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Parkinson's disease: Does it have to be all downhill?

Monday August 12, 2013

Tony Lobl

Christian Science Monitor - “My world got smaller” – four simple words from a father in New Zealand to explain in a poem to his children how he felt after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

Many more have gained some sense of the effect of this condition from Michael J. Fox, star of the “Back to the Future” trilogy. He became the most famous face of the disease when he disclosed his condition in 1998 and launched a successful Foundation for Parkinson’s Research two years later.

Wittily terming himself an “incurable optimist,” the actor’s world looks far from “smaller.” In addition to being a father of four and directing “his primary focus and energies” toward his foundation, Mr. Fox continues acting, has written bestselling books, and is launching a sitcom in which he plays a newsman persuaded to return to work despite having Parkinson’s.

Beyond that continuing career trajectory, Fox exudes qualities that inspire: humor, commitment, humility, generosity, love, and that optimism.

These are indomitable spiritual qualities that truly define us all. Perhaps they’re the kind of qualities that that New Zealand dad was thinking of when, following a litany of examples of how his world had shrunk, his poem defiantly concluded: “I may be smaller, slower ... but I’m still me!”

You could say our essence – our essential, divine goodness – remains undiminished, even if the body is dancing to a different tune. But might it be possible that a better understanding of that underlying essence could even help reharmonize mind and body?

Perhaps Fox felt a touch of that when he took a video crew on a search to explore the basis for optimism. When their travels took them to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, Fox said he felt there was “something special with these people, something special with the way they live their lives, something special about how they look at things.” And, remarkably, he felt something special happening in his body, too. He said: “Ever since I’ve been in Bhutan my symptoms have been really diminished.

“I don’t know whether that’s from the altitude,” he said, “or whether that’s just Bhutan!”

Maybe there’s a clue in the unusual fact that Bhutan’s Tourism Council lists “Spirituality & Wellness” as one of the country’s main activities.

Research is needed to verify any such correlation, of course. But many medical professionals are investigating the health benefits of spirituality, including for Parkinson’s disease. As Patrick McNamara, PhD, puts it: “Spiritual practices are first and foremost about you getting nourished so that no matter what [Parkinson’s disease] throws at you, you can continue to grow and live life with zest and joy.”

Another physician, Monique Giroux, MD, says: “Our discussion of Parkinson’s care usually focuses on the physical body and its treatment. Yet healing and spirituality are of critical importance for progressive illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease since it connects personal suffering and personal meaning. To heal, then, means to achieve a sense of wholeness beyond the physical self by embracing and supporting our spiritual self.”

And she takes it a step further, saying that healing can also occur in the body.

One man had just such an experience (see the Christian Science Sentinel, May 6). He writes: “Three doctors took brain scans and determined that I had Parkinson’s disease. Their prognosis was that I would first need a wheelchair and later on be confined to a bed. They told me there was no cure.”

A neurologist prescribed pills, but they made him feel worse and he was taken off all medication.

Instead of resigning himself to the long-term prognosis, he decided to revert to a spiritual practice, based on the healing ministry and teachings of Christ Jesus, he’d grown up with – Christian Science. Its emphasis on understanding God’s goodness led him to add spiritual thinking, particularly gratitude, to daily walks in which loss of stamina and balance had resulted in regular falls.

Change wasn’t immediate, but it came. As he put it: “On Valentine’s Day in 2012, I received the greatest gift ever. My neurologist told me the Parkinson’s disease had vanished.”

She helpfully also told him: “Don’t come back.”

Referring to a scriptural passage about God keeping us in the “perfect peace” (Isaiah 26:3) we can become aware of when our thoughts are fixed on the divine, he concluded: “I am in that peace. I feel reborn. May everyone be touched by God as I have been!”

If one’s world begins to get smaller as a result of Parkinson’s, or indeed any other ailment, it still remains within us to reach for new spiritual horizons.

We can’t all travel to Bhutan like Michael J. Fox. But the invigorating spiritual beauty and freshness of the divine Spirit – hinted at in those awesome Himalayan heights – are with us here and can lift each of us higher, and bring healing, right where we are.

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