AN INTERVIEW WITH
PETER DUNLAP-SHOHL

Peter Dunlap-Shohl, a life-long Alaskan, worked as a political cartoonist at the Anchorage Daily News for 27 years. Deep into that career, at age 43, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, which doctors described then as incurable, progressive, and disabling. Fifteen years later, he has drawn the story of his medical journey after diagnosis in the graphic memoir My Degeneration. Dunlap-Shohl says his Parkinson’s progression has plateaued with the help of a number of new treatments for the disease, including drugs and brain surgery. Though he has given up driving, he rides his bike 40 miles a week. (Vigorous exercise, researchers have discovered, has been shown to ease symptoms for some people with Parkinson’s.) He rode five miles to a coffee shop before this interview in Anchorage in late March.

INTERVIEW BY JULIA O' MALLEY
Illustrations By Peter Dunlap-Shohl
Photos By Katie Orlinksky
Katie Orlinsky is a photographer from New York City. She received a Bachelors degree in Political Science and Latin American Studies from Colorado College and a Masters degree in Journalism from Columbia University. Katie’s long-held interest in international politics and a desire to raise awareness on social issues originally led her to photography, and after college she moved to Mexico where she got her start as a photographer. Katie is currently working on a long-term project about climate change in Alaska. She regularly works for the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, National Geographic, Le Monde and a variety of international non-profit organizations. She is a represented artist with Levine/Leavitt management. 
An Interview with Peter Dunlap-Shohl

You hate it when people describe having Parkinson's as a "fight" with the disease. What’s a better way to describe it?

I prefer the poltergeist metaphor. It captures the malicious whimsy of the disease. The weirdness of Parkinson’s is so thorough; it doesn’t seem possible that it could all be coincidence.

WHEN I CAN’T WALK FORWARD I’VE LEARNED I MAY TURN AROUND AND WALK BACKWARD.

Many people with Parkinson’s who are unable to move normally while awake, may fully act in their dreams. I know a guy that bit his wife, hard, in his sleep. It’s so contrary, it feels deliberate. Unlike the blind havoc created by a disease, it’s like a sentient being has thought it out to torture you.

You were a newspaper cartoonist, a professional at the dynamics of humor. Is there a relationship between humor and pain?

Humor is rooted in pain...It’s a way of redeeming situations that become too much. The worse things get, that’s when you really need humor, until things get so bad you can’t even make a joke. Then you’re really fucked.

How has the disease changed your physical drawing practice?

With Parkinson’s, the lines were not going where I wanted, they went where Parkinson's wanted. Eventually, [drawing with the disease] became a collaboration with forces I can’t control. If the lines won’t go where I want them, I let them lie there and work with it....Also, I had to simplify. Parkinson's made me pare things down.

Another thing that happens when you're a newspaper cartoonist, you say, is that you get cynical. You talk in the book about the experience of being cared for by competent people. How did that change you?

I used to look for the biggest bozo, liar, or breach of human decency in the preceding 24 hours, then do a cartoon about it. That skewed my view of humanity toward misanthropy. Then I had brain surgery so complex and audacious, it forced me to acknowledge there were worthy people devoted to improving life, and having extraordinary success at it.

You discovered early that exercise eased your symptoms. In the book, you describe a voice inside that told you to work out as the Spandex Angel. Can you talk about that?

Exercise is crucial. First, it can reduce symptoms by 35 percent when done right. It can help prevent falls, which is huge. It gives you a critical bit of leverage, an antidote to the helplessness instilled by the mantra that PD is progressive, disabling, and incurable. [The more you] intervene with exercise… the longer you maintain your quality of life.

In the beginning of the book, you describe your wife, Pam, confronting you about suicidal thoughts. Can you describe that interaction?

Pam wasn’t having any suicide bullshit from me. She was genuinely angry at me for considering it. It was a turning point because I had no choice but to cope.

Has having Parkinson's changed how you see other people's pain?

There’s a perverse urge to redeem Parkinson’s, to find a silver lining, to say it made you a more sensitive soul… It’s not that Parkinson's has redeeming qualities. It doesn’t really. It’s how you react to it.… There is no explanation for why one person deals with having Parkinson's and why another doesn’t…The disease can sabotage you in so many ways. As much as you want people to struggle against it, sometimes they don’t, and it’s because they can’t. You are never more humble than when you try to shake your head “no” and it will not shake.… I will say it; I became alert to the obvious: that practically everybody is dealing with problems and complications you don’t know about.

THERE IS A VEIL WE ALL HAVE; THE VEIL IS GONE IN PARKINSON’S.

All that stuff you skate over all the time; the ice is broken and you’re falling through. Everything anyone has is a provisional gift, a gift that might be snatched away in your next breath.

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