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The road last traveled: M. Scott Peck's journey with Parkinson's disease - Health Beat National Catholic Reporter, Nov 7, 2003 by Arthur Jones Mention the name M. Scott Peck and back like an echo comes the title The Road Less Traveled. Peck, a quarter-century ago, literally trail-blazed his first book across the country to create a new genre of spiritual self-exploration. In his phrase, exploring "spiritual growth as co-creation, with God." It sold more than 7 million copies in the United States and another 3 million worldwide. In the two and a half decades since the book's publication, M. Scott Peck has lived much of his inner life, and a modicum of his personal life, in public. He has been, and at 67 still is, on a spiritual quest. One additional daily companion on his journey now is Parkinson's disease. It has made steady inroads into most aspects of his daily living and will, in time, come to dominate the external man. How Peck assesses its progress and his debilitation has been the topic of many hours of telephone conversation between us. Off-limits were questions regarding his family members, except when he chose to mention them. The focus was Parkinson's disease as part of NCR's continuing health care coverage. What follows is an attempt to illustrate and track an insidious and relentless disease, as observed and experienced by Peck--as a psychiatrist, as a man who has caught the public imagination with his spiritual search, as a medical doctor, and as an ordinary individual trying physically to get through the day. Peck ranges across the topic, from facing death to the practicalities of physical aids, such as the trapeze installed to help him get out of bed. He has not become a student of Parkinson's disease in general. He talks about his perceptions as a person facing the fact that for scientifically unaccountable--as yet-- reasons, Parkinson's disease occurs as the dopamine supply to the brain lessens and continues to diminish. The physical results that friends and relatives of people with Parkinson's disease witness are the external effects of the brain's dopamine shortage, the visible effects on the person's musculature, memory, speech and gait. Dopamine is one of the essential ingredients that fuel the brain's activity. Peck was willing to discuss all these things in some detail. And what follows is who he is, where he came from, what he did, and what he sees, feels and thinks about his disease as he walks along--the road last traveled. In the early 1990s, contemplating retirement, M. Scott Peck and his wife, Lily, both golfers, bought a house in California. It was alongside a golf course and the Pacific Ocean. They kept their western Connecticut house, their home for 30 years. By then in his mid-50s, New York City born and raised, Morgan Scott Peck, in addition to his golf clubs, carried to California a normal half-century's worth of joys and woes. The woes included a feud with his father that lasted half a lifetime. Peck senior was a successful lawyer and judge whom Peck, in adolescence and young adulthood, hated. Then there was the admission by Peck that he had been unfaithful to his wife-- publicly lamented in one of his books. And-there is his own judgment on himself as a parent, "I paid a lot of attention to my writing and my speaking career and paid less attention to my children than I should have," he said. Through 25 years of celebrity status, he did stick by his vow never to expose the children to the publicity mill that surrounded him, to separate their private and personal lives from his own public writing and lectures. Along his road to California, the joys included happy family memories, adventurous trips, evidence that he'd been able to help people through difficulties, and the successes of a string of books, not least the one that spent 10 years on The New York Times bestsellers list. The joys included the satisfaction that came as he and his wife invested a great deal of energy, and more than $3 million, into their Foundation for Community Encouragement, now in abeyance. It was, he said, "an educational foundation. Community has to do with communication, and what we were teaching was healthy communication both within and between groups." The 1990s California idyll would turn into a working retirement for Peck, who had been educated at Exeter and Friends' Seminary. (He'd walked out of Exeter at 15, affronted by its WASP-ishness and "Spartan, almost vicious adolescent culture." When he walked out of Exeter he walked into a psychiatric hospital and therapy for five weeks. His father made him see a psychiatrist. He entered voluntarily and did not find the therapy unpleasant The incident was not the seat of Peck's hostility toward his parent. Rather his father, he said, was a domineering man who, in addition to openly favoring Scott's older brother, David Jr., a sportsman, was "a Jekyll and Hyde character. You never knew who was coming home to dinner." Appropriately enough in California, where he was daily swinging his driver and doing increasingly nervous putts on the greens, Peck was commissioned to do a book on golf, a sort of reciprocity book--golf as good for the soul and vice versa. But the game was not bringing soul-peace to Peck. He'd never been a great golfer, but a reasonably good one who now started getting worse. Lily's game--and she has lupus (a form of arthritis)--he said wryly, was getting better, "and that made it worse." He noticed his left hand was cog-wheeling, twisting uncontrollably. It's an indicator of Parkinson's, he said. He said he told himself, "Oh, well, you've got Parkinson's." He recalled, "I didn't pay any more attention. Except here I was writing this book about you'll learn something about your soul every time you play and your game just might get better." Yet he hadn't learned to look deeper into the physical difficulties he was experiencing, though "I was lucky if I hit a decent shot any more." His drive was off, which he attributed to his bad back. His game deteriorated to the point that by 1996, at the end of three holes, he was exhausted and no longer interested. About 1996, he went "into a very, very dark period of about three years duration. About one-third of Parkinson's patients do before they are formally diagnosed. They have some sense that something is terribly wrong with them," he said, "but they have no idea what. "For me that was one of the worse parts of Parkinson's disease. I used to have what I called death attacks at 8 o'clock in the evening. I would suddenly feel like I was dying and it was all I could do to crawl up the stairs." Neither as a physician nor as a psychiatrist was the Case Western Reserve University- trained physician able to plumb the depths of his own condition or desperation. During his training in neurology, he said, "I don't remember seeing a Parkinson's patient. It's been amazing to me, in retrospect, that during my residency it was a disease in the closet. I had no idea what a devastating disease it can be. I also had no idea what a gentle disease it is, meaning it's slow. You have plenty of time to adjust to it, both physically and mentally." Peck's residency was with the U.S. Army--he was in uniform from 1963 to 1972-- quite a switch for someone who had led a one-man ROTC revolt at Middlebury College, Vt. (When Middlebury began deducting academic credits every time Peck didn't go to the ROTC meeting, he transferred to Harvard, where, he said, "they happily restored all the deducted credits.") In his late-1990s depths, "Lily kept wanting me to go see a psychiatrist--as did a couple of others. But I knew that what I was experiencing was not an ordinary depression." His spiritual director, who "cared for me some years earlier when I'd gone through a midlife crisis, a much more substantial depression," thought he was perhaps going through a dark night of the soul. Said Peck, "This wasn't that. While God didn't seem to be hopping around inside me, I didn't feel he'd deserted me. I emerged out of that terrible time about three years ago, let's say early 2000." His Parkinson's disease had been diagnosed in 1999. At first the medicine nauseated him, "but gradually I got into it and I came out of this dark period singing and incessantly humming, whistling or otherwise making a joyful noise unto the Lord. And that has been daily, nightly, for three years now." (It has also turned Peck into a song-writer. He has an "anti-secularist" CD, "Free Will," circulating among friends. In essence it's a stern chastisement, with some light moments, of those who deliberately close their minds and hearts to God's presence.) Peck's Christianity is nondenominational and not lifetime. He was not baptized. His parents attended a Protestant church about four times a year--for appearance's sake, he suggested. For some 15 years as a young man he identified himself as a Zen Buddhist. At age 43, he was baptized in an Episcopal church by a Methodist minister.
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