'I won't let Parkinson's Disease beat me'

Creative director Emma Lawton was just 29 when she was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. Here's how she's fighting back - and transforming her career.

by Emma Lawton
Last Updated: 08 Dec 2016

P Day. The day I was diagnosed with Parkinson's.

It wasn't a day I had a plan for. Other than to show up at the hospital with my parents, make small talk with the nurse and find out whether I had a complex, degenerative neurological condition. I hadn't even thought what things would be like after. In the minutes following. I came out of the hospital and decided there and then that Parkinson's would never win, that I'd face it with determination and positivity and that with my family and friends around me I'd be ok. It was the day to day that worried me most. How do you carry on like normal? How do you get up and go to work the next day when everything you're used to doing suddenly seems so alien?

As a 29-year-old creative director working for a web design agency, I had been battling with one of the most important tools of my trade, my right arm, for over a year. It wasn't co-operating. I'd tell it to slide the mouse diagonally to make a piece of typography bigger and the next thing I'd know it had wandered around the screen and almost ordered a sequin t-shirt from ASOS (at least it had taste) and sent a blank email to the entire team in my office. Useless.

In the first few months after diagnosis I'd struggle to draw because of hand stiffness and shakes and found myself constantly failing to communicate my ideas through vague descriptions and frantic hand gestures alone. I lost confidence with clients. There's a time and a place for jelly and that isn't the board room.

I'll be honest with you. I panicked. This was my career, a path I'd slogged hard to forge. I'd been a designer for as long as I could remember. It felt like the brightly coloured part of me that if wiped away would leave me beige.

I made a plan to fight back. By shifting my ideal future I wondered if I could outwit the Parkinson's, effectively sneak past it without it noticing. By making a decision to take my career in a different direction I'd be the one with the power and it would feel planned and considered rather than something forced onto me. I began looking around for creative roles that didn't involve sketching and typography and board rooms and salvation came in an unlikely form. An old friend Sarah, a sewing teacher, came to visit, returning my offer of a sofa bed for the weekend by showing me how to stitch myself a bag. I was hooked. I hadn't sewn since school but all the pride of looking at something tangible I'd made came flooding back.

In the weeks after I began painting fabric and making bags to sell to friends and family, taking requests for other products and opening an Etsy store to deal with orders. This was fun; I wasn't giving up my creativity and there was longevity in it. The sewing machine didn't take any nonsense from my tremor and the stitching was straight and even. I lived every little girl's dream and opened a pop-up store for a week, lovingly displaying my products across its shelves and, for the first time, meeting my customers face to face. I reduced my hours at work to give myself more time to make orders.

All signs were pointing towards this being an idyllic alternative future, one I had full control of at least from a career standpoint. So why did I feel so hollow? Like I was playing at shopkeeper and seamstress. I had cheated the Parkinson's but had I also cheated myself? The fact I had made the decision to change my own career path had once felt like power but now screamed sabotage. I was a designer. And I was pining for pixels.

I toned back the sewing and took a freelance branding project on for a friend of a friend, feeling the blood starting to pump again and my heart swelling at the excitement of bringing something on screen to life. I wanted more. So I attended interviews at agencies and startups and watched them fall in love with my work just as I was learning to do all over again. I opened myself up to networking and pitching and the honesty it forced upon me when introducing my Parkinson's was suddenly intoxicating. I began to feel like with some small tweaks, design could in fact be my forever job.

I couldn't believe I had almost ended my own career too soon. But the fact I'd managed to flex my whole future in a different direction excited me and I wondered if I could do it again, without losing sight of the designer this time, but adding to my skill set. I started to sew again and revived my online store as a side project. I began writing, something I loved as a child, and my book 'Dropping the P Bomb' launched earlier this year. I took offers of speaking opportunities at events. I brainstormed startup ideas. I learnt coping mechanisms, embraced wobbly sketches, waved away perfection, announced my Parkinson's proudly and only worked with people who saw it as an asset.

Nowadays I'd describe myself as professionally gluttonous. I say yes to everything and my career has become a patchwork quilt of things I love to do and people I love to do them with.  And I have Parkinson's, and my defiance against it, to thank for that.

Emma is a guest speaker at MT's Inspiring Women conference on 9th March. Book your ticket now! 


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