by Mark Richardson
In the summer of 2019, I concluded the best way to kill myself was by jumping in front of a train. I didn’t want to be one of those people who attempted to end it all and failed, so approaches I deemed less likely of success were discarded. Ten years earlier, my mother had committed suicide by taking pills, but I didn’t have an adequate supply. A handgun seemed the most efficient approach, but I wasn’t a gun person and refused to become one, even under the circumstances. And although I live in the Bay Area, I never considered jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.
I memorized the train schedules so I’d know when the express ran through Burlingame, the town where I planned to commit my final act. I actually drove out to Burlingame, twice, to get the lay of the land and identify the best spot to position myself on the tracks.
* * *
My downward turn began at my job. I worked as a marketing manager for a tech outfit in Silicon Valley, where I was part of a dysfunctional group. For months, team members only begrudgingly spoke to each other, human resources had to become involved, and we all suffered through a decidedly stressful environment. Things peaked during a meeting with my manager where we screamed at each other in a tiny, windowless, steamy conference room. Afterward, I found myself experiencing acute anxiety, which manifested itself physically. I began to have trouble walking properly. My left arm hooked upward and stopped swinging as I moved, as if I was defending my side. I literally shook. As I shuffled through the office hallways, I caught coworkers glancing at me sideways. As these physical symptoms worsened, it created even more anxiety, until I spiraled down into such a hot mess that my wife demanded I stay home on medical leave.
I tried to book an appointment with my doctor, but he was on a vacation so I saw his backup. I explained what I was experiencing, showed him my quivering hand, and he agreed I was experiencing anxiety. He prescribed Ativan, which stopped the shaking and coated me in a blissful cocoon. When the pills ran out, I went to see my regular doctor, who had returned, seeking a fresh dose, but he wouldn’t refill the prescription. He told me Ativan had awful side effects and was horribly addictive. He suggested what I really needed was to go to an outpatient facility.
For six weeks, I went to the outpatient facility. Most of the other patients had suffered experiences far worse than what had I gone through, and I watched as they benefited from the program. I didn’t get better. If anything, I got worse. My body continued to shake uncontrollably. Although it was against the rules, I was allowed to periodically go into a closed room where I’d stretch out on a sofa with a pillow between my knees and try to calm my quivering body.
As my physical condition worsened, my anxiety intensified. I began to eat less frequently and lost so much weight my jeans no longer fit. As the end of the six-week period approached, I saw no escape and became frantic.
I began to have my first suicidal thoughts.
Watching me deteriorate was terrible for my wife. Unlike me, she had no direct experience with anxiety or depression, so she began to look for another explanation. She’s a nurse, and instinctually turned toward trying to find a physical cause. She decided I had Parkinson’s disease. Obviously, this was ridiculous. My friends and family and counselors all agreed. My wife persisted.
To humor my wife, I went with her to visit my doctor. She explained her theory, and surprisingly, the doc didn’t laugh her off, but booked an appointment with a neurologist. My wife took me to that appointment. I was angry with her for wasting my time and so animated I could not sit. I frantically paced in the cramped examination room as the neurologist stepped me through a series of tests—touching my nose, swinging my arms, moving my eyes, and snapping my fingers. As I completed the last test, I explained to the doctor what had happened to me at work and my family’s history with depression, including my mother’s suicide. I was so agitated that I didn’t speak, but literally screamed at her.
“My wife has convinced herself of something that is obviously not true,” I said. “Tell her the truth!”
The doctor leaned toward me. “You want the truth?”
“You have Parkinson’s disease.”
You could have knocked me over with a feather. I was so locked into my way of thinking that I didn’t believe the diagnosis. As my wife drove us home, I turned to her and said, “That woman is a quack. When you’re a hammer, you think everything is a nail. She’s a neurologist, so of course she came to that conclusion.” My family was skeptical as well. The next day, I went back to the outpatient facility and told my favorite counselor the news. She shook her head and said, “You don’t have Parkinson’s. You have anxiety.”
There is no test that can conclusively determine whether someone has Parkinson’s. After one diagnosis, it is recommended you see another doctor for a second opinion. So I booked another appointment and my wife drove me and the kids across the bay, where a second neurologist ran me through the same tests. Her conclusion? “There is a ninety percent chance you have Parkinson’s.” She arranged for me to see a movement order specialist at the Stanford Neuroscience Health Center, but I would have to wait six weeks.
Sadly, the diagnosis didn’t help my mental state. For starters, I still didn’t believe it, at least not fully. Cognitive dissonance is a powerful thing. Despite the conclusion of two Ivy League-educated experts, I continued to tell myself my family had a history of mental illness and that’s what I was experiencing. I also began to fixate on suicide.
One day, after my second trip to the Burlingame train station, I let my wife in on my morbid thoughts and told her I felt like I was dying. She was convinced all my psychological problems were connected to the Parkinson’s, and said, “I’m tired of waiting for your appointment.” She dropped the kids off with some friends and drove me to the emergency room at Stanford Hospital. While a doctor took my blood pressure, I prattled on about how I constantly thought about killing myself. In the emergency room, I met with a doctor who was both a neurologist and a psychologist. He had me—for a third time—do a neurological exam.
When I was finished, still stubbornly locked into my old mindset, I said, “My problem is anxiety, right?”
“You do have anxiety, but there is more going on than that. You have an illness.”
“One hundred percent. You have Parkinson’s or Parkinson’s-like symptoms, which explains what is happening to you.”
“What do we do now?”
“We’re going to put you into the Stanford Outpatient Facility.”
“No,” I said. “I don’t want to do that. I want to go home.”
“You’re suicidal. I can’t let you go home.’
Pro tip: if you’re in a hospital and don’t want to be institutionalized, don’t talk about suicide.
* * *
My ordeal was dreadful for my wife, who had to work, do the lion share of the parenting, and worry about whether she’d come home and find me dead. So my sister flew in from the Midwest and was there to greet me on the day of my discharge. She escorted me to the airport, where I boarded a plane to Chicago and spent three weeks with my brother and his wife. I ate their food, slept on their futon, and played board games with their friends. It healed my mind, if not my body.
One day, while walking along the shore of Lake Michigan, my brother said to me, “There is something going on with you. More than just depression.”
“Yes. I can see it.”
I finally began to accept the truth, and became determined to reclaim my life.
* * *
In September, my wife and I met with the movement disorder specialist at the Stanford Neuroscience Health Center. After yet another exam, he said in a matter-of-fact way, “Of course you have Parkinson’s,” confirming what my wife believed from the start. I’ve always known how lucky I am to be married to her, and now I feel like she saved my life. I know how frustrating it can be to know you are right about something and have nearly everyone disagree with you. Recently she said, “I never understood why you listened to everyone else when I was the person living with you.”
That day at the Neuroscience Health Center, I told the movement disorder specialist all that had happened to me, and he said everything could be attributed to the disease. Hearing it from a doctor who specialized in supporting Parkinson’s patients finally convinced my stubborn mind of the truth. What’s more, I felt happy to have an answer. I imagine I’m one of the few people given a Parkinson’s diagnosis who was relieved to hear the news.
In September, my wife and I met with the movement disorder specialist at the Stanford. After yet another exam, he said in a matter-of-fact way, “Of course you have Parkinson’s,” confirming what my wife believed from the start. I told the neurologist all that had happened to me, and he said everything could be attributed to the disease. Hearing it from a doctor who specialized in supporting Parkinson’s patients finally convinced me of the truth. What’s more, I felt happy to have an answer. I imagine I’m one of the few people given a Parkinson’s diagnosis who was relieved to hear the news.
Although my mental outlook has brightened, my physical condition has worsened. And Parkinson’s is progressive, so I can expect it to get worse. Still, I know this: I want to live! And I’m excited about what lies ahead.
Originally published in the Our Stories to Tell anthology.