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The Mail on Sunday - 2021-10-10

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A doctor at my hotel saw me walk and said: I think you may have Parkinson’s

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I’VE got Parkinson’s disease, and I wish he’d f****** kept it to himself. As a matter of fact, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and prostate cancer in the same week. Holy Mother of God. I got treated for the cancer and now I seem to be OK. The Parkinson’s just rumbles along, doing its thing. Being diagnosed with Parkinson’s was weird. I was in LA doing a talk show, and they’d put me up in a hotel near the studio. I was walking through the lobby and a guy came up to me. He said: ‘Excuse me…’ ‘Yeah?’ He said: ‘ I’m a big fan. I’m here with some dancers from Tasmania.’ ‘Oh, that’s nice… blah de blah.’ Then he said: ‘Listen, I’m a doctor and I’ve noticed you walking in here, and… er… your gait… you have the gait of a man with Parkinson’s disease.’ That stopped me in my tracks. ‘What??’ He said: ‘I think you should check it out with your doctor.’ I went to my doctor and he did some tests, then said: ‘You’re fine.’ A bit later, Pamela and some of my friends noticed my hand shaking. I also started to kind of freeze from time to time – just stop moving – or I’d stop talking in the middle of a sentence. So I went to see a Parkinson’s specialist in New York, where we were living at the time. She diagnosed me with the disease and started treating me. It was a huge shock, and quite frightening. This thing wasn’t going to go away. It was a big unwelcome aspect of my life that was going to have to be dealt with. After a while, the symptoms came crashing in. It became very scary once I started having trouble getting out of chairs because I thought I was going to be condemned to that for ever. It would be downhill all the way. Even though people said ‘You’ve got a very mild case – you’re going to be OK’, I didn’t believe them. I thought they were just being kind. Eventually the scariness diminished, I just accepted it. You can’t stay scared for ever. There was no pain, just a sort of doom that came with it, but you soon got used to it. You just carry it around as another wee burden. All in all, it could have been a lot worse, because for eight years of my life I had been a welder in the Glasgow shipyards. The diseases they talk about now due to welding weren’t known when I was there. The main killer was asbestos. Just like coal miners got silicosis – black lung disease – shipyard workers got asbestosis. We’d be working in the engine room – deep penetration welding – and our lips would become all black and yellow. We’d come out for a smoke and they’d be cladding the pipes around us, so it would be snowing asbestos. I remember it being in my hair. The place was a death trap. I was very lucky that after I did my five-year apprenticeship in the shipyards, I stayed on as a welder for only two or three more years and left in my early 20s to become a comedian. But many men were there much longer and got asbestosis in their 40s or 50s. I remember older welders spitting up all kinds of nasty black stuff. They were wonderful people and I owe them a huge debt of gratitude. They were real patter merchants, those men, and it was through them I first understood you could be incredibly funny without telling jokes. After I’d been working at the shipyards for some time, I started to risk trying to make the older guys laugh. We’d be around the fire and I’d sing like a drunk man. They loved that. It was wonderful to find my place among them, but the hysterical things they said often played with your heartstrings as well. I learned in the shipyards that you can be funny and profound at the same time. I’m dead lucky to have known those men. I love them to this day. I felt accepted by them – I could tell they liked me by the way they looked at me, the way they talked to me, the way they found me funny. And to be found funny by them was gold. After everything I’d been through as a boy and teenager, the years of physical and mental abuse, to then be befriended by them, and considered one of them, was a gigantic step to getting over it. After I got Parkinson’s disease, my wife decided we had to get out of New York so I could relax, be healthy and go fishing. We live in the Florida Keys now, and I love it. I love the light here. It’s kind of yellowy. Almost always sunny. Puts me in a positive mood. I’ve mainly lost my sense of guilt about being in the sun. Scottish people tend to see the sun appearing and frown. ‘Och… we’ll pay for this!’ I’ve had to train myself to like it. I’ve lived a great life, so thinking about the end of the story doesn’t affect me at all. I just think, well, this is the way it is. I don’t worry that I might not see the rest of my life, because I’ve already seen the rest of my life. I’ve only got the old bit left. But it’s a rather jolly old bit, I must say. Despite having Parkinson’s, I can still do lots of things. I can walk well. I can draw – my new hobby. I don’t do live concerts any more, and movies would be hard, but I can write and film TV shows. I’ve got my wee dog Django here. I’m very fortunate. I’ve got shelter, food and my wifey and my girlies and my son and my grandchildren. It makes me really happy being around my children and grandchildren, because I can see they’re not like me. They’re more complete in themselves. I like that in them and think I’m a wee bit jealous. I’ve got no complaints whatsoever. I consider myself a very lucky man. Abridged extract from Windswept & Interesting, by Billy Connolly, published by Two Roads on October 14 at £25. To pre-order a copy for £12 at WHSmith, see voucher, Page 137.

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