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A Positive Attitude: Can Be Key

Thursday, April 16th, 2009 A Positive Attitude: Can Be Key

A very optimistic report surrounding the life of Michael J Fox coping with the debilitating disorder Parkinson’s disease and remaining positive. He
tells Emma Brockes of the Guardian (11 04 09) why, despite it all, he’s still smiling.

It has been suggested that after Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and prior to him writing books about ‘optimism’, it has been said that Fox went through a period of seeing himself as others did. That in essence, was vey ‘peculiar.’ Funny looking, [Parkinson's] makes me squirm and it makes my pants ride up so my socks are showing and my shoes fall off and I can’t get the food up to my mouth when I want to.” Fox had been a movie star for five years when he was diagnosed, and was used to being stared at. But of course this was different. “I hate the way it makes me look,” he thought. “That means that I hate me.”

It has been seventeen years since his diagnosis and crucially it is still difficult for him to predict when his daily needs will kick in. If the drugs have failed to take effect he becomes what is known as “akinetic”, this is where he is subjected to tremors and stiffness. However, If the medication is working but coincides with a natural surge of the neurotransmitteropamine, he goes the other way and becomes “dyskinesic”, sending him “rocking, dipping, diving”. Fox, bravely appeared once unmedicated before Congress, to illustrate the terrible consequences of the disease, and describes how he looked “as if an invisible bully were harassing me as I read my statement”. Today, he is on target and walks into his Manhattan office buff, trim and wearing a blue cashmere sweater, like a well-preserved French exchange student. It’s tough to look louche with advanced-stage Parkinson’s, but somehow Fox manages it.

Moreover, since Fox came out as a sufferer of the disease back in 1998 he has launched a campaign to normalise the symptons. He subsequently has become a pin-up for a certain kind of relentless brightness in the face of adversity. As he well knows, his first memoir, Lucky Man, could quite easily have been called Poor Bastard - there is certainly a market for that kind of book. Instead, Fox wrote of how, after seven years of denial and depression, he gradually came to terms with his diagnosis, set up the Michael J Fox Foundation, gave up drinking and started advocating on behalf of what he calls “Parkies”. He is at such an advanced stage of acceptance that it can sound like evangelism, another form of denial - he calls the disease a “gift”. But then, with the charm that made Lucky Man a bestseller, he adds sardonically, “the gift that keeps on taking”.

Notwithstanding, the Adventures Of An Incurable Optimist is a follow-up volume, a loose account of his last 10 years. Fox planned it originally as a book-length study of optimism, before deciding he didn’t have the necessary journalism skills and returning to memoir. It was written via dictation, as he paced up and down his office and his writing assistant took down his thoughts. He could control a pen sufficiently to correct the manuscript.

Indeed it has to be argued that much of the book relates to how Fox became involved into campaigning for stem cell research, the hope of many Parkinson’s sufferers and bugbear of the Christian right, which sees it as a moral equivalent to abortion. Stem cells are extracted from embryos a few days old that are produced through IVF, and which would in any case be destroyed. “There are 30,000 conditions and diseases that they think they might be able to address through stem cell research,” Fox says, “but the thing is, the opportunity.” On 9 March, when President Obama overturned Bush’s freeze on research funding, Fox was filming a documentary in Bhutan. After years of campaigning, his satisfaction was tempered by the knowledge that eight precious years of potential advances had been lost. Now that the president is in favour, Fox observes wryly, “there is no money” for Congress to pay for it.

In the book, Fox strains so hard for a measured tone when writing about the former president that you can almost see the vein standing out on his forehead. “There’s no sense in beating up George Bush,” he says. “George Bush is gone.”

Just for your own satisfaction, then. “I got that on 9 March.”

Looking back on Fox’s life and through his own admission after he was diagnosed in 1991, Fox’s drinking got much worse. The alarm call came a year later, when he woke up on the sofa one morning, stinking of booze, with his baby son crawling on him and half a can of beer on the floor next to him. When he opened one eye to see his wife looking down at him, she didn’t seem angry or disgusted, but, worse, indifferent. Fox made arrangements that day to get help with his drinking and hasn’t touched alcohol since. “No, I don’t look back with wistfulness; I don’t romanticise it.” There is a poignant moment in the book, however, when, flicking through channels on late-night TV, he is “ambushed by the image of a younger, healthier me”, and lingers too long before switching it off. Muhammad Ali, a fellow Parkinson’s sufferer, is one of Fox’s role models, along with Lance Armstrong and the late Christopher Reeve, and Fox rang Ali’s wife, Lonnie, to ask about this particular thing, the horror of being confronted with the way you once were. “I was thinking, ‘What does he think when he sees himself on television as he was as Cassius Clay? Ducking and weaving and joking and spouting poetry. Does he feel sadness? A sense of loss?’ Lonnie said, “He loves it. He loves to see himself. He can’t get enough of it.”

“And I got that,” says Fox. “Because it’s still him. Parkinson’s doesn’t take away anything of his identity.”

This is how Fox feels about himself. He can joke about being approached by drug dealers in the street who mistake his quivering for a junkie’s comedown. On the other hand, he says, Parkinson’s has made him a better poker player - no one can tell when he’s bluffing. Does he have Parkinson’s in his dreams? “I don’t think I shake in my dreams. It’s not… it’s not connected to my ego.”

The effect of those first seven years, when Fox was in deep denial and would, incredibly, film in front of a live studio audience every week on the sitcom Spin City, have been thoroughly expunged. He developed tricks to disguise his condition, anchoring himself to furniture, sitting on his hands and hiding behind props, and got so frustrated he punched holes in his dressing room wall. Finally, when the prospect of brain surgery loomed, he “came out” and, after a huge public response, tentatively began his second career as an advocate. When he filmed his final episode of Spin City in 2000, he knew it was probably the last regular acting job he would have. “I had been Mike the actor,” he writes, “then Mike the actor with PD. Now was I just Mike with PD.”

The work of the foundation and the success of his memoir have refreshed his fame since then. But in any case, after years of intense psychotherapy, he has changed his view of how the disease affects him. “The one choice I don’t have is whether or not I have it. But beyond that my choices are infinite. How I approach it is up to me. It has a lot to do with - and this is hard for people to understand - accepting it. And that doesn’t mean being resigned or not looking for a cure. But if you’re trying to get away from it or change it, you’re going to wear yourself out.”

The Michael J Fox Foundation has become the leading Parkinson’s fundraiser in the US, putting $140m into research over the last eight years. Would he run for office?

“Nah. I don’t have the constitution for that. And I don’t know that I want to be worrying about people’s water supply and when the garbage trucks come.”

To his surprise, he has had the chance to do some acting lately: a few episodes of Boston Legal and, at his friend Denis Leary’s request, an appearance in Rescue Me, Leary’s show about New York firefighters. “It felt good. I played a paraplegic, which is insane. It was nice to revisit [acting] again. But at the same time I didn’t feel like, ‘Aw, I’m home!’ It was like visiting a place where you know the currency and the language, but you’ve moved on.”

His children’s attitudes seem to be as healthy as his. Fox’s philosophy as a parent has always been “love ‘em, feed ‘em, keep ‘em out of traffic”. He thinks much of modern parenting is too fussy in that it tries to “protect them from everything… they’re really sturdy little buggers. Emotionally, if you’re honest with them, they can handle it.” He has explained to each of his children that his brain works differently from theirs and they have accepted it and moved on. When he was writing his first book, his twins, then five, asked what it was about. “I guess it’s about me,” he said.

“About you being Shaky Dad?”


“But Shaky Dad doing what? Riding a bicycle?”

He laughed and said, “Something like that.”

I have one last question, although it’s not really a question. That red body warmer in Back To The Future…

“The sea vest?”

Er, yes - everyone I know remembers it.

Fox always says he’s flattered when people bring up his movie work, but he looks suddenly, infinitely weary. “The whole thing with Back To The Future was so strange. Eric Stoltz shot it for six weeks and then they hired me, wham bam, I was in the parking lot where they filmed the scene with the DeLorean and it was really last minute and it was cold and if it hadn’t been I wouldn’t have worn that vest. That whole look: those Guess jeans with the peg-legs and the high waist?” His self-scorn has found its appropriate level. “Ridiculous,” he says.

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