‘My Degeneration,’ Peter Dunlap-Shohl illustrates Parkinson’s

If you read the Anchorage Daily News from the early ’80s to 2008, you will remember the work of cartoonist and graphic artist Peter Dunlap-Shohl. And if you’ve been wondering what he’s been up to since he left the ADN, it’s a story of daunting health challenges, admirable determination and a new book.

"My Degeneration: A Journey Through Parkinson's" by Alaska author and cartoonist Peter Dunlap-Shohl.
“My Degeneration: A Journey Through Parkinson’s” by Alaska author and cartoonist Peter Dunlap-Shohl.

Dunlap-Shohl was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when he was 43, although he says he’d likely had the disease for a decade before doctors were able to detect it. His new book is a graphic novel called “My Degeneration: A Journey Through Parkinson’s.”

He illustrates the book with images that visually describe the fear he felt at the diagnosis. One of those images is a meteor crashing into his life. He says when the doctor told him what he had, he only heard three words.

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“Incurable, progressive and disabling…. That’s all I could focus on at that point. And at that time — that was about 14 years ago, I guess — that’s what people knew about it. And since then they’ve discovered there are things you can do to slow it down, so I’m living proof of that. I’m still cutting my own food, buttoning my own shirt, tying my own shoes — and drawing, sort of. Drawing is kind of weird because, it’s like a collaboration in some ways with Parkinson’s, because I want the line to go somewhere, and Parkinson’s doesn’t particularly care where a line goes — but doesn’t necessarily want it to go the same place I do. So I have to be patient sometimes.”

TOWNSEND: Well, the book, “My Degeneration: A Journey Through Parkinson’s,” is incredible. The artwork is amazing in here. How long did it take you to draw?

“It took me — I had to draw it twice actually. It shouldn’t have taken a year I could’ve drawn this in about a month, I bet. But I had to keep going back and re-doing things because I would — my arm would twitch at the wrong minute and the line would go off to the left when it was supposed to go right, or up into the margins… wherever.”

Peter Dunlap-Shohl's illustrations can be found online at "Off and On, The Alaska Parkinson's Rag." http://offandonakpdrag.blogspot.com/
Peter Dunlap-Shohl’s illustrations can be found online at “Off and On, The Alaska Parkinson’s Rag.” http://offandonakpdrag.blogspot.com/

TOWNSEND: One of the scenes you show in the book is a situation in the airport and you were having trouble moving. Describe that.

“Well you have what’s called ‘off periods’ eventually, because the medication and your brain — they mesh for awhile and then they start to not mesh as well. I was on a red-eye from Anchorage to Seattle, everything was fine… I got down the aisle. My big fear is I’ll be frozen in the aisle of an airplane someday and have people backed up behind me. But I got to the waiting area and my feet would not move. It was like they were sticking to the carpet with Velcro. They were just immobile. Like stone. And usually what you can do is take your medicine… and within 45 minutes it’ll kick in and you can make your way down the way like you were planning to, but this time it didn’t happen — I don’t know why. I just couldn’t move. I was getting frustrated and my family was waiting for me to move, and I suddenly had this idea that maybe I could walk backwards. And it turned out I could walk backwards! I don’t know why. But I just started walking backwards. I walked all the way down the terminal — all the way to baggage claim, backwards, with my wife and my son sort of spotting me.

“I’ve since found that there’s a lot of stuff you can do to make yourself work. It seems to have to do with intention. If you intentionally say to yourself, ‘I’m going to skip now’ — you can skip when you can’t walk. Or a great one is, I would take like a glasses cleaning cloth, drop it on the floor and kick it. So it’d be kick, follow, kick, follow.”

TOWNSEND: What was the intention of your book?

“I was trying to do a lot of things. The main thing I wanted to do was to have something out there that people could look at and see what to expect, and know not to panic. I think the fact that a person could create a book like this a decade into (Parkinson’s) is hopeful…. because it shows that you can control yourself. You’re not going to fall apart.. if you just, try to take care of yourself.”

Peter Dunlap-Shohl’s new book is called “My Degeneration: A Journey Through Parkinson’s.” It’s available through Penn State University Press and Amazon.

He’s currently at work on a second book about the misadventures of a bar owner in Anchorage during the height of the oil boom in the ’70s. He blogs online at: http://offandonakpdrag.blogspot.com/.

Peter Dunlap-Shohl illustrates his journey with Parkinson's in a new book, often rife with humor. Illustration from Dunlap-Shohl's blog.
Peter Dunlap-Shohl illustrates his journey with Parkinson’s in a new book, often rife with humor. Illustration from Dunlap-Shohl’s blog.

Lori Townsend is the news director and senior host for Alaska Public Media. You can send her news tips and program ideas for Talk of Alaska and Alaska Insight at ltownsend@alaskapublic.org or call 907-550-8452.

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