Brian Reedy: Finding your inspiration when dealing with chronic illness
This month, I have been writing stories about Parkinson’s disease for Parkinson’s Awareness Month. Parkinson’s is a chronic disease for which there is no cure. However, we have ways to improve our lives.
People often look sad or sorry when they hear that I have Parkinson’s. I do not like to see that. I always tell them that everyone has something. That is true. We all have our own challenges or adversities to deal with. One thing that I’ve learned is sympathy and pity are worthless. Not to be mean or cold or insensitive, but really, they do not inspire me, they do not make me feel better, they do not comfort me, and they only make me feel awkward. So, usually if I get those reactions from someone, I will make a joke about having Parkinson’s. I would rather laugh than feel sad anytime. That’s not escaping reality, it’s embracing it and making the most positive of it that I can.
To me, Parkinson’s isn’t about what I am losing; it’s about finding new ways to challenge myself, to be stronger than I should be, to challenge my brain every moment that I can — even if it’s slower than average, I have learned to celebrate the victories. As Davis Phinney says, every victory counts! Those of us with physical and cognitive challenges may be slower (mentally and physically), we may be awkward, but we can still choose to be determined, still choose to push against the losses, and we can still choose to make a positive difference every day. That is what I used to teach my students when I was a high school teacher, and it’s what I live every single day.
The main reason I want to share all of this is so that some newly diagnosed person, anyone, can realize that no matter what, we always have a choice. My friend John Ball, who has had Parkinson’s for more than 40 years and at the age of 72 still runs marathons every year, said when I told him I want to tell people that Parkinson’s is not a death sentence, he said, “No, it’s not. It’s a life sentence.” Funny, and beautifully poignant if you think about it.
Through so many wonderful people that I have met in my life so far, I have learned that we all have choices — no matter what life deals us. I have learned that humor really is great medicine. That’s not just some quip, it’s actually scientifically proven that laughter (fake or real) generates healing endorphins in our body. Many have taught me that it is attitude, especially positive attitude, not only keeps us healthier, but also lightens our worries, thus filling our heart with positive energy. I used to do laughter yoga with my students for a few minutes just to make the class more fun and at the same time stimulating the brain for learning.
Life has never been easy for me. Though I come from an amazing family, I had to go my own way and figure things out. Soon after I barely graduated from high school, I was homeless, I spent time in jail and courts in my youth, had my heart was broken and ripped out of my chest in more ways than I choose to count, and I made more than my share of selfish and bad choices with very negative consequences. So, I am not some guy full of a life of ease with rainbows and puppies. My life of adversity has taught me that we all have something to deal with. We all have challenges with stressful consequences. We cannot compare our adversity to another’s — it’s all relative to that one person.
No matter what, though, we do have choices. They are often more difficult than we may want, but they are our choices. The best thing we can choose to do is ask others for help, share our stories and lift each other up. Being open, being honest, being genuine, they are all ways of being genuinely alive. They also help us feel less burdened and willing to hang on to the heavy negatives.
In my life I have had so many inspirational people welcome me into their lives. I’ve known people dealing with situations that would break most hearts, yet the person dealing with these things found peace in focusing on the positive, celebrating a good thing in an otherwise terrible situation or day, they chose not to wear sorrow or seek pity, they chose to wear optimism and seek positivity. They fight back against their own challenges.
They say life is about living each day to your fullest. To me, that means to challenge myself to be better today than I was yesterday (thanks, Mom!). It also means spending time giving to others, finding joy and humor whenever possible. It also means taking time to pray or meditate or talk honestly to a good friend (that is my way of praying), and say nice things as often as possible. It lightens your heart and lightens your load. Negativity weighs a lot and keeps us down. Positivity is like helium, it lightens our load and helps us feel better.
I guess what I am saying is, I choose to deal with chronic pain with chronic positivity. I hope that you can, too!
Brian Reedy, a former Carson High School teacher, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2011.