Beloved for his roles in Family Ties, Back to the Future, Teen Wolf, and more, Michael J. Fox was one of the most popular stars of the ’80s. But in 1990, the actor noticed a strange symptom—a minor but persistent twitch in his pinky—that would go on to change his life forever. The following year, he was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson’s disease (PD), a movement disorder of the central nervous system that can cause tremor, speech problems, and more. Now, the star is opening up about the one hurdle in his life that made his PD feel like “nothing” by comparison. Read on to hear Fox’s insights about this difficult time, and how he bravely overcame one of his darkest chapters.
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Since sharing his health news with the world seven years after his diagnosis, Fox has been open about how the symptoms of PD have affected his life. One of his most challenging symptoms is tremor, which leaves him unable to sit still.
In a recent interview with comedian Mike Birbiglia, Fox explained that long before his tremor became a part of his everyday life, he was unable to be still in other ways. That’s because, following his diagnosis, the actor turned to alcohol to cope.
As an addict, his life felt erratic and out of control: “I couldn’t be still… I couldn’t gauge what that center of my equilibrium was,” he said. Now sober, he says his life has a greater sense of calm, despite the difficulty of a progressively worsening disease. “The peripatetic wanderings, and weird flailings and body impulses that I feel as a Parkinson’s patient—a sober Parkinson’s patient—are nothing compared to what I felt as a drunk,” he said, adding an expletive. “I mean, that was a completely different thing that I couldn’t be still,” said Fox.
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When Fox was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991, he admits he struggled to accept the news. In speaking with Birbiglia, he described the seven years between his diagnosis and going public about his health as “a long trip through the desert.”
Fox says he turned to alcohol to numb the pain of his diagnosis, but realized he needed to get sober when his wife, Tracy Pollan, found him passed out on a couch in their living room with a spilled can of beer laying on the floor. “Is this what you want?” People reports Pollan saying to him. “This is what you want to be?”
Fox says that in this moment, he realized he was isolating himself from his family, and needed to make a change. With the help of a therapist, he learned better coping skills to deal with his alcoholism and diagnosis. “The tools that worked for quitting drinking work even better for [Parkinson’s], which are: acceptance and surrender. Not like, ‘I give up, I quit,’ but you just say, ‘OK, I cede you the big points,'” Fox told Good Morning America in 2020.
When Fox took control of his alcoholism, he decided to throw himself into his work for the Michael J. Fox Foundation, he says. The organization celebrated its 20th year in 2020, and has now raised one billion dollars in support of Parkinson’s research.
The star now works to advance clinical trials and empower other PD patients in their own lives. “Patients, aside from all the Latin and the diagrams you can’t make sense of, we know more than our doctors. Because we know what it’s like to have the disease,” he told Birbiglia. “I’m an expert on what it’s like to live with Parkinson’s, and I don’t want to forfeit that in any exchange I have with a doctor. I don’t ever want to yield that, because it’s really important. It’s earned, and it’s powerful,” he said.
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Fox says that he used to stretch himself thin to make the most of his health and career, but these days he strives for balance in his life. He focuses on his family, his writing, and his wellness—both physical and mental.
In particular, the actor says he finds peace in meditation throughout the day. “I love to meditate at the beach. I was just doing it this morning,” he shared with Birbiglia. “As I sit, I hear the pound of the waves, get the rhythm. I just go… and then come back 25 minutes later. And nothing’s changed but everything’s changed,” he said.
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