10 year dancing with Parkinson

Christmas 2016 marked the 10th anniversary of my “dance with Parkinson’s”. I thought I would write a few things down to remind ourselves what we have experienced so far. Early in 2006, my right foot started to drag. I was extremely busy at work then and often used 2 computers at the same time, physically changing positions often. I thought it was an issue of ergonomics and not looking after myself. St. Clair College arranged for a specialist in ergonomics to evaluate my work station and associated behaviours. He could not find much so I left it for the time being; it did not seem like such a big deal.

That summer my wife Jan and I were out west and were enjoying a few days on the Rocky Mountaineer train. I overheard a child ask his mother “why does that man walk so funny”; only he asked in Dutch, not knowing I could understand exactly what he said. His Mom replied in Dutch something like “he has a disability”. That was when I began to realize this may be a permanent limitation but I had no idea what it was.
That fall I was sent for an MRI and was referred to a neurologist. Just before Christmas 2006 we received the diagnosis of slow moving, atypical (because it did not involve tremor) Parkinson’s disease. I deliberately said “we” because from the very beginning it involved both Jan and I as well as our entire families. I was 55 years old and certainly did not plan on this. Some people asked me if I was going to fight it; I suppose not fighting it would mean just crawling under a rock and only exist. I wasn’t about to do that but I didn’t know if “fighting it” was the best strategy. Somehow I came to accept that I would never win this war in the long run but that I better learn to live with it. Parkinson’s is by definition a progressive disorder that will relentlessly take it’s toll. No cure, just medications and staying active. As expected my condition slowly deteriorated, but the emphasis was on slowly. I started pramipexole but that had too many behavioural consequences. Eventually I was put on levodopa and I responded reasonably well. Of course this affected my eating because of the protein connection; adaptations were (and still are in 2017) required from Jan and myself and those we eat with.
The college was very helpful in arranging my teaching schedule to fit my “needs” (a.k.a. on/off times), but after a few years I asked to reduce my workload. I was losing control of my feet and kept accidentally kicking the students and the furniture in my classes. Not a great student retention strategy. My colleagues were great in backing me up but after several years of increasing accommodations I went on full-time disability in 2011.
At one of the conferences I met Nelson Sleno who wrote the wonderful book “Shaking Hands”. Nelson used the metaphor of “fighting the darkness”, which I totally got. Yet for myself, I began to see my experiences more as “learning to dance”. I’m not really fond of fighting terminology anyway, being a semi-pacifist. Keep in mind that I am a pretty poor dancer; I never learned the intricacies of a real dance, nor was I motivated to learn any form of dance beyond the “shake it and move it” informal motions,  more or less to the music. So the dancing metaphor relates to being uncomfortable much of the time, but yet getting on with it. Trying to enjoy it even a little, having some control over my life, feeling supported by those around me and carrying on a normal life. At times Parkinson’s steps on all my toes at the same time. Dyskinesia takes over my arms during the day; it especially makes eating, writing and driving more uncomfortable. It’s difficult to explain to others that this is a side effect of levadopa medication. It’s like choosing to use your legs or your arms but not both. I know that’s a bit simplistic but I suppose it’s at least a choice.

Occasionally, I step on my “partner’s” toes, for example if I wake up during the night and “it” seems to be gone or if I have a better than normal sleep during the night. Thankfully the dyskinesia lets up during the evening and night when I’m in an off period and I use much less Levodopa. Of course I can’t walk well either but who wants to walk in the evening anyway, and I have a cane to help me stay upright. I seem to have made peace with my interrupted sleep pattern. One thing I don’t like is to spend so much time keeping track of my medications, protein etc. So much time and effort focussed on myself. That’s not me, It takes away from family activities and relationships.
It makes me feel quite selfish.
Even so, family life, along with social activities, has switched to a new- normal set of routines. I have been able to continue to be involved with some church activities such as visitation, scheduling, speaking but on a much lower level. I’m thankful to have great support from my wife, Canadian family, Dutch family, church family and friends from school. The dance goes on. On some level I’m curious about what comes next. If I said I couldn’t wait for what comes next, I’d be lying; in fact I try not to think about that very often. DBS (Deep Brain Stimulation) is probably on it’s way. Scary: definitely. Exciting: that too. Maybe some day I’ll step on Parkinson’s toes if ever better treatments become available. For now I have come to appreciate the song/hymn “Lord of the Dance” by Sidney Carter. The refrain of which goes something like:
Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the Dance said he.

Parkinson’s disease did not ask me if I wanted to dance, but I’m glad I’m not dancing alone. There are still many “things” to enjoy, many “things” to be thankful for, many “things” to look forward to.

6 questions I wished people would ask:
1. What is the most amount of dishes you broke in 1 dyskinesia strike: 4 (I wasn’t even trying)
2. What is the most embarrassing thing about dyskinesia: hitting a child with my menacing arm (actually this has happened and the child very graciously accepted my apology)
3. What is your scariest experience with Parkinson’s: waking up feeling like I am paralyzed and feeling I couldn’t get up if I wanted/needed to. (For me, this improves enough to get up after 15 minutes or so)
4. What is the nicest thing that sometimes happens during the night: hearing very regular soft breathing coming from my wife’s side of the room; at least I didn’t wake her up this time
5. Does the Parkinson’s ever let up: very occasionally, I get up during the night, I jump out of bed and walk normally. Legs working fine, no dyskinesia. Why? I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I just enjoy it.
6. What is your funniest experience with Parkinson’s disease?. There are many but the one I like best is when I arrive at a restaurant and I can barely shuffle in with my cane, I reach my seat just before the other guests think I’ll fall. Yet after the meal I’ll get up, either forget my cane or carry it like an umbrella. How can this be, they think. He’s a fake, they say. Wished it was but chalk one up for the power of Levocarb. L.O.L’. Actually this also occurs in a backward fashion but that is less funny.
Onward and upward.

About The Author

Casey Huisman

My name is Casey Huisman a.k.a. Cees Huisman. I live in Ontario, Canada. Married to Jan. Large family with several children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Siblings and mother are in the Netherlands. Retired from St. Clair College since 2016. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2006. Participate in The Gathering Place Community Church. Supporter of Community Living’s goals of inclusion and empowerment. Usually easy to get along with.