My Degeneration: A Journey Through Parkinson's
By Peter Dunlap-Shohl; The Pennsylvania State University Press; 2015; $29.95
When Peter Dunlap-Shohl, the former editorial cartoonist for the Anchorage Daily News, received a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease at age 43, he saw his whole world collapsing.
Thirteen years later, he has delivered to us an astounding work in the form of a graphic narrative that documents — in a formidable blend of intellect, emotion and humor — the experience of living with Parkinson's.
Parkinson's, a treatable but incurable and progressive disease, afflicts as many as 1 million Americans. Thought to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors and exhibited differently in different people, it's a disorder of the nervous system that affects movement.
We learn basic facts and so much more from Dunlap-Shohl's honest and honestly engaging account, from his initial depression through all of his learning and experience with the disease to his final chapter. Most of us likely know at least one person with Parkinson's, and to now have this incredibly informative text allows us to understand the disease in a fresh, bold, visual and visceral way. Those who may find themselves with the unfortunate diagnosis will have a helpful guide to understanding and coping.
In chapter two, "Learning to Speak Parkinson's," we do indeed learn a new language. Festination is a difficult way of walking, not at all festive. Emotional incontinence is an unfortunate term for a form of depression involving emotional responses far out of proportion to situations. Then there's logorrhea, extreme talkativeness that can be a side effect of drug treatments. Akathesia, dystonia, postural instability, dopamine, Sinemet (this last a brand name for a common drug): These are all words and terms we come to be familiar with. In the process we learn just how complicated Parkinson's can be, and that a person must adjust to both the illness and the side effects of drugs used to treat it.
Interview with a Killer
In another chapter, "Interview with a Killer," the character representing Dunlap-Shohl interviews a green-headed, red-eyed monster who comes to his house in a suit and tie to explain how the disease will go down. "(I am) the thug who is going to kick your pathetic ass and leave it for the crows!" the Parkinson's monster shouts at his terrified host.
Elsewhere, Dunlap-Shohl shares the strategies he learned to cope, including maintaining an exercise regimen, managing medications and trying different ways of walking to "trick" his brain into performing its motor duties. Eventually, he takes us through the experience of receiving deep brain stimulation surgery.
For a cartoonist to face Parkinson's seems like a particularly cruel injustice. The loss of hand motor skills would seem to be career-ending. But in one chapter, we learn how the author transitioned from drawing with a pen and ink to learning computer skills that allowed him to recreate his old style with new technologies. In one panel we read, "The computer not only saved my aching body, it opened the creative floodgates." An editor replies, "Damn, Pete, we should have computerized you years ago."
And what about those cartoons? The colored drawings here are simply outstanding, showing just how powerful graphic narratives can be when artful illustration combines with a compelling story. Whether the drawing is of a wrinkled brain reacting to a drug, the author looking like a character from Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks (because of dyskinesia, a drug side effect), a snickering red devil stabbing the author in the back or a landscape that falls away from Mountains of Denial to Sea of Acceptance, every panel invites and rewards close study.
The medical profession gets an ample critique here. Dunlap-Shohl details how a doctor first delivered his diagnosis, when he could only focus on the words progressive, disabling and incurable. He then devotes several panels to examples of other doctors ("paraphrased from first-hand sources") being callous and insensitive. (Dr. Doom, answering a patient's question about adjusting to a new medication: "You will be dead before your body gets used to it.") The author then gives over a couple of pages to offer examples of language more kindly medical people might employ.
Life is tenuous
There are many feel-good moments in this book, too, related to family and community support. In the chapter, "Island of the Caring and Competent," Dunlap-Shohl tells us (as he sails a sea in a boat made of a folded newspaper with depressing political headlines), "I didn't realize that a hazard of editorial cartooning was misanthropy. Who'd have guessed that a run-in with a catastrophic disease would restore a more nuanced view of humanity?"
In the end, Dunlap-Shohl comes back to his diagnosis, re-examining that first dark day and then the path of his journey. In his drawings, he carries a heavy pack, negotiates a washed-out route and battles stinging insects. As friends and family stumble along with him, he finds much to celebrate, and the final images serve to remind us that life — for all of us — is both tenuous and best held with gratitude.
Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days" and "Early Warming."