Anna Grill didn't notice the slight tremor in her left pinky. Friends and family members did, though, and some took the time to point it out to her. Still, she was hardly concerned. After all, she was a 38-year-old healthy, active mom of two daughters, ages 9 and 7. She was successfully climbing the corporate ladder, the president of the PTA at her daughters' elementary school, and in any measurable way, living a great life.
But as someone who tends to check things out if anything appears even slightly wrong, she made an appointment with her doctor. Two months later, she was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson's disease.
"I still remember leaving the [doctor's] office and just stopping in the parking lot and starting to cry," Grill tells Woman's Day. "And I remember my husband holding me and saying, 'You’re going to be OK. We’re going to be OK.'”
Approximately 60,000 Americans live with Parkinson's, according to the Parkinson's Foundation, and while the incidence of the disease increases with age, it's estimated that 4% of those with Parkinson's are diagnosed before the age of 50.
"We experience [the disease] differently than people who get it older," Grill explains. "There are a lot more considerations, like how to tell the kids, how to tell the family, how to balance working full time, how to stay healthy, what about financial planning in the future, and spousal and relationship issues."
These considerations certainly bombarded Grill mere moments after she learned that she would be living with Parkinson's for the rest of her life (or until scientists and researchers find a cure). And as a mom and the primary earner for her family, she chose to keep her diagnosis hidden from the rest of her family members, friends, coworkers, employees, and employer.
"I started treatment immediately of course, but other than that I pretty much ignored it for a while," Grill says. "I largely just put it on the shelf. Forged ahead. And because physically I was doing well — not very symptomatic — it was easy to hide for some time. Which, looking back on it now, I have some regrets and some assurances that I think I did the right thing. It’s kind of a mixed bag."
On the one hand, as a sales executive leader and Division Rights President of the mid-Atlantic at a Fortune 200 company with, at the height of her career, around 110 direct reports, Grill didn't want to be treated differently or put in another box. "I was already the youngest and only female on the leadership team," she says. "I shouldn't have felt this way, but I didn't want to have another label: the youngest, only female with a disability."
She also had her children to consider, and given their young ages, didn't believe they were prepared to understand her diagnosis or what it meant. "I stayed positive because I had to," Grill says. "I chose not to let it define me and I just moved forward with my life."
But that decision also came at a cost. "I think keeping it private for as long as I did affected my mindset ultimately," Grill explains. "It really caused a lot of personal stress trying to hide it for that long." So after 10 years of hiding her diagnosis, she realized she had to change her lifestyle and come clean. But her youngest daughter had already figured out that something was wrong, and sans any clear explanation from her parents, took matters into her own hands.
"Unbeknownst to me, and to my dismay and my concern, as it turns out by the time I told them my younger daughter had already figured out something was up," Grill says. "She had gone through my medicine cabinet and she had found my drugs and she had looked them up on the internet. She had convinced herself I had Huntington’s disease, which is fatal. And honestly that was just so heartbreaking for me, to know that she was going through life for that long thinking that."
"Another lesson learned: don't underestimate your kids' knowledge and ability to investigate," she continues.
Grill was faced with a difficult situation that many moms, especially working moms living with a disability(ies), face. In a society that often equates motherhood to martyrdom, moms are told to sacrifice everything, including their mental and emotional health, for the sake of their families. And since one in 10 adults with disabilities experience discrimination in the workplace, Grill's initial fears of being labeled were not unfounded.
"I can’t say I regret what I did, but I can certainly say that I think I could have done a little bit better."
It took time, and trial and error, but eventually Grill's diagnosis taught her an invaluable lesson: that none of us are meant to deal with any hardship, be it big or small, alone.
"It is OK to ask for help," Grill says. "I have always been the one who wants to give the help, but I really had to learn that I can ask for help. And the Parkinson’s Foundation provided me with the community out there — I have great friendships and relationships now that I wouldn’t have had before with fellow people who have it like me. Just like with any type of issue or trait, when you find someone else who is dealing with the same thing you just have a special bond immediately. And there are some fabulous people in my life now that wouldn’t be otherwise."
Grill's diagnosis did not negate her natural abilities, especially those she cultivated in the business sector and as a working mother. Since leaving her job of 27 years and going on long-term disability, Grill has found a new way to use her skillset: raising money for the Parkinson's Foundation, raising awareness of the disease, and working towards a cure.
"For the first year after [retirement], and after working so hard full-time with kids for so long and dealing with this diagnosis, I just kind of chilled out," Grills says. "But I’m not one to sit around, so shortly after the second year hit I told my myself, 'I really need to contribute. I know I have a lot of skills, I can help make a difference with this disease.'”
And that's exactly what Grills has done. Currently, she's working as the Moving Day chair in Washington, D.C, the main fundraiser for the Parkinson's Foundation that encourages those with Parkinson's to get up, exercise, and move their bodies. She's also recently received a grant from the Parkinson's Foundation to start her own local organization, titled Can't Shake Me, specifically targeted at young-onset Parkinson's patients.
"The Parkinson’s Foundation has provided me with the opportunity to really strive forward with my skills that I garnered over my professional life, and take them and turn them into an opportunity to help the foundation succeed and ultimately — what we’re all going for — find a cure," Grill says.
Grills is doing extremely well, physically and mentally, and she contributes to her positive attitude. She uses her own experience, including the story of her younger daughter finding and looking up her medications ("I say, 'Just don’t wait too long, because your kids are way more up on things than you think.'") to help others who feel, as she did, like they need to keep their diagnosis secret, and she continues to ask for and receive help and the support of her community when and if she needs it.
"Accept help when you need it, and by doing so you won’t only help yourself but help those doing the help because they then feel good about being able to help," she says. "Really take the time to appreciate your family and your friends and have as much fun with them as you can and do everything that you can do, because you don’t know what you’ll be able to do tomorrow. And face every day with gratitude. Some days I do better than others, but when I look at all the good I have in my life, I realize there’s a lot to be grateful for and there are others much worse off than me. And I’m grateful for that. That’s the summary of my learnings."
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