Written By Emily Kallas
Today, April 11th is World Parkinson's Day. The Month of April is Parkinson's Awareness Month.
It feels fair to say that most people think of Michael J. Fox when they hear "Parkinson's Disease". This makes sense, given that he is a beloved public figure who has been very open about his diagnosis. He has also used his platform to advocate for research; almost as long as he has been diagnosed, over 30 years ago.
I have mixed feelings, about the portrayal of Parkinson's in the media. While I appreciate seeing the continued growth in representation, I am always concerned about how it will be portrayed. I am almost protective of it. Usually, the media portrays its characters with the now almost "classic" symptom of the uncontrollable shaking of hands and body. Which while it is a very real symptom, is not a universal one. Not all who have Parkinson's have "the shakes", in fact, many have the exact opposite, where their muscles and joints lock or freeze. Ultimately, the point I am trying to make is that this disease, where the body betrays itself in so many different ways, is so effing nuanced, and complicated, and so much is still unknown. So much is still invisible.
It has been years since I have seen Love & Other Drugs, where a young Anne Hathaway lives and struggles with Parkinson's. I appreciated the fact that she was young - a common misconception is that it is a disease for older people (Michael J. Fox's diagnosis at 30 also disproves this misconception).
When I think of Parkinson's, I think of my Granny. Beautiful, kind, stubborn, and talented, so talented. Like Anne Hathaway's character in Love & Other Drugs, my Granny was a painter, and to watch Hathaway as she lost her autonomy and her ability to make art hit a bit too close to home. While I was shielded from the worst of it with my Granny, the movie gave insight and empathy into what she went through. It has been years since I have seen the movie, I consider rewatching it every once in a while, but so far it hasn't happened.
Then there is the plot line in season 18 of Grey's Anatomy. As much as I love the Soapy-ness of Grey's Anatomy, when they introduced Peter Gallagher's character, Dr. David Hamilton, who has Parkinson's and determined to find a cure for Parkinson's, I was was almost put off watching the show. Almost. And 18 seasons in, I am well used to ridiculous melodrama and unrealistic miracle cures. But this is where I drew the line, that and the comically portrayed Mayo Clinic in Minnesota (Which already made a stereotyped appearance back in Season 9.)... All this is to say, in reality, a cure is such a long way off.
The most recent mainstream portrayal is in the new show, Shrinking, currently streaming on Apple TV. Harrison Ford plays, Dr. Paul Rhoades, a therapist who has Parkinson's. Michael and I are only a few episodes in, but so far I am enjoying the show, and Ford's character so far is one of my favorites already. Partially because, while yes, his character has Parkinson's, and it is a subplot to the show, it isn't all that there is to him. It is just part of him. Which is how I think of my Granny.
As far back as I can go back, I have always known my Granny to have Parkinson's. But that wasn't her identity. She was Granny. with the apartment that had a swimming pool in the basement. Who had Owl cookies with almond eyes, and the best juice. Who read romance novels with pride. Granny, who loved the color yellow. Who kept my Grandfather's fun eraser collection on display, and had an old tv in the living room with a brick for a remote. The Granny who taught me to paint.
Anyway… I am not really sure what the whole point of this piece is, other than that I wanted to say something in honor of the day.
If you would like to learn more about Parkinson's, I recommend The Mayo Clinic's Page on Parkinson's
And if you want to donate to research, I recommend the Michael J. Fox Foundation.
I also recommend reading really any of Michael J. Fox's memoirs. But if you want to read about his Parkinson's journey from the start, I recommend starting with Lucky Man.