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Is there anything good about Parkinson's Disease?

Friday October 24, 2014

I was informed recently I have a “bad attitude” toward my disease. Illustration PDS 10.2.14This got me thinking. Is there anything good about Parkinson’s Disease? Does its extensive resume of mayhem boast an item of community service I overlooked? Some instance of kindness or mercy I missed? Some redeeming quality everyone but me could see? Had I, Heaven forbid, done PD wrong?

I’ve been diagnosed now for over twelve years. That’s a fair amount of time to consider this question and the evidence for and against. In that time, I’ve seen Parkinson’s Disease destroy marriages and break the stride of strong people. I’ve seen (and felt) the anxiety it brings to sufferers and their families. I’ve experienced some of the physical damage it causes, the financial sacrifices it demands, and a few of the forms of pain it inflicts. The loss of dignity, the humiliation, the anger, the... Oops, looks like my bad attitude is showing again. Sorry. Let’s move ahead and list examples of the redeeming qualities of Parkinson’s Disease.

Ummm. Well, that list turned out to be too short to even be called a list.

“But wait”, you object, “without Parkinson’s Disease, I never would have met the great people in my support group, never learned to value the present moment the way I do now, never would have had such a challenge to rise to, never would have appreciated the ingenuity of the people that help me cope, my doctor, my therapist, my spouse...”

Those are all blessings. But they aren’t Parkinson’s Disease. They are examples of something quite different: the human responses to Parkinson’s. It’s surprisingly easy to confuse the two, and it happens all the time. People credit their disease for virtue they should credit to themselves. This often includes achievements they have managed in spite of their disease. When you hear people saying “I never would have written a book if not for Parkinson’s Disease”, or “Parkinson’s is the reason I became more involved with my community.” it’s not that Parkinson’s made something good happen.  What really happened is that they responded to the disease in a healthy way. Only where there is choice is there good or bad. Diseases don’t make choices. People do.

It’s very similar problem to the problem with the belief, which I have heard expressed more than once, “It’s lucky for those of us with Parkinson’s that Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with PD. No. Wealthy and prominent people are diagnosed with diseases all the time. Big deal. What is lucky for us is the way that Fox chose to respond. He uses his prominence and wealth to draw attention to PD and to advance research as much as he can. It wasn’t lucky for us he got sick. We are lucky that he chose to engage with his disease in a way few people, wealthy or not, manage to rise to.

Is this a distinction without a difference? Not if you believe it is wrong to take comfort or derive other benefits from the suffering of someone else. Not if you believe in rendering credit where credit is due. Not if you believe in celebrating the hard work and success of those who summon the strength to do what is right in the face of seemingly overwhelming circumstances.

This, of course, depends on the idea that we have a choice about how we respond to problems. That is not a foregone conclusion for those of us who can’t even make our own bodies do what we ask them to do, let alone bend the universe to our will. So forgive me if I have a bad attitude. It’s not bad if I can’t help it.

Peter Dunlap-ShohlPeter Dunlap-Shohl
NWPF Blogger

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