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 a;ront,
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, o;ers 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 ner-
vous system. It a;ects 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 su;ciently alarming, one may soon experience rigidity
or sti;ness 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 a;ect emotions
and thinking ability, triggering depres-
sion 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.