Using my fists to fight Parkinson’s
We all answer the bell at Rockville’s Title Boxing Club in our own time. I arrive early, 20 minutes before our 1 p.m. class. I nod at some of the folks leaving from the noon session; most are fit, togged out in trendy gymwear and way younger. Taking a seat on one of the four curved benches near the window, my first challenge awaits. Some of us have mastered the origami of swaddling one’s hands with a yardslong wrap of woven cotton. It took me a while, but I was spurred by the mini-shame of asking a trainer to assist; too much like someone tying my shoes. I roll the wrap three times around my wrist, then in between fingers, back around the wrist and several turns over my knuckles. Diane asks if she can watch me, to learn. I laugh. “I seriously doubt I ever do it the same way twice.” My classmates straggle in and fill the benches, some with spouses or caregivers.
Sometimes our class draws double takes from the others at the club. A gaggle of folks with Parkinson’s disease (PD) will do that. My fellow PD pugilists—the class size fluctuates between six and 15 men and women ranging in age from 50 to nearly 80—present different stages of impairment. I gently chide 76-year-old Carole Richardson of Kensington, a Texan who came to D.C. to attend dental school and practiced here for decades. Her mobility is compromised, so she’s using the class to regain muscle strength and agility. “When I miss a week, I feel like I’m losing momentum,” she says. Likewise, retired federal government employee Howard Press, 73, of Olney says his goal is to strengthen his abs “so I can stand more erect.”
After some warm-up exercises—jumping jacks, toe taps, squats—we shadowbox for a bit. Today, there are eight of us scattered among a thicket of 100-pound heavy bags that hang like hogs in a slaughterhouse. “Glove up!” club owner John Sahakian barks, and my pulse quickens. I pull on blue 12-ounce boxing gloves with the Title logo. Like a DJ running through a playlist, Sahakian leads us through drills that mix punches. “Jab, cross, lead uppercut, rear hook,” he urges. We all respond the best we can. We are game, for sure, and eager to please, but our bodies defy direction and our brightly colored gloves sometimes flail or greet the bag with a cousin’s kiss.
My heavy bag appears as an affront, and a trial. It embodies four years of fear, night terrors, frustration—and yes, anger—that never takes a break, never hears the bell. I hit the bag as hard as I can, my knuckles stinging despite the protective wrap as Sahakian switches commands from rhythm to speed to power. The thud-thwap issuing from the bag soothes me. All the worry, the “why me?” flies from my fists. My Parkinson’s disease has no purchase on my reptile brain, it seems. I’m outside myself, observing what normal looks like. I am 69 years old and have spent five years living with PD.
Before I started going to Title, what little boxing I’d done was years ago in summer camp, when the counselor refereeing my fight moved to stop it because my gums were bloody from a blow to my braces. I resisted, unleashing a 12-year-old’s blubbering outrage. We resumed, and fueled by shame and pique I windmilled my opponent into submission.
It was rage, yes, but mainly hope that brought me back to boxing decades later. Why am I pounding a sack and grunting like Iron Mike Tyson? Because the “sweet science,” as a British journalist christened it, offers a fighting chance of slowing the disorder that has scrambled my brain—and my life.
PD is the unwanted gift that keeps on taking, a progressive disorder of the nervous system. It affects several regions of the brain, especially an area called the substantia nigra that controls balance and movement. An early symptom is trembling or shaking of a limb, especially when the body is at rest. Typically the tremor begins on one side of the body, usually in one hand. Insidiously, shaking may spread to the arms, legs, feet and face. If that’s not sufficiently alarming, one may soon experience rigidity or stiffness of the limbs and torso, slow movement (bradykinesia) or an inability to move (akinesia), and impaired balance and coordination. Over time, these symptoms worsen: slowly, irrevocably. As a bonus, PD may also affect emotions and thinking ability, triggering depression and visual hallucinations. Some people pay to hallucinate; I get it for free.
An avid cyclist, I first noticed something amiss when my bike began to wobble, leading to a couple of near tumbles. My balance was off. My walking gait downshifted to slo-mo, as if impeded by a force field. After a consultation with my internist in the fall of 2013, I went to see Dr. Codrin Lungu, a Parkinson’s expert at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at NIH. Lungu, whose scholarly, intense demeanor is tempered by a wry sense of humor, said I was exhibiting “idiopathic Parkinsonian symptoms.” Translation: You have PD.
PD as such is not a mortal disease. It steadily sucks away your quality of life until, for some, it becomes unmanageable, unbearable—despite medications and brain stimulations that ease symptoms. I reasoned that many people receive more dire diagnoses, but reason crumbles under the weight of despair, and all too soon I started sliding into the sinkhole of frustration, anxiety and bitterness. I hid my dread and tears from my wife. My four kids were out of the house, so they mostly saw or heard Good Old Funny Sarcastic Dad. I yearned for normalcy, not sympathy.
I’d always been active, so after meds helped stabilize me, I started investigating palliative forms of exercise. A study by the Parkinson’s Foundation found that people with the disease who exercised at least 2½ hours a week experienced slower declines in quality of life than those who didn’t exercise at all. Outdoor cycling on a two-wheeler was perilous, so I took indoor cycling classes. Some magazine articles and medical studies I read suggested that boxing was a coming thing in the Parkinson’s prescription, benefiting hand-eye coordination, balance and footwork. The irony wasn’t lost on me. Wasn’t boxing legend Muhammad Ali’s PD ascribed to a few too many punches to the head? PD boxing, however, is strictly solo; the “opposition” is a heavy bag with a sand core and filled with shredded fabric, or it’s a trainer holding padded mitts for you to pound. Unless the speed bag bounces back into your kisser, you’re not in harm’s way.