Trust Me, I'm Elated


by Peter Dunlap-Shohl

Anyone can see some of the damage Parkinson's disease visits on those who have it. Tremor and shuffling are painfully obvious. But there is another set of problems spawned by what you don't see.

With the loss of control of facial muscles we also lose a significant chunk of our ability to communicate. Instead of expressive smiles and frowns, we present a deadpan, blank mask that unnerves others.

Much of the sense of what we all say is not in the voice or words, but in the subtle visual cues and signals the face sends. We all interpret speech in the light of what we read in a person's expression. People with Parkinson's can slowly lose the ability to enhance communication this way without even knowing it.

Think about the problem of misinterpretation of email. The sender composes a message in which the words seem clear as the send button is pushed. The recipient looks at the cold, expressionless type on their screen, and without the guidance of the visual and tone cues that we all use to correctly interpret meaning, assigns meaning that isn't there. Often the missing meaning is misread, and the interpretation negative.

Now consider the way we get around this problem. We insert little faces that clarify our intent :-) This is exactly what those of us with Parkinson's disease are not doing in face-to-face Conversation. We are sending spoken email, without the emotions :-(. Instead of this :-) , or this :-(, what we send is this :-I ¯ Nothing but :-I ¯

To complicate things further, we are often unaware that we are not sending the proper cues. And worse, as people look for these cues and cannot find them, they get frustrated, confused and eventually angry.

Once while taking care of some support group business at a bank with my friend Lory, I sensed rising irritation in our banker. I was at a loss as to the cause, but then realized she was Interpreting our Parkinsonian lack of expression as anger. I stopped the rapidly deteriorating meeting, and explained our featureless expressions. The change was immediate and dramatic. She went from grim to jovial in seconds flat. And Lory and I, having solved the mysterious problem, were elated :-I ¯

Cartoonist Peter Dunlap-Shohl, 52, blogs from Anchorage, AK, where he lives with his wife and son, and leads the Anchorage Parkinson's Disease Support Group. You can enjoy more of his postings at


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