A Wonderful Life

UPDATED: June 29, 2009
PUBLISHED: June 29, 2009

Michael J. Fox seems at peace, even grateful for lessons learned from Parkinson’s disease. He’s inspiring millions with a new book and hit TV special. But his journey has not been easy.

Michael J. Fox’s rock bottom came in the summer of 1992. Passed out on the sofa in his Manhattan apartment, a Coors tallboy toppled onto the rug next to him, he awoke as his 3-year-old climbed on top of him, prodding him to get up. Squinting through his hangover, he could see his wife standing in front of him. He slowly raised his gaze to meet hers.

“Is this what you want? This is what you want to be?” she asked.

Fox’s rock bottom wasn’t close to the tabloid Hollywood versions that end in a broken marriage, a car wrapped around a tree, an embarrassing YouTube video or worse.

Sure, he liked to tie one on with friends, especially before he got married. And with such a quick rise to superstardom—starring in the hit TV show Family Ties just three years after dropping out of high school, followed by the blockbuster Back to the Future trilogy—he had gotten a little lost in what he later described as the Hollywood fun house.

But by Hollywood standards, Fox remained a nice guy, a regular guy who was mindful of his working-class Canadian roots, a star who signed autographs. When he married actress Tracy Pollan, he cut back on his partying. He was a family man who loved his wife and young son more than life itself.

Fox’s drinking habits changed, though, after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991. Unlike his partying bachelor days, there was no pretense of celebration and camaraderie. “Joyless and secretive, I drank to disassociate; drinking was now about isolation and self-medication,” he writes in his 2002 memoir, Lucky Man.

His final binge came after shooting for the movie For Love or Money wrapped earlier than expected one evening. Even though he and his wife had seen little of each other that summer—while he was filming the movie, Tracy was appearing on Broadway—Fox was not inclined to go home. Instead, he figured there was more time for drinking before Tracy expected him. So he and some crew members spent the rest of the night downing margaritas, vodka shots and beer.

For Fox, rock bottom was having disappointed the people he loved most— particularly Tracy.

This is what you want to be? Tracy’s words were painful enough, but Fox writes that what really frightened him were the resignation and disappointment he saw in her face.

On that day, Fox made the choice to give up drinking. It was the first step in a long and difficult road toward taking control of his life. Giving up alcohol was the first instance among many for which he would be grateful to Parkinson’s disease, he later wrote.

In his best-selling memoir, Lucky Man, and the new release, Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist, both published by Hyperion, Fox chronicles his journey to the place of gratitude and joy he occupies today. He also shared his insights and explored the nature of positive thinking in an ABC special, Adventures of an Incurable Optimist, watched by 10.2 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Fox’s story is poignant, funny. His fame, ironically, makes him more relatable—less the big superstar than someone we really care about, someone we watched grow up as Alex Keaton on Family Ties. But his down-to-earth qualities and his flaws—not the epic Hollywood variety, but the Everyman flaws—make his story and its lessons hit home.

With wit and great insight, Fox shows how easy it is—for all of us—to neglect what’s most precious. Little by little, the Parkinson’s disease that threatened to take everything away became the “gift” that ultimately made him aware of what he stood to lose.

After giving up drinking, there were other challenges, not the least of which was his relationship with Parkinson’s disease. Despite the doctors’ diagnoses and his increasingly violent tremors, Fox was in deep denial. “Bad enough I had allowed P.D. to own me, but by my silence—cutting my wife and family off from the experience—I had made them slaves to it as well,” he writes. It would be early 1994 before he made another appointment with a neurologist and started to take ownership of his disease.

He also had to grapple with his workaholic tendencies. For as long as he could remember, he writes that he possessed a “keep-your-head-down-and-keep-moving mentality.” Even after his early successes brought financial security, he remained obsessed with work and box-office success. Although Tracy encouraged him to be choosy and to take only the roles he really wanted, he rationalized that having a family necessitated his continued work, even if that meant lengthy periods away from home.

“It is one of the great ironies of my life that only when it became virtually impossible for me to keep my body from moving would I find the peace, security and spiritual strength to stand in one place,” Fox writes. “I couldn’t be still until I could—literally—no longer keep still.”

One of the first neurosurgeons he had seen—and rejected— had predicted Fox had a good 10 years left for acting. That was in 1991. By 1996, Fox was settling into the kind of job he had long envisioned—living and working in New York on the hit TV series Spin City. The situation was nearly perfect, he says, but, still, it had its stresses, especially as his disease progressed.

On New Year’s Eve 1999, the Fox family, which by then included twin daughters Schuyler and Aquinnah, was vacationing at St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Snorkeling in the crystalline waters, they spotted a sea turtle. As it glided effortlessly, grazing on sea grasses, Fox continued to swim a respectful distance behind it. He noticed a chunk missing from a flipper and wondered what kind of ordeals the turtle had survived.

When he got out of the water, he had a revelation that he still doesn’t completely understand. He told Tracy he would retire from his hit TV series Spin City. Just like that. Good, she said, and hugged him.