By DANI SHARP
Caught in a constant battle within. Yin versus yang, good versus bad, highs versus lows, all competing for attention. Robert Markljc’s face is a picture of the fierce concentration that is his weapon against the emotion behind his eyes and the tremor in his hand as he describes the disease that changed his life.
“It’s a disease or a condition that slowly robs you of your ability to function, both physically and mentally,” he says. “It affects the way, who you are, what you do, what you feel, how you act, what filters you have, how you think people perceive you. You suffer anxiety, depression, along with overflowing emotions of happiness and sadness … I’d probably be on a life-support system without the medication.
“To sum it up, I suppose you’d say it’s a one-way trip to s***ville on a train with, um, happy moments in between.”
Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder impacting the neurons in the brain responsible for producing dopamine – both a neurotransmitter and the ‘feel good’ hormone. Currently incurable, the disease most recognisably results in tremors, balance issues, mood changes and dementia.
Since being diagnosed in 2009, the same year he was diagnosed with coronary artery disease, Robert’s condition has gradually declined and the Sippy Downs local now requires home furniture modifications to prevent constant falling.
First a mechanic, then a professional cleaner and small business owner, he is now completely reliant on the National Disability Insurance Scheme at the age of 51. As studies begin to theorise that Parkinson’s begins in the gut, Robert often wonders if his disease was avoidable. Did he absorb too much fuel when elbow-deep or lying beneath cars? Did all those bleach headaches steer him towards something sinister?
Despite all this, Robert has instead uncovered a side of himself that may never have existed if not for his disease.
While maintaining the struggle against his own symptoms and the intermittent effectiveness of his 18-20 daily medications, Robert performs reiki – a Japanese technique for spiritual and emotional healing – as a way of giving back to the community. For three years he has run a Facebook group called Not Just Another Parkinson”s Group, a place for anyone affected by the disease to connect and help each other along, and is also co-writing a book with his wife.
Documenting both the patient’s and carer’s perspectives of the disease, the couple say they don’t care how many people read it: they simply want to process their thoughts and will be glad if it helps even one person.
Robert is most upset by the toll his disease takes on his family. It spills over from emotional to physical, and as he sits – shaking, teary eyes locked with the ground – the husband and father regrets the frustrations taken out on those closest, the carer role his wife had to adopt and the lack of answers for his two growing boys.
“I don’t really care what it does to me, personally,” he says. “The one thing I hate most, the one thing I would change … it wouldn’t be to get rid of the disease at all, that is what it is, but the effect on your family is just cruel.”
Despite his disease, Robert said his condition is pretty “bugger-all” compared to others. The man is instead inspired by anyone who carries on with everyday life against horrendous odds. He wishes society would feel comfortable talking about personal issues and genuinely asking if someone is okay.
“It gives you drive and direction to try and better yourself, I suppose,” he says. “I mean, I’m not always an angel but I’m not always the devil either; I try to find some ground in between.”
Despite all of his symptoms – or perhaps because of them – Robert still pushes himself towards physical achievements. Five years ago, the charismatic class-clown returned to his pre-Parkinson’s hobby of karate at the level of red belt. A solid six years into his battle with the disease at the time, he set his goals and knuckled down, refusing to let the tremors stop him.
Within 18 months, Robert had his black belt and won the Sensei of the Year award in 2019. Now a Level One tournament judge, Robert goes to karate four times a week and finds satisfaction in teaching others.
“To have one of your students come out of their shell and surge forward under your guidance and achieve their goals is awesome,” he said. “To have one achieve their black belt just makes you feel like you’ve really made a difference.”
Robert has also taken up portrait drawing. A pastime he hadn’t attempted since high school art class, he is now commissioned for specific pieces. With the uncontrollable tremors in his hand, the over-achiever said it is sometimes difficult but is ultimately just a matter of concentration. And if the right hand doesn’t work, why not develop the left?
“I like to think in other ways,” Robert says, “spiritually and motivation-wise and being able to do stuff that you thought was impossible. I’d like to think that I have some ability to put that into [my family] and instil in them that you can do whatever you want.
“Even when the chips are all down on the table, I suppose you never give up. So, I hope I pass that on and they carry that through their lives.”