Editor’s Note: Bryan Roberts is an associate dean of the Ithaca College Roy H. Park School of Communications. Roberts was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 30 and has given us permission to republish the following piece, which first appeared on the website of the Michael J. Fox Foundation.
I’ve been asked to guest lecture in a class Tuesday that is based in our School of Health Science & Human Performance. The course is about stress management and I will be speaking how, in broad strokes, I manage my stress levels with the knowledge that I have neurodegenerative disease for which there is no cure. I’ve just started to put together my lecture/multimedia extravaganza but it has become clear to me how I manage my stress: I am an extremely positive person. Despite a large body of data to the contrary, I believe in my heart that I will get better.
As a researcher, I am a realist and my positive attitude does have some limits (I won’t be wearing jean shorts and a “Choose Life” t-shirt anytime soon) but I generally see the odds in most situations being in my favor.
I hear from a lot of people that they are “amazed by my courage” and “sense of purpose” but as I see it, what are my other options? After truly believing that it was dying of a brain tumor (see 2/9/14 post), I feel like I have been given a new lease on life (grant it, the lease could have better terms). Am I supposed to abandon my aspirations–both personal and career–and sit in a darkened room reading novels and obsessing over the Mets? (Actually, that doesn’t sound too bad.)
Since I hardly sleep, free time and curiosity will get the better of me and I will enter into a PD chatroom and, without fail, I feel significantly worse after I turn off the computer. The levels of self-loathing, feeling defeated, and even the suicidal ideations are too much for me to take. Now there is large body of research that would posit that giving individuals a safe place to vent/act out is beneficial for them, and I agree that a small amount of catharsis is probably healthy but these chatrooms tend to quickly devolve into pity parties.
What cannot be ignored is the strong correlation between Parkinson’s disease and depression. So when I begin to lose my tolerance for these “complainers, losers, and Syracuse basketball fans (all in the same category)”, I have to remind myself that much of their behavior and comments are quite likely chemical not rational.
At a certain point, you do have to decide what type of life you want to lead. A life of diminished dreams and quiet desperation or one of achievement and engagement. Michael inspires people in different ways but for me, it is the fact that he can still complete life’s more mundane tasks (parenting, wife-related issues) twenty years after diagnosis. I do believe that this is related to his positive attitude and determination to stay committed to his goals and values. Being diagnosed at 30, there is very little data to go on concerning what my future holds but I find great comfort in Michael’s story and it, in turn, buoys my spirits to where I can hopefully help others change their outlook to one of positivity and achievement.