2020 had started well. I was six months into a new CEO position that I really enjoyed, had just gotten back from an amazing holiday, and was about to buy a new house. I had no idea that this was all going to change a few weeks later, and that I would have to stop working and reinvent my life entirely.
I want to update my colleagues and friends who have seen me disappear from the markets a few months ago (you might call this my 'coming out'). I also want to share the story of my journey that I have just started but that has already transformed my life. Lastly, I want to share my experience in the hope that it may be of use to others.
How it all began
I had joined one of the world's largest financial brokers, six months after leaving my previous long-term employment. This was the perfect job for me; I was doing well, and I was named EMEA CEO of this great company just 18 months after joining it. The job gave me the opportunity to work with amazing people, in a culture that fitted my personality, as well as pursue great transformational challenges.
For a while though, I had had some difficulties typing and writing, and I had promised my girlfriend that I would seek medical advice. After consulting with a GP, I was referred to a neurologist who made me take some basic tests of mobility and agility and asked me if I had any idea about what had affected me. Naively, I suggested arthritis. He told me that what I had was not arthritis but Parkinson's disease, an incurable, degenerative disorder.
Walking back from the clinic to the office that day felt the same as walking home on 9/11; I felt like everything around me was moving in slow motion, and my mind was overflowing with the clear understanding that my world would never be the same again, yet not knowing to what extent and how it would change.
As the news sank in, the whole picture emerged as I began to recollect other signs I had so far failed to piece together - my progressive slowness in walking, the increasing number of times I lost my balance, and the difficulty I was having in swallowing and projecting my voice in meetings.
There was also the fact that my father had had Parkinson's and that, although the causes of Parkinson's are unknown, they are thought to be linked to genetics and/or pollution.
In other words, it all started to make sense and there was no room for denial.
Acceptance was an important first step, but the key question was: what was I going to do about it?
Over the next few months following the diagnosis, I decided that I would:
- Take responsibility for my own health: it is my body and I only have one.
- Seek medical advice from the best specialists: this illness has been around forever and, even if there is no cure, it is well researched.
- Learn from some of the many people (10 million in the world) who have Parkinson's and, in particular, from those who have managed to bring their symptoms under control.
- Take a holistic approach (there is no silver bullet for this) and be open-minded toward non-traditional forms of healing as a critical adjuvant to classical pharmaceutical solutions.
- Leverage my professional skills in the process, in particular my resilience and discipline, but also making sure that I stay away from my natural tendency to overachieve and accept that doing my best is good enough.
- Try not to become too self-centred: Parkinson's is part of my life but I can't allow it to become my life.
In practice, this unfortunately meant that I couldn’t continue with the senior role that I liked so much. Having previously thrived in high-pressure jobs, the medical advice was unfortunately very clear that any stressor would affect my motor symptoms.
I also had to make some difficult choices, such as stopping all alcohol intake (Friday nights are the toughest) or going gluten-free, as well as starting to engage in activities I had never really contemplated before, such as doing pilates and yoga or starting to practise meditation.
I practically ended up designing a holistic programme aimed at bringing together what traditional medicine has to offer in terms of pharmaceutical solutions, along with exercise, diet, and meditation.
- Exercise: for people with Parkinson’s disease, exercise is not only healthy, it is a vital component to maintaining balance, mobility, and daily living activities, along with a potential neuroprotective effect. My daily routine nowadays includes one hour of fitness (weights, pilates, even trampoline), one hour of walking (Wimbledon Commons has no more secrets for me…. I just need a dog), and an hour of Yin yoga, a slow-paced style of yoga, and Qigong, a set of exercises for health and wellbeing.
- Diet: the gut-brain connection is one of the new frontiers in Parkinson's research, and there is growing evidence that, at least in some patients, the disease may begin in the gut. I have become extremely focused on what I put in my body (and don't) and have performed detailed biological tests that, with the help of some of the UK’s most experienced nutritionists, have led me to follow a very personalised diet and set of supplements.
- Meditation: western medicine tends to separate body and mind, while other cultures see both as one complex energy and information system and rely more on healing approaches that include emotional and spiritual elements. This, I think, is critical to my success in managing my symptoms and slowing down their progression. From never having done any meditation before, I progressively came to meditate close to one hour a day with a mix of autogenic psychotherapy (a technique that teaches your body to respond to your verbal commands), Indian breathing exercises, and visualisation.
How does it feel to do all this?
Above all, I am very fortunate to be supported by a very strong and diverse team of specialists, including an extremely helpful GP, a neurologist who happens to be one of the NHS’ best Parkinson’s consultants, two very experienced nutritionists, a psychotherapist, a qigong master, and a meditation coach. I am also forever thankful to my girlfriend for giving me so much strength and without whom this journey would be impossible.
As far as my programme is concerned, it is still early days and I feel that changing my health is like turning around an aircraft carrier that has been following the same adrenaline-fuelled trajectory for more than 50 years and needs to pick up a new one.
For instance, dietary changes take at least six months and often longer to show their impact. Losing weight was the easy bit in my case (I was not aiming for that but it happened), but increasing cellular energy and reducing cellular inflammation takes more time.
It is, however, fair to say that Parkinson's aside (how I wish), my body and my mind have probably not been that healthy in a long time. Also, anxiety about one's deteriorating condition is a major issue for Parkinson's patients and I find that meditation and focusing on positive thoughts have been a major help.
In a sense, it feels like Parkinson’s has given me a new life as much as it has robbed me of the old one.
Sharing positive experiences
The illness definitely impressed on me the need to listen to our bodies more (medical research estimates that as much as 90 percent of illness and disease is stress-related). Ideally, we want to catch those messages early and pay attention to them before they turn into something serious. Unfortunately, most of us will keep going until we can’t anymore. For me, the message was Parkinson’s disease. For others, it will take other forms such as depression, addiction, cancer or other illnesses.
What is next? I spent the last few months focused on maintaining my health and learning how to adjust to my new life. During that time, I have met some amazing, positive-minded, Parkinson's patients who are focused on getting better and sharing experiences. This includes a former martial arts fighter and a molecular biologist.
Those interactions have been of great help and I would like to explore how to expand this experience to a bigger circle of people, to allow them to share positive experiences, and learn from each other. Which shape and form this will take remains to be determined, but I will definitely keep you in the loop.