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Yes, People With Chronic Illnesses and Disabilities Can Be Jerks

I sat on the toilet backward, still trying to get it to stop running. I had just gotten through yelling at both of my children for not helping. Ashamed of my behavior, I looked at my kids and said, “I’m sorry for acting like a jerk and yelling at you.” My daughter looked at me and said, “Dad, it’s OK. It’s just the Parkinson’s talking.” I stopped and looked at her and said, “Don’t let me off that easy. This has nothing to do with Parkinson’s. I was just being a jerk.”

One of my heroes has always been Michael J. Fox. Even before I knew of my Parkinson’s diagnosis, I always looked up to him and respected the man he was and how he chose to view this struggle. One thing I have also respected from him is the honesty with which he spoke, never trying to sugarcoat it, but letting people know how things really were. In his role on “The Good Wife,” Mr. Fox shared that he wanted to show that chronically ill people can be “assholes too.” That people with chronic illness can be manipulative or rude or jerks just like anyone else, and you know what, he is right. When discussing his reoccurring role on “The Good Wife,” he shared this:

“My whole idea behind this guy, it was a real simple concept. I just thought that people see a wheelchair or see someone with a disability on television and the music gets soft and hazy and then the guy is struggling with some mundane task, trying to conquer this thing — like me trying to put a ball on a tee on a golf course — and then they finally do it and the music rises to crescendo …Handicapped [sic] people can be assholes too. Handicapped people can be jerks and manipulative, and so it was fun to play one.”

One thing I find refreshing is his honesty about not only his struggle but the reality of anyone who battles this disease or some other disability or chronic illness. Sometimes in society, we have this fairytale or idealistic view of groups of people. For instance, we have the idea that every person who serves in the military is a hero, or that every person that wears the badge is good. Many also think that anybody who struggles physically must be a saint.

The reality is, none of those are true. Now, don’t get me wrong, most who serve our country are truly heroes, and most of those wearing the badge are good, decent, caring people. Just because you’re in that category, though, does not mean you’re automatically good. When you have a disability or disease, you ultimately bring with you the person you are, and were, before it happened.

As a person struggling with multiple chronic illnesses, but especially Parkinson’s, I am not automatically a wonderful person, walking through this disease with ease and grace as some saint who is never human. I am not some “inspirational meme” that always has hope. Are there days like that? Sure, but there are also days that bring out the worst in me (just ask those who live with me 24/7). Unfortunately, my family gets to see the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that live inside of me.

This week, in fact, my wife and I had this very discussion. As a young man, I had an awful temper, and it is something I have struggled with as an adult. Over time, I began to find ways to control my temper, and most people never believed I ever struggled with it. The reality is, I can lose my cool with the best of them, I just learned to control it. These days, I find myself losing my cool more than I have in a long time. Yes, Parkinson’s may play a part in this, but I had a temper long before I had Parkinson’s. And I cannot let it become a convenient excuse for me and throw the “Parkinson’s Card” anytime I react wrongly (I have jokingly tried this with my family and you can imagine how well that has worked).

We are all imperfect people doing the best we can in difficult circumstances. One thing that a crisis or a struggle will do, more times than not, is show you the person you truly are. Even in this battle with Parkinson’s, and in my other battles with chronic illness, I have seen many good traits, but I’ve also seen many bad traits in me. I have seen growth in me, and I’ve also watched myself take steps back in other areas.

Just because I have a chronic illness does not mean that magically I’m a wonderful person. That is the message I think Mr. Fox was trying to convey. He was trying to have an honest moment and show some of the real struggles that many facing chronic illness must battle, while also showing what we can put those closest to us through. If I blame everything I do on Parkinson’s, I am its victim, and I then have no responsibility for who I am. Are there things I cannot control? Absolutely, and as this disease takes hold there will be more things I cannot control.

I am not a saint or the Devil, I am a person walking through this struggle the best I can. Sometimes that is good, and sometimes it is not. Chronic illness brings out both the best and the worst in me – sometimes, it just depends on the day. Many times, I am strong, only because I was not given a choice, but often, I do not live up to this image. I hope more days than not, I inspire and encourage others by the journey I am on, and that those days outnumber the days people walk away from me thinking, “What a jerk.” Because guess what, I can be a jerk with the best of them.

Getty image by Noderog.

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