Robin Williams, Michael J. Fox, Parkinson’s Disease, and Me

Recently, Robin Williams apparently chose to take his own life. The news hit me so hard that I couldn’t bring myself to write or comment about it for a while. Even had the subject not been so tender for me, I didn’t feel I had anything relevant to say.

Michael-J-Fox-Robin-Williams

Now, I think I might.

Robin Williams, the man who brought so much joy and laughter to the world, couldn’t find enough of those treasures for himself. I won’t follow the footsteps of the many who have called his action selfish, or who have in some other way judged him for committing suicide. His death seems a tragic loss for the rest of us, but I am not able to pass judgment on how much suffering another man can tolerate.

And frankly, as a follower of Jesus, I am not called to judge people, but to love them.

And I did love Robin Williams. When I was a boy, watching him on “Mork & Mindy”, I was inspired by his comic genius. He would go on to touch my life through the films that followed, including Patch Adams, The World According to Garp, Dead Poet’s Society, Good Will Hunting, and a plethora of others.

Like many other people, I identified with Robin Williams and his view of the world (at least as I perceived it to be.) I felt connected to him, even though we never met. So when I heard the news of his death, it was like a physical blow.

That blow took on new dimensions when I learned the shocking news…

Robin Williams Had Parkinson’s Disease

In the wake of William’s death, his widow revealed that he’d been recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Many believe this was the final blow that caused him to despair and take his own life. I don’t know if that is true or not.

But the news of his diagnosis was especially significant to me, because I myself was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2011. Like Williams, I chose to keep my diagnosis secret for as long as possible. I wrote about this, and my decision to go public with my illness, in a blog post entitled, The Time Has Come.

I was shocked to hear of Williams’s diagnosis because he’s the second actor with whom I felt a close connection to be diagnosed with this disease.

Who is the other? Michael J. Fox.

Michael J. Fox and Parkinson’s Disease

I was a Michael J. Fox fan back when he was on the sitcom Family Ties, and of course through his Back to the Future films, Spin City, and most of his other work. I probably saw every film he was in. In the charming, bumbling, but admirable characters he often played, I felt I could see myself. I felt we grew up together.

When Fox publicly announced his diagnosis almost 20 years ago, and left the Spin City cast, I felt sad. And I remember thinking, “That poor bastard. I feel so sorry for him.”

And I forgot about him. For a while.

Then I Was Diagnosed With Parkinson’s

My initial symptoms were mild, and my diagnosis was swift and surrealistic. I went from being the “normal guy” who had no health problems, to being “that poor bastard”, with a daily pile of pills that kept my body functioning in a semi-normal fashion.

I immediately recalled how horrified I had been by Fox’s condition. Now I was living out the same story.

Suddenly, small things mattered a great deal. I had to think about what I might eat at a restaurant that didn’t require a great deal of dexterity (hints: skip the peel & eat shrimp, and anything requiring cutting with a knife.) I worried about whether I “looked weird”, because the disease causes tremors, slowness, and uncoordinated movements.

I experienced depression for a while.

But eventually, I realized I had a choice to make.

Get Busy Living, Or Get Busy Dying

I decided I was not going to be defined by this disease, and that while I remain on earth I intend to live life fully alive. Parkinson’s Disease is not fatal, by the way. You don’t die from it, you die with it (although I refuse even to accept that prognosis – I plan to recover from it. But that’s for another post, some other time.)

I was absolutely not going to sit down and quit the race because of a minor neurological inconvenience.

That’s when I began to notice my old “pal” Michael J. Fox again. He has been an icon to many in the 20 years since his initial diagnosis, demonstrating what it means to keep living, keep loving, and keep contributing, even in the face of a rather daunting challenge.

And this leads me to my point.

We Can Choose Joy Even In The Face Of Tough Challenges

Robin Williams and Michael J Fox were friends. Both actors, both known for their comedic roles and their ability to bring joy to others.

Michael J. Fox has chosen to keep living life to the fullest, to find joy in every possible moment, and to make a significant contribution to the world through the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

Robin Williams ultimately was not able to find enough joy to make life seem worth living. So he killed himself. How much of that decision was influenced by the Parkinson’s diagnosis is unclear.

Hear me: I am not judging Robin Williams. I am not angry with him. But I am sad he is gone, and sad that so many hearts are broken by his death. What might he have been able to contribute had he chosen to remain?

I think these two comic geniuses – Robin Williams and Michael J. Fox – illustrate clearly the two possible paths we can all take when faced with tough challenges.

It’s not just about Parkinson’s disease.

Your challenge might be financial, marital, or emotional. It could be the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, or yes… a devastating medical diagnosis.

But we will all face one or more major problems in our life. Don’t think it won’t happen just because it hasn’t happened yet.

Your best defense is to be mentally and spiritually prepared before it happens. And to that end, here are…

5 Important Facts to Remember When Facing Tough Challenges

No matter what you may be facing in life, you can always choose to find more joy, and more peace, by remembering these 5 facts.

  1. “Our challenges don’t define us, our actions do.” This is something Michael J. Fox said that has been a beacon for me and countless others. Present two people with the same challenge and you will often see polar opposite responses. And the issue is not how we might feel about a challenge. Trust me, nobody wakes up and says, “Wow, I’m so glad I have Parkinson’s today!” No, it’s not about feelings, it’s about what we do. And the curious thing is: emotions tend to follow motions. In other words, what you do often determines how you feel. So choose life, get up “off your BUT” (as Sean Stephenson says), and live life. Fully alive.
  2. Asking better questions produces better answers. Let me just give you the spoiler: asking “Why me?” is a stupid, pointless question that will only lead to tears. Why not you? Bad things happen. We’re living in an imperfect world. So start asking better questions. Like, “How can I use this? What can I learn from this? How can I turn this around to benefit others, and myself, and enjoy the process?” Now those are useful questions.
  3. If you’re still here, you still have a purpose to fulfill. When you wake up in the morning, there’s a reason. The only reason you remain on the earth is that God still has a purpose for you to fulfill. Your job is to figure out what that purpose is, and get busy fulfilling it.
  4. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. I don’t want to be a downer, but you are going to experience pain. Even Jesus, the ultimate optimist, said: “In this world, you will have trouble.” It’s important to remember, though, that he followed that up by saying, “Fear not, because I have overcome the world.” If we respond out of fear, we perpetuate our pain. But when we respond out of faith, hope, and love, we are in possession of our power.
  5. Prayer doesn’t always change things, but it does always change you. God is still in the miracle business. I’ve seen it too many times to believe otherwise. And yet sometimes, the answer to our prayer doesn’t always seem to arrive on the schedule, or in the manner we were hoping for. Prayer doesn’t change God, who is changeless. And it seemingly doesn’t always change our circumstances. The one thing that always changes when we pray is … us. And when we ourselves change, without fail we see our circumstances in a new light.

One Final Piece of Advice

One fact is undeniable about Robin Williams’s death: as a result of his suicide, he’s no longer in pain, but millions of other people are.

Tragically, some might see his suicide as a possible path for them to escape their own pain.

If you ever reach a point of despair so deep that self-murder seems the only way to end your pain, please talk to someone else first. Someone in your life who knows you – even if you don’t feel particularly close. 

You might just be surprised to discover that other people do care about you after all.

Even if you’re sick. Or divorced. Or old. Or addicted. Or whatever it is that causes your pain. 

Let someone else know what you’re thinking. Give them a chance to love you, before you irrevocably break their hearts.

You, and you alone, get to choose who you are, and how you show up in the world.

Remember that our challenges don’t define us, but our actions do.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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77 thoughts on “Robin Williams, Michael J. Fox, Parkinson’s Disease, and Me

  1. Ray – thanks for your honesty and transparency here. The difference in the eyes of Michael and Robin in this photo seem to share contrasting approaches to life. Your Five Important Facts are so useful for anything we’re facing. And thanks for being a shining example of their positive application.

  2. Ray, I read every word my brother and you moved me. While we seemingly go too long between chats, you are always in my prayers.

  3. Absolutely beautiful Ray.

    My father died from a rare form of ALS almost 10 years ago. So rare and unlike “normal” ALS that they originally diagnosed him with Parkinson’s. I remember how his last year was the only time in my life where I truly felt helpless. Nothing I could do would save him and well, that sucked.

    Every time now that someone dumps a bucket of ice over their head, I can only hope that it plays a small part in saving a life and preventing someone else from losing a loved one.

      • It comes and goes. As anyone can relate to, I can go weeks or months without thinking about it and then it comes in waves. Odd how that works isn’t it?

        I believe that each time I think of him, God uses that memory or sadness for a reason.

        • I have lost loved ones over the years, and that seems to be the way of it. Thank God we have a hope that we will see them again, when we also join them in the presence of the Lord.

  4. Ray, I am a student of yours through two of your courses. I just want to say that you are doing it man. You are impacting my life through your words, and your actions. Thank you for this post, and for your work.
    Press on!
    Tim

  5. Wonderful post, Ray. Your courage to live above the circumstances is such an inspiration. My wife and I still have “Pray for Ray” on our fridge. See you in a few weeks!

  6. So eloquent Ray. Your thoughts on the difference between “pain” and “suffering” is nothing short of Spirit led brother. The “tears of a clown” are certainly real.

  7. Thank you, Ray. That was moving and profound. I have saved it for a future day when the pain might not so easy to handle.

  8. Ray,

    Great post. It’s crazy when people say things like, ‘he took the easy way out,’ when Robin or anyone commits suicide. I don’t think that’s ever an easy thing to do. No one knows, usually, exactly what’s going on inside someone else’s head or what they’re going through. Like you said, we weren’t put here to judge.

    I’ve found prayer to be my greatest weapon against fear, doubt, or anything. It’s just a matter of remembering to turn everything over to God, he’s got this.

    Thanks for sharing.

  9. Well said. Like many, I feel robbed as a fan and saddened as a fellow human being. I must owe him more than a thousand laughs. By the way.. Thanks for taking me to see Popeye.

  10. I have been moved to tears reading this Ray! I feel very humbled by this and at the same time enthused by life. Thank you for sharing this X

  11. This is my first time knowing about you and your site and this is a blessing! I enjoy reading this article. You have certainly written with balance and wit. Above all I see that you are a Christian and you have a platform that you are sharing the message of love in a unique way. Thanks also for disclosing about your issue. I am sure this takes courage and you are making wise choices. Thanks again for being so real!

  12. This was absolutely one of the best pieces I’ve ever read. Its sound wisdom and timely advice are monumental for me. Thank you, Ray Edwards! You have made my day!

  13. Great piece. I particularly like the 5 pieces of advice. I have Stage IV breast cancer and my Dad had Parkinson ‘ s Disease. Living fully is s choice we make personally every day regardless of our issues or circumstances. You never know whether you smile or kind word could change the path of someone else. Be a blessing not a blight. Thank you Ray.

  14. Ray, you have covered this topic with eloquence and sensitivity. We know that you are walking this out in your own life. Each of us can insert our own circumstance here – divorce, death of a loved one, any significant setback. As you state, in the end what matters is how we choose to do with the hand we are dealt. Practicing when the stakes are not so high helps prepare us for the bigger challenges.

    “Our challenges don’t define us but our actions do.” –AMEN, brother.

  15. Ray, what a heartfelt and personal post. Like you, I was moved by these events and yet your personal story and what you do about it is even more compelling. I may not have your same struggle, but I identify with the pain and your feelings. Thanks for your honesty which will help many.

  16. Hi there. I found your post because Jeff Goins Tweeted the link a few minutes ago. I was on vacation with my family, including my father who lives with Parkinson’s Disease every day, when we heard about Robin William’s passing. It wasn’t until I got home that I heard he might have been driven to take his life because of a recent PD diagnosis. Like you, my family and I found that our sorrow at his passing doubled. I just wanted to commend you for putting words to the emotions we’ve grappled with in recent days. You’re right, it is a neurological inconvenience and regardless of one’s adversities, we should all get busy living. Thanks for posting.

  17. Hi Ray, found your blog through your interview with Frank Viola on Difference between Persuasion and Manipulation…and so appreciated your wisdom and perspective! I was especially impressed with this article and the gracious way you share your thoughts on difficult issues and with people who may disagree. Your example will hopefully be instructive to the Christian community as a whole; myself included, who too often alienate others by our lack of tact.

  18. Oh my, Ray. I just started poking around your site after I decided I should follow more writers to learn from. You see, I was diagnosed with cervical dystonia in 2010. It’s kind of a cousin to Parkinson’s. I was so leveled by the disorder for awhile that I couldn’t even sit at the computer. I thought my writing was finished. I just tried to focus on getting well for awhile. Then a little over a year something hit me hard enough to try again. And so now I’m blogging and trying to learn what I can about freelance writing. Because I know I have a message that needs to be shared.

    When I heard about Robin Williams and subsequently his diagnosis it hit me in the gut, hard. Because I understood some of the diagnosis as well as being a person in recovery.

    Thanks so much for honestly sharing your hope and faith as well as your struggle!

    • Thank you Marya – and keep on writing. I have some dystonia, too. Part of the Parkinson’s “gift that keeps on giving”. Be like Abraham, who never lost faith in God’s promise… even when that promise was children from a 100-year old couple!

  19. Dear Ray, you are such a ray of hope (all pun intended) to many people, we would still love you if you tremble and fumble…what a great post and thanks for sharing such personal struggles and triumphs! We never know how much time we have, so let’s make it count! Like you said, “If you’re still here, you still have a purpose to fulfil.” Last year and this year is tough but I’m still here too! Those that really loved Robin Williams could not judge him. How can we understand what demons haunted him since we’re not in his shoes?

  20. I was Diagnosed with Parkinson’s a few years back and it was hard and actually still is because my wife and children have to deal with my tremors and always dropping things . I was at the Robin Williams answer to it all just a few days ago and I read this and well all I can say is Thank You from the bottom of my Heart . I just hope I can stay strong like Michael J Fox is. He has been my Savior if I may for years with this

  21. Dear Ray,

    My Dad had Parkinson’s and I surely wish I could have learned, 5 years ago, of other possible ways to help him, as I have learned over the past year. I heard a very life-changing and encouraging interview with Dr. Mercola (drmercola.com) and Dr. Daniel Kalish. It is amazing how Dr. Kalish has been able to help so many Parkinson’s patients over the last 21 years! I do pray this information will be helpful. Please don’t hesitate contacting me should you need any further information.

    God bless you in ALL you do to help so many!

    Most Graciously,

    Deb

  22. This sharing was very eye-opening and thought provoking — I recently heart a gentleman give this advice — “If you’re going to worry, don’t worry alone.”

    … it’s time to get busy living.
    Thanks Ray.

  23. Beautifully said, Mr. Edwards. I admire your attitude and I’m praying for you!! My brother committed suicide a few years ago. I really understand how they feel there’s no way out – no solution or end to the pain or anguish. While alive there is always a new morning… <3

  24. Third to last sentence is extremely illuminating. So clear. Thank you!

    “Give them a chance to love you, before you irrevocably break their hearts.”

    I haven’t ever understood what people meant when they said “it’s selfish to commit suicide.” I think you just defined exactly what they are feeling. I’m a doctor. Dealt with families of suicide a handful of times. Not a lot… but enough. I don’t think people who committ suicide comprehend this amazing sentence. What a great title for a book, or whatever.

    Can you elaborate on this sentence. It’s very powerful and profound. It can be used in so many other situations for people suffering. Thank you for that sentence. And the whole post of course.