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Book Review: My Degeneration, A Journey Through Parkinson's

Friday January 15, 2016

Peter Dunlap-Shohl was an editorial cartoonist, one of those journalists who draw witty caricatures of people in the news, usually making fun of them. He had fun doing that. Then, at age 43, the real fun began for Peter. He was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s Disease. He discovered the fun of having trouble tying his shoes and buttoning his shirts, the fun of hearing his doctor say “You have Parkinson’s Disease,” the fun of words like “progressive,” “disabling,” and “incurable,” the fun of finding out some of what lay ahead for him: loss of fine and gross motor skills, impaired ability to speak and swallow, loss of balance, and so on. 

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What did Peter do? He did what most of us do. He did what I call “futurize”: he looked ahead and saw his life savings depleted by expensive doctors, nurses, and pharmaceutical bills, saw his family burdened by the care of a useless hunched, drooling, incontinent, wheelchair-trapped, twitching body. He flirted with suicide as a solution to the problem of a Parkinson’s diagnosis. He decided to jog in a woods where bears had recently been sighted, hoping to be attacked and killed so that his wife and son would not know that he had taken his own life.
But then, like most of us, he came to his senses, listened to what his neurologist told him about diet, medicines, exercise, and support groups, listened to the soothing and sensible words of his spouse. He learned new meanings for old terms like “posture,” “instability,” “essential,” “freezing,” “frequency,” “urgency,” “accident,” “falling,” “tremor.” He learned brand new vocabulary words like “agonist,” “festination,” “bradykinesia,” “dyskinesia,” “dystonia,” “levodopa,” “dopamine,” “carbidopa.” He learned that Parkinson’s is a designer disease, different for each of us. He learned that certain things are good for all of us, like exercise, a Mediterranean diet, a positive attitude, and finding a congenial support group. And then he did what most of us do: he went to work to make a good life for himself and his family despite his diagnosis.

Peter exercised. He took his meds at the designated times. He continued to do things he liked to do, like camping. And he found a way to continue, at least for a time, his job at the newspaper. How does a witty editorial cartoonist whose hands shake so much that he cannot draw continue his job? He learned a computer program that let him continue to do his editorial cartooning. Fortunately for us, Peter decided to branch out from editorial cartooning and tell the story of his life with Parkinson’s in a witty, colorful, and, yes, fun cartoon narrative. The result looks a little like a comic book, but it is longer and more serious than a comic book. It looks a little like a graphic novel, but it is not fiction and is mostly pictures, not prose. It is best described as an illustrated autobiographical essay the theme of which is, “I found a way to live with Parkinson’s. You can too. And don’t forget to be grateful.”

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The essay, narrated mostly through cartoon pictures with captions, is compelling. The main character, Peter, appears in almost every cartoon frame. My Degeneration has eight chapters. The chapter titles suggest the author’s growth in the course of his disease: 1. Diagnosis Blues; 2. Learning to Speak Parkinson’s; 3. Interview with a Killer; 4. Moping and Coping; 5. The Parkinson’s Prism; 6. Island of the Caring and Competent; 7. A Different Path; and 8. Diagnosis, Reprise.


My own favorites are Chapters 3 and 6. In Chapter 3, Interview with a Killer, Peter conducts an interview in his home with a sinister green-faced man named Parkinson’s. Peter tells Parkinson’s that lots of scientists are working hard “to nail you in a coffin.” Parkinson’s replies, “Hah! Good one! How many times have I heard people boast that I’ll be gone in ten years?” (25). Peter then asks, “What do you want from me?” Parkinson’s reply comes with a confident smirk: “Everything. Everything it has taken you a lifetime to acquire, to learn, from buttoning your shirt to making music, your ability to talk, to write legibly, even your ability to communicate non-verbally, to smile, to arch a brow. Whatever you enjoy, your work your income, your time, your marriage, your family. I want it all, your entire self, the physical and the emotional” (26). Then an angry-faced Parkinson’s shakes his fist and says, “But here is all you need to know on the subject of me. I am Parkinson’s Disease! The thug who is going to kick your pathetic ass and leave it for the crows!” (28). Finally, Parkinson’s leaves, but with these parting words: “Don’t worry. I’ll be back” (29). Grim stuff.

But things get better for Peter — and worse. He finds a way to keep working for awhile, until he goes out on disability. But enough good things happen that he is able to conclude that “I am one of the lucky of the unlucky.” He learns to appreciate what he calls “the finer miseries of Parkinson’s.”

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In Chapter 6, Island of the Caring and the Competent, the once misanthropic and cynical cartoonist whose job it was to make people look evil and stupid is shipwrecked on an island peopled by good smart people who are out to help him. They help him get Deep Brain Stimulation. They help him to understand that many, many good people, including those at the Northwest Parkinson’s Foundation, are working hard to help him and others like him. He comes to appreciate “the many researchers, caregivers, front-line neurologists, Parkinson’s advocates, and family members. People who pour their skills, creativity, and passion into solving the endless riddles of Parkinson’s Disease. We can’t yet celebrate a cure, but we sure should celebrate the people who bring the inevitability of that cure closer though their dedication, talent, and hard work.”


That sounds a bit cheerleaderish, especially in a book entitled My Degeneration, but Peter speaks for us all when he finds a way to say “thank you.”

You can order a copy of Peter's book at amazon.com or borrow it from our Lending Library by calling 877.980.7500.

Peter G. BeidlerPeter G. Beidler
Peter G. Beidler

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