Parkinson’s: Was it me, the pesticides or Diefenbaker?

You know, I didn’t plan much of my life. What I mean is that most of my life seems to have just happened to me.  I was there obviously, but it was as if I was swept along with the current and occasionally I would thrust an oar into the water to change direction – maybe out to sea, maybe into choppy waters, or maybe into a safe harbor.  In retrospect, maybe I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to what was happening. The question is: should I have been paying more attention and taken a more active role in setting the trajectory for my body and soul?

Would my life be different (better?) if I had formulated a grand plan or blueprint for living my life with measureable goals of achievement?  I have talked to many people who have such an orientation. Their life’s path and goals can be either detailed or general but they are never in doubt that when the final tally of their life’s work (existence) is counted, that it will be called a “success.”  Most argue that humans can control or shape their own destinies through their talents, skills, and abilities, and hard work, good judgment, and good decision-making can always be credited for success.  And conversely, if you are not a success, then you must not have the necessary skills or, more likely, you have screwed up somewhere along the way, by exercising bad judgment, bad decision-making or not working hard enough.

Curbside Tansy: Good planning, bad planning, no planning?  Photo: S. Marshall

Curbside Tansy: Good planning, bad planning, no planning? Photo: S. Marshall

I am not convinced that I can look back over my life with such certainty and proclaim that the trajectory I have followed has been purposeful to the point that I can claim to be its author either way. I certainly don’t feel as if I had a vision and worked successfully to realize that vision.  Undoubtedly, some would say that is a terribly sad thing to admit as the word “failure” carries such a heavy burden. Rest assured, I do not feel as if my life, in any respect, has been a failure.  It is just that I did not set the course alone and was not always aware of the destination.  But, as authors usually say, “I am indebted to all who made this work possible but any errors and omissions are my responsibilities alone….”  Very few say, “I took a laissez faire approach to this work and this is the way it turned out….”

I also do not think that I am a fatalist: someone who thinks that “fate” pre-determines life’s chances, direction and outcome.  This doesn’t really fit all that well with a previous post about the long shadow of the gardener where I outline the gardener’s role in intervening in the course of Nature and the role that humans play in successfully altering certain aspects of diseases and conditions affecting and afflicting the human condition.  While we do not have a cure for Parkinson’s, we most certainly do mitigate its symptoms through the use of pharmaceuticals and we alter its intensity through Deep Brain Stimulation and delay its progression through exercise. So, I am not a fatalist but neither am I in the camp where humans can absolutely control their own destiny.  Could it be that I am unknowingly floating along with one oar occasionally dipping into the water so that I am going in circles only sporadically rather than all the time?  Hmmm … that is an intriguing thought at least.

I can pretty much tell you with certainty that no one plans to have Parkinson’s Disease.  But I have it.  Does this mean that I have screwed up somewhere along the away?  Did I miss a cue where I could have jabbed my oar into the water more forcefully to change course?  Does it mean that I am a failure – perhaps weak of mind, weak of body, or that I used poor or bad judgment along the way? Is having Parkinson’s Disease an individual failing or weakness?  Is it similar to smoking and its relationship to lung cancer where we can point to the smoker and say self-righteously that they should not have smoked; they should have known better; and now they are paying the price.

Perhaps, I should have washed my fruits and vegetables more diligently over the course of my lifetime to ensure that I was not ingesting harmful chemicals used in agriculture. Perhaps, it goes back to my parents and grandparents as they grew many of those fruits and vegetables on the farm and in small town gardens using pesticides predominant in the 1950s and 1960s (and maybe unwittingly exposing themselves and their families to unnecessarily high levels.) These decades have been coined the “Golden Age of Pesticides” led by that miracle chemical DDT which gained credibility for its effectiveness in WWII.  A whole host of products were developed – pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, bactericides, miticides, rodenticides, nematicides, and fungicides – attacking pests, insects, fungus, weeds and other organisms which threatened the production of the world’s food resources. We know now that this was unhealthy but do we know that any of these chemicals cause (or caused) Parkinson’s?

Some nasty products inherited from previous owner.  Photo: S. Marshall

Some nasty products inherited from the previous owner of our house.   Photo: S. Marshall

While the relationship between pesticides and Parkinson’s is under greater and greater scrutiny, at the moment there is no scientific proof that the relationship is anything more than a correlation.  Interestingly, I did grow up in Manitoba where persons with Parkinson’s are overrepresented compared to the Canadian population.  One might surmise that Manitoba would be the ideal crucible for Parkinson’s with exposures to pesticides in the production of grains and market garden produce.  But I did not grow up on the Red River Valley flood plain, which had the highest concentration of pesticide use.  I grew up on the Manitoba escarpment formed by the shores of receding glacial Lake Agassiz.  A University of Manitoba research paper indicates that the incidence of Parkinson’s is higher along the escarpment than elsewhere in the province.  But, as usual, there are some complicating factors inasmuch as the area also has high levels of cadmium and arsenic compounds which places well water at risk of contamination through erosion and runoff.  I remember my father talking about possible arsenic contamination in our wells when I was a child in the 1950s.  Everyone in our rural location was on well water.

The present always links to the past of course, but the equation is never linear.  I guess there is no shortage of areas for me to research, contemplate and on which to opine.  I grow more like my father every day.

It is neither for personal gain nor ideological correctness that I encourage research on the relationship between Parkinson’s and pesticides.  I am sure that many would like to pin Parkinson’s on corporate greed, malicious actions of misinformation or withholding of information, and malfeasance in the application of these products.  There is litigation underway currently in at least one instance involving flight attendants on the matter of the use of pesticides on aircraft and the incidence of Parkinson’s among flight attendants.  Believe me, I am very supportive of these legal claims, but I am resigned to the fact that the most likely outcome of litigation is a settlement to those affected if the case meets what I call the “Erin Brockovich threshold” where the evidence is weighty enough to tip the corporations into a settlement.  It is true that settlements flowing from litigation provide a monetary marker that some level of justice has been reached, and a confirmation that pain and suffering has monetary value.  Indeed, some corporate behaviours will have been changed for the better in the process.  But the primary question of cause and effect remains unanswered.

The current thinking is that some genetic formations are responsive to an environmental trigger for Parkinson’s and pesticides may provide that environmental trigger in some, but not all, instances.  Still, while we are pretty certain that not all cases of PD are the consequence of exposure to pesticides, these findings provide encouragement that we may be closer to finding the cause and a cure.  I can only hope that is the case.

As much as I would like to shift the blame for my having Parkinson’s to pesticides or some other external factor, let’s return for a moment to the assumption that I have some control over my own destiny.  A slightly revised formulation of my question would be:  is Parkinson’s a consequence of having lived a “bad” life?

I am sure that you will excuse me if I approach this question in my usual unorthodox manner by asking:  Did the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker have anything to do with my having Parkinson’s?  John Diefenbaker was Prime Minister of Canada from June 21, 1957, to April 22, 1963.  I was 8 years old when Diefenbaker was elected Prime Minister and I remember vividly being enthralled with this character.  I would listen to his voice quavering through the radio (we didn’t have a television yet) and I could imagine his lips (which had the odd quality of being thin skinned but plump at the same time, with the lower lip often in the pouting position) on the verge of launching a spray of spittle as he castigated then opposition leader Lester B. Pearson of the Liberals on some matter of policy or perhaps, personal, difference.   Diefenbaker was always fodder for political cartoonists but it was particularly so in his later years when his jowls would hang down below his chin, shaking in indignation at his critics both within and outside the Conservative Party.

[I am not going to expound on Diefenbaker’s record as a politician, as it is not germane to any argument that I am going to make here, other than to make a personal observation that his achievements make him look like a freakin’ socialist compared to our current Conservative Prime Minister.  Sorry, I couldn’t resist.]

At any rate a corollary question has to be asked.  Did Diefenbaker himself have Parkinson’s Disease?  Remember, this was a time when there was little research and little medical thinking on the nature or prevalence of PD.  One biographer, Phillip Buckner, says that Diefenbaker had a “nervous habit of shaking his jowls which led to rumours that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease….” Of course an accusation of PD was designed to discredit Diefenbaker and cast doubt on his ability to lead a government.  On June 7, 2001 (22 years after Diefenbaker’s death,) the University of Saskatchewan took an unusual step to issue a press release, announcing research concluding that Diefenbaker did not suffer from Parkinson’s but had “essential tremor,” thus protecting, posthumously, his intellectual integrity and mental capacity to lead a Canadian national government.

OK, so what is all this about Diefenbaker?  The majority of you (a) weren’t even born when Diefenbaker was prime minister; (b) aren’t interested in historical political figures; (c) are apolitical; (d) live in another country; and e) think I have gone off my rocker.  These facts would indicate that I have gone in this direction pretty much to satisfy myself.  Could it be that I am now just beginning to understand that my recipe for blogging is one part self-indulgence on behalf of the writer, one part indulgence from the reader, and one part curiosity from both the writer and the reader as to whether any worthwhile windows on the writer’s soul will be opened if we continue?  I am not sure if you like this recipe, but as with any recipe, you should try it at least once – preferably not half-baked.

In spite of my early fascination with Diefenbaker, I was never a convert to his political vision and for years I openly made light of – no, I openly made fun of the possibility that Diefenbaker had Parkinson’s.  I would impersonate his voice and try to form a shake of my jowls (hidden beneath my beard!) in the most exaggerated manner possible with my lips quivering wetly and indignantly, “Ppppparkinson’s? Rrrriiiidicuulousss!”  It might have fit the atmosphere and political flavor of the moment and I recall that others and I laughed uproariously (more or less, depending on the amount of libation already consumed) at this totally inappropriate and spurious ad hominem attack.

So, I am left sometimes wondering:  am I now paying the price for some pretty stupid things I said about John G. Diefenbaker?  This is not the only stupid thing I have ever done in my life (my children will be surprised that I admit this,) but maybe it is the one thing that has floated to the top of some pond of scum that constitutes the totality of my failings, and the life I now live is matched to the chemical characteristics of that signature scum.

Sometimes the path and destination are not entirely clear. Photo: S. Marshall

Sometimes the path and destination are not entirely clear. Photo: S. Marshall

I haven’t made a study of how people rationalize life’s existence and condition, nor do I plan to do so.  Nevertheless, I would very surprised if any of us who have Parkinson’s doesn’t ask the question: why me?  [I am sure this is common for those who have other debilitating or life threatening conditions.]  And we begin to assess our life in ways that would offer an explanation.  There are, of course, many answers and many paths to follow in the quest for an answer.  Genetics? Pesticides? Other environmental factors?  God’s will?  The answer that makes sense to us as individuals provides the sustenance for our survival.  We need to understand and rationalize our existence, the condition of our existence, and the conditions placed upon our existence.  Not easy stuff to think about and not easy stuff to live.  Hopefully, each of us will find a path and an answer that allows for loving and caring relationships in our families and in our communities. I am exceedingly fortunate to have found such unequivocal love with Anne and all of our children.  But we must also, in our external relationships, free ourselves of bitterness and animosity to those who find different paths with different answers – whether existential or spiritual.

As I review these thoughts,  I am reminded that in a previous post, we flew perilously close to a philosophical sun without melting our wings; today I have taken us perilously close to religious concepts where we might conceivably burn up totally.  I have steered purposefully away from using words, concepts or constructs such as Heaven and Hell, sin and salvation.  Those ideas are undoubtedly on the path for many and are already part of the answer for many.  Are they part of mine?  They haven’t been to date. This is as far as I am prepared to go on this subject at the moment as it is quite foreign terrain for me.  Undoubtedly, I will wander there in future posts.

The only thing I am willing to concede is that I don’t for a minute think that John G. Diefenbaker would assign Parkinson’s Disease in an act of retribution from the Beyond.  But then, have I been speaking “literally” or “figuratively?”  Is Diefenbaker the personification of God?  I bet that he’s never been called that!  Although Dalton Camp may have called him the Devil!  (I hope this statement sends at least some of you scrambling for your Canadian political history books….)

So, why me?  It is not Diefenbaker’s doing.  I don’t believe it is because I led a “bad” life. Is it not fruitless to add up the totalities of one’s failures and successes to pass judgment on your life’s worth?  Anyway, isn’t that someone else’s job?  The jury is still out on the role of pesticides. And who knows whether I could have taken decisive action during my lifetime to change the course of my personal history with Parkinson’s?

Maybe the best answers are really questions: a) who knows (shrug)?  b) if gardens were planned like lives, would we have invented pesticides? and c) if lives were planned like gardens, would we have invented pesticides?

Bad Judgment: Letting The PD Gardener have the camera when his meds have worn off. Phota: S. Marshall

Bad Judgment: Letting The PD Gardener have the camera when his meds have worn off.       Photo: S. Marshall

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One thought on “Parkinson’s: Was it me, the pesticides or Diefenbaker?

  1. Hi, I just found your blog and would like to ask some questions related to your PD experience. Please email me when you can. Thank you so much!

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