State of Grace
At 24, Michael J. Fox was a Hollywood phenom, the star of both TV’s Family Ties and Back to the Future, the movie box office champ of 1985. Six years later, in the middle of the rocket ride, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, an incurable, degenerative neurological disorder that affects some 1.5 million Americans. (The vast majority are over age 50 when they are diagnosed; only 10 percent are, as Fox was, under 40.) As he writes in this exclusive excerpt from his new autobiography, Lucky Man, the diagnosis, which he kept hidden from all but his closest friends and family for seven years, launched him on a physical and spiritual odyssey that changed his life—in many ways, remarkably, for the better.
Since going public with his condition in 1998—and leaving his hit ABC series Spin City—the Canadian-born actor, founder of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, has become an eloquent spokesman for his fellow sufferers, testifying on Capitol Hill in support of stem-cell research and increased federal funding. His illness continues to progress. Most of the time, when his medication takes effect, “I’m relatively loose and fluid, my mind clear and movements under control,” he writes. If it wears off—as it can three or four times a day—”I experience the full panoply of classic Parkinsonian symptoms: rigidity, shuffling, tremors, lack of balance, diminished small motor control.”
Nonetheless, Fox, 40, who is married to actress Tracy Pollan, 41, and affectionately called Shaky Dad by son Sam, 12, and twin daughters Aquinnah and Schuyler, 7 (baby Esmé is 5 months old), says he has made peace with the disease. Parkinson’s “has been a real learning opportunity,” he says. “And to know that there are a couple million people out there who actually give a damn about what’s happening to me—that’s a tremendous blessing.” It didn’t seem that way in November 1990, when Parkinson’s made its first tentative appearance, while Fox was in Gainesville, Fla., filming Doc Hollywood.
I’d only been shooting the movie in Florida for a week or so, and the massive, pink-lacquered, four-poster bed of the University Center Hotel’s Presidential Suite still came as a shock each morning. Oh yeah—and I had a ferocious hangover. That was less shocking.
Eyes clenched shut, I placed the palm of my left hand across the bridge of my nose in a weak attempt to block the glare. A moth’s wing—or so I thought—fluttered against my right cheek. That’s when I noticed my pinkie. It was trembling, twitching, auto-animated. How long this had been going on I wasn’t sure. But now that I noticed it, I was surprised to discover that I couldn’t stop it.
I’d put away a lot of beers in my time, but had never woken up with the shakes; maybe this was what they called delirium tremens? Woody Harrelson was in Gainesville with me on this film, and he had been in the bar the night before-maybe we’d had one of our legendary drunken slap fights. But I didn’t feel any bumps, so that couldn’t have been it. Throughout the morning, the twitching would intensify, as would my search for a cause—not just for the rest of that day, but for months to follow. The true answer was elusive, and in fact wouldn’t reveal itself for another full year.
I called Brigette, my assistant. Trying my best not to sound panicky, I casually mentioned what was happening to my finger. She scared the hell out of me by suggesting that it sounded to her like a neurological problem, and did I want to speak to her brother, who happened to be a brain surgeon up in Boston? “No, that’s okay. I really don’t think it’s that big a deal,” I said, trying to convince myself as much as her. “I’ll just give Tracy a call.” Ten minutes after I’d spoken to Tracy, Brigette was in my room with her brother on the line [and she] handed me the phone. Brigette’s brother, Dr. Phillip Roux-Lough, very serious, very professional, came up with a host of possible explanations, each one more horrific than the last. I was amazed to learn that people my age actually had strokes and aneurysms—good God. The words “brain tumor” surfaced, but this was not an area I wanted to explore too deeply. He suggested I consult a neurologist.
The neurologist concluded that the most likely source of the spasms was a minor injury to the funny bone. Relieved, Fox continued filming Doc Hollywood, which wrapped in February 1991. But his symptoms worsened.
The twitching in my pinkie persisted, but now my ring and middle finger occasionally joined in on the act. I was experiencing weakness in my left hand, stiffness in my shoulder and achiness in the muscles on the left side of my chest.
Tracy, Sam and I had plans to spend August at her parents’ place on Martha’s Vineyard. The Pollans’ Vineyard home was as cozy as a hug. Tracy and I sipped wine on the veranda and watched the sun set each night. On mornings when Sam was restless, I’d scoop him up and, sitting on the porch, we’d watch that same sun rise up to greet another perfect summer day. Energized by the success of the movie, I resolved to get myself in shape—cut back on the beers, lose a few pounds. There’s no more beautiful place to jog than Martha’s Vineyard. Near the end of our stay, I decided to go for it and do the entire five-mile loop along Moshup Trail. It was late afternoon on a particularly gorgeous day.
About a half mile from the turn down the dirt driveway to the house, I saw Tracy driving toward me. She pulled over, got out of the car and waved me to stop. She appeared slightly stricken. “Are you okay?” she asked. “You look like hell. The left side of your body is barely moving. Your arm isn’t swinging at all. I don’t think you should run anymore until you get a chance to see a doctor. I think you should make an appointment as soon as we get back to the city.”
Fox contacted a sports medicine specialist, who, after X rays and an MRI, recommended Fox see another neurologist, which he did in September 1991.
The most paranoid, hypochondriacal fantasy I could think of would not have prepared me for the two words the neurologist bludgeoned me with that day: Parkinson’s disease. Recollecting my exact response to this pronouncement is difficult; there are gaps. I don’t think I said anything. I don’t think I felt anything. The doctor said some more words, like “Young Onset,” “progressive,” “degenerative,” “incurable,” “very rare.” “At your age, new drugs, new hope …” The air sucked from my lungs, my left arm was shaking clear up to the shoulder. My only clear memory is of wondering why the hell he was doing this to me, and what was I going to tell Tracy? As I stepped out onto the rain-soaked streets of midtown Manhattan, it was as if I were entering a whole new world.
I let myself into the apartment. I could smell dinner cooking in the kitchen and hear Sam giggling with Iwalani, our friend and Sam’s nanny. Tracy entered from the kitchen, and I met her in the foyer and silently motioned her toward our bedroom, where I told [her]. We cried, we held each other. I remember thinking the scene was a very strange, sad, upside-down—funny if it wasn’t so…happening to us.
I had my internist prescribe P.D.[Parkinson’s disease] meds. Therapeutic value, treatment, even comfort—none of these was the reason I took these pills. There was only one reason: to hide. No one, outside of family and the very closest of friends and associates, could know. And that is how matters stood for seven years.
Fox was afraid that if word of his disease got out, his career would suffer—payback, he felt, for undeserved success. After leaving Canada and arriving in L.A. as a virtual unknown in 1979, he had spent a few lean years doing commercials and TV spots. In the spring of 1982 he auditioned for executive producer Gary Goldberg for a new sitcom called Family Ties. By August of ’85 it was the No. 2 TV show in the country, while Fox’s features—Back to the Future and Teen Wolf—held the top two box office slots. Fox, then 24, was Hollywood’s new Boy Wonder.
I found myself in the labyrinthine fun house of American megacelebrity—a place where, I discovered, it is easy to get lost. I became so intoxicated on the nectar of money and unlimited possibility that I fell completely under its influence, forgetting for a time that it wasn’t real.
Don’t get me wrong—I had a really, really good time. You know that old sentence that starts with “Girls who never used to give me the time of day…” ? Well, I’d end it with “…were now inviting me home to read it off of their bedside alarm clocks.” And as for the question “Does it bother you that she just wants to sleep with you because you’re a celebrity?” My answer to that one was “Ah…nope.”
There were free meals, first-class travel, luxury hotel rooms. The cool thing was, I could still be a nice guy. I didn’t have to sacrifice my Canadian politeness. Still very much a kid in my mid-20s, I was no longer hearing the word “no” very often. And frankly, I was too blissed out to care—at first. I remember this period of my life—to the extent I can remember it—as one blowout after another; the booze was free and I was usually the guest of honor. But perhaps because my success was so sudden and outsized, I had the feeling I was getting away with something.
Fox especially enjoyed the perks of what wife Tracy now calls the “I’m famous, you’re famous” club—flying to Vegas to watch the Hagler-Mugabi fight with Sugar Ray Leonard or, in 1985, being seated next to Princess Diana at the London premiere of Back to the Future.
Of course, not everyone in this elite club is eager to see the membership rolls expanded. At that year’s Oscars, I presented an award and backstage afterward I passed Cher, in full diva regalia, waiting by an elevator. “Hi,” I said, extending my hand. “I’m Mike Fox.”
“I know who you are,” she said flatly, stepping into the elevator without stopping to shake my hand. I’m famous, you…not so much.
During the 1985-86 season of Family Ties, Fox’s character, Alex Keaton, got a girlfriend—opinionated art student Ellen Reed, played by actress Tracy Pollan, then 25. At the time, both Fox and Pollan were in other relationships. That soon changed.
One day about four weeks into the season, Tracy and I were rehearsing a scene when we broke for lunch. By now, we’d struck up a friendship and spent a lot of time on set talking, but we tended to go our own ways during the lunch break. That day, Tracy had spent hers in an Italian restaurant. After lunch, we picked up where we had left off, Alex answering a knock at the Keatons’ living room door, opening it to reveal Tracy. The moment she said her first line, I detected a hint of garlic, and sensed an opportunity to have a little fun at her expense.
“Whoa. A little scampi for lunch, babe?”
At first she said nothing. Her expression didn’t even change. But before long it became clear that my remark had surprised and hurt her. Here I was, a fellow actor whom she was just learning to trust, and maybe beginning to like, and I had ambushed her with my insensitivity. Looking me dead in the eye, she said slowly and evenly in a voice too quiet for anyone else to hear, “That was mean and rude, and you are a complete and total f——a——.”
I was floored. Nobody talked to me that way; not lately anyway. This woman was completely unintimidated, unimpressed by whomever I thought I was, and even less by whom everyone else thought I was. I felt a rush of blood redden my face. I was overwhelmed by an emotion I was surprised to discover was something other than anger. I wasn’t p—– off; I was smitten.
At the end of the season Pollan left the show, and the two went their separate ways. They reconnected in 1987, when Pollan won a part alongside Fox in Bright Lights, Big City. That Christmas they were engaged, and on July 16,1988, they wed in a quiet ceremony at a small country inn in Vermont. Soon Pollan became Fox’s anchor, and the first to force him to address something that had clearly become a problem.
[Tracy] was particularly disturbed by the amount of drinking I was doing, and was one of the first people I can remember ever suggesting to me, however tentatively, that alcohol was something to be careful with. We also talked about the pressure I felt not to let anyone down, to prove myself deserving of the opportunities that were coming my way, and to choose projects that would guarantee success after success, even if that meant cheating myself of opportunities to grow as an actor.
For some, drinking alcohol only one day a week would be no hardship at all. I had trouble maintaining this discipline. And there never seemed to be any major repercussions. Everybody knew who I was, how hard I worked—that’s Mike, just blowing off steam. “I was drunk at the time” became my all-purpose excuse for any indiscretion.
With my diagnosis in 1991 came another shift in my relationship with alcohol. The quantity of my drinking was still down from ’80s levels, but I knew, somewhere in the back of my mind, that my drinking was about filling a void, masking a need to be something more than I was. Now I craved alcohol as a direct response to the need I felt to escape my situation. Joyless and secretive, I drank to disassociate; drinking now was about isolation and self-medication.
At the end of the workday I’d drink a couple of beers in my trailer, having a couple more as my teamster driver shuttled me home. At dinner, I’d ask Tracy if she wanted wine. I’d select a bottle, pour us each a glass, then take the bottle back into the kitchen under the pretense of returning it to the refrigerator. In my other hand I’d be carrying my own wineglass. Once in the kitchen, I’d quickly polish off the bottle, throw it in the recycle bin and extract an identical bottle from the wine rack. I’d open it and swill enough to lower the level of liquid so it matched that of the first [bottle] when I’d left the living room. Returning from the kitchen, as if I’d spent the last five minutes checking on the pot roast, I’d ask Tracy if she wanted me to freshen up her glass, do so, and then refill my own once more.
By the end of dinner, my voice would be inappropriately loud and my words slurred. There were nights that I’d get out of bed after Tracy had fallen asleep and continue drinking. On those occasions when Tracy confronted me, I’d become angry and defensive. The distance that my behavior was opening up between me and my young family frightened me. But in June of 1992, in a moment of clarity, something I can now attribute only to grace, I’d decide to put a stop to it.
The couple had moved that spring from L.A. to Manhattan, where Pollan was appearing in Jake’s Women on Broadway and Fox was shooting For Love or Money. One night, with Pollan at work, Fox went out drinking with friends and got home sometime before sunrise. He had promised to take Sam to their country home in Connecticut later that day. Instead, Fox recalls grabbing a beer from the refrigerator before passing out on the sofa.
“Wake up…Daddy, wake up…let’s go to Coneck-ti-kut.” I was fully clothed and slick with sweat on the sofa facing the big picture window, my body cooking in the glare of the summer sun. Sam, my 3-year-old son, my baby boy, whom I loved so much, was at that moment irritating me into consciousness. Then I saw Tracy’s feet. The feet had on shoes. I was going to be ripped into big-time, and I knew I had it coming. But here was something far more disturbing. She was meeting my sorry state with a calmness approaching boredom. No, it was indifference. “I have to go to the theater,” she said flatly. “Are you still going to be able to take Sam to the country?”
“Yeah,” I stammered. “Just give me a second….”
“I don’t want to hear it,” Tracy said, still eerily calm. She turned for the door and then looked back, fixing me with another look. “Is this what you want?” she said. “This is what you want to be?”
And then she was out the door. My hands started to tremble, but not from brain disease. I’d never been so frightened in my life. At first I thought of alcohol as an ally in my struggle with Parkinson’s. But as I lay there on the couch that morning, I knew that alcohol had become yet another adversary. Which meant the alcohol had to go.
Tracy was between the Saturday matinee and evening show when I reached her on the phone. “I’m sorry—I just wanted to say that I have a drinking problem, and I’m ready to quit…if you know somebody I could talk to….”
“Stay by the phone,” she said quickly, and before she hung up, “I love you.”
That unfinished Coors was the last drink I’ve had. Over the following days, months and years, an ever-widening circle of new friends showed me that it was possible to live a life without alcohol.
Booze or no booze, I was still isolating myself from my family and caught up in an inner turmoil that I could not understand. By December 1993,1 had reached bottom. I would retreat to the bathroom to run a bath. I’d turn off the lights and slip into the hot water. The bathtub became my refuge, my hiding place. This is what my lifelong search for room to maneuver had come to: a box of water in a lightless, windowless 9-by-16-ft. room—afraid to leave my artificial womb, to go outside where I could only cause trouble, disappoint my family and myself. And stay I would, day after day, sometimes three or four times on weekends, for hours at a time.
In despair, on Christmas Eve, 1993, while the rest of his family slept, Fox sat down, “pen in hand, hunched over a loose collection of scrap paper,” to take what he calls “an inventory of my life.”
If I could get all of it down, I thought, I could find some peace or, at the very least, some notion about where to turn next. The next several hours produced a remarkable, disturbing document: growing up small, having to constantly prove myself and how, having done that, I’d blown it all, p—– it away. I wrote about missing my dad [who had died in 1990], how my mom’s faith in me was so absolute that I wondered if she was able to see the incredible pain I was in. As for Tracy, I kept writing the words “Does she still love me,” and if she did, “how is that possible?” Eventually I looked over what I’d written, and wept. Whatever else this was, I realized, it was an instrument of surrender. Reading it today, what’s perhaps most astonishing is the one thing it failed to mention: that I had Parkinson’s disease, and it wasn’t ever going to go away.
The next day, Christmas, Fox retrieved the phone number of a Manhattan psychiatrist that Tracy had found for him, and began therapy sessions three times a week.
It was bad enough I had allowed P.D. to own me, but by my silence—cutting my wife and family off from the experience—I had made them slaves to it as well. In one area, Tracy’s silence did speak volumes: She never talked anymore about having another child together.
[With therapy] I didn’t suddenly burst out of a cocoon of fear. Neither was it a linear progression. It all came down to showing up for my life—and doing the work. Tracy remembers those first few months of 1994, the gradual change in my outlook: “Your hopefulness came back, your sense of humor. Everything wasn’t so thick with tension. You weren’t so angry all the time. It was like this wall just started to crumble, and you weren’t trying to build it back up again.”
Late one spring afternoon, as we sat on the grass watching Sam lead a younger cousin on a chase through the butterfly bushes in their grandmother’s Connecticut garden, Tracy smiled at me and said, “Sam’s going to love being a big brother.”
Twins Schuyler and Aquinnah were born in February 1995. While Fox’s physical condition was continuing to deteriorate, by that time he had already begun to accept the disease, at least privately.
Parkinsonian Tremor is often referred to as a “resting tremor.” It occurs when the affected limb is at rest. Any willed movement can diminish the tremor, at least momentarily, though it will reassert itself as soon as the limb settles into a new position. This is why, especially in the earliest stages, I was able to mask trembling by picking up and putting down a coffee cup, twiddling a pencil or threading a coin through the fingers of my left hand. To keep this up in public exhausted me. And it was lonely work; whatever anybody thought I was doing at any given moment, I was also busy doing something else.
In the spring of 1994, as I became more willing to recognize and accept P.D. as a fact of (my) life, I realized that I had been playing these tricks on my family as well. So I lowered my guard at home, allowed myself to be open with my symptoms. What a relief it was to relax for a change. Tracy was simply relieved and encouraged by my renewed trust. For Sam, now, the revelation of my symptoms was not the source of concern that I’d feared it would be.
When Sam was not quite 5 years old, I taught him that if he saw my hand wiggling he could squeeze my thumb, or twist it slightly to make it stop.
“Then,” I instructed, “count to five and give it another squeeze or twist, and you can trick it into staying still.”
He experimented for a few minutes, nodding to let me know it was time to give a squeeze. I could see his delight in getting the timing down, short-circuiting the wiggle every time. But once he understood that it always came back, I detected a slight look of Uh-oh, what have I gotten myself into?
“You know, Sam,” I assured him, “this doesn’t mean you have to do it every time. Not like it’s your job or anything, only when you feel like it.” His face brightened again.
“You can do it yourself still, right?”
“Right,” I said.
Sam thought this over and then, “But I do it better.”
“Definitely,” I laughed. “And besides, I just like it when you hold my hand.” Clearly, to Sam, I was still “Dad,” just “Dad with a wiggly hand.” Was it possible that I could look at things the same way, that I was still me—just me plus Parkinson’s?
The following year, Fox, who had most recently appeared in The American President, decided to return to television, largely because the shooting schedule would give him. more time with his family. He took the lead role in Spin City, whose cast and top executives shared—and kept—his secret. In March 1998, eight months before going public with his illness, Fox underwent brain surgery to relieve severe tremors in his left arm.
Valium or no Valium, I remember my head being shaved and the stinging pinch of the screws and mumbling something when the aluminum frame was fastened to my skull. I remember a slight vibration, some pressure but no pain, when the tiny hole was drilled through the top of my head. And then I remember lifting my left hand up in front of my face, turning it over and over, splaying out my fingers, obedient and smiling. That’s it. They’re done.
[My surgeon] Dr. Cook cleared me to fly down to the Caribbean with my family just two days after the surgery; it was Sam’s spring break. I’d been getting up early every morning, around 6 a.m., before Tracy, before Sam and the girls, and this day was no exception. I threw on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, wrapped my stubbly head in a blue bandanna and made my way down the cliff stairs and onto the beach.
After walking for a quarter mile or so, I sat down on the soft white sand and rested my forearms across my knees. Pelicans were fishing about 10 feet offshore, but they weren’t the object of my attention. I was focused on my hand. I stared at it, and waited. Inside of five minutes my fingers began to flutter. It was subtle, no one else would ever have noticed, but it was there. It was just like at the beginning, just like before, with one very big difference: This wasn’t my left hand I was looking at. The tremor had moved into the right side of my body.
I wasn’t surprised. I was sad, but I wasn’t angry. I’d known for years that this was an inevitability. I have Parkinson’s disease; it’s a progressive disorder. It’s just doing what it’s supposed to do. So, what was I supposed to do now?
I rose, brushed the sand off the back of my legs, and started to make my way back toward my wife and sleeping children. The answer was clear. After all that I’d been through, after all that I’d learned and all that I’d been given, I was going to do what I had been doing every day for the last few years now: just show up and do the best that I could with whatever lay in front of me.