White woman with gray streaks in hair thinks of self in light bulb moment selecting positive green button instead of red negative button

Life Transitions & Parkinson's: When Not Happening is Happening

According to Nancy Schlossberg, an educator on life transitions, "non-events" occur in ways that affect us just as much as actual events.1 There is nothing nefarious about this revelation though; in fact, emotionally intelligent people define themselves by how they respond (or don't respond) to these obstacles.

Simply put, life-changing events can be defined as positive or negative events.1 For example, a job promotion is a positive event, being fired from a job is a negative event. Nevertheless, in contrast to standard thinking, even positive effects lead to negatives (and vice versa).

For instance, you receive a job promotion, but the new position's attendance requirements lead you to cancel the dream vacation you had planned. Events create “non-events.” This is a fancy way of saying the absence of an expected event.

Preparing for changes

In my experiences with change, I find that more often than not, we can prepare ourselves to deal with forced and unexpected transitions.

Here, psychologist Dan Goleman would have us develop coping mechanisms and emotional intelligence.2 This doesn’t mean we will be immune to pain. Instead, we’ll have a fire extinguisher available when we start a fire trying to be the next Guy Fieri.

When we choose to do something, we can make value choices about the side effects and ramifications. I can apply the values of what’s important before I make a decision. For example, being near family versus moving to a new geographical region.

If an event is unexpected, we get the whole package (our Parkinson’s diagnosis). To me, this is why the at-home all-star Parkinson’s team (caregivers) needs to know medicine side effects upfront.

Consequences of non-events

Everyone's "non-events" hurt. A 4-year old’s “he won’t play with me” might seem temporary, but it could show compounded loneliness. A patient’s “my doctor is ignoring me” might seem dramatic, but it could be a lifetime of feeling marginalized.

All of life is proportional to our place in the world. A 4-year old knows little to nothing about paying the rent. However, said kid's coping and problem-solving skills will predict his adult responses. When we trivialize the hurt of others, we lose something from our better selves. Don’t be that person.

The simplest revelations are the best guides. Many academic classes and self-help books are nothing more than well-stated maxims that hit us in that “ah-hah” kind of way.

That’s why I appreciate Schlossberg. To me, she comes across as the brilliant and insightful family matriarch that everyone wants to hear speak. She analyzes the consequences of non-events while giving ways for her listeners to accept “bad” scenarios and readjust to life accordingly.1

Subtle cue... check her work out!

It can be stressful

The Holmes and Rahe Life Stress Inventory shows that changes affect us exponentially.3 Parkies don’t just have one pile of nastiness; we have knee jerk reactions, too.

Major illness diagnosis is ranked number six on Holmes and Rahe's Stress Scale. That’s ahead of marriage, but behind divorce, imprisonment, and loss of family. In case you’re curious, the death of a spouse is number one.3

If we want to show a more complete analysis here, we must look at the family. A change in a family member’s health is number 11.3 However, with Parkinson’s, there’s the fear of death (even if Parkinson’s isn’t the “actual” killer, it hangs out with accomplices like falls and aspiration pneumonia).

In addition to those points, said person could face financial problems, sexual issues, job, and business readjustment, and forced retirement. Wham! Bam! Welcome to the avalanche, ma'am (or man)!

That’s just in the highest 21 stressors. There are 11 additional statements in the Stress Scale, which begin with “change in.”3 Both parts of the marital equation, as well as the kids and the extended family, get to deal with this. Thus, in marriage, we share equally, like it or not. The same goes for friendships.

Considering how we view change

In his song Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy), John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” I used to think I would be able to do many physical things over the course of my days.

Now, I’m happy to walk back and forth to my pharmacy, taking in the wondrous sights of a strip mall parking lot. What bucket list daydreams are now gone, I don't even want to imagine.

I don’t think that Nancy Schlossberg would say, “Suck it up, Buttercup.” That said, I do think that she would have me expediently analyze my situation and look at how I can view Parkinson’s differently. It’s not going away.

Here, I might respond that it allows me to educate and advocate for a cure so that no future generations become People with Parkinson’s. I could also say that it allows me to be able to focus on what’s important in life or to be more empathetic to others since we all have some war or other to fight.

I can’t say I’m thankful for hobbling, tremoring, or having a funnel attached to my toilet, but yeah… persevere.

Coping skills and resources

In my job, I counsel students who fail classes, are ineligible for programs, or need ways to bounce back from past academic difficulties. I also help people find confidence and coping skills after life’s challenges leave them in a quandary. It’s never easy to talk about lost dreams. I'm more about putting a bow on the package and calling it complete.

In these situations, I try to express how there are so many different people, agencies, and initiatives in place to help people redirect their setbacks into 'productive failures.'

The key is to give people the emotional intelligence to find coping mechanisms. Often, additional resources offer more options and expressions of assistance to find the best rebuilding strategies.

We all face them

People in all walks of life face non-events. Astronaut Jim Lovell lost the moon when Apollo 13 malfunctioned. Podcast host Nora McInerney’s happily ever after marriage was 1 of 3 deaths she experienced within months of each other. Mountain climber Ed Viesturs was several hundred feet from the top of Everest when he forced himself to turn around out of safety concerns.

Like Michael J. Fox, loss removed them from the “lemonade business.” Nevertheless, they re-emerged as something else that still resonated with optimism. As Laurence Gonzales would say, “They survived survival.” They wired the map in their brain to know what to do when “it” happened. Strategies they learned from their support system kept them optimistic.

For us, we learned how to slam on the brakes to prevent a car crash through years of becoming accustomed to driving. Reading the stories of others also allows us to see what they did and program ourselves similarly. Analyzing other people’s histories allows us to see how much impact even “little nothing events and non-events” can have.

Experiencing loss

You can't just hope for the best, you must plan and practice. Transitioning this to Parkinson’s, I hope Schlossberg’s ideas illuminate new angles on how to see your life. You now have non-events, as I do (examples include not further pursuing a doctorate). Others are not coming (another cross-country drive).

You have every right to the hurt you feel for the losses in your life, even if you never had them. The key is finding things to fill your New Adventure Book, Carl. Ellie would definitely want you to.

I may not drive, but I can always ride. After all, that's the Jack Kerouac story.

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