You would think by now that I had got used to it. You It comes around each year and I still find myself struggling to find exactly the right combination of words to express my feelings. I’m talking of course about World Parkinson’s Day when we parkies strut our stuff (if that’s the right word) for the nonparky population. Each time we try to offer a new angle on the condition, perhaps hint at new treatments that, in their own little way, may help to relieve the symptomatic burden of the condition or even point towards a slowing of progression. But how do we square the circle? How do we persuade the general public, unaware of the conditions many facets, to part with their hard earned money in order to increase or speed up research.
We paint a picture of the condition at its worst – quivering, frozen, half sentient ghosts, their minds lost to impenetrable memories. We paint a picture of blank stares, of barely recognisable expression, of hollowed out shells of people. God’s waiting room.
But there is another side to this coin. The newly diagnosed. People not yet experiencing the condition in all its pomp. People just starting that journey – a tiny tremor here, a little muscle cramp there. Slowing but not yet to stand still. We are so sensitive to those starting their journey that we are at pains to point to a gentler, softer version of that same condition where it is possible to live meaningful and happy lives after diagnosis. That Parkinson’s is a paper tiger. We can live with it for years and years, each subsequent year representing a minor detriment in functionality. A gradual decline into nothingness.
I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2006. 17 years ago as near as makes no odds. I have learnt much over the years about this condition and its effects. Yes, in the majority of cases you can live with this illness. You can pick over the wreckage and construct meaningful lives amid the devastation. And yes, it is a life reduced, a life in abeyance to this neurological scourge.
Above all I have learnt that people with Parkinson’s clutch at straws. We deceive ourselves in order to live. We tell each other lies to get ourselves through the day. For many years I was a scientist and scientists thrive on truth, honesty and integrity. When I became a patient I found myself consciously putting the gods of truth and honesty to the back of my mind and telling people what they wanted to hear rather than what they needed. I lost sight of the horizon of truth amid the mire of falsehoods. I was complicit in this nonsense. I would tell the newly diagnosed that they would be just fine. I substituted hope where I should have spoken the truth.
But hope is surely our only positive I hear you say. Without hope we are lost. I would disagree. We are certainly a different place. Hope has two sides and you flip the coin accordingly. The other side of the coin is hype. The building of false hopes by vested interests. Miracle cures, stem cell parodies and so on. In my opinion I would rather have no hope have my inflated hopes dashed. Follow the science, keep a sense of perspective. Hope if you must. But don’t invest your hope. The stock market of hopes is a dangerous place.
You may take exception to my conclusion if you wish. But I believe firmly that a grasp of the science is important. Read, learn, distinguish between real science and pseudoscience. If it looks too good to be true it almost certainly is.
There will be a cure for Parkinson’s. Of that I am sure. But don’t ask me to put a five year timeframe on that. Only marketing executives and junior doctors too inexperienced to know better. You wouldn’t necessarily want these guys messing with your dopamine. Stick to the science because that’s where salvation will come from.