Monday, December 31, 2012

Moving Can Be Difficult

Maneuvering down the stairwell the two young men managed to put the corner of a piece of furniture right through the wall, leaving a jagged hole the size of my fist.  Two others learned too late the importance of counterbalance when moving several made-to-measure workstation counters.  Removing one from the dolly caused the other one to keel over, hitting the ground with a thunderous crack and rendering the counter useless.  Further mishaps included dropping custom-made wooden desks onto concrete, dragging fine furniture along exposed aggregate, laying fully laden metal file cabinets on their sides so that their drawers would never open or close again and tossing boxes carefully packed with computer equipment around like pillows.  At times it seemed to be more like the filming of a Three Stooges movie than a professional moving company doing its job.  It would not surprise me if the damage claim exceeded the fee payable to the movers.

Moving a small 20 person law office, even three blocks up the street, is a demanding feat.  Even when accomplished over Christmas break it is daunting and disruptive.  I have learned some things from this business move that seem applicable to my 2013 Parkinson’s “moving” challenges.
1.     If you intend to stay vibrant, dynamic and relevant as a business (or as a person), you must be prepared to grow.  While it is easy to stay put in one’s comfortable surroundings, previously chosen premises, or patterns of living, will not typically remain appropriate.  Moving often becomes a must.  For people with Parkinson’s it is a necessity if we expect to maintain a reasonable quality of life.

2.     Moving requires significant advance planning.  In our case, changing addresses required almost a year.  Finding out what we really wanted was critical.  The planning needed to reflect the priorities of the people occupying the premises.  There is no one-size-fits-all.  We needed to know what was important, not just desirable?  What was realistically doable?  How would we make the transition from where we have been to where we want to be?  Who needs to be involved in that process?  What resources are required?  All of these observations and questions apply to my own Parkinson’s disease planning.

3.     No matter how well-planned, a move rarely happens without difficulty.  Things aren’t quite ready on time.  Aspects of the transition go slower than anticipated.  Even our new offices have the inevitable blemishes and imperfections, especially after the movers have their way.  Moving is very hard work if done correctly.  And there will be some disappointments along the way.  The same is true for people with PD.  Despite our best efforts, satisfaction is never guaranteed.  But then what is the alternative?
Transition, moving, is often painful.  But the alternative is not worth considering, at least not for very long.  There may be times when inertia sets in and the challenges of change simply seem too much to deal with.  However, looking back on our old offices and comparing to what we have now confirms the correctness of the decision to move.  Similarly, looking back on those days when my Parkinson’s disease made for increasingly cramped quarters, the solution was obvious: get moving.  Cheerless, purposeless, sedentary living is unacceptable.  We must move!  The reward is well worth the risk.
So for 2013 my personal theme will be “MOVE!”  No more drifting with indifference.  No more frustrated “I don’t care” answers to demanding questions.  To move will be hard work, regularly threatened by failure.  I may flounder from time to time.  But I will “move” in the year ahead; move to a better place in terms of my physical, spiritual, mental, emotional, relational, and even professional, quality of living.  How?  I am not sure yet.  Step one is to decide that the comfortable but cramped “old place” no longer suits my changing needs.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Parkinson's Disease: An Unexpected Journey

It was pure fantasy.  Old, almost classical, make-believe worlds populated by strange characters with even stranger names.  And yet it was stuffed full to overflowing with significance, like a stocking hung by the fireplace on Christmas morning.
The story is about an unassuming fellow, who enjoys his books, a warm fire, good food and casual times with friends.  He had lived what we would call a simple, comfortable life in which, apart from a celebration now and then, each day was predictable.  But the unpredictable happened.  Shock, frustration, denial and confusion flooded into this unsuspecting character’s life, and in the process swept away his innocence and uncomplicated existence. 
“The Hobbit” was written by J.R.R. Tolkien 75 years ago.  It has taken Hollywood that long to do justice to its imaginary tale.  Its story is both simple and complex, suitable for children (except the very young or overprotected) and challenging for adults.  It portrays both evil and good, but recognizes the shadow of one in the other.  It shows the wizardly wisdom of Gandalf happily coexisting with simplistic naïveté of Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit.  Courage and camaraderie combine to thwart the seemingly insurmountable destructive powers of darkness and despair.  But it was its subtitle, “An Unexpected Journey”, which led me to conclude this story could be an allegory for life with Parkinson’s disease.

Seven years ago my life was pretty simple.  Staring into the future as far as I could see it all looked predictable, even comfortable.  Little did I know then that my life was about to be figuratively and literally shaken to its very core.  I was totally unprepared and left reeling from the January 19, 2006 diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.  Life would never be the same.  The path ahead became unpredictable, leading through fields of false hope, black nights of fear and into narrow tracks in the unknown.  At times I found myself lost and alone in what seemed like a maze of caverns. 
But the truth is that, like Bilbo Baggins, I would never exchange the unexpected journey, with its challenges, friendships and adventure, for a predictable, comfortable, stay-at-home life.  No, despite the many setbacks, I would not give up the invaluable lessons I have learned along the way.  Like Gandalf said when questioned about allowing Bilbo Baggins to come along on such a dangerous journey to challenge such a formidable foe.  Some believe, he said, that “it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.” 
Indeed, “it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.  Small acts of kindness and love.”  The power of Parkinson’s disease in my life has been held in check by the small, everyday deeds of my friends and family.  Their reassuring words and simple acts of kindness and love give me courage to continue fighting. 
Whatever your views about Christmas (whether you are the “Happy Holiday” type or something else), there is something compelling about the story.  A baby, gifted to humanity by God yet born to ordinary peasant parents, he was destined to hold evil in check and keep the darkness at bay through sacrificial acts of kindness and love.  Why?  Perhaps because when we are afraid he gives us courage. 
Perhaps you’re a little like me as I anticipate with some trepidation the New Year, 2013.  If you are, maybe reciting words of Bilbo Baggins will give each of us courage as we embark upon the path ahead.  “I am going on an adventure” makes more sense to me than “Auld Lang Syne”.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Does Pain Have Meaning?

The passenger jet slammed into the ground killing six people in the process.  But 96 survived due to miraculous flying, creative ingenuity, intense calm and, perhaps, an act of God.  Most credited the pilot of that flight for his pinpoint precision crash landing in an open field after an heroic display of aeronautical genius that was unlikely to be ever repeated.  But the real story recounted in “Flight”, a recent movie starring Denzel Washington, was about the pilot’s alcoholism, stubborn denial and reckless living.  Covering up the pain in his own life he caused inestimable suffering in the lives of those he cared about.  It was only because of the plane crash, and his own personal crash that followed, that he was able to come face-to-face with reality, with the meaning and importance of pain and the need to deal with it. 
The pain caused by Parkinson's is rarely discussed. It seems to be overshadowed by the tremor, stiffness and the other non-motor symptoms.  But the pain can be very real.  Painful cramping of leg or arm muscles, pain from distortion caused by dystonia, “frozen shoulder” pain and other results of muscular rigidity are but a few of the physical consequences of PD.  And then of course there is the psychological pain of misunderstanding, loneliness, rejection and the significant sense of loss of quality of life.  Pain comes in all shapes and sizes from acute to aching, chronic to intermittent, unbearable to inconvenient. 
Our society places a great deal of emphasis on alleviating pain.  In fact, a significant part of the pharmaceutical industry feeds our culture’s addiction to pain avoidance.  But does pain have importance and meaning? 
Victor Frankl was more than a psychologist, he was a prophet.  His basic theory, contrary to that of Freud, was that humanity has a primary need for purpose not pleasure.  He came to this conclusion in a Nazi concentration camp where prisoners suffered excruciating physical and psychological pain.  Many of his fellow prisoners gave up hope in the face of almost certain extermination at the hands of their captors.  But Frankl found that the simple antidote was to believe that life had meaning.  There is purpose in the pain, even if it leads to death.  He determined that if he were to die it would be as a martyr, not a victim.  He said, “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice”. 
Pain, loss, suffering, they all bring us face-to-face with some of the deepest questions we can ask.  Our persistent pursuit of pleasure can easily blind us to reality.  If pain is the greatest teacher, and there can be no building of character without pain, then when we experience pain we must learn how to suffer without self-pity or “sedation”.  Here are some principles I am grappling with in my own confrontation with pain.

1.     Pain is not the enemy.  It simply forces us to come to grips with its cause.
2.     Listen to your pain.  It is trying to tell you something important.
3.     Search for meaning in the pain.  Don’t give up until you find it.
4.     Pain leaves a legacy.  Choose for it to be characterized with courage.

At the end of the movie, the pilot, played by Denzel Washington, finally recognized that he could not run away, continuing to deceive himself and others.  To ignore the painful lessons of life is to live a lie, which is not to live at all.

“Endure and persist; this pain will turn to good by and by. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Adapt, Adopt and Ad Lib

Life with Parkinson’s disease demands a great deal from its captives.  To avoid being sucked into the deep vortex of despair, swallowed by self-pity, banished from normalcy, we must be able to adapt, adopt and, when all else fails, ad lib. Let me explain.
5555.  There was no particular reason to choose that number, except perhaps that it was located in the middle of the screen of my iPhone, within easy reach of my slightly more reliable left thumb.  It also solved a developing difficulty.  My normal 4-number password required dexterity I could only rarely display.  I know, even healthy people have difficulty typing in their password correctly some of the time.  But multiply that times 10, along with the resulting exasperation and sense of ineptitude, and you have someone dealing with Parkinson’s disease.  Trying to unlock my iPhone one day in the presence of my friend, Carson, I explained my problem.  “I either hit the wrong button or, more typically, the right button too many times!”  This tremor-induced typo would result in the bold message, “Wrong Password.  Try again”, emblazoned across the top of the screen.  After the third or fourth time of being reminded how uncoordinated I had become, frustration, even anger, bubbled to the surface.  Stubbornly failing over and over again seemed unavoidable until my friend said, “Why don’t you make it same number.  That way you can hit it any number of times without getting a failure message flashing at you."  Painless adaptation.
It was 12:38 AM.  As usual, I had been able to fall asleep easily, but this time, as I had a few times before, I awoke after what amounted to a short power nap.  My right leg was throbbing and stiff, while my right arm seemed to compensate by shaking uncontrollably.  How do you ignore that disobedient duo, one cramped, the other flopping about like a flag on a brisk fall day. It was impossible to rest or to return to sleep.  I got up.  For a few minutes I walked aimlessly around the bedroom.  It seemed to provide some relief.  Fearing I would wake my wife, I found myself wandering around the house.  On one of my circuits I noticed the dusty treadmill in the corner of the TV room.  I remembered my wife suggesting I could use it to walk off my restless leg syndrome if it was too wet or cold walk outside.  In a few minutes my feet were hot from striding along the moving belt (I know, you are not supposed to go barefoot on a treadmill).  The cramping muscles began to loosen up and my shaking right hand calmed down considerably.  Within 20 minutes I was ready to head back to bed.  I adopted a new strategy.
Over the last few months I've learned to eat with my left hand. Ad lib. Improvisation.  Spontaneity.  Call it what you will, these words enlist our imagination, suspend our disbelief to allow us to reach for things we have never seen.  For most adults, creativity is a frightening exposure of the child within, the raw reality hidden deep in our souls.  People with Parkinson’s can easily feel chained down by their ever-expanding list of disabilities.  We sense the insidious and endlessly reminders of the disease as if it were an incessant tap, tap, tap, tap on the shoulder.  PD demands attention, insisting upon repetition; pills, therapy, rest then more pills.  But its boring refrain can be silenced from time to time.  When was the last time you tried something different?  Took a walk in the rain?  Drove home the long way?  Wrote a poem?  Asked a person about his or her tattoo?  Ordered something off the menu you had never eaten before?  Allowed yourself to make a frivolous, spontaneous decision?
Most of us are people of repetition, habits ingrained over the years.  Let’s face it, it works…for the time being.  We often suffer from narrowness of vision, shrinking horizons, and…well…boredom.  We could all use an attitude adjustment.  Let's be prepared to adapt, adopt and ad lib.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Trouble with Compliments

I felt completely out of place.  My shirt was drenched with sweat as I stood on the platform wearing the black gown of academic regalia, together with a bright blue and white collar.  The flowing garment reminded me of the colourful robe I had worn as a 12-year-old during my short stint singing alto in the Vernon First Baptist Church choir.  However, here the stage was filled with dozens of different gown designs and colors, which clearly meant something to the assembled professors who wore them, but to me presented no discernible pattern.  I imagined we all looked like a mismatched pack of penguins perspiring under the harsh performance lighting.  It was all quite uncomfortable.

A mistake must have been made.  I was an imposter.  No doubt that error would shortly be discovered and I would be plucked from the platform like a false feather hiding amidst the plumage of a peacock.  And yet all I saw was warm smiles that normally would have made me feel at ease.  It all seemed too strange to be real. 
I’ve always known that pride puts one on a pillar from which one is ever prone to plummet to disgrace.  Accolades and honours can so easily feed the insatiable appetite of egotism.  Acclaim and adulation create addictions and false realities.  What is more frightening is the fact that all of us, at some time or other, seek attention and applause to assuage our insecurity.  Despite our self-proclaimed humility the allure of the limelight casts its spell.  Five minutes of fame?  “Not me”, I delude myself. 
That’s the trouble with recognition.  It betrays our weakness, our need for appreciation…and maybe more.  In our eagerness to be accepted, acknowledged and approved of we become skillful at unobtrusively introducing our accomplishments in public.  Why?  Why must we be patted on the back?  Why must we, like children in the playground swinging high or running fast, proclaim, “Look at me.  Look at me”?  Why is it so difficult to deal humbly with victory and success, and shamelessly with defeat and failure?

As the challenges of Parkinson’s disease continue to mount, and others look on sympathetically, the battle between humility and hubris builds.  We seem to tightly clutch our titles and our trophies, anticipating anonymity.  Past pinnacles of success seem to crumble, replaced by crevices of self-doubt.  It is as if our shuffling, stiffening and shaking betray the clever schemes we use to hide our obvious inadequacy. 
Four weeks ago on that auditorium platform amidst professorial splendor, wearing my newly acquired academic regalia, an honorary doctorate of laws was conferred on me.  I was conflicted and confused.  Like most, I have a problem responding well to a compliment, let alone an honor such as this.  Sincerity and humility hung in the balance.  Self-evaluation of either proved impossible.  So I imagined the face of my departed Father smiling from the audience, even as my mother in the front row smiled in fact and shed a tear.  His approval was enough.  And when congratulations came I shook each hand as if it were my Dad’s, and heard his silent warning, “Now be careful lest you fall, son.”