The Magical Thinking Roundabout

I’m a cynical person.  Skeptical of anything the cold blade of science cannot dissect.  I’m an atheist, a…

“What about the Blinding?” asks Crow, and I shake a fist at that black ball of feathers.  “You use a blinding white light like a full stop to finish your thoughts.”

“And my reflection, of course?” says the gorgon in the mirror.  “I still catch you avoiding shadows in reflective surfaces.”

“Faces in photographs, ” says Uncle Jack.  “Sometimes you have to look at them until it ‘feels right,’ if not you think those people may die as a result.”

“Remember the first gulf war?” shouts Crow.  “The rituals you performed with the shadows on the wall.  If you didn’t avoid them with your eyes, you thought Saddam Hussein was going to roll into town with his Elite Republican Guard.”

OK, so it’s not easy to dismiss magical thinking.

“What about the AIDS epidemic. You thought you’d contract it unless—“

“But I believed in God in those days!”  I retaliate.  “Or at least, I didn’t NOT believe in Him!”

“But you didn’t pray.  You touched your forehead and counted to odd numbers, but not thirteen, and how many times did you go back and forth through that f*cking living room door?”

OK, I suffer from magical thinking OCD and it frustrates me to the bone because I don’t believe it for a second, but… my cynicism gets lost in the corridors of my mind, with all those dead ends, crossed wires and doubts that multiply and multiply again.  There’s a tiny part of me that thinks maybe, just maybe, a billion to one that I control the destiny of people I’ve never met before.  And that’s enough to send me spiralling into oblivion.  A tiny, niggling itch, a drop of acid dripped onto the roof of a skyscraper, eating through a thousand stories.  With all this magical thinking I should have joined the church.

ERP can help, piling more goods onto the conveyor belt at the tooth factory.  Look at all the products falling onto the floor.  I could have stopped the war in Syria, but the troubles in Oman, North Korea, that’s just ridiculous.  A crow swoops from the ceiling and grabs a thought from the growing pile, which wriggles like a worm in its black beak.  Off it flies, into the rafters, saving it for another day.

“For when it’s quieter in here, ” he’d probably say, if he was real and not my OCD avatar.

However absurd a thought sounds, an OCD brain struggles to make it disappear, dissecting it before it can toss it into the bin.  A non OCD brain would mark it as spam and send similar notions directly into the trash folder.  Unfortunately I take every thought on individual merit.  Reasoning that attempting to stop Saddam Hussein’s tanks with rituals was obviously my OCD, but Kim Jong-un’s rockets, that’s another matter altogether.  If I avoid those shadows on the wall, maybe, if we’re lucky, he won’t hit Seoul with a chemical warhead after all.

You may think it sounds silly, that such thoughts should be easy to dismiss, but to some, a fear of spiders is just as nonsensical, but try telling that to an arachnophobic with a spider on their head.  Or dangle someone with a fear of heights from a helicopter and try to convince them they’re being ridiculous.

I’m getting better managing my magical thinking but if I’m honest, sometimes a few fantastical notions get through, paralysing me with fear in front of the mirror as the shadows turn to cancerous tumours.  Have I deluded myself that I can cure COVID-19?  Not yet, but don’t let that worry medical science, I’m sure I could destroy the virus if I count backwards from two thousand and twenty.

“F*ck sake, Crow.  That’ll take me all day!”

“A small price to save humankind!”  he sneers, and yes, if I had the magical powers he says I possess, he’d be right.

Luckily, today, I know it’s OCD.

ALL MOUTH AND VIOLINS

COVID-19 and mental health don’t integrate well.  Then again, what does get along with a coronavirus?  These are terrible times, and life was hard enough before the pandemic.  Death is all over the news these days and the thought of not being here anymore can be terrifying because it’s impossible for the human brain to perceive the details.  Even the religious can’t comprehend what it means.  As an atheist, accepting not being here is the obvious end but still no easier to imagine.  Not existing forever and ever, until the end of time and beyond, can be a depressing concept, which is not what any of us need right now.

The easiest way for me to visualise death is to imagine the year 1446.  I wasn’t around so I have no recollection.  I didn’t exist – I suppose I was outside of the universe.  I believe death will be like that.  I don’t believe there is a master plan.  No paradise in the sky.  And everyone alive today probably won’t be in a hundred and fifty years time, so what’s the big fuss?  Because the odds of life are so astronomically against us in the first place that I don’t want to throw it all away.  And there’s those I would leave behind of course.  The poor souls that have to pick up the pieces.

For the last seventeen years I’ve either been backpacking or house sitting.  That’s obviously been put on hold for the foreseeable future and it’s started to sink in that I don’t actually know what else I can do.   Continuing forward terrifies me at this moment in time.  And stronger people than me have killed themselves.  I could swallow medicine three times a day and become a husk of a person lying on a couch but that also destroys me, just in a different way.  Medication reaches into my head and turns the lights off.  And even now, as a gruesome image sits heavy in my mind, I discard the option until another day.

“How about the ultimate goodbye?” suggests Crow.  But for me, suicide is a mountain shimmering in a heat haze on the horizon, a hundred miles away in the wrong direction.  I stop and stare at it sometimes, but essentially I try to use it as OCD prevention, a holstered gun on a cop’s hip. 

It’s like when people say, “I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do that.  Next year, when I’m ready, I’m gonna blah blah blah…”

I hope it’s an empty threat.  I suppose it makes me feel a little better, peering into my eyes, searching out the demons, threatening to blow the OCD from my brain.  Uncle Jack might say that actions speak louder than words.  But sometimes I’ve been known to act on a manic idea.  Like when I told people I was going to backpack around the world all those years ago; I don’t think anyone believed me until I emailed them from Toronto.

“You didn’t have another viable option!” says Uncle Jack.  “”The paint factory was killing you, how would getting on a plane be any worse?  It’s not quite so bad today.”

That crazy idea saved my life, and although the OCD and depression came with me, at least I didn’t have to wake up at six thirty and cycle to work with the Devil on my back.

But I’d done what I said I would.  I’d made the break.  Since that flight from Heathrow (or was it Gatwick?) I’ve tried to keep my promises to myself, however impossible OCD tries to make it.  Yesterday, when I found myself staring into the mirror, I compared my OCD battle to how I felt during the first few weeks of that curious adventure.  Trust me, OCD makes catching a bus in Tijuana a walk in the park.

Fear of the unknown still played a massive part in those early days but OCD cast a darker shadow.  I recall a particular shabby hotel in a coastal Mexican town.  “Be careful in there,” said a middle aged American man as a friend and I entered through the battered front doors.

“Why?  What do you mean?”

OCD didn’t give me time to fret, head already full of Crow’s b*llshit, body collapsing onto the uneven mattress as soon as I entered the threadbare room.  The three Mexican men arguing aggressively outside the door lost in a swirl of dust as I pondered a three year old obsession.  My roommate wedged a table against the door, and when we woke up in the early evening, we headed to the nearest tienda to buy ourselves some beer.  He wanted to party, I wanted help to get back to sleep.

That night, thinking of what I’d left behind in the UK made me wistful.  I’d sold my house, left my job, my family and friends, all just to be here, sleeping on a filthy bed among crushed cans of Tecate and cigarette burns on the wall.  I fantasised about pouring burning cooking oil on my arms – that way I’d have an excuse to return home without destroying my pride.  The next time I went to the store, I bought a bottle of sunflower oil.

 “I’ll do it tomorrow when I cook breakfast,” I whispered to a cockroach on the wall.  That night I was stopped by the police for being drunk and disorderly on my way home from a bar.  The policeman searched my wallet for a few pesos but came up short – I’d exchanged them for alcohol with the miserable barman who wasn’t interested in which football team I followed or how England fared in the last world cup.  The policemen took pity on me as I explained in slurred English that I’d only had a few beers, a couple of shots of tequila – or maybe they didn’t want to fill out the paperwork.  Either way, they allowed me to stumble home, falling asleep on the lumpy mattress, dreaming about Tijuana, when two cops had given my friend and I a lift to the nearest bus station in their squad car.  We had wandered lost in that bustling city, and they’d been good enough to give us a ride to where we needed to be.  And to think I’d been warned how corrupt the Mexican police were.  By people who had never been there, of course.

When I woke up I was surprisingly happy, and I vowed to burn my arms the following day.

Thankfully, it was all mouth and violins.  Just something to say to get me through each day.  When I tell Crow I’m going to kill myself, I hope I don’t mean it.  I’m simply highlighting the extreme, like in Mexico, convincing myself that I’ll sort things out tomorrow.  Suicide is the final move, like pushing the red button to start a nuclear strike.  You do it if there’s nothing else you can do, nowhere else to go, but sometimes you have to hover your finger over the button to remind a rogue state what your potential is.

So yes, Crow, I’m going to kill myself tomorrow.

But as we all know, tomorrow never comes…

I CRY FOR HELP BUT SHE’S IN SPACE…

OK, so this Coronavirus thing is starting to hit home.  Crow, my OCDemon, has finally seen what it can do with the situation.  How he can twist it into a crude weapon and knock me over the head with it.  I’m trying not to think too much about the various possibilities, or lack of them, losing myself in other misery.  And I was, until the kidney stone passed into my bladder – although I’m still waiting to hear it plop into the lavatory bowl.  Meanwhile, the fear of COVID-19 has grown into a reasonably sized monster. And quarantine isn’t helping. I imagine Crow painting all my windows black, locking the doors and swallowing the house keys.  I cry for help, but she’s in space.

“This is it, Yan.  From now on it’s all there’ll ever be.  Other than the riots of course!” Trust Crow to twist the knife while it’s sticking out of my leg.

While I’m in the supermarket I don’t worry about the potential chaos, although I’m ashamed to say that the day before I go, I entertain Crow squawking on about what will happen in aisle three like he actually possesses precognitive abilities, bending spoons and reading minds in a circus tent.

“You’ll stand too close to someone, and that someone will be on edge, no sleep for a week and ready to blow.  Your close proximity will be the straw that shatters the camel’s back. He’ll punch you in the face and you’ll fall and crack your head.  I don’t think you’ll ever walk again. Imagine Little One’s face as your blood pools onto the supermarket floor!”

Depression sneaks into my day like a black gas.  Insidious, and smelling of rotten eggs. So what can I do about it?  Keep trucking. Keep telling my OCD to f**k off. Keep getting as much sunlight as possible.  Continue to live and take each day as it appears over the horizon. Yes, it could be better, but it could be a Hell of a lot worse.  I could be fighting marauding armies on a medieval battlefield. Cut in half, bleeding out as the town walls are breached. Or fighting in trenches, choking on mustard gas.  I could be a dog in a cage, starved of love and food, dying in my own faeces. I could be in a million other dark places, gagging on a cocktail of bleach and other household cleaners.  So I remind myself, and Crow, and try to make the best of being stuck in the house each day. I have Little One, and books, and the internet, and my freelance work and food in the fridge.  We don’t know what’s coming our way, but we will do soon. As each day passes we know what we’ve survived, as each day begins, we feel what it brings as we walk along the path. It’s tough on us all.

I cry for help, but she’s in space.  As she always is. As she always was.  Nothing’s changed. Stay safe…

TELEPATHIC SHARKS

As Coronovirus sweeps across the globe I was expecting to be a gibbering wreck by now, barricaded in an underground shelter, whittling crude spears from fallen tree branches to hunt mutant rabbits as the world collapsed around me.  I thought my OCD would be clocking into the tooth factory early, putting in overtime, convincing me that every little twinge in my body was the start of the virus which would mutate in my blood and kill me on the spot. Remembering when AIDS jumped out of its box in the 1980’s – I was sure I’d contracted the disease by sharing a can of coke in the school playground.

OCD has never urged me to wash my hands compulsively.  I fear disease, almost every day I convince myself I have an incurable illness of some sort, but contamination through germs on dirty door handles has never been an issue for me.  Covid-19 hasn’t changed that.  I’ve been worrying about my family of course, trying not to let my OCD twist the facts, batting images out of my head, knocking tennis balls over the garden wall – swatting flies again, like most days.  As for worrying about contracting the virus myself, my head has been more interested in mutating ten year old conversations that I’m not sure ever happened in the first place.  Funny what OCD focuses on, how it grabs hold and doesn’t let go.  Why fret about becoming a deadly pandemic statistic when I can spend my time worrying about fake memories and irrelevant shopping lists instead.  Although I have been worrying about other illnesses.  Cancer and sepsis.  I’ve had kidney pain, and am currently on antibiotics, and Crow has strapped a few of his grim opinions to those bouncing tennis balls.  “Your body is shutting down! Your organs are going to explode!  Why worry about Covid-19 when your arteries are pumping poison into your heart!” etc etc…

We made it back from Southport, but the current situation forced us to return early from a job in Leamington Spa.  We believe we’ll also be aborting a planned house-sit in New Mexico in June. That’s almost guaranteed. We were going back on a plane again, promising ourselves that it would be different from our other international jaunts, less shabby backpack, more suitcase on wheels.  We agreed that sleeping on train station floors would be prohibited, same rules for supermarket car parks, and beneath shelves of engine oil in South African petrol stations of course.

We spent a night in London to get an early start for our interview at the U.S embassy, and were delighted when we were approved for a six month visa.  We began searching for flights but quickly turned away to face the wall as airports across the globe began to close. We’d been so close to being on the interstate, we could almost taste the asphalt.  Of course, we can’t complain, the entire world is suffering head-shots and ricochets from this damned virus.    

“But why run away again?” asked Uncle Jack, wizened features shimmering in my memory.  

The weather is a lot nicer in New Mexico than it is in the U.K – walking a dog is more pleasurable in the sunshine.  It could be as simple as that. Anyway, the virus eating the world seems to have stopped it spinning, and here we all are in quarantine, with time on our hands to reflect on the universe and beyond – which is not so good for someone with OCD.  Sitting in a box, day after day, chewing my fingernails wondering what is happening to the world.  Who am I? Who the f**k is Alice? Who are all those toilet-roll panic buyers at the supermarket? It appears the monsters in our closets may have been us all along. I continued with my self assessment…

I was a pillock at school, and for the first few years of unemployment and work, I continued to fit snugly into this bracket, too afraid to make a serious challenge for anything other than the next stupid prank, sauntering along the path hurling cream pies at my own face, laughing like a maniac so people wouldn’t hear me scream.  High on horseplay and high jinks, I suppose. A case could certainly be put forward that I’m still a pillock. Looking back I blame OCD, but it doesn’t matter why I was the person I was, just that I was that person. No excuses, just a cold hard fact, like a ship crumpling into an iceberg. Who put that there? Was the captain drunk?  It doesn’t really matter, just lower the f**king lifeboats before we all drown.

Who am I now?  Like quantum mechanics it all depends where you’re standing – who am I pretending to be?  What’s my environment? What do I need to do to survive until bedtime?  And do any of us know who we really are?  And does it really matter? I remember a conversation with Uncle Jack while cleaning spilled paint off the factory floor.

“If you could choose a superpower, what would it be?” I asked.

“I’d like the ability to get into someone else’s head and read their thoughts, because then I’d know everything!”  He grumbled, rinsing his mop in the plastic bucket.

I told him I’d choose invisibility, but was secretly impressed with the answer he’d given me.  

One thing I’m certain of is our anxieties would be similar.  If any of us fell into shark infested waters, surely the fear of being eaten alive would be identical?

“Same same but different,” someone once said to me in Thailand.  I even bought the t-shirt.

But who the f**k is Alice?

She’s me, and I’m you, and I don’t care if the man on the pub door is built like an M1 Abrams tank, I’m certain he doesn’t want to be eaten alive by that razor toothed shark.  Nobody wants Covid-19. Our anxieties may be similar, it’s just how we handle them, if we can handle them at all. So does it really matter who we are? Not really. Just try not to hurt anybody else as you go about your business and surely, by default, that already makes you a decent human being.  I don’t know who Alice is, but so long as she’s living her life as best she can, and not stealing all the toilet rolls, I really don’t care.

My advice for the anxious like me?  Wash your hands before you bite your fingernails.

And stay safe!

KNOWLEDGE OF THE RISING SUN

It could be violent images, or it could be a f**king shopping list.  Paranoia or depression. Fear of shouting insults into loved one’s faces or blowing a lie into Little One’s ear.  “I f**king hate you.” No more than a whisper, but solid like a blow from a steel hammer. Last night I imagined killing myself, and leaving a note for Little One, telling her that I didn’t love her, and never have.  I’d write a letter to everyone who might attend the funeral. It would inform them that my relationship with Little One was a fraud. I imagined them sneering at the back of her head as my coffin was lowered into the furnace.  I tried to forget such OCD b**lshit, but the feeling of dread and shame wouldn’t leave me. Even when my thoughts became jumbled and I couldn’t remember what I’d been thinking about, the dread lay heavy on my shoulders, like hearing a loved one had gone missing at sea – a weight that was constantly there, punching me in the ribs, the back of my head, low blows and kidney shots slamming in from every angle.

How did I get rid of this particular intrusive thought?  I imagined Little One hanging herself, ending the pain with a cold snap of her neck, and all of a sudden, like a squirrel bolting up a tree, (or a crow flying off my shoulder,) the dread subsided – it felt like I was swimming in space.  My PlayStation had been on pause for two hours as I battled those intrusive thoughts, and I crawled into bed before other demons came knocking. A butterfly had replaced the elephant in my head, but I knew it could mutate back at any moment.

How odd that thoughts of my loved one committing suicide had shooed the crow from the fence.  Bleak as it may be, reminding myself that in a hundred and fifty years time, nobody living on the planet today will be alive helps to put things into perspective.  I don’t want any of us to die, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. In the year 2170, we’ll all be a second hand memory, an anecdote, a chapter in a book, videos on the internet, a photo on a great grandchild’s wall.  But none of us will be around to worry about it, even if we lived to be a hundred and twenty. So why should I worry about dying, about what I may or may not do? Every one of us will be dust blowing on the breeze. In my mind’s eye, giant cockroaches climb out of smoking piles of rubble, a cloud of gas passing over what was once London/New York/Istanbul. One day, visualising a team of iridescent unicorns may work, but for the time being, all I’ve got is the knowledge of inevitable annihilation. Swallowing these bitter pills fails to keep the demons from my door, but denies them access to the room.

It doesn’t mean I strive to not care about anything.  I’m merely attempting to teach my brain the ability to let things go, to stop dwelling on what may or may not happen.  The Spanish Inquisition. Despot rulers. Medieval torture chambers. The Coronavirus. You just have to listen to the news to see that life is a series of painful experiences – hopefully separated by long bouts of contentment.  But OCD forgets about the good times. It sinks its claws into painful memories and rips them out of your brain, thrusting them in front of your eyes. 

“Look what I found in your head!”

My job, if I want to keep my sanity, is to remind myself that I’ll be spending eternity not existing anyway, so why not leave a few things in the closet.  Stop asking myself how it would affect Little One if I killed myself in front of her? Stop trying to second guess how such terrible things would feel, because I don’t know the answer, and anyway, the sun is still going to rise in the morning, whether I’m around to see it or not.

THE WORLD EATS EVERYONE

A teenage boy shuffled past me in the supermarket today, ghostly white, looking like he was about to explode.  The woman with him had an angry twitch in her eye, p**sed off with the world and everyone in it. She nearly trampled over my foot with her shopping trolley.  Of course, it was all my fault.

“If looks could kill, you’d be choking to death right now,” said Crow.  “The world is full of hatred, all right.”

“And love,” I said.

“Is it really?  Is that what you believe?”

“Not really,” I admitted, and felt like someone had punched me in the stomach.  Why couldn’t I imagine something nice, for once.

I tried to imagine what that teenage boy might be going through, relating to my own issues but realising it could be anything in the world.  I wanted to tell him everything would be OK, but that’s not practical – besides, it might not be OK. At his age I was struggling with the world too, drowning in a sea of anxiety but convincing myself I’d reach the shore one day – I’m still struggling, still splashing around in cold water.

When I was diagnosed with OCD, I still wouldn’t talk about it, would force my issues back into my stomach, until they spilled over at the weekend and someone punched me in the face.  I only played the victim when I was drunk – in those days I didn’t realise that the world eats everyone.

A few years ago, outside a train station late one Saturday night, I was hit by a snow plough.  Or at least it felt like it. It was a fight and I lost. An angry hamster had challenged three wolverines to a duel, and not surprisingly the hamster got mauled, quite badly as it turned out.  Stumbling home, I caught my reflection in a shop window – my head looked like a piece of fruit that had been kicked around a car park. It was my own fault. I’d gone out on a drinking binge while my head was full of particularly cruel intrusive thoughts.  I should have spoken to a friend about my issues, not try to cram them into the basement of my mind. Within a few hours I was drunk, and the battering, repulsive thoughts kicked the cellar door wide open. I assumed the role of the aggressive idiot, looking for easy laughs but becoming irate at a sudden turn of a head, a roll of the eyes, a misinterpreted snarl on the face of the barman.  It was my fault the fight had started, but to this day I can’t remember a single fist punching my face, just my skin feeling tight around my head, and then a police van pulling over to see what all the fuss was about. Had I called out to the boys in blue?

The next day I took a taxi to my parent’s house, breaking down in tears when they asked me what had happened, why I looked like I’d been hit by a bus.  I caught a train to York a few days later. My dad explained the situation to my boss, while I began another pub crawl. In the two weeks I was away, my bruises healed but my OCD remained just as intense.  It was good of work to give me time off, although my girlfriend at the time wasn’t so lenient, and packed her bags to live with her parents on the other side of the country. I don’t blame her. She’d seen me get myself into a lot of trouble.  We were never on the same page about much, anyway. I just wish I hadn’t needed such a harsh beating to bring the relationship to a conclusion.

I returned home, and on the first day back at the factory, my boss invited me into the canteen for a talk.

“Your father explained a few things about your mental health,” he said.  “It surprised me. I thought you were intelligent.”

I didn’t know what to say.  So I just laughed, and said yes, I had some issues.  To this day I regret not educating him on the fundamentals of a mental illness.  Suffering from any illness is nothing to be ashamed of, and certainly doesn’t suggest a lack of intelligence.  It was my former boss that was showing his ignorance, I was just too young to call him out on it. If I had a time machine, yes, I’d go back and assassinate Hitler, but first I’d take a detour to my old workplace and give my younger self a quick briefing on how to handle such a pillock.

There was however, a silver lining.  The butterfly had flapped its wings, and a week after the conversation over that crumb ridden canteen table, I decided to go travelling.  Or rather, to run away and hope my problems didn’t follow. They did of course.

Nowadays these issues should be easier to talk about.  Quite hypocritical of me really, as some of my best friends don’t have a clue what I go through on a daily basis.  But that’s not because I’m ashamed of what I have, just that I prefer to talk about something else. Besides, I have Little One to confide in when the spikes are falling from the sky.  An OCD sufferer often obsesses over horrific images and I once told her that I was struggling with the thought of frying her face on the electric hob. She took it quite well. I explained it was because I loved her so much that Crow was trying to convince me that I wanted to hurt her.

Yes, I have problems.  And it’s good to talk. But everybody has their own demons.  And everyone, at some point, thinks the universe is picking them out of a crowd.

Why me?  some say.

Why not? replies Crow.

The truth is nothing to be ashamed of.  Some exaggerate their problems, all mouth and violins, while others sit alone in darkness, holding their issues close, hoping to drag them to their grave.  There’s not always a right or wrong, but if there was, surely talking about your mental health would be the right thing to do. You wouldn’t try and hide a cracked fibula, limping to the shops, dragging your broken leg behind you.

“Morning, Barry.  I’m fine, it’s just a sprain…”

There were times as a young man when I sat on my hands, fearing I may plunge a knife into a loved one’s stomach.  Yet as soon as I was diagnosed with OCD, and I’d accepted that the diagnosis was correct, it made the thoughts of reckless violence not quite so terrifying.  It wasn’t the devil in my head, it was OCD, and it was trying to ruin me from the inside out. However, other than my immediate family, I refused to share my diagnosis because I was ashamed of it.  Everyone has dark thoughts, how could I not switch them off like everybody else? I feel such a fool now. Did I think I was too cool to have OCD?

Sometimes talking about your pain isn’t the problem.  Its finding someone who gives enough of a shit to listen.  My advice is simple – if you find someone who cares, put your feet up and let them into your inner world.  Just don’t forget to ask them about their own problems. Because the world eats everyone.

There’s no shame in being ill.  No shame in being a little broken.  And certainly no shame talking about it.

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE ANXIOUS

“So what have you learned, Yan, with all that travelling under your belt?”  Uncle Jack takes a sip of rancid coffee from a plastic cup.

Every time, whenever somebody asks me this question, if I’m not expecting it, I always struggle to find something profound to fire back at them.

A casual thought falls from the sky…

 

…There are thousands of ways to stack a dishwasher.  While volunteering on a horse stud farm in New Zealand, my duties included cleaning the dishes after every evening meal.  I used to dread this event, as the lady of the house, a fierce middle aged woman with a temper like a pit bull chained to a fence, would scream her instructions as I fumbled to stack the cracked china plates.

“Don’t put them there, they go on the bottom, you idiot!  And not that way around, turn them so they face left!”

When I was working on an alpaca farm in Arizona, although they didn’t have a dishwasher, they did have a particular way of drying their tableware.  It became an after dinner game, attempting to delay the washing up until the hosts were settled in front of the TV.

“Be careful you don’t break anything!” a voice would bark from the next room.

Really, I didn’t realise, I was about to throw them at the wall.  Thank God you told me.

Little One and I are house sitting in Southport at the moment – a lovely residence, but with set rules on how to use the dishwasher.

“We don’t use it to actually wash the dishes, but as a place to stack them so they can dry without cluttering up the draining board. Oh, and not like that, the cutlery slides in from left to right.  It helps them to drip properly.”

And I thought I had an OCD problem.

I’ve never struggled with the tidying form of the illness.  Or washing my hands a hundred times an hour, or arranging sausages in parallel lines on my plate.  It must be extremely restricting, a particular room in Hell, and I do have experience battling with light switches and shadows on the wall, so I understand the frustration, the heavy dread that sits in the heart.  Although I obsess like a world champion, believe me, it comes with heavy doses of Crow evading compulsions too. They’re simply hidden behind my eyes, and if you could take a look inside my mind, you’d see a tiny version of myself on my knees, ritualising like a fanatic most days.  I suppose you could say I wash my hands and line up those sausages in my head. A twitching eye, a mumbled word under my breath, these are the signs of distress that appear if you look at me long enough. Evidence of the war raging within.

“So you learned how to operate a dishwasher?” says Uncle Jack.

“Not just one, several. And a thousand ways to balance plates.”

“Anything else?”

“How to fight intrusive thoughts when cramped on a packed bus spluttering through the Rwandan countryside.”

“What did you learn from all those different cultures?”

“That mental health affects all four corners of the world.  Black and white, rich and poor, tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor.  The religious and those with no faith at all.”

“OK,” nods Uncle Jack.  He crushes the plastic cup and lobs it into the bin.  It lands on a glob of yellow paint. “What did you eat in Rwanda?” he asks.

“Lots of pizza.”

Everyone takes away something different from an identical experience.  If I shared a table in a restaurant with Uncle Jack, ate the same dish, delivered by the same waiter, we’d both come away with different experiences.  For one, seafood gives Uncle Jack indigestion. And it’s even tougher to accurately envision something that we haven’t seen for ourselves. An exact reckoning is impossible.  A smile breaks out behind my mask when people ask what I got up to when I was travelling. Even without OCD, I think I’d surprise them. How do we evaluate a person’s experience at a restaurant, let alone their years living out of a backpack.

What did I do?  Lots of stuff.

What did I learn?  Plenty.

I try to avoid these questions because when I answer truthfully, I always think people will be disappointed when they hear what I have to say.  I’m no Bear Grylls catching breakfast from a river every morning. I like McDonalds’ sausage and egg McMuffins. And usually eat them staring at a picture of that clown’s stupid grin while batting away negative thoughts of how we might all die today.

What did I do yesterday?  You’re a nosy bastard, Uncle Jack.

But if you want to know, I delved into my bag of anxieties and obsessed over stuff, smashed out a few rituals to give me a bit of breathing space.  I went shopping too but if I only mentioned buying groceries, you’ll think I wasted my day and should have done better…

Anyway, Uncle Jack, enough about me.  What did you do?

SEMI-AUTOMATIC

Judging by some of the other motorist’s expressions, the best place to break down in a car is not on a busy round-about.  You’d have thought we did it on purpose. Luckily, not everyone was red in the face, and a drunk passenger from a passing car helped me push our stagnant vehicle up onto the grass verge – our little semi-automatic was stuck in first gear so this took a lot of heavy grinding.

It was a little bit embarrassing, mildly frustrating and annoying, but we got over it.  What could we do about it? I’m no mechanic and things like this happen all the time. Just gotta put your head down and wait for road recovery.  It’s a wise old proverb but let’s face it – sh*t happens…

Sh*t happens and counting backward as I walk through doors isn’t going to prevent world war three, or eradicate the Ebola virus, or delay ice-caps melting into the sea.  Easy to say, harder to execute, because OCD convinces us we have supernatural powers. That if we perform certain rituals, mental or physical, wars will end, cancer won’t spread, the laws of the universe won’t apply to us.  OCD makes us feel special, but not in a good way. Mental illness convinces us that what we’re experiencing is the process of a fair system – I feel bad, so I must deserve it.

Today I conversed with family, friends and strangers.  At home, appreciating the quiet, a familiar thought struck me as I stirred sugar into my coffee.  I’d been three different people again, adapting my personality with each group – hiding behind three very different masks.  It was instinctive, a practised craft, at the time I didn’t give it a second thought – too busy grinding through the day on semi-automatic.

But why couldn’t I just be me?

“Ah, but who are you exactly?” asked an inner voice.

I’m someone who wants an easy life.  I want to protect my family from worry when they ask how I am.  With my friends, I’m all silly jokes and busy hand gestures while intrusive thoughts churn liquid in my stomach.  When it comes to people I don’t know, it depends on my mood, but today, I answered their questions with what I thought they’d want to hear.  Rule 32 section b: Smile, be friendly and try not to invite them into the house.

We all hide behind masks.  That feeling when you really don’t want to go out and socialise but you’re already out – and socialising – so you’ve just got to get on with it.  Someone asks you how you are, and you smile and tell them that you’re good. That’s a mask. You’re pretending to be happy when you really want to cry, or jump at the wall and knock yourself unconscious.  Of course, you shouldn’t be embarrassed by how you’re feeling. But do you really have to tell everyone at the party that you’re a bit f**ked up today? Of course not. So you slip the mask over your face, open another beer and ask them how they are.

“I’m great!” they reply.  But you doubt that very much.

The party has become a Venician masquerade – elongated beaks and jewelled eye masks.  We all do it from time to time. It’s become instinctive in our society, even if it may be the wrong thing to do.  When suffering from bad mental health, the mask sometimes feels that it is permanently stuck to our face – stapled and bound in duct tape, only removed with magic, or when you turn the lights out and collapse onto the bed.

Wearing masks may not be the perfect answer in a perfect world, but the world isn’t perfect and so there are no perfect answers.  Some days we’ve just got to put our heads down and get through it as best we can. That doesn’t mean we can’t ask for help. On the contrary.  We should help each other whenever we can, and never be ashamed to ask for it. Never be ashamed of talking about mental health issues, never be ashamed of discussing what we fear.  But sometimes, you’ll get away from your old school friend in the high street a lot quicker if you just smile and say you’re feeling OK.

I could have broken down and screamed when the car stopped on the roundabout, but I pulled a mask over my face and pretended that I didn’t care.  And good things did come of it – the relief I felt when we’d pushed the car safely onto the grass verge was overpowering. I think I may have been singing.

It’s late afternoon as I write this, and it feels like I’m waiting for the end of the world.  I look inwards and tell myself that it doesn’t matter, everything comes to an end, why would the world be any different?  No use performing rituals to save loved ones from the unavoidable fact that one day, none of us are going to be here. Sound depressing?  Well, it is. But that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. If an atom bomb fell from the skies, I’d watch the mushroom cloud spill into the heavens, ruining the sky like oil poured into bathwater – no use turning my back and missing the show, and better than dying, staring at my feet.

“I’m going to fill your head with funeral pyres!” squawks Crow.

I don’t fear death, only the journey getting there – it’s Crow who wants to know the finer details, experience the final breath so he can mock and pull faces.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Little One and I are waiting for our next house-sitting assignment.  We’ve just returned from Hull, where we fed a cat, made sure all the doors were locked and watered the tomato plants.  It was only for two weeks and OCD loitered on the periphery, making a terrible nuisance out of itself, but failed to wreck the experience – it could have been a Hell of a lot worse.

So where do we go from here?

We’re booked in to a house-sit at the end of November.  It’s for three months. We have another cat to fuss over.  Have we planned beyond that? Not a chance. We’ve bought a cheap second hand car but it’s already in the garage.  You can’t rely on plans even when you do make them.

As I’ve stated before, the urge to travel has shrivelled up and died.  But the realisation that I don’t want to sleep on train-station floors any more presents me with a dilemma.  What do I do instead? I’m certainly not going back to the factories, not that there’s anything wrong with them, but I know they would kill me this time around.  When Crow is shrieking in my ear, it helps that I’m not filling paint bottles on a production line. At the moment, if it’s too loud to think, I just walk into the next room. There’s not a supervisor in the world who could excuse that – and I don’t blame them.

There’s no rush, freelance writing has put some money in the bank, I’m not going to starve, I should really look at the next chapter of my life as a new adventure.  And I’m certainly not saying I’ll never travel again, just next time do it in a little more comfort.

I wonder what Crow would be like on like a cruise ship?

“The same as I am on a sun bleached beach or in a Las Vegas casino,” I imagine would be his reply.  “F**king relentless.”

UTOPIA ON FIRE

OCD is the great deceiver.  A perverter of truths. When something nice happens, OCD whispers reasons not to believe it – or tells you that events and relationships will turn out bad because of it.  Maybe sticks horrific images into your brain just because you were smiling ten minutes ago. When something unfavourable happens, it exaggerates the fallout, misrepresenting the reasons why it happened in the first place.  Bad things are magnified to awful, end of the world catastrophes – good things, suddenly distorted to not so good after all, overrated at the very least. You could win the lottery in paradise and OCD would kick the jubilation out of your lungs and set fire to all the palm trees.

“I don’t know why I bother sometimes,” I say to an empty field.

“Because the fire consuming the city can still look pretty,” says a crow on a crooked fence post.

I live on the dark side of the moon – I always have.  As a child, if Santa Claus delivered a teddy bear, OCD would tell me it had Leukaemia, and the man in the red hat was probably a rapist.  Since I can remember, positive experiences have been turned upside down and set on fire – every memory punctuated by a question mark, twisted into a dangerous riddle or littered with false memories.  “I’m sure I felt the tip of a sharp object stab into my thigh last night. Could it have been a needle infected with AIDS? Was there a man in the corner of the nightclub wishing I was dead? – Am I on a serial killer’s death-list?”  I either dwell on negative crumbs or search out shadows that were never there. Looking back over my shoulder is risky business, a cerebral minefield – like rolling a dice, where one to five means my day is ruined. Ninety-nine percent of the time I choose not to reminisce, but sometimes, memories jump out from the darkness like somersaulting ninjas.

Yesterday, Ice Cube played on the radio and it took me back several years.  All of a sudden I’m walking with friends to Compton, L.A, cameras and day-packs slung over our shoulders, watching as a car pulls up alongside us, the face of a beautiful woman beaming from the driver side window.

“This isn’t a place for tourists,” was her opening line, and as we turned to walk away, she handed me her number scrawled on a card – “But if you guys want a private dance,” she smiled.  I never did call her. But like falling dominoes, this L.A recollection nudged into another memory from the same city. I’m with the usual friends, but this time I’m talking with a local man outside an adult entertainment shop near Hollywood Boulevard at three in the morning – eagerly awaiting his driver after a promise of dancing girls back at his apartment.

“I’m a music producer, I’ve worked with Janet Jackson,” he told us.  A few hours later and two of us woke up groggy on his sofa, our other friend opening his eyes in an unfamiliar bedroom, his shirt unbuttoned and a porn movie playing on a large screen – luckily before anything too sinister could happen.  Outside I threw up in a bush. Two police cars screeched to a halt in front of us, cops jumping from their vehicles, yelling at us to put our hands on our heads as their fingers rested on the grips of their holstered guns. Our drinks had been spiked.  The cops said the man had done something like this before, but it was us they threatened to arrest because we were the ones threatening to kill the potential rapist – the predator had called the police on his own victims. Back at the dormitory we lamented that it had been like a scene from a movie.  Gunshots rang out later that night, seeming to confirm our analogy.

These recollections failed to pull a trigger, so I continued my journey along the stale corridors of my mind.  I rode a bull in New Mexico (for around ten seconds before it threw me to the ground) and stroked a great white shark as it swam past my steel cage in South Africa.  I wouldn’t do it now, I’m more aware of an animal’s right not to be touched, and although it doesn’t make up for it, in Nicaragua, I did release baby turtles into the sea, so…

People, actions and exotic locations flashed across my mind in glorious technicolor.  From sunrises in Fiji to sunsets in Chile, via coups in Mauritania and skidding off my mountain bike on the world’s most dangerous road in the mountains of Bolivia.  From a local football derby in Buenos Aires to the wrestling world cup in Mexico City. From working with young Mormon missionaries in Estonia to losing motorbike cops in a crazy taxi ride through Bogota’s back roads.  I’ve taught Koreans conversational English, leaving them with a subtle Norfolk accent, and helped Hungarians prepare business proposals in a swish hotel retreat – I wonder if they ever got the contract? OCD was with me every step of the way, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t do it.  It just meant that it hurt like Hell – like lots of things do with the Devil on your back.

“But you only touched the surface,” says Crow.  Yes, I agree, adventures were certainly restrained because the OCD coachman was pulling hard on the reins.  Opportunities cut short or never seeing the light of day as I lay huddled and cursing on a dishevelled bed. Declining an invitation to a ceremonious rock-throwing battle in a Bolivian village resonates in my head.  Cruel, intrusive thoughts had knocked the wind out of my lungs and I made my excuses, but I sometimes wonder what would have happened had I accompanied those young Bolivian men on that primitive skirmish. Probably have lost an eye.

“You’ve got another one!” squawks Crow.

All these memories make me smile, for different reasons, but yes, the recollections are always jaded – Utopia on fire.  There is always another thought poking into my membrane, a darker visual, or potential catastrophe promising to ruin all the fun.  People I’ve met along the way have regretfully become triggers too, natives and fellow travellers with whom I’ve shared great adventure.  My mental health was in particularly bad shape in India and Nepal, and whenever I think of my time there, and the people I met along the way, I twitch and cringe in discomfort.  I was an extra in a Bollywood movie, I trekked across the Himalayan mountains, but every memory pulls a particular trigger and I lose the next few hours like my head’s in a cement mixer.  Tambien in South America. I made a great friend in Colombia but still feel that I somehow let him down. From  Popayán to Cartagena, Cali to Bogota, it’s all just a whir and a sweaty panic attack – even Crow needs to breathe through a paper bag to stop his wings from shaking.

Even our good memories don’t necessarily start out that way – there will be times when we cried in fear and frustration that only now plant a smile on our face if we dare to look back.  Even if a crow was there, we still have the memories of what we’ve seen, what we’ve achieved – the apples on the tree may be bruised but they’re still partially edible, and better than eating soil, even if we prefer bananas.

Besides, somewhere in the world there are people with OCD being water-boarded as I type this, bones snapped in half in torture chambers and depressed child labourers breaking rocks in stone quarries…When you hear me complain, don’t feel too sorry for me, because I’ve had some fun along the way.  It’s just that everything was on fire at the time.

SIX YEARS

Norfolk trundles past the window – a rumbling combine harvester, a tractor pulling a trailer, a car towing a caravan.  East Sussex, just another memory stuffed into a box. I’m back home, trying to lose myself in a cold beer, deciding where I can run away next, but a young couple walking their dog have disturbed a memory deep in my subconscious – a fractured image of another time, another life.  Something inside me snaps…an event I feared would happen but never did, that I tried to bury in a flurry of ritualistic compulsions a very long time ago. I imagine a revolver aimed at the back of my head – the crow’s feathers curl around the trigger and…

BOOM!  My limbs feel heavy, the chemical elements in my bones reconstructing, transformed to base metal, stomach spoiled and tight, curdling like it’s full of milk and sugar.  My skin is hot, perspiration trickling from my scalp, feels like someone’s poured a bag of sand into a hole in my skull. I want to gulp down a glass of cold water but my energy has started to sap, too lethargic to drag myself to the kitchen sink.

“Just don’t think about it.  It’ll go away…” says a hazy figure from my past.  It’s Uncle Jack, my former colleague from the factories.

But it doesn’t go away does it – it hasn’t yet anyway.  I’m still obsessing about it. Still slowly sinking into the sand.

The past is a jigsaw puzzle.  OCD stomps onto the pieces, smashing them into all the wrong places – anything could have happened!  Was it this or was it that instead? I’m confused and shaking, trying to empty my head from six- year-old ruminations.  Whatever the truth was, my mind has already decided that it’s fatal.

A man on TV is bidding on a house at an auction.  I’m feeling queasy as the gavel falls and the property is sold.  I’m in the room but miles away, and prepare my lunch with that familiar tightness in my belly.  Go to bed regurgitating events from all those years ago. Wake up waiting for the horn of the rhinoceros to pierce the horizon – a stampede of OCD and other animals spewing dust in their trail like cartoon juggernauts galloping across a plain.  No escape, just a few seconds before the realisation hits. THWACK! I’m back on the sofa, pondering, contemplating, constantly f**king thinking.

Shopping for groceries now.  Head looking down at the tiled floor, a burning sensation in my stomach like I’ve swallowed a shot of mustard.

Am I going to die tomorrow…?

What if my greatest fears come true…?

What if this happens, or that happens…?

“It’ll ruin your life, that’s what!” screams Crow.

You’ve already ruined it!

I imagine a heavy axe cutting me in half and half again; picture putting my fists through the freezer doors; envision a bullet blowing the back of my head off in aisle three, splattering the oven chips with bits of skull and brain.  The Crimson Knight rears his stead in the corridors of my mind, Crow lands on top of my head and pecks at my scalp. “You’ve got liver disease, dementia, smallpox, and bubonic plague. Little One is leaving you for the milkman or maybe the man who collects trolleys in the supermarket car park.  Everybody you love is going to die next week, BECAUSE YOU’RE GOING TO KILL THEM!” It’s an overdose of fantastic, horrific possibilities.

Over my shoulder, a middle-aged woman asks if she can grab a box of cornflakes.  Moving out of the way my skin prickles like it’s burning under a noon sun. It was six years ago!  I didn’t know what happened then, what chance have I got now?

“I’m sorry,” I say to the woman.  “I was miles away.”

“Just don’t think about it,” repeats Uncle Jack, sipping coffee from a plastic cup.

Easy for him to say.  I fantasise dragging him out from my head, spewing my thoughts into his face like a scene from The Exorcist.  Let’s see how easy YOU deal with it! Imagine if you broke your arm and I said, “Toughen up, just don’t think about it!”  And don’t bother saying that it’s only OCD. Tell that to the girl pulling out her hair, or the boy slicing lines into his skin with a razor blade.

And to think I’m so much better than I was – than I’ve ever been…

A city burns in black flames as I crawl into bed.

Let’s hope tomorrow will be a better day.

Crow smirks on my pillow and tells me that he doubts that very much.

I close my eyes and travel back in time six years…