After losing loved ones and facing his own demons, David Packman has come to realise that the world does not revolve around him. However, it certainly does evolve.
I spent the early years of my adulthood being thoroughly self-absorbed, juggling too-numerous relationships, focusing on the almighty dollar and most importantly, ensuring my dopamine level was continually replenished. Not much of a confession, I know, as I’m sure many will see themselves somewhere in that statement to differing degrees.
While we are being open and honest though, I’ll add up front that I have always carried a dark companion on my shoulder as well. Call it what you will—depression, anxiety, OCD. More accurately, at least for me, it appears to be a combination of these. It has changed shape many times throughout my life but it has been significant and ever present. Attempting to deny the existence of this little guy has helped drive many of my behavioural patterns. One will go to great lengths to ignore him. Refer to the opening line.
But I have already spent more than enough time reflecting on all this. In fact, any more time staring in the rear-view mirror and I’d have probably disappeared up my own backside as my thoughts zeroed in on my perceived inadequacies in ever decreasing circles.
As it has a tendency to do, life stopped me in my tracks anyway.
It was a fraction over six years ago now when I had a call from my mother just after dropping my bags at a hotel in Dubai where I was due to speak at a marketing conference.
My younger sister—my only sibling—had taken her own life. She was brutally cut down with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome seventeen years prior, while in the midst of a burgeoning acting career. Ever since, the disease continued to gnaw away at her. Eventually, it just wore her down.
My sister was loving, intelligent, kind, talented, funny, beautiful, and above all else, full of incredible empathy for others. She had more recently turned her hand to becoming an artist using pen and ink to create some exquisitely detailed work. I wish I could tell her now how much it means to me to have her art hanging on my walls.
My flight home from Dubai was a nightmare of savage sights and sounds. It felt like a scene from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Faces zoomed in too close and shot away leaving me in a vapid trance, unsure of whether I had been spoken to or needed to respond. I ended up sitting next to an oil and gas executive from Western Australia who I drilled for information in machine gun fashion. “Tell me more! I need all the details!” Anything to stop my brain from going to places I knew I couldn’t cope with at 33,000 feet. I needed to yell and shout, rant and rave, but above all else, I needed to be with my family — a rare sensation for me at the time.
I will never forget my mother’s face when she met me at her door. The intense look of complete and utter anguish instantly consumed me. I threw myself at her in an embrace only a mother and son can know, and through the tears, a love poured from my heart unlike anything I’d ever felt before.
Losing my sister split me open right down the middle and I began to respond to the world very differently. It was bigger than me. And so it was that I drastically scaled back my work schedule and eventually moved cities to be with my mum when it became obvious she was succumbing to cancer. She had been in remission prior to losing her daughter but since then, it had returned with a vengeance.
As those that have been there will understand, to be with your mother through to the very end, in her own home, on her own timeline as it were, is altogether harrowing and desperately full of grief, but it is also a time to be revered. Everything is said, nothing is taboo. The outrageous becomes the normal. You are the little boy. You are the grown man. You are outside yourself. You are everything all at once. It tears you apart in ways that never fully rejoin. It was through this experience that my metamorphosis continued.
Then life decided to deliver yet another twist.
I had noticed in the months preceding my mother’s death that my own health was not faring well. Of course, I put this down to the stress of everything that had occurred. Yet just three months after my mother’s funeral, I heard phrases like blood disorder and bone marrow disease. I think someone even said cancer. That’s about all I remember. Except that a parking attendant was writing me a ticket as I approached my car after leaving the hospital. I used some gruff language in an attempt to stop him, but he just turned and said, “What’s the matter, mate, having a bad day?”
Life, it appeared, was still going on around me as though nothing had happened. How disconcerting. Obviously, the world had not yet heard the news.
Apparently, I stopped by the side of the road on the way home and rang my best friend in New York to tell him. I don’t recall this. I just know that once I arrived, I paced the house wondering how to break it to my girlfriend.
I also remember being thankful my mother never knew before her death. Losing one child is unfathomable but to learn of this fate for your other in your last days seemed beyond acceptable. Among the bad news of the day, I held on to that as a little act of mercy.
So now I’m living with what’s known as a Myeloproliferative Neoplasm. It can get you quickly through its various complications, but generally it tends to hover above your head like a Damocles sword, dangling lower and lower — but with the right plan, and a bit of luck, it offers the potential of a normal lifespan. But life isn’t normal anymore, far from it.
Despite my eyes having already been opened forever wider and change occurring at a very profound level, this diagnosis gave me no choice but to finally face my demons head-on. I’ve heard it said that life is like falling off a cliff. You are only truly alive when you accept with absolute and unerring certainty that you will hit the bottom, and that all the clawing at branches on the way down, thinking that the next one will hold firm, is an exercise in futility.
And what’s causing us to fight the fall? Well, I believed I was the centre of the universe—yet I was still somehow separate from it in that it’s fundamental laws did not apply to me.
Not even gravity, it appeared.
I thought life was all about me and that I would live forever. Death was a notion, of course, but most of the time I lived like it didn’t apply. I knew this was illogical but with the ego running the show there’s just no place for common sense.
All these hits — the loss of my sister, my mother, my health — just weren’t making sense within these parameters. This wasn’t the way my life was supposed to turn out. “This isn‘t my story. I’m far too important in the scheme of, well, things.”
At the time I was fond of saying, “I can’t believe this has all happened.” Of course, this is a turn of phrase normally reserved for emphasis but I realise now I was using it literally. My ego was not accepting what had happened. I still believed I was in control of my life’s outcomes. The ensuing madness of denying reality nearly drove me to the wall. The internal voice of my dark companion got louder and more persuasive and suicide became a real option.
Eventually, however, what I came to learn is that I have to let go. It’s as easy and as difficult as that. It goes without saying that achieving this is undoubtedly a lifelong and imperfect practice but what’s important is that my new-found awareness gives me the ability to continue working on it.
I now understand my place in the bigger picture. The universe, as Don Draper so profoundly put it, is indifferent. It’s not that I don’t matter. Everything matters. We all matter. We are all inextricably connected to each other and to everything. But as far as the specific details in my life … well, let’s just say the universe isn’t overly interested in whether I am happy or not, healthy or not, even alive or not. It just provides the intricate and interwoven framework for me to be.
And so the time has come for me to fall and enjoy the ride. Maybe try a few flips on the way down. Or pretend I can fly.
At the very least, lift up my head and check out the spectacular view. Of course, I still have to be careful not to look down too often and risk putting all my focus on the ground hurtling up towards me.
Just like we all do.