Editor's note: This segment was rebroadcast on July 5, 2021. Find that audio here.
The 1980s were good to Michael J. Fox. The actor shot to fame with roles in the sitcom “Family Ties” and the “Back to the Future” trilogy.
But in 1991 at the age of 29, Fox was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s disease.
In 2000, he founded The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, which since then has raised a billion dollars to find a cure.
Through it all, Fox found a way to maintain his signature optimism — until 2018, when his sunny disposition took a significant hit after undergoing spinal surgery and a serious fall forced him to confront his mortality.
Fox writes about how those recent setbacks forced him to rethink his outlook in his new memoir, "No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality." He says he went through a long period of reflection and came out of it with a kind of realistic optimism.
“I examined all these things: fear, aging, gratitude, just all of these things came through my mind,” he says. “And I stitch this together into the story of what happened and how I lost and regained my optimism and how my new optimism is kind of a little more informed and a little more realistic. You can be a realist and an optimist at the same time.”
Fox’s recent misfortune began when a benign tumor he and his doctors had been watching for years grew in size and was actually on his spinal cord, he says. Most doctors didn’t want to operate on it, but a surgeon at Johns Hopkins University agreed to perform the incredibly dangerous surgery. If the tumor wasn’t removed, Fox would have been paralyzed by now, his doctor told him.
Following the surgery, it took Fox a while to learn to walk again, but once he did, he insisted to his family that he was independent and could be left alone. Then the first time he was alone in his New York City apartment, he slipped and fell, shattering his arm.
After everything he had gone through, Fox says that was “the cutting blow.”
“For some reason, it was almost instantaneous. It was just the last lemon ... that I was no longer going to make lemonade,” he says. “I just said, 'This is unbelievable.' ”
Fox says he was angry with himself for putting himself at risk when his family and doctors had dedicated so much time helping him recover from surgery. He was also upset because he didn’t know how to put a positive spin on the accident.
“And then I started to think with Parkinson's community and I offered up optimism as a panacea,” he says. “And really, there are people that had it, on the misery index, [a] lot higher needle than me. ... There are people who have lost lives, homes, country, family, children. What about them? Who am I to tell them to be optimistic when I'm lying on the floor like a rag?”
The experience also reminded him how precious it is to be able to walk, Fox says, which is something he took for granted at the height of his acting career.
“I was always moving, whether it was in my job as an actor — I liked to do stunts or having to do physical representations of what was happening — or as an athlete, not a good one, but a persistent one,” he says. “And so when I look at things like wheelchairs, it's a dual thing. It's one to have been a nail-biting person my whole life and then to be in a position where I can't walk.”
Fox writes that being confined to a wheelchair is an isolating experience, especially if you don’t know the person pushing you.
“When you're in a chair, you're just a piece of luggage. And if the guy pushing you, if you're in an airport or hotel or something, he's just getting you from point A to point B and hoping to get five bucks for it,” Fox says. “Wheelchairs, being as open as they are, they might as well have bubbles over them, smoke glass bubbles because people can be quite anonymous in them.”
Fox says he has also started to accept that his acting career might be over because of his declining health. Not only is his movement an issue, but he says his Parkinson’s has impaired his ability to memorize his lines.
“That had always been something that had been just a given with me. I'd look at 'Family Ties' script for five minutes and I'd know the whole show, and I just always had that kind of photographic memory,” he says. “When I found myself in that position, I said, 'Oh OK, well, this isn't working, so maybe we'll find some other way to do it or not do it at all.' ”
His health issues have also made it difficult for him to play golf, a sport he loves. But instead of feeling sorry for himself when he falls down from swinging the golf club, Fox says he chooses to accept his situation.
“By accepting, it doesn't mean you can't endeavor to change it,” he says. “But if you don't accept it for what it is, then it's just going to be this amorphous blob that seeps through every cranny of your life, and you never feel settled, you never feel digested.”
Fox insists that coming to terms with his struggles is not the same as compartmentalizing them.
“It's just taking inventory and seeing where that thing fits in the inventory of your life,” he says. “And so the losses that I've had are more than compensated for by my family, by my friends, by the role I have in the Parkinson's community to effect change, to the relationships I have with people on the street, to how much I enjoy reading, how much I enjoy film, how much I enjoy writing. There's lots to fill your life.”
For those who have been recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Fox says “for sure, no doubt, bank on it, bet on it, write it down, there will be a cure in your lifetime.” But he says he takes no credit for that through his work with The Michael J. Fox Foundation. He will just be happy if it happens.
“The other thing we've always said is a purity of motive, whatever you do your motive is pure, that you're just trying to get this work done as quickly as we can for people, and that's the way it's been,” he says. “So yeah, optimism is a driver in almost everything I do because there's no sense in doing something if you can’t at least argue for a positive outcome.”
Book Excerpt: 'No Time Like The Future'
By Michael J. Fox
August 13, 2018, 6:30 a.m.
I’m going down. It’s a flash fall. Vertical to horizontal in a blink. I twist my head to save my face from collision with the kitchen tile. What the hell just happened? I rise up on my right elbow, expecting to shift my weight to the left and push up onto my feet. Surprise: I can’t feel my left arm. As my shock subsides, it’s clear that I need help. Slithering forward on my belly toward the wall-mounted phone, I am a one-armed commando crawling under the table, across the floor, and through a thicket of chair legs, dragging a sandbag of a left arm that remains unresponsive and unavailable.
After thirty years of Parkinson’s, I have established a sort of détente with the disease. We ’ve had a history together. I’ve long realized that control is out of the question; instead, I’ve settled for an understanding that requires adaptability and resilience. PD is like the persistent and cutting jab of a boxer, manageable if I’m willing to do a little feinting and weaving. But then came the check hook; the blow that put me on my knees for a while. Unrelated to PD, a tumor had been found high on my spinal cord. The mass was benign, but constricting, and well on its way to leaving me paralyzed. Menacing all on its own, the defect necessitated high-risk surgery, which was completed just four months prior to this moment on the kitchen floor. Through the crucible of recovery and rehabilitation, I have gone from wheelchair to walker to cane to, at last, walking. And then this happened.
The day before the accident, I flew back to Manhattan from Martha’s Vineyard, in the middle of our summer vacation. Tracy was concerned about me staying in New York by myself. I was still what we would both describe as “a little wobbly on my feet.” But I’d been asked to do a one-day cameo on a Spike Lee‒produced movie, up in the Bronx, and it offered a brief window of independence. “I’ll be back in two days,” I promised. “Save me a lobster.”
Schuyler, one of our twenty-five-year-old twin daughters, also needed to head back to the city for work, so we traveled home together. She lingered with me for dinner, take-out pasta at the kitchen table. Polishing off the last forkful, she had a question.
“How do you feel about going back to work?”
“I don’t know, I guess I feel normal again.”
“But are you nervous, Dood?” All of my kids call me that. Not Dude, Dood.
I flashed a confident smile. “Hey, it’s my job. It’s what I do.”
Sky offered to stay over in her old room, in case I needed her to fix breakfast in the morning or to help me get organized before leaving for the set. “Skeeter, I love you. I’ve done this a million times. You go back to your apartment, get some rest. I’ll be fine.”
“Okay,” she said, “but promise me you won’t . . .”
I finished her sentence “. . . walk with my cell phone.”
She smiled. It was a gentle reprimand, and deserved. I am an expert at walking and chewing gum at the same time, but the consensus is that I’m incapable of doing it safely with a phone in my hand. It wreaks havoc with my coordination.
“You got it.”
I hugged her good night and watched the elevator doors close. For the first time in months, I was alone.
Whatever it was that brought me down, it brought me down hard and in a hurry. I have fallen and—like that pitiable older woman splayed at the foot of the staircase, next to an upended laundry basket—I can’t get up. I have a theory about pain: If an injury hurts immediately, I know for sure it’s benign; but pain that intensifies after a few minutes is reporting real damage.
And now, here comes the pain.
A tiny transfer of weight to my left summons two revelations. One, a sleeve of hurt rockets down my useless arm; and two, I realize that my cell phone is in my pocket. I slipped it into the back of my sweat shorts before I came into the kitchen. (Note to Schuyler: It wasn’t in my hand). My first instinct is to call Tracy, but she is five hours away on Martha’s Vineyard, and I don’t want to freak her out. Instead, I call my assistant, Nina, who jumps in a taxi and is on her way within minutes.
Oddly, I think of Jimmy Cagney, of all people. He once sent me a note on the first day of a new movie. Be on time, know your lines, and don’t bump into the furniture. This morning, I was on schedule and I knew my two pages of dialogue, but the third point was a colossal fail.
While I wait for Nina, I slump on the kitchen floor, pissed off, my misery multiplying exponentially. I try to make sense out of this shit-show, but none of my all-purpose bromides and affirmations serve the moment. There is no spinning this. It’s just pain and regret. There is no finding the positive and moving on to the next circumstance life has to offer. I feel something beyond frustration and anger, something akin to shame: embarrassment. Every day since the spinal cord surgery in April, everyone—doctors, family members, and friends—have repeated this message to me over and over. You have one job: Don’t fall. Yet here I am.
This incident on the kitchen floor brings me down in more ways than one. It isn’t that I am hurt; I’ve been hurt many times. I’ve been through a lot, suffered the slings and arrows. But for some reason, this just feels personal.
Make lemons into lemonade? Screw it—I’m out of the lemonade business.
Excerpted from "No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality" by Michael J. Fox. Copyright © 2020 by Michael J. Fox. Republished with permission of Flatiron Books.
This segment aired on November 19, 2020.