Shortly after Mike Johnston learned he had Parkinson's disease, he felt as if his world were crashing down around him. But gradually--with faith, love, and the right treatment--he has learned not only to live with the disease, but also to flourish.

I was on top of the world: I had a super daughter, a new house, and pets. I had my own electrical contracting business with 10 men and five service vans working five states around Bristol. And I was only 38. Things were going great.

But one day, everything changed. I started having slight tremors and problems with my gait. I couldn't smell or taste anything. I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know what.

I went to an orthopedic doctor, thinking a pinched nerve from a sore shoulder was causing the tremors. After a bunch of tests and scans, he concluded I had two spurs in my shoulder that needed surgery. Ominously, he added that the spurs weren't causing my tremors.

It wasn't until 11 years later, in June 2001, that I was finally referred to a neurologist. He asked a few questions, had me tap my foot, tap my fingers, touch his finger, touch my nose, and then walk down a hall. Then he told me I had Parkinson's disease.

My world closed in around me that day.

Searching for Answers

When I broke the news to my wife, she told me she had no intention of caring for me for the rest of her life, and she needed someone to support her and her daughter financially. I found her screen name in an Internet chat room under the heading "Searching for my prince" and a handwritten note on my pillow telling me goodbye .Everything was crashing down around me.

Why me? I wondered and searched for the answer on the Internet. I found a site called People Living with Parkinson's, or PLWP, a chat room for Parkinson's patients, and that's when I realized that Parkinson's disease isn't a death sentence.

Saved From Himself

Finding that incredible chat group probably saved me from myself because I was on the edge. I quickly became a member and found people who were supportive and full of life. They were living with this disease that I knew nothing about. I'm so thankful I found them.

Somebody on the site told me about a group of neurologists in Nashville who were very interested in Parkinson's, especially the early-onset type. Nashville was nearly 300 miles from my home in Bristol, but I traveled all the way there to see these doctors.

One of the neurologists had me tap my foot, tap my fingers, touch my nose, then touch his finger, and of course, walk down the hall and back. Once again, this walk down the hall was the telltale sign that I had Parkinson's.

This doctor also invited me to one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life--a reunion of his patients. A buffet was set up in the lobby, and people like me were there. They were shaking uncontrollably, stammering to get words out, freezing in their tracks, dropping things, spilling things, jerking their arms and heads. Boy, I thought, the caterers are really going to love us!

Why Not Me?

Back home in Bristol, I continued searching for answers in the chat room. In particular, I was wondering about my desire to wait until I couldn't deal with the tremors any longer before I turned to medication.

I also found a great local support group whose members were all extraordinary in their own right: talented teachers, chemists, ministers, veterans. The group's members were supportive and caring, and they all had a great outlook on life. We called ourselves Parkies. Once again, I found them just in the nick of time.

It was about this time when I got an answer to one of my biggest questions. I was at a Parkinson's seminar, where doctors told the audience about symptoms and treatments, and generally talked above my head.

Then, a lady, shaking just like me, walked up to the microphone and started talking about her trials with Parkinson's. Suddenly, she looked toward the ceiling and cried out, Why me? She looked down, paused, and answered her own question: Why not me? That was the answer I'd searched for so many times myself.

Those experiences and my young daughter's smiles and hugs helped give me the strength to get through some of my most difficult days.

The Condition Worsens

During those difficult days, my condition began to get worse. It wasn't just from the Parkinson's, but also from the medicine the neurologist gave me when I started having more tremors. What he didn't tell me when he put me on the medication was the side effects it would cause. I didn't think to read the package insert.

In the first five months I was on the drug, I gained 40 pounds, saw my lower legs swell to the point where I could only wear flip-flops, and slept one night out of five but dozed all day. The neurologist then gave me fluid pills for my swelling, a sleeping pill for my insomnia, and an antidepressant to keep me from crying every time I talked about my disease and the side effects of the Parkinson's medication.

What's more, when I was on that medication, I did many strange things I'd never thought of doing before. I used my $68,000 divorce settlement to buy a Harley and $1,200 worth of Harley T-shirts. On many occasions, I bought drinks for everybody at the local bar all night long, and I would spend $500 to $1,000 on Lotto tickets at a time. In retrospect, I am so ashamed of my behavior.

Redemption in Augusta

By the end of December 2005, I was virtually dead broke. Then, I met a man here in Bristol whose wife had Parkinson's. She had made great improvements with the help of a neurologist in Augusta, Georgia.

I made the five-and-a-half hour trip down to Augusta. Not only did the neurologist confirm my diagnosis; he also discovered my mother probably had early-onset Parkinson's and restless legs syndrome in her late 30s to early 40s. I remember doctors had diagnosed her as simply being nervous.

I could also remember having had restless legs syndrome from the time I was 14 until it miraculously disappeared when I was 19. My legs had tingled all the time. Plus, the neurologist said he thought I had my own Parkinson's symptoms when I was 32--that time I went to the orthopedist for what I thought was a pinched nerve.

When I told him about the side effects I was having from my Parkinson's medication, the neurologist weaned me off it and prescribed new ones. In a month, I found myself, rescued from the fog of the drug.

I posted my story online--and 60 other Parkinson's sufferers came forward with their own horror stories of being on the same drug. We all seemed to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, chatting for hours online, spending outrageous amounts of money, or shopping for things we absolutely didn't need, like a big ol' Harley and $1,200 worth of Harley T-shirts.

Losing, Then Finding, Faith

There have been some positives that have come from my experiences. In the midst of the turmoil, I married my high-school sweetheart, Annette, a nurse in a local hospital's intensive care unit. She had researched Parkinson's disease as part of her job, so I like to joke that she knew what she was getting into when she married me. We now have three children.

She has been understanding through it all, and I have found real love. Above all, I have found the strength and support I needed to face this disease.

And then there's my faith, which a wonderful priest had nurtured during my childhood. Throughout my life, my faith had been my rock. I had always depended on it to form my life and set my course. But somehow, that faith disappeared without my knowing it for a while.

One day, though, my faith returned--stronger than ever. As I thought of what had happened, this prayer came from my experience:

When I close my eyes, in my mind, you're right there beside me! I know you're with me! Although I question your motives, I still keep my Faith! Knowing you are with me makes my journey much easier! I could not sustain knowing you weren't there! In you, I put all my trust! I have given the reins to you! I no longer can control this trip! I'm leaving it up to you! Guide me please!

The Right Words, the Right Time

In the meantime, my Parkinson's has been very slow progressing. I still work every day, and my life is fairly normal as long as the medication controls my symptoms.

Now I'm able to return the support and encouragement I've received from support groups and other people with Parkinson's. I have found a talent I didn't know I had, or it found me. One sleepless night something told me to start typing. When I read what I had typed--an inspirational message--I had no idea where it came from. It surely was not something I was capable of writing.

Something told me to paste it in a group message and send it out in the morning to all the Parkies on my IM list. Now, these messages come almost every morning as I sit at my PC or with the laptop on my back porch. I have come to call them morning messages.

Often, when people read my messages, they tell me that they really needed to hear those words at that moment. Or they'll say that my words inspired them to do something, try something, or seek something new in their lives. These are some of the best compliments.

Mike Johnston's Tips for Parkinson's Disease Patients

· Exercise and stay active.
· Reduce stress in your life.
· Keep a great attitude.
· Talk with others in your community. Be an advocate and raise awareness about the disease.
· Make friends with other people who have Parkinson's. Those who live with this disease know what you are going through.
· Get the very best neurologists possible.