Finding optimism with Michael J. Fox

Renowned actor and Parkinson’s disease research advocate talks about his new book. 

Michael J. Fox spoke candidly about dealing with Parkinson's and his work with the Michael J. Fox Foundation with his friend Harlan Coben.

In his new book “No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality,” actor and advocate Michael J. Fox, talks about how his signature optimism in the face of Parkinson’s disease was challenged after a dangerous fall in his kitchen.

On Thursday night, Fox, known for his roles in TV shows “Family Ties,” “Spin City,” and the movie series “Back to The Future” shared that challenge and how he has come out for the better because of it through a virtual event with the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival.

The virtual talk, which had more than 2,400 listeners, featured novelist and Fox’s close friend Harlan Coben asking Fox, a seasonal resident of Martha’s Vineyard since 1988, about some of his inspirations behind the new book.

Fox spoke candidly, and with a dash of dry wit, about his journey of being diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991 at the age of 29, to getting risky surgery on his spine, and to recently suffering from a severely broken arm.

“Fifty-nine is the average age of someone diagnosed with Parkinson’s and I had it for 29 years by the time I was 58,” Fox, who is now 59, said.

Fox’s inspiration for writing the book began with this extraordinary series of medical issues, after which he began to ask himself, who am I to be an optimist?

“I went into a deep place trying to figure this stuff out, trying to figure out, why was I so optimistic? Was optimism finite? Could I still find some optimism in me, how would I find it, and where would I look?” Fox said.

In 2018, while still dealing with Parkinson’s, doctors found an unrelated noncancerous tumor growing rapidly on Fox’s spine causing significant pain and threatening him with paralysis.

“It’s a wonderful combination,” Fox joked.

The surgery to remove the tumor was risky since it was constricting his spinal cord. Fox said finding a doctor was difficult, but he eventually settled on Dr. Nicholas Theodore.

“He said ‘I see why other people don’t want to do this, this is a mess, this is terrible.’ I said no one else wanted to touch it and then he said ‘well, do you want to be the guy that paralyzes Michael J. Fox?’” Fox said. “It made me laugh so hard, I thought, this guy’s got to be good.”

After a successful six-hour surgery, Fox spent several months learning how to walk again. 

Breaking his arm, however, hit Fox harder than his Parkinson’s diagnosis and his spinal tumor because he felt like he had let his family down and disrespected their concern.

“Parkinson’s is one thing. It’s insidious and just showed up to be a part of my life and I didn’t do anything to make it happen, it just happened. Same with the spine,” Fox said. “The broken arm was the thing that really pissed me off because that was my fault.”

Fox said pride led him to want to be alone. After his long and difficult recovery from spinal surgery, things were looking up for Fox. During a quick trip to New York to make a cameo in the Spike Lee produced-film “See You Yesterday,” Fox told one of his daughters that had accompanied him that he could be left alone for the night and did not need assistance getting ready in the morning. 

The next morning, he did the one thing his family hoped he wouldn’t do — he fell, shattering his arm.

“When you think about an illness or chronic disease or any situation where your abilities are compromised, it’s the people around you that it really affects too,” Fox said. “It’s a real balance between taking care of yourself and knowing what you can do and what you can accomplish and what your boundaries are and measuring it with someone else who has their own ideas of your abilities and they’re actually the ones taking care of you.”

In the book and in Thursday’s virtual talk, Fox talks about his wife, actress Tracey Pollan, and reflects on her importance in most every aspect of his life. In an initial draft of the book, Fox’s editor told him “more show-biz, more Tracey.” Fox said adding more of his wife into the book was an easy note to take.

“Inevitably she had a part in everything. Everything I looked at I could see some reflection of her touch and her attention,” Fox said.

One story Fox shared from the book was when he and Pollan were returning on a flight from Europe. Fox left his seat to use the restroom and when he returned he sat in a separate seat across the aisle from Pollan, who was sleeping, so he didn’t have to move around her and wake her.

“We hit some turbulence. It was brief, but really loud and violent and it woke her up. Immediately she looked next to herself, realized I wasn’t there, got up, bolted to the front of the plane looking for me, and I thought, you can’t fake that,” Fox said.

Fox also shared some fun facts from his book, like his first ever tattoo he got of a sea turtle.

During a New Year’s trip to the Caribbean, Fox saw a sea turtle with “a scar on his beak and a chunk taken out of his skin” while swimming. The moment was at a time in Fox’s career where he had recently come out to the public with his Parkinson’s diagnosis and was thinking about leaving the “Spin City” TV show and contemplating the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

“So I saw this turtle, I spent half an hour with him, I got out of the water and went to Tracey, and said I’m leaving the show and starting the foundation,” Fox said.

Since its beginning in 2000, the foundation has become the world’s largest nonprofit funder of Parkinson’s disease research, having raised more than $1 billion. At Thursday’s talk, he said he is optimistic they will find a solution to the disease.

“We’re going to figure this out,” Fox said.

While known for his prolific acting career, Fox said it’s easier to write than it is to act.

“I love just sitting there … to sit there and work it out and ask myself questions I wouldn’t ask otherwise and find answers I wouldn’t expect from myself,” Fox said. 

His love of writing came from his love of books and his father’s love of wordplay. Fox’s goal with the book was to make people feel comfortable by being honest with his battle with medical issues and how it tested his optimism.

Fox first came to the Vineyard after his honeymoon in the Caribbean. Being annoyed with paparazzi following them around, Pollan suggested the couple spend time on Martha’s Vineyard, where she spent summers growing up.

“As soon as we got there I looked around and said ‘I would have married you just for this,’” he said.

Thinking over the past year during the pandemic, Fox said he was grateful for the time he was able to spend with his family and the conversations they had together — perhaps the biggest lesson of his book.

“If you can find gratitude, you can find optimism,” Fox said.

Michael J. Fox’s book “No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality” is available for order at Bunch of Grapes bookstore.