shhh … it’s a post about sex and Parkinson’s

So. All caveats and disclaimers apply. This is a piece I wrote a while ago but couldn’t quite post … it’s about the venn diagram of sex, dating, and Parkinson’s (and its medications) … hold very tight please …

Dating with dopamine

You know when she’s on the brink. There’s a short pause, then a nervous intake of breath. It’s not sharp, not this time: more like the slow traverse of an unshod foot over an uncertain pathway in the dark. The atmosphere thickens, resisting inhalation, but once it’s been sucked in, there it stays. Her breath held, your own bated in sympathy, it happens.

At first it’s no more than a stutter, a rattlesnake’s tail of indistinct monosyllables. But it soon gains momentum, accruing energy until it tumbles forth in a great, irresistible rush, an outpouring of tension that brooks no opposition. It’s just a simple question, but it’s been swirling around the conversation like the smoky fingers of a burning cigar around the head of the one non-smoker in the room.

‘I hope that you don’t mind me asking, but how does it affect, you know, er, can you still, I mean …’

It’s not like the one that you answered for her because she didn’t dare ask it. This question is hers and hers alone. And finally it has come.

It’s not something I mind at all, in fact. After all, it demonstrates quite clearly what’s on her mind. Which is what I like. It shows that we’re thinking the same thing: that she’s not looking for excuses to leave, but reasons to stay.

The reason she asks is because somewhere in the back of her mind she equates parkinson’s with old age, and old age means erectile disfunction. She’s worried about my proving a damp squib. Yes, I have parkinson’s. But there are something like 6,000 parkies diagnosed before 50 in the UK, and it seems to work differently for us. Yes, I’m young (and I’ve had it for ten years). And no, it’s not ideal. Anyway. Moving on. It reminds me of the time when my consultant asked whether I’d find a prescription for viagra useful, and I almost laughed, pointing out that that was the least of my worries. In fact, since my diagnosis and the subsequent collapse of my marriage, I have suffered no reduction in my ability to act on my sexual impulses. Well, I call them that, but they are somewhat more insistent: left untended, they can turn into compulsions.

My sex drive has two major, er, drivers. The first is neurological, the second psychological: the science and art of the brain. I would say that there are three aspects to it, except that the fact that sex makes me feel alive is a result of the chemical and the psychological combining in the existential. It’s something that folds my self-awareness into the moment: in flagrente delicto there is no memento mori.

What of the pharmacology? Parkinson’s is a disease characterised by dopamine deficiency, and one of the families of pharmaceuticals used to combat this are called dopamine agonists, as they mimic dopamine and latch onto the receptors thus allowing the neurotransmitting activity to keep on keeping on … the science is complex, but these agonists have a slight drawback in that they really get on with some of the non-movement oriented receptors, too. These are the places where Dopamine acts as a risk/reward chemical, and this pharmaceutical arse-kicking can provoke the risky behaviours it generally rewards, behaviours like shopping, gambling, and, er, fucking … the leaflets say it’s rare: anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. This is obviously not an entirely positive side-effect, but perhaps it’s enough to say that I am lucky to suffer only from increased sexual drive. I say lucky because I’m not a family man – if I were, I’d be in trouble – and the non-sexual options (though they’re not optional, may me remind you) can be disastrous.

If the pharmacology is problematic, then so is the psychology. The moment of diagnosis causes a series of profound changes to rush into the room and jump on top of you. They certainly jumped on top of me. The world quite literally turns differently. Metaphorically speaking. The simplicity of knowing, not intellectually but viscerally, that this body will soon stutter and fail changes everything. No longer do you um and ah, no longer do you get tempted to put off until tomorrow who you can sleep with today. I became voracious, for new experiences as well as new partners, and, of course, along with the pleasures come the problems.

As for the best of it, there are several symptoms that make dating, and seduction, rather more complicated than is perhaps usual. We all have to negotiate our way into bed, but this can be somewhat more tricky when you’re, let’s say, differently abled.

My Parkiness is forever getting in the way, like some neurological gooseberry, but I try, wherever possible, to make a virtue of my body’s vice. One of the lesser-known effects is on the voice. I talk quietly, and when it’s commented upon, I say it’s a tactic designed to make my date lean in closer to me when I speak. Sometimes in a whisper. The sign most obviously associated with Parkinson’s is, of course, the tremor (even though we don’t all have one). As with most symptoms, this gets worse with stress, so should you deal with the inconveniently spilt drinks, the dinner that starts with soup and moves through peas before you have to move tables, and the long, thin dessert menu that flaps like a demented pigeon as you try to read it, you might try gently laying your hand on her thigh. At this the fingers, emboldened by adrenaline, take matters into their own hands and begin to drum out a tattoo. It kinda messes with the subtlety of the move.

But if all goes well, you may end up where you both wanted to all along, in bed. And you might, at this point, discover that your date has a sense of humour, as she simply takes your hand and places it where the tremor might might make itself useful.

Only then can our self-awareness fold into the moment, and we can have the kind of sex that makes us wish we still smoked. At least, that’s what she said.


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