State of Grace

03/14/2002 AT 12:00 PM EST

At 24, Michael J. Fox was a Hollywood phenom, the star of both TV's Family Ties and Back to the Future, the movie box office champ of 1985. Six years later, in the middle of the rocket ride, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, an incurable, degenerative neurological disorder that affects some 1.5 million Americans. (The vast majority are over age 50 when they are diagnosed; only 10 percent are, as Fox was, under 40.) As he writes in this exclusive excerpt from his new autobiography, Lucky Man, the diagnosis, which he kept hidden from all but his closest friends and family for seven years, launched him on a physical and spiritual odyssey that changed his life -- in many ways, remarkably, for the better.

Since going public with his condition in 1998 -- and leaving his hit ABC series
Spin City -- the Canadian-born actor, founder of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, has become an eloquent spokesman for his fellow sufferers, testifying on Capitol Hill in support of stem-cell research and increased federal funding. His illness continues to progress. Most of the time, when his medication takes effect, "I'm relatively loose and fluid, my mind clear and movements under control," he writes. If it wears off -- as it can three or four times a day -- "I experience the full panoply of classic Parkinsonian symptoms: rigidity, shuffling, tremors, lack of balance, diminished small motor control."

Nonetheless, Fox, 40, who is married to actress Tracy Pollan, 41, and affectionately called Shaky Dad by son Sam, 12, and twin daughters Aquinnah and Schuyler, 7 (baby Esmé is 5 months old), says he has made peace with the disease. Parkinson's "has been a real learning opportunity," he says. "And to know that there are a couple million people out there who actually give a damn about what's happening to me -- that's a tremendous blessing." It didn't seem that way in November 1990, when Parkinson's made its first tentative appearance, while Fox was in Gainesville, Fla., filming
Doc Hollywood.

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