In 1990, when my son Sam was six months old, my father died unexpectedly. It’s ironic, given his “prepare for the worst” philosophy and my appetite for risk, that his death would be the harbinger of the toughest period of my life. Within a year, I started to exhibit symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and a neurologist diagnosed young-onset PD. At 30 years old, I was told that whatever else I should expect, I could probably only work for another ten years. This was my explosion. This was my life skidding horribly sideways.
At first I went into denial. Refusing to disclose my situation to everyone but family, and covering the symptoms with medication, I was really trying to hide from myself. But with no escape from the disease, its symptoms, and its challenges, I was forced, after exercising in vain all other options, to resort to acceptance, which simply means acknowledging the reality of a situation. As my acceptance grew, I came to understand that loss is not a vacuum. If I didn’t impulsively try to fill the space it creates, it gradually began to fill itself, or at least present choices.
I realized that the only choice not available to me was whether or not I had Parkinson’s. Everything else was up to me. By choosing to learn more about the disease, I made better choices about how to treat it. This slowed the progress and made me feel better physically. When I felt better physically, I was happier and less isolated and could restore my relationships with my family and friends.
So let me make this suggestion. Don’t spend a lot of time imagining the worst-case scenario. It rarely goes down as you imagine it will, and if by some fluke it does, you will have lived it twice. When things do go bad, don’t run, don’t hide. It will take time, but you’ll find that even the gravest problems are finite, and your choices are infinite.
Believe me, I still have the occasional fantasy that I’ll wake up one morning and realize I’m symptom-free. But I knew that absent the discovery of a cure, it could never happen.
Until it did.
If this sounds like a fairy tale, then the setting couldn’t have been more appropriate: the mysterious and enchanting kingdom of Bhutan, nestled in the Himalayas. I was there shooting footage for a documentary on optimism for ABC that was conceived as a companion piece to my book Always Looking Up. Our plan was to seek out people, places, and things that represent the power of positive thinking. Whereas most nations will seemingly go to any length to increase their gross national product, the Bhutanese believe that economic development should never come at the cost of their people’s happiness-a policy they have labeled Gross National Happiness.
By the second day, I noticed a marked diminishment of the symptoms I generally wake up to every day. Over the next few days, I slogged through rice paddies, sat cross-legged while taking a meal with local families, and wandered for hours through a marketplace, investigating the myriad of sights, sounds, and smells. I was able to do all of this in inexplicably effortless fashion. Maybe it was the altitude that had brought about this change, or perhaps it was the pills that I had been given to prevent altitude sickness. Whatever it was, I was grateful, though I had no delusions that it would remain that way once I returned to the States.
On the penultimate day of the trip, our producers and camera crew scheduled a demanding three-to-four-mile hike up a local mountain to film one of Bhutan’s most important religious sites, a monastery they call Tiger’s Nest. I surprised myself by volunteering to go along. On my descent, I attempted a shortcut down a 90-degree rock face. Overwhelmed by momentum, I skittered down the mountainside toward certain injury and possible death. Somehow I managed to fling myself sideways to the ground. This little flurry of excitement resulted in scrapes, bruises, and a bloodied and mangled ring finger.
I wasn’t able to remove my wedding ring, because of the swelling, and the next day, as we flew to India to make our connection back to the States, the cabin pressure caused the digit to balloon and discolor even more. An Indian doctor sitting across the aisle calmly informed me if I didn’t cut that ring off in the next couple of hours, they’d be cutting off my finger. And so I made a detour to the hospital in New Delhi, the ring was removed, the finger was saved, and I was on my way home.
Back in the States, the Parkinson’s symptoms returned. It was as if that reprieve had never happened. But of course, it did. I carry a reminder with me every day. I only have to look down at my homely and still-misshapen ring finger.
I also have a filmed record of the entire trip. Myself, I didn’t take a single photograph, but that’s not all that
unusual for me. The act of positioning a camera between me and the object of my interest separates me from the experience. And if there’s one basic lesson I’ve learned, it is the cardinal importance of this moment … right now.
I’m not suggesting we wander around slack-jawed and stupefied, stumbling from moment to moment without
considering history or the future. Still, what’s happened before and what may happen later can’t be as important as what’s happening now. There’s never a better time to celebrate the present. The present belongs to you. Let someone else take the picture … just smile.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future, Copyright 2010 By Michael J. Fox, is published at $17.99 by Hyperion
Buy the book here.