, of course you have Parkinson's Disease." I will never forget the depth of hopelessness and despair that I felt in that moment. My already tenuous grip on life began to slip.
I don't quite know how I managed to get myself home but somehow I did. Once home, I curled up into the fetal position on my couch and began to cry. At the age of 29, my life was over, or so it felt.
This is where it gets a little fuzzy for me. You see, I have been searching my memory for some defining moment where I rallied the troops, found my fighting spirit, rose up against my disease. But, I guess that is just not the way it happened with me. What actually happened was more like a political campaign where over several years I was able to convince enough of the little voices inside me that we shouldn’t give up and that all hope may not be lost. Spurred on by the belief that I no longer had a future and that to be angry in the few good days that remained would be a travesty, I began searching for a way to change the way I reacted to the world around me.
What follows is a series of vignettes, each describing a transformation in my life that was a direct result of Parkinson’s and the undeniable truth and clarity that it brings to my life.
I would have to say that the grand daddy of all my transformations occurred while in my first marriage. You see, I have anger issues. Don’t let my current demeanor fool you. I think it’s kind of like being an alcoholic; once an angry person, always an angry person, or at least a potentially angry person. So there I was in my first marriage, an angry guy, trying to build an intimate relationship with my wife, Ann, and failing horribly. I spent many years teaching her that frustration and anger were close friends with physical intimacy. While I have never become physically violent, my anger did significant damage. I would estimate that perhaps half of my attempts at initiating physical intimacy resulted in me melting down with so much frustration and anger that it would take many hours and sometimes that entire day for me to recover. Fortunately, I realized that this was not a tenable situation and I began looking for a way to change my response to it.
One particularly bad day, as I began the downward spiral into that little black pit in my soul, I thought that just as an exercise, I would try to step outside myself and be an observer of the whole affair. I thought this might give me a fresh perspective from which to see things and which eventually may lead to identifying how I could actually change my response. My first baby step was a simple act of defiance: a simple smile on my face as I watched myself spiral down into that dark place.
While those first attempts at smiling were completely void of any true joy, slowly but surely I realized that my heart was becoming lighter and my recovery time was decreasing. All from that silly little smile? Once I clued into these facts, I asked myself a simple question. Possibly the most important question I had ever asked myself. “What do I want?” A simple question with a simple answer: “I wanted to connect with my wife.” I’m not sure why I waited till the ripe age of 40 before realizing that responding with anger and frustration was not going to get me where I wanted to go. I’m not sure how many more times I went to that dark pit, but I will never forget the first time I CHOSE to go somewhere else. This was the beginning of my new life, my awakening.
I always wanted a better relationship with my father. Unfortunately, I didn’t really know how or what to do to make that happen. For many years, about the only thing we shared was the love of the game of golf. We would get together occasionally, spending several days together, golfing once, sometimes twice a day. Shortly after my awakening, as previously described, I found myself on a golf retreat with my dad in Lake Las Vegas. Dinners with my father were always a particularly painful time, the two of us alone, no distractions, nothing to hide behind. However, dinner that first night in Lake Las Vegas was different. I was celebrating the biggest personal achievement of my life, my awakening, and I was actually excited to share this with my dad. I’m sure he could tell that something was amiss. He had rarely experienced anything close to this level of engagement with me before. So there we sat, sharing our first real connection of my entire adult life. We were both deeply touched by it. That moment became the foundation for a relationship that I consider one of the most important in my life. Today I share a wonderful connection with my father, who has been on a beautiful path of love and growth of his own since we began our upward spiral together.
In November of 2007, I met the love of my life, Megan, on Match.com. After just 2 phone conversations, a 45 minute date at the Boulder Book store coffee shop and a dinner date I began falling in love with her. Within a few weeks, I began to notice a change in my perception of self. The label of “Damaged Goods”, which I had assumed the day I was diagnosed, was beginning to lose its grip on me. I found myself daydreaming about my daughter’s college graduation or Megan and I moving to some exotic location after my daughter left home. These daydreams created a strange sensation in me which I couldn’t quite figure out. And then, without warning, Megan made a simple statement that changed my life. She said “I want to grow old with you.” The gift of that statement allowed me to reclaim something that I had given away many years ago. Something that I thought Parkinson’s had stolen from me. My future.
Everything about my new life with Megan and my daughter screams “I have a future!” And that is why I am up here in front of you today, sharing my story of hope and love. I want to be an example of what is possible when we face challenges in our lives. I truly believe we can help each other rise up to meet the challenge of not only living with adversity and trauma but doing so with dignity and grace.