An Unbeatable Enemy

Author info: 

Omotola Thomas – Speaker and Writer

Omotola Thomas, a self-proclaimed “reckless optimist,” was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2016, at 35. Born and raised in Nigeria, she has also lived in America, South Africa, and most recently, England, where she currently resides with her husband and two children. She is the founder of Parkinson's Africa – a non-profit organization established to promote empowered living among Africans impacted by Parkinson's disease.

-----

What do you do when you face an unbeatable enemy?

A cyber acquaintance, Jim Lowrey, asked me this question in 2017 during an email exchange about the seemingly insurmountable challenges of Parkinson’s disease (PD). Prior to this moment, I had never actually thought of PD as unbeatable. On the contrary, my singular focus since I got diagnosed 17 months earlier was, in fact, to beat PD – to somehow find a way to reverse the havoc it had wreaked on my body or, at the very least, halt its progression. Yes, my plan was to halt the progression of PD. Not slow it down; I was going to halt it. I was young, energetic, and full of faith; plus, I fancied myself as a “reckless optimist” which meant I believed I could conquer anything – degenerative or not!

What do you do when you face an unbeatable enemy?

Unbeatable? Jim’s choice of words did not sit well with me, but I was curious to learn more, so I read on. His answer, Jim wrote, came from the Art of War – an ancient Chinese treatise attributed to the Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu. The book, which still has practical relevance today, is filled with strategies and tactics for handling adversaries and engaging in warfare. Now, PD may not have been the living, breathing type of adversary that Tzu was referring to, but it had most certainly engaged in active warfare against my body. Could I possibly adopt Tzu’s strategic mindset in dealing with this formidable, incurable, and merciless disease? I was beginning to think so.

What do you do when you face an unbeatable enemy?

Jim’s answer was simple but deeply profound…

You deny it victory.

I stared at the words. Then, I read them again. Finally, as I started to process them, it dawned on me that I had spent the last 17 months hopelessly banging my head against a brick wall in futile attempts to conquer an unconquerable degenerative disease. It was time for me to accept the realities of the hand that I had been dealt. No, it was not time to give up or give in, it was time to switch tactics.

Deny it victory.

Today, 3 years since that exchange with Jim, 5 years since being diagnosed with PD, and 10 years since my first onset of symptoms, “denying PD victory” remains my strategy of choice. Adopting this strategy has put me on the path of least resistance, allowing me to pick my battles wisely and conserve precious limited resources.

Take the hand tremors I experience, for example. I hate their outward betrayal of my inward state of mind. They capture even the slightest shift in my emotions, making me feel exposed, vulnerable, and self-conscious. The harder I try to “fight” them, the more they indulge in their elaborate dance. In this regard, denying PD victory has meant coming to terms with the tremors (and the puzzled/pitying glances they attract from onlookers), but flat-out refusing to let the fear of embarrassment stop me from attending social gatherings or engaging in public speaking.

Over the years, the implementation of this strategy has taken on different forms. In the last quarter of 2019, it meant acknowledging my own limitations and seeking professional help when I kept spiraling deeper into the dangerous recesses of apathy, anxiety, and depression. By April 2020, it meant adjusting and increasing my medication to improve my mobility and reduce pain. More recently, it revolves around an iterative three-step process of:

1. Understanding that the disease will progress;
2. Resolving not to expend my mental and emotional resources despairing about that; and
3. Choosing, instead, to focus those resources on things that have been shown to improve symptoms and possibly slow down progression – exercise, a healthy diet, and minimization of stress.

Denying PD victory requires striving to do my very best in this very moment, and not getting carried away by the things I failed to do yesterday or the things I may not be able to do tomorrow; it entails fighting smart, not just hard; and it involves maximizing my strengths, as Jim wrote, until my weaknesses become irrelevant.

Of course, I know that my symptoms will deteriorate with the passage of time – I will experience more rigidity, bradykinesia, gait impairment, pain, etc. So, if that time comes that I cannot run, I will walk; if I cannot walk, I will crawl; and if I cannot crawl, I will find someone to carry me. PD may be an unbeatable enemy (for now), but as long as I keep moving, it cannot win.

Keep moving.

Email: omotola.thomas@parkinstand.com
Website: ParkinStand