Saturday, November 20, 2010

Lost at Sea

Mid-Atlantic. Nothing but ocean in every direction. Entirely alone. Adrift with nothing but the winds and currents providing direction. Imagine floating, not knowing what lurks between your bobbing body and the ocean floor, 11,000 feet below. Wave upon endless wave threatens to cut off each gasping breath with seawater. Your body heat is slowly being sucked from fingers, toes, then arms and legs, the hypothermia advancing towards your vital organs. Confusion turns to semiconscious delirium as your mind loses track of time and context. All hope feels lost. It would be easy to sink into the dark, wet, anonymous liquid that surrounds you.

Aboard a cruise ship, at least 1000 miles from the nearest continent, it is easy to feel at sea. Not just in the literal sense, but figuratively. Freed from the rigour of daily demands, schedules and responsibilities, my thoughts are left to toss about like jetsam and flotsam, drifting where they will. Unanchored and aimless, I find that my ideas take undisciplined detours and end up swimming away from the ship toward the distant horizon. I am at sea.

I realized today that having Parkinson’s disease has often left me feeling at sea. Sometimes self-pity and sadness eat at my emotional balance like fish nibbling away at a life jacket. I do not like to admit those feelings even to myself, let alone in a blog with such an unyielding title. But honesty, even transparency, is necessary if I am to regain my bearings. When your world loses the normal geographic markers you cannot but feel lost. Swells of symptom onset can block out any sight of hope and swallow the anticipation and challenge of life’s high seas adventure.

Lost at sea I search for answers, strategies and wisdom. How does one find one’s way when all familiar and firm footing is gone and there are no clear directions? Life for me was once like swimming laps in a pool with lanes painted on the bottom and floating markers on the surface. Each lap brought the reward of touching the end wall, even though briefly, before stroking towards another accomplishment. But now, with PD, I am in open, unchartered waters. The swimming is progressively more difficult, with limited opportunity for any sense of achievement. Each day discloses new potential for drowning. How can I survive? Is there any opportunity left to thrive and find meaningful direction in this vast deteriorating expanse?

How does one survive if lost at sea? How does one navigate in a new world of circumstances never before experienced? Strange as it may seem, I find the sea breeze conjures up lessons I learned from the animated film, “Finding Nemo”, the story of a clown fish that could not be protected after straying from the familiar and fell into danger.

The film repeatedly states the first and enduring rule: “Never panic”. Flailing about emotionally, letting one’s post-diagnostic shock and fears scream out frantically, may be a natural and therapeutically cathartic response at first, but it is unlikely to result in any meaningful plan.

Secondly, Nemo’s father learns that when you are lost, hang onto something that will keep you afloat. Breathe. Be calm. Think. Tread water for a moment. Consider: what do you know that will keep you from drowning for at least the time being? It may be a belief system to which you can cling when the prospects look bleak. For some faith may be as tenuous as a stick of driftwood, while for others it may be as secure as a survival suit. Maybe it is a relationship with someone who can take you through the trauma stage. Or it could be a resource of some other description.

The third motto comes from one of my favourite lines in the movie. Dory, a brave but forgetful fish, keeps motivating herself by saying, “ Just keep swimming”. Other phrases come to mind. “Keep at it.” Don’t give up.” No circumstance is hopeless if we keep on trying. Often the difference between survivors and casualties is simply a refusal to quit, illogical as it may be; a decision to keep on swimming. Even if the prospects of being rescued by some cure-carrying cargo ship seem remote, there are always reasons to be hopeful.

The last of the lessons that I learned from Nemo was that survivors can be buoyed up by friends and family. There is a sense in which we are never alone. We carry others in our heart, as they do us. This gives us good reason to live; to love and be loved by others. Searching solely for self-gratifying survival is to be truly lost, for who will search for you?

I, for one, must each day refuse to stay lost in the sea of Parkinson’s. For I am only truly lost if I give in to the panic and pain, or languish in loneliness. I can thrive, not just survive, by choosing to learn lessons wherever I can, even from cartoon characters.


  1. Bob, there is a book you have not written yet that all of us treading water would love to read. I will be the first in line to buy it. I am still very new to all of this blogging, coping, and fighting the good fight. There is no blueprint on such things. I try to say and do the right things the best I can. I learn my lessons where ever I can also. Your Blog is one of the places I go to find wisdom and inspiration from those who have made a path before me. The ocean is big and daunting and I know I can look up and see your hand from the lifeboat helping those of us still learning how to swim. A great post as always. Hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday.

  2. Love this one Bob. Say when do you get back from sea?

  3. i can't help but be moved by what you say. I recently read this saying "perserverance: Go over, go under, go around, or go through. But never give up!" This was on the wall in Phoenix gymnastics' coaches room. I was recently hired by them starting in January.