a character coming out of a book and hugging someone

A Round Character in My Own Parkinson's Story

Way back when (1997), my English professor explained how all good stories were journeys to somewhere. Sometimes, they were physical, while other times they were internal. At that time, I hinged on every word that he said since I wanted to be a great writer. Later, I applied that knowledge to the things that I taught other people about how to write. As an adviser, I still do this in the form of self-authorship. This involves thinking about the steps to actively take ownership of our life stories by figuring out the pathway. Here, I was always learning to be a writer, a teacher, an adviser, and a better person.

Creative writing class

As a writer of non-fiction stories, it is the author’s responsibility to craft solid characters. If you’ve ever taken a writing course, you are aware of this concept. First, there is the protagonist (essentially a main character) and then, there is the antagonist (someone that forces or tries to force change, good or bad, on said character, depending on the protagonist’s nature). There are also flat (unchanging) and round (changing) characters.

For example, if Scrooge is a bad guy in A Christmas Carol, then the ghosts who are trying to get him to be good are the antagonists. In the end, they bring out his true nature through other positive antagonists. Nevertheless, many antagonists are bad, such as all of the baddies that John McClain has to defeat in the first Die Hard (the good one).

Parkinson’s is a powerful antagonist in how we write our stories. So, too, are the people who we run into along the way. Hopefully, many of these people are doing a good job at making us better people. Ideally, they remove our pain and suffering or at least alleviate it. Other people will not be as good for us. They will mis-advise, neglect, or deliberately cause us suffering. Others will antagonize us with their abrupt, uncaring remarks and actions. They will be a bull in our china shop. Some of them will take out their lives on us.

All of these things will lead up to who I was in the days before and since contracting Parkinson’s.

A flat character with a flatter future

While it would take a book to express the whole story, the CliffsNotes version is essentially the one of me feeling a need to create rules to make sure that bad things never happened. If there was a rule, I would be able to enforce a definite punishment that would keep problems from happening. Nevertheless, rules lead to conflict. Yes, conflict is inevitable and rules are necessary. However, I was looking for conflict instead of focusing on ways to make learning easier. This stopped me from opening myself up to be the person who made it easier to learn. Thus, it became harder and harder to find people to help when I had my guard up.

It also was difficult to help people when I had my guard up against hearing their personal barrier. Granted, it’s not easy to listen to traumatic tales, but people need caring helpers to do this. By deciding that I would help before I even gave a listen, I was simply teaching myself. I wasn’t trying to appeal to other people’s needs. I was simply speaking out the requests I needed completed. This wasn’t helping anyone in the equation.

In between, there were moments of true helping, but they weren’t as often as they should have been. Additionally, there were moments when I learned how to do things correctly, but I never truly applied them. In this, it would take a true moment of clarity for me to understand it all.

In steps Parkinson's

In 2018, Parkinson’s motivated me to walk away from grading. This is something that forces the instigator and receiver to incorrectly focus too much on the letter and not the task. Performing was also becoming difficult with my tremors. The fear of getting aspiration pneumonia again was also a harsh reality. Thus, I walked away from my challenges, but they still followed me. In this time, I realized how much I had deviated from what was and what needed to be. This wasn't a teaching seminar; rather, it was a learning experience. At that moment, I walked into a psychologist’s office to get a neurological baseline test.

To paraphrase, in the impossibility of the tests, the absolutism of my “grades,” and the absolute lack of empathy he felt for my frustration, I found myself unfairly judged. In the impossibility of some tests, I felt forced to fail by the necessity of performing. It was like being in the ring with Mike Tyson.

Nevertheless, I came to feel the absolutism of my own “grades” and the absolute lack of empathy in my reactions to people learning from me. I, too, was the villain to them. Thus, the teacher becomes the student. Here, we find a moment of learning to truly understand.

The flat character was faced with a choice of taking the criticism and the lesson to heart and being better.

Applying the education

When I came to be an adviser, there were actually guidance statements about disarming people after testing by using compliments and asking them how they were. NACADA and similar organizations in the field wrote some. The Tattooed Professor’s “Radical Hope” statement listed others (this can apply to anyone teaching anything – very well done). By simply not thinking or just reacting, I learned more by finding out. Soon I was listening to other people instinctively. This applied to professionals and people who came to need help.

I was learning the same empathy students showed me when I cancelled the class the night I was first diagnosed. Additionally, I was opening myself up to listen to others and not just talk or understand by expressing my own example. I was fixing problems instead of making them. Most importantly, I was learning to love what I could do instead of dreading the problems that I might face or was encountering.

True, there was also the finite nature of life with Parkinson’s and how I didn't want to put a huge footprint out on the world. I wanted to be positive.

The new and improved me

Now, it has become something more than that. In life, we only have so many chances to leave a positive mark on the world. Why not deliberately be the good we want to see in the world?

Some of this is like a THINK poster. Some of it is sharing our natural talents in an altruistic way. If it becomes our code, no matter the reason or the way, it helps at least two characters to round out their stories.

For this, I’m thankful for an antagonizing psychologist and the dark path his test led me. In a weird reversal, his gruffness helped me shed my own rough edge.

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