Michael J. Fox is well-known for starring in the famous “Back to the Future” franchise. The actor gained immense popularity after starring in the sci-fi/comedy trilogy. He was at the height of his career in the 1990s with steady career prospects, a growing reputation, and a number of blockbuster films to his name.
Sadly, things took a dark turn for the actor in 1991 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease for the first time. At the time, the actor was merely 29. Over the next few weeks, his health deteriorated, and his symptoms grew worse. With less vitality and constant tremors, Fox decided to step back from acting.
With his retirement came the drive to want to give back to the community. Fox took to promoting stem cell research, ending up in a political campaign ad for Claire McCaskill when she ran against Senator Jim Talent of Missouri, who wanted to ban stem cell research—a field with countless medical applications.
These principles help Fox keep a positive outlook despite his challenging circumstances.
In the ad, his Parkinson’s caused him to rock visibly, and his medication caused slight involuntary spasms. The actor’s illness had clearly progressed quite far. However, not everyone took the ad for what it was. The famous political commentator Rush Limbaugh criticized Fox, saying he was “exaggerating” the effects of his disease.
Even though Limbaugh had criticized Fox openly and unfairly called him “shameless,” the Canadian-American actor didn’t respond in kind. Instead, he made a nonchalant retort meant simply to disarm his dissenter. Fox stayed reasonable and didn’t lose his head over the comment.
In response to Limbaugh insisting he was “either off his medication or acting,” the actor fired back, saying, “My pills are working really well right now.”
Seeing Fox’s calm response, Limbaugh realized he may have misjudged and apologized for his rash critique. However, Fox’s representative soon spoke out:
“It’s an appalling, sad statement. Anybody who understands Parkinson’s disease knows it’s because of the medicine that one experiences.”
Rush Limbaugh on October 2, 2003 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania | Source: Getty Images
Fox’s calm, collected response is an excellent indication of how he approaches his ordeal. Despite the challenging days and the testy nature of his disease, he has kept up his spirits. The actor has refused to let his Parkinson’s get him down and constantly encourages others in similar situations to stay positive.
The actor shared that the first few years after the diagnosis were the hardest.
Besides founding the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s research, the actor has spoken publicly about how he manages his disease. On each of these occasions, Fox has taken the opportunity to encourage others and spread hope. In his words, “I hate when people say, ‘You’re giving them false hope.’ To me, hope is informed optimism.”
Fox shared other methods of staying positive besides holding onto hope. These included exercise, pacing, acceptance, honesty, optimism, and humor. These principles help him keep a positive outlook despite his challenging circumstances. And these are the tenets he encourages others with chronic illness to adopt.
Besides his six how-tos for hopefulness, the actor also ascribes his happiness to the support of his wife, Tracy Pollan. Fox mentioned that Pollen has stood by his side no matter how difficult things got, and she always had something encouraging to say to help lift his spirits. He reflected:
“Tracy wasn’t sentimental or romantic about it at all. No terror. Tracy was just like, ‘You’ve got a stone in your shoe. We’ll do what we can until you can get it out. In the meantime, if you limp with the stone, that’s all right. You can hold my hand, and we’ll get over that.'”
Over the years, Fox’s constant support for organizations seeking cures for his disease has helped the medical field progress considerably. The actor’s own foundation has contributed to numerous research ventures over the years, truly bringing hope to others waiting for good news regarding their conditions.
A Worrying Diagnosis and a New Start
In 2023, Fox agreed to do a documentary that explores how he coped with his diagnosis. The actor shared that the first few years after the diagnosis were the hardest. He kept the news to himself, telling only a handful of trusted individuals. In order to keep his increasing symptoms at bay, he became reliant on substances.
Fox hopes to inform people about his illness and let others know that the disease does not mean leading a debilitated life until death.
The actor revealed many unknown details about the first seven years when he hid his Parkinson’s. To keep his symptoms from showing, he used dopamine pills. They concealed his tremors so he could work without any drawbacks. Meanwhile, he dulled the anxiety that accompanied being diagnosed with alcohol.
Michael J. Fox, 2023 | Source: youtube.com/@BehindtheClapperboard
The documentary, “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie,” explores the actor’s everyday life and plunges head-first into what it means to have Parkinson’s. With it, Fox and director Davis Guggenheim gave viewers a first-hand experience of Fox’s daily routines and even a glimpse into doctor-patient visits.
Guggenheim thoroughly inquired about Fox’s life, and the actor answered him as honestly as possible. In one striking conversation, Fox responded to a question about his day-to-day life, saying, “I’m in intense pain.” The “Life With Mickey” star even showed how often he falls, and he was injured several times during the making of the film.
Still, Fox realized long ago that the worst thing about the illness is not the dependence it causes or the physical toll it takes. Instead, what irks him the most about Parkinson’s is the “restraint.” The first days of the illness were the worst. He mentioned, “The worst thing is to be confined and to not be able to have a way out.”
Nonetheless, he reminds himself of the good times he had despite his disease. In the beginning, he thought the diagnosis was the end of his normal life. He dreaded not being able to hold his children as they grew up. These days, he’s happy to have made it as far as he has. He revealed his new approach to his disease:
“People around me are going, ‘Be careful, be careful.’ And I’m like: ‘This has nothing to do with being careful. This happens.’ Some people would view the news of my disease as an ending. But I was starting to sense it was really a beginning.”
Although the documentary covered many of Fox’s daily struggles, it also put a highly positive spin on living with Parkinson’s. Fox hopes to inform people about his illness and let others know that the disease does not mean leading a debilitated life until death. With it, he wants to spread awareness and hope.
Throughout the movie, Fox explains how he found his way back from being substance-dependent and afraid of what the future held to an optimistic, happy father and husband. The documentary also ends on a positive note, explaining how the Michael J. Fox Foundation originated and how it has helped through the years.
However cheerful Fox tries to remain, sometimes his hopefulness runs out. He remembered 2019 as one of the hardest years of his life. In 2018, the actor experienced setback after setback. It all started with a nasty fall. Fox candidly explained what happened that caused him to relearn walking.
With little determination left and highly depressed about the outcome of the fall, Fox needed support like never before.
Fox revealed he had a problem with his spinal cord, which caused him to fall often. If he didn’t get surgery, he would have lost feeling in his legs and most likely have needed a wheelchair for his day-to-day life. Luckily, the problem was identified in time, and the actor had the necessary surgery.
The spinal surgery left Fox unable to stand on his own two feet, and he spent months relearning to walk. He started out in a wheelchair and progressed to walking aids after a few months of physical therapy. Just as he thought he was making progress and being fully mended was right around the corner, tragedy struck.
The actor explained that he got “too cocky” about his recovery, opting to move about without any walking aids or even a simple cane. Unfortunately, a misstep led to a nasty tumble which left the actor with a broken arm and a few ugly bruises. He recalled the fall and explained its effects:
“After I had the spinal surgery, I had to learn to walk again. I was really cocky about it and walking with no aids or cane. And then I shattered my humerus, which is no joke. I got grim. I was the guy who made lemonade out of lemons but I was out of the lemonade business. I couldn’t do that.”
The incident set the actor’s progress to recovery back by a few steps, and he broke more than only his arm. With little determination left and highly depressed about the outcome of the fall, Fox needed support like never before. By this time, he had kicked his alcohol dependency and had no intention of going back to the bottle.
Although he’ll be the first to attest to the wonders of a good outlook, he knows how difficult it can be to stay positive.
His only solution was to turn to those he loved most in the world—his family. Fox and Pollan said their vows in 1988, three years before his initial diagnosis. The young couple also had their first son, Sam Fox, by the time the doctor broke the news. Soon, his family became critical to his continued optimism.
His family gave him something to hold on to and be thankful for. Fox and Pollan share four kids—one son and three daughters. The four kids, Sam, Schuyler, Aquinnah, and Esme, offered their dad the motivation to keep cultivating a positive outlook, and the proud dad of three couldn’t be more thankful for them.
He found strength in his family, especially his wife’s unwavering support. The actor has commended his wife consistently since he started speaking out about his illness. These days, he spends most of his time with his family. The Fox brood even hunkered down together during the lockdown:
“We were always linger-after-dinner people anyway, and now we were lingering and talking about what people were going through. Doing jigsaws, Tracy cooking up a storm, everyone there, these wonderful children and this great wife. I can’t believe I have this life.”
It’s this endless gratitude that made Fox an icon for people with chronic diseases. Despite facing unthinkable personal tribulations, he keeps counting his blessings and taking every day the way it comes. However, the Emmy winner confessed that staying upbeat sometimes seemed out of place.
He ended the interview with the words, “It’s been an amazing life, and the biggest part of it is with them.”
Although he’ll be the first to attest to the wonders of a good outlook, he knows how difficult it can be to stay positive. Fox mentioned that he often felt his positive preaching to be out of place for many. His uplifting words often merely felt like “Band-Aids and skinned knees,” despite his best efforts.
Nonetheless, he keeps talking about the methods he uses to keep from spiraling into a dark paradigm. And at the top of his list is his family. On many occasions, the actor has singled out his family as his last remaining option when all his smaller support structures fail him. He even gushed about them in an interview.
As part of the publicity for his new documentary, “Still,” Fox opened up about his relationship with his kids. The actor raved about his kids and the profound effect fatherhood had on his life. He mentioned that the making of the documentary has shown him exactly how much they mean to him.
He expressed, “What screams at me is how lucky I’ve been, how successful my life has been.” Although he’s one of the most prolific actors of his time, Fox would rather measure his success in terms of the children he raised.
Fox proceeded, saying he doesn’t let the outside world determine his internal environment. Whenever he looks at his kids, he realizes what a happy life he has led despite his Parkinson’s. He ended the interview with the words, “It’s been an amazing life, and the biggest part of it is with them.”