I have always liked Michael J. Fox. On my first trip to the United States, after seeing him in “Back to the Future,” I had to find those same red striped, white leather Nike sneakers as well as a pair of Original 501 Levi’s — with the button fly. I returned to South Africa successful. Then, watching him on “Family Ties,” I tried to adopt the same “preppy” look as a young student of law at the University of the Witwatersrand. Years later, when he announced that he had Parkinson’s disease (PD), I was sad for him. Little did I know at the time that I would have something more in common with him besides sneakers and jeans.
My life changed when I was diagnosed with PD at the age of 49. At the time, my gait was off, but was only on the right side. It felt like my right leg was not in synch with the left and had simply stopped working. Having enjoyed running for years before then, I thought I could run it off. Well, that didn’t last — it sounded like a “slap” when I walked, a galloping mule, with a limp! Also, I had a resting twitch and tremor in my right hand. At home or in the office, I would try and disguise it by holding my arms or sitting on my hand. I was keeping a secret.
In a way, the diagnosis brought a sense of relief — I finally knew what I had. But it was a difficult time. For most of the first year, I became a recluse. Always the life and soul of a party, I couldn’t leave the house. When I did make it out, I could not wait to get back to my house — the couch became my comfort zone. I did make it into the office, but I pretended I was really busy. I did not engage with my staff and declined client meetings and events. Everyone told me that me that Parkinson’s was not terminal, but in my mind, my life was over.
Parkinson’s had taken control and it was consuming me. My lowest point happened when I was home alone on a Saturday night. I did not want to be alone with my Parkinson’s. I recall shouting and swearing ― at myself. And, then I became overwhelmed with emotion and starting sobbing. I wailed like a baby. The more I thought about myself, the more I cried.
But even in that darkest point, I knew I had to make a change. I had to start thinking differently. I had to get off the couch. I did.
I went downstairs and got on my dusty treadmill. I walked. I no longer cared what it sounded like. The important thing was that I was moving forward — literally. Slowly but surely over the next few weeks, I noticed that my “slap” was quietening, and I was returning to a more natural walking gait. I persevered and then started jogging for one minute after a 10-minute walk. My thought process kept changing. The more I exercised, the better I felt. I was starting to think in the present, not the future. I was a 50-year-old, back on the treadmill.
Growing up, I loved drumming. But living in an apartment in Johannesburg with my widowed mother, and grandmother, it was never the place to own a drum set. Instead, I banged my mother’s furniture to pieces. Then life took over ― matriculation, university, marriage and emigration ― first to New Zealand and then to Canada. Before I knew it, I was only drumming on the dashboard of my car.
Seeing the positive results with my walk/run routine, I decided to return to drumming. I purchased a cheap, entry level electronic set that I could play with headphones — boy I wish that they had those when I was in my mother’s apartment. I then purchased a set of bongos and congas. I started playing an hour every day and just lost myself in the beat of a song. My arms ― particularly my right side ― felt fatigued, but my twitching and tremor in my right hand stopped.
Looking back, my life changed dramatically when I was diagnosed. But it changed for the good. Today, I am living more mindfully in the present, surrounding myself with loving and understanding friends, family and work colleagues. I have accepted Parkinson’s into my life.
Michael J. Fox has retained his sense of humor, and like him, I can now recall some comedic moments, even on the day I was diagnosed. One of the clinical tests in reaching a diagnosis is a writing test. Now, you all know what a doctor’s handwriting looks like ― well, when the doctor wrote out the prescription I was sure he was also a member of the PD tribe! It was worse than mine.
Parkinson's has taken my place on the couch ― like that friend who says he is only staying for a few days but hangs around for a while. It is part of my life, but it no longer controls me. More importantly, it doesn't define me.
Like Marty McFly, I have gone back to the future!