Monday, May 13, 2024

Q&A with Catherine Armsden




Catherine Armsden is the author of the new memoir An Alert, Well-Hydrated Artist in No Acute Distress. It focuses on her experiences with Parkinson's Disease (PD) and her friendship with artist Hadley Ferguson, diagnosed with Parkinson's and multiple system atrophy (MSA). Armsden, who is an architect, has also written the novel Dream House.

Q: What inspired you to write this memoir?

A: I discovered soon after being diagnosed with PD that it was a fascinating disease. I’ve always been interested in medicine; I’m able to retain the names of even obscure diseases and the drugs that treat them.

When I learned I had a serious, complicated, but not deadly, disease that I’d get to talk to doctors about, I was excited. It would be like going back to school or having a new part-time job in neuroscience!

When Hadley and I first started discussing her worrisome symptoms that seemed to point to atypical Parkinson’s or multiple system atrophy, I realized I’d found a friend who was as captivated by science as I was.

She didn’t wait for a doctor to tell her what they thought she needed to know; rather, when she doubted what doctors were telling her, she went straight to work researching what she was experiencing.

It helped to have a writing group (more about them later) who were curious and interested in learning. They were enthusiastic about my writing about PD, but they surprised me by insisting that the story would be much richer if I told my own story in tandem with Hadley’s. So I did.

Hadley didn’t directly inspire me to write this book, she asked me to, six years after I’d finished publishing it as a blog on The Huffington Post and Medium.

But you’d have to be either blind (or jealous of her!) not to recognize that she is extraordinary in multiple ways and has earned the book and the documentary, “Passion to Persist,” that is being made about her.

The murals that hang in the Montana State House and the four Missoula Catholic Schools murals—all done while she was very sick—are almost as impressive as her resilience and determination to continue living productively.

Hadley has a pacemaker, an implanted pump that continuously delivers a muscle relaxant that helps her move, and she receives all her nourishment through a port in her chest. And yet, she has begun the research on a new commission to create three murals about the life of the late Montana senator Mike Mansfield.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen?

A: The title is a composite of words used by Hadley’s physicians to describe her in her medical records. Before patients were given full access to their electronic records, doctors typically used a kind of shorthand that provided an impression of a patient’s overall affect.

Although I’ve never been called “well-hydrated” in any of my own medical records, I’ve seen adjectives that are still commonly used such as “right-handed,” “pleasant,” “oriented.” and the ubiquitous “no acute distress” or “NAD.”

My understanding is that NAD is put in a record so that if the patient drops dead half an hour after seeing the doctor, the doctor has it on file that the patient showed no signs of being near death. However, I might have made this up.

As a fan of irony, after reading so many records that described my seriously ailing friend Hadley as being in “no acute distress” I couldn’t resist using those words in the title—words that begged to be answered with Really?

I gave the manuscript to a freelance editor before I had a contract with a publisher. I learned he had worked at The Onion for many years, and because I’ve always appreciated the publication’s clever humor, I was thrilled. When he advised me to “never change the title,” I knew I wouldn’t.

Q: The writer Laurie Fox said of the book that your “story of a friendship forged from twinned illnesses is shot through with blazing, radical empathy. Prepare to be in the presence of something utterly new: a tale of profound advocacy.” What do you think of that description?

A: The writer Laurie Fox, who is a friend I met in a writing group, is very generous and possesses a blazing, poetic vocabulary that she uses in her own books and in her role as a literary agent, to open doors for writers.

When I first read her blurb, I was tempted to think it was hyperbole. But because I know Laurie to be deeply sincere, I know that these are not just words she’s showing off.

So, although it has taken me a while to feel An Alert…earned Laurie’s enthusiastic approval, I am going to sit back and let myself feel honored by her fireworks!

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between you and Hadley Ferguson?

A: Hadley’s and my dynamic has shifted several times over the 13 years since we met.

There was the giddy era, 2011-2011, when we met and were still excited after learning we “only” had Parkinson’s, and not some terminal disease. We jumped on Facebook for the first time and made new friends in the PD community.

Despite our 21-year age difference, Hadley and I hit it off; on the phone, we bonded over the weirdness of our symptoms and observations about the people in our young onset Parkinson’s FB group.

Next came an era of doubt, 2012-2013, when Hadley began having troubling symptoms that were unusual for the early stage of PD. Because I had been sick with something mysterious for a couple of years as a young mother, I empathized and wanted to help or even rescue her.

Also, my maternal instinct kicked in, probably because I didn’t have much opportunity to exercise it, since my kids, 22 and 25, were out of the nest.

The dynamic shifted from a friendship based on things we had in common—our lives as artists with PD and a certain bright energy—to one in which we focused on the uncertainties of Hadley’s health and getting her a diagnosis.

The perennial good humor Hadley displays despite the physical adversity she faces makes it difficult to feel like I (and possibly she) have access to her true feelings.

When she asked me to publish the blog as a book,10 years had gone by since her MSA diagnosis. It was challenging to write about someone with a disease that that has a terrible prognosis who didn’t want to talk about death— her own or in the abstract. She told me matter-of-factly that dying wasn’t something she thought about.

Hadley’s denial of death created another shift in our dynamic. I think our relationship works because we admire, enjoy, and genuinely love each other, and because our contact is mainly confined to texts and emails, and a very occasional phone call.

This allows a back-and-forth in which we do a lot of mirroring, exchanging expressions of empathy, reassurance, and love.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Everything changed when my husband was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in early 2020, just as the pandemic arrived. Life became caring for him with the help of my adult children.

After his death, it became trying to manage our estate, which I knew very little about. Lewis had loved having too much to do (QuickBooks was his Saturday morning delight!) and he had managed our finances and property maintenance with ease while also being the owner of a 30-person architecture firm.

My widowhood since 2020 has been crammed with unfamiliar tasks that keep me working on paperwork until 10 p.m. and I am constantly overwhelmed.

In addition to being overwhelmed I am also often very lonely in our house at night.

Then I discovered something. When I write emails to friends or family at night, I don’t feel lonely. The emails have to be long, though; while they can begin as an efficient response to a message I’ve received, in order for them to banish the loneliness, I have to get sucked into a writing binge.

What qualifies as a “binge”? The email has to take at least two hours to write, be at least 1,000-1,500 words, and must be so engaging that I forget I’m alone.

So, this is one answer to the question “what are you working on now?” I could write 2,000 or more words every night about things that happened that day.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I was trained to be an architect. If I had a dollar for every adult who’s said to me over the last 40 years, “Oh! I always wanted to be an architect…”

I’m sure I’d be one of them, had I not actually gotten a master’s in architecture, which takes seven semesters after four years of college if your undergraduate degree was something other than architecture.

Everyone finds architecture fascinating, with good reason. We live, work, and die in architecture; architecture shapes who we are, and it affects how we feel from moment to moment.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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