BENDING SPOONS – OCD AND THE MAGIC WAND

I believe in the Big Bang.  I believe in science and medicine and the fundamental theory of quantum mechanics.  I believe that what goes up, usually comes down.

So why am I trying to cast magic today?  Fighting off bad news by repeating a phrase over and over in my head, counting each syllable as if a life depended on it? 

A new OCD infatuation is growing like fungus behind my eyes.  It involves magical thinking and an urge to say a sentence perfectly in my mind – or else the kitten gets it.

“If you fail, something terrible will happen,” says Crow.  I imagine tumors sprouting out of vital organs.

To put my current obsession into perspective, I recall previous delusions that seem ridiculous to me now.  Like the time I averted nuclear apocalypse, and killed the SARS epidemic of 2003 by imagining blinding white lights on my bedroom wall.  But I never once won a Nobel Prize. Wasn’t even nominated.

You’re probably unaware that I prevented World War Three, but what about my role ending the first Gulf War?  Crouching beside my bedside table tapping a little red Bible for an hour every night, avoiding the same little red Bible when I woke up, less I looked at it in the ‘wrong’ way and Saddam Hussein fired a weapon of mass destruction at Tel Aviv.

My good deeds don’t stop there.

I’ve sacrificed a night’s sleep to stop a forest fire halfway around the world; contained a flesh eating virus before the medical world knew it even existed; calmed a hurricane before it wiped out an entire coastal population by thinking specific words at specific times in specific rooms in my house.  I guess I’m like Superman but without the muscles and quiff.  And I’d never wear red underwear. Especially over blue leggings.

When I look at a photograph of somebody I love, the magic returns.  I convince myself that if I don’t look at it the right way then Death won’t be far behind.  A wheel of disease spins in my mind.  Will it be cancer or AIDS?  Maybe a kidney will become infected for no reason other than a bad word flashed across my mind when I glimpsed a family photo on the living room wall.  I’m ashamed to say I’m guilty of avoidance.  ERP helps but still I avert my eyes in certain rooms.  There are pictures on bookshelves I’ve only ever looked at once.

Damn my magical superpowers.

My current mental compulsion continues to itch, doubt and despair knocking at my door like policemen bearing bad news.  I scratch it like an infected mosquito bite.

I’ve convinced myself that this time it’s different, opening the bottom drawer and untangling Harry Potter’s wand from those red underpants (I swear they’re not mine.)  Soon I’ll retire to my bedroom, or maybe take an extra forty minutes staring at the dishes in the kitchen sink, reloading the metaphorical gun that shoots monsters from the sky.  And however silly my compulsion sounds, however strongly it conflicts with the rational side of my brain, I’ll look at my feet and picture a blinding white light, or mumble whatever fantastical words I think will save the day.  Over and over, looping the loop, hours crumbling to nothing like old bones in a vice, until it feels right or I reach the magic number.

I try to think scientifically, to be pragmatic and sensible, but when it comes to OCD, it seems I believe in magic wands and unicorns. I guess I’m riding a mythical horse right now, repeating a certain sentence in my mind for the hundredth time.

If I take my own advice I’ll turn left after Narnia and keep on walking.

SAME BEAST, DIFFERENT TEETH – OCD is OCD is OCD

“Say something mean to your girlfriend” said my OCD, flapping about my head like a starling around a bird feeder.

“You’re up early,” I said, stretching and yawning into the room.  I imagined a crow pecking at my forehead. “No rest for the wicked.”

“The early bird catches the worm,” he said.

“Ha! Good one.” I could smell trouble in the air like a gas leak.

“That’s not napalm you’re inhaling,” sniggered the feathered devil.  “It’s my breath!”

I asked him if he’d been drinking petrochemicals again.  He replied with an image of me burning my wrist on the gas hob. And then a visual of my girlfriend eloping with the postman to Las Vegas.  Apparently, according to my OCD, they want to get married there.

We’re back in Norfolk this week.  A gap in our house-sitting schedule has coincided with a week-long break from writing (although Little One is still hunched over her laptop today).  I planned to get a bus into town and see my family, but Crow likes to set fire to such ideas.  The beast doesn’t change.  No, that’s not strictly true.  He changes all the time.   Constantly morphing between differently shaped demons.

I picture a young Yan Baskets unwrapping a gift by a gnarled looking Christmas tree.  A charred angel, her face melted in the flames of hell no doubt, sits on the top branch emitting a gruesome tune – like a distorted Christmas carol played on a church organ under water.

“You’ll like this one?” says Mum, pirouetting in the doorway like a doll in a horror film.

I tear away the paper, glaring at a pair of scissors in plastic packaging.  “Yippee! It’s self harm today!”

OCD is OCD. I understand it may help when it comes to discussing it with other sufferers to divide it into boxes and subcategories, but OCD attacks the individual’s personal fears – one person’s poison is another person’s garrotte. Same devil, different weapon.  Axe or AK47.  Sword or sawn-off shotgun.  It’s leaving a mess whatever it chooses.  

Some people scrub their hands until they bleed, others may walk under the same doorway until they feel that the act has saved their children’s souls. Today, for me, OCD tortured me with a fake urge to burn my wrist on the gas ring.  And insulting my girlfriend of course. Tomorrow I may be in the shadow of a different dragon.  It could try to convince me – for the millionth time – that I have AIDS.  Or maybe somebody I love has a terrible illness instead.  It could just as easily attack my philosophical bones, and convince me that when I die, I’ll have to do this all over again.

“Remember how you hated school, Yan?  You’ll be reliving those dark days from now until the end of the universe!”

I may be on a break from work,

But that sadistic crow doesn’t do holidays.

Backpacking with the Devil

Cleaning and contamination symptoms of OCD are horrendous, but most people don’t know about the other symptoms.  Like obsessing about stabbing yourself in the wrists all day long. Or cooking your granny’s face on the oven hob.  There are many arms to the OCD beast. People obsess over their relationships, worry about their sexuality, terminal illness, self harm, religion, the list goes on forever because fear is an infinite line.  Sufferers can obsess for hours over a picture hanging on the wall, or an item of clothing in their wardrobe, spending days trying to get the ‘right’ feeling less it be infected with evil or bad juju.  Yes, everyone gets unwanted thoughts from time to time, but OCD refuses to let go.  It’s intense and all consuming – I remember spending two whole months thinking about an event that I wasn’t even sure had happened.  OCD can ruin your life.  It did mine.  So I went travelling before I killed myself.

It’s not all about washing, although it can be, but if the truth be told, I should probably wash my hands more.  In fact, I didn’t wash much at school because I didn’t have the energy  (spent it worrying about AIDS, and kicking my nan to death.)  And when I did manage to climb into the bath, other worries leaped to the forefront of my mind, like sharks circling a dead tuna.  Every time I scrubbed my body, my OCD would scream I’d found a lump or a sore spot that shouldn’t be there.  It’s not uncommon for me to come out of the shower even now and think I’ve found three different types of cancer.  The media reports OCD at an angle, films and tv dramas focusing on the protagonist scrubbing their hands over an overflowing sink, but for some of us, it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Ha!  Even when I’m explaining to somebody about my OCD, I’m usually cracking jokes to cover up any potentially awkward moments.  It’s a defence mechanism that somehow works for me, but after I’ve poured my heart out, I worry people think, “He’s OK, ‘cos he was smiling.”

Honestly though, I’ve managed to laugh along the way too.  Probably more mania than anything else, but hey, it felt good at the time.  Travelling gave me purpose, and saved me from ending up in a ditch at the side of the road, pushing myself to do the usual backpacking essentials like parachute jumping and volcano boarding, and occasionally launching myself way off piste; an extra in a Bollywood movie, TV trailer and advert, (I should have stayed longer but OCD was kicking me around those fucking studios); visiting prisoners in Quito, Ecuador, enjoying a cheeky white line and a fat reefer in a tiny cell shared by four inmates.  “Half the people in here got caught for smuggling drugs,” laughed the Brit serving ten years.  “We get the best of the best in this prison!” I’d paid the guard a dollar to turn a blind eye, but OCD has a way of creeping into your bones.

“What if they lock you up in here, and rape you all night long?” it shrieked in my ear.

A thousand stories I’ve remembered, but there’s a million I’ve forgotten. Milking goats, shooting guns, hostel dormitories in Colombia laden with mountains of white powder – music pumping, wraps slung around the room like sweets, people from all over the world telling jokes, planning future trips, looking back at a thousand adventures already under their belts.  Girls too, although Little One reads this so I’ll keep it in the box – I just wish I hadn’t wasted so much time staring at cracks in the wall when I should have been losing myself in pretty eyes, nodding my head and grinning while bizarre eclectic thoughts flapped like gasping fish on wet concrete floors around my feet.

Sadly a few scraps too, wrestling on a bar-room floor in Nicaragua, ironically with a fellow OCD sufferer, (I think he thought it was a competition.)  A black eye from doormen in Sydney, trouble in Mexico and New Zealand, a shebeen in South Africa.  I never could throw a punch, but drunk I’m three times as useless.  Looking back at the chaos, I’m relieved it didn’t turn out worse, but there were fun times in there too, between the obsessions and compulsions.

It wasn’t all about numbing nerve endings.  It’s been a shark-diving, gorilla-trekking, bull-riding adventure and looking back I’m glad I decided that life was worth living. If I had indeed ended it all those years ago, I’d never have worked with llamas on the Great Plains of New Mexico, or watched the River Plate/Boca Juniors derby in Buenos Aires, or been hypnotised by all those zebra stripes at the busy watering holes of Etosha, Namibia. Yes, I managed to look beyond the shadows once in a while.

But the clock is ticking. It would be nice to make a decision without OCD pecking at my eyes or a black cloud blocking out the sun. Yes, it’s great when people say I’ve done some interesting things (it makes me feel that I haven’t wasted my days untangling knots,) but I didn’t choose this life because I wanted it, but because I didn’t want to die. And look at me now.  No home of my own, still living out of a backpack.  Scraping together a living writing for a YouTube channel, creating quiz questions for board games I’ll never play. Little One is writing educational work and working as a PA for various overseas bosses, but for a roof over our heads we travel from stranger’s house to stranger’s house, caring for their animals, clearing litter trays and shoveling donkey shit into a wheelbarrow.  We’ve just finished a house-sit in Wiltshire, now we’re back to a previous sit near Oxford – but where next?

I have no idea.

A HOSTEL IN SAN DIEGO – Travelling with OCD

I get back to my bunk, face numb with all the fake smiling and laughing throughout the day.  Close my eyes and think.  Think about the intrusive thought that haunted me all day.  Think about how I behaved covering it up so people didn’t see the rockets going off behind my eyes.  Think about the people I potentially offended.  Think about dying and laughing and killing and shouting and the hate burning in a stranger’s eyes: does he really want to kill me?

Wake up, try to straighten my thoughts before I climb out of bed.  Inevitably fail, head looking down as I move into the kitchen.  Somebody I know is putting bread under the grill.  Annnnd, smile.  Tell a joke, pretend to be happy and worry free when all the while a million thoughts dart sound my brain like mosquitoes around a flame.  Or flies around shit.

Make myself coffee, stare at the mug while I try and convince myself that I won’t die next week.  Touch my forehead and imagine a blinding white light to stop World War Three.  And what did that girl mean last night?  Can’t remember exactly but the dots are slowly being replaced with words.  Another hour and I’m convinced she saw the devil in my eyes – the reasons why I’m such an ugly, malevolent bastard.

“You’re really not,” calls a distant voice, but OCD never listens to the good stuff.

I’ve been working at this hostel for two weeks now, cleaning bathrooms and wiping ceiling fans, helping to serve behind the makeshift bar most evenings.

Another person staggers into the kitchen.

“Yan, how are you doing, man? So funny last night.”  It’s a girl from Denmark.

“Yeah,” I laugh, but feel sick to my stomach with dread.  Felt the same when I was acting the clown last night – the laughter was instant relief, but brief, like a wind across a flame.  And the fire reignited when the wind died down, a worm wriggling in my stomach, up into my throat, the back of my head, burrowing into my brain to lay fresh eggs.

“Are you coming to the mall?”

I think of the fresh air but the battle in my mind is gathering pace.  Feel so hot and greasy now, need a shower but my body feels so tired and heavy.  If I can make it to seven o’clock this evening I can get drunk without looking like a loser.  But I need to eat, so I agree and walk to the mall, telling stories that I hope will make us laugh and drown out the thoughts banging around my head.

“So where are you heading next,” asks the girl.  I have no idea, and tell her so.  She laughs, and says, “You’re crazy.”  But I want to know where I’m going, I just can’t decide because my head is full of fear.  Tiny devils striking matches.

And so it goes.  It never stops.  It’s the evening and I’m drunk, laughing about something that happened at the paint factory.  I remember it well, and at the time I felt like throwing up.  But it’s funny now.  Kind of.  At least it’s not today.

I went out that night, rode a bicycle and crashed it into a fire hydrant.  My ribs were painful for weeks, maybe months afterwards.  I suspected one of them was broken but I wasn’t going to hospital to find out.  Far too expensive, and what could they do about it anyway?  Had to sleep on the bottom bunk for a while.  The following morning, the physical pain was so hot I had a few moments respite from OCD.  When the mental pain returned it mixed with the burn of the suspected broken rib.  A cocktail of pain.  Anxiety and broken bones.  When the thinking got too much, I would poke myself in the chest and feel the fire, shutting off my intrusive thoughts, for a few minutes at least.  Later that week I went to Las Vegas on the greyhound, had a great time, but mostly because I drank myself silly and couldn’t string a sentence together, let alone a coherent thought.  I experienced Las Vegas on autopilot.  There was a story there somewhere, but I choose not to remember it because I know it has a sad ending.

I returned to the hostel to spend a couple more weeks scrubbing bathroom floors before my flight to New Zealand – a painful rib and the devil on my mind.

DARK PHOTOGRAPH – A picture of OCD

People think I went traveling because I wanted to.  And when I say people, I mean everybody I know.  Family included.  Don’t get me wrong, they knew I had mental illness issues, I just think they liked the idea that I’d found something that made me happy.  It was the biggest lie I ever told. The truth is, I went travelling because I had to, because the strain of trying to live a regular life was killing me. Still, I would return from a trip smiling and saying all was well, laughing and joking about my experiences, but never mentioning how I felt at the time.  And why would I?  It’s depressing enough just looking at somebody else’s holiday photographs, without listening to how they felt when they took them.

I neglected to mention the hours sweating in a hostel bed when I should have been trekking across mountain ranges.  And the times I did manage to trek, I never told anyone about the feeling of dread that lived in my stomach while thoughts of violence and paranoia danced in front of my eyes before each and every step.  To the world, I just bummed around and ran from responsibility, and I guess that’s still true – but I had my reasons.  But I wasn’t the free spirit some people may have thought I was.  Although I was wandering from country to country, OCD bound me internally, wrapped my brain in barbed wire and threw it thrashing into a fish pond.  When friends came out to see me, I didn’t just wear my mask, I painted it on my face.  If Little One hadn’t joined my exodus, I’d still be staring at the ceiling of a cheap hotel room, sinking into the mattress like a sweat stain.

However, after a tough time mentally in Eastern Europe, imagining the daily life of an in-patient in Ukrainian and Moldovan psychiatric wards, I decided to hang up my boots.

We’re still house-sitting in the U.K.

“How are you enjoying South Africa?” I asked the homeowners over a recent video call.

“We love it,” they said, and I recalled my own African experience. The Safaris, the gorilla trek, the shark dive should have been at the forefront of my mind, but OCD likes to play football with a severed head.  Somewhere in my mind a finger squeezed a trigger, and suddenly I was back in the Southern hemisphere, drinking in a South African shebeen with my girlfriend.  The night was going well, until a guy said we shouldn’t be there, pulled the roll-up cigarette out of my mouth and crushed it in his fingers.  He handed it back, crumpled and falling apart.  I straightened it, relit the end, shoved it back between my lips.  His own demons flickered in his eyes.  He lifted the bottle of beer above his head but before he could swing it into my face, his friend wrestled it from his grasp.

“You’d better go,” said the man who had intervened.

“I told you there’d be trouble on a Friday night,” said our host when we returned to the farm.  I laughed but imagined jagged glass ripping into my throat.  What could be worse than that?  And then I pictured the guy turning towards my girlfriend, and knew the answer.  The back of my eyes were painted red with phantom blood.  Flowing – pumping – gushing.  Did I have to go through all those images again?

The Zoom meeting was still in full swing.  How long had I been staring blankly at the screen?

When I was backpacking, I did it for the moment, not the memories.  Intrusive thoughts are common, but OCD is a monster that bites and doesn’t let go – I’m still dissecting conversations from twenty years ago. For weeks I dwelled on the gory details of that potential bottle attack.  And more besides, because the beast grabbed me by the shoulders and dragged me over the hills, introducing me to a million other possibilities.  “Have you imagined your girlfriend being gang-raped?” it said on our mental journey into despair.

“Lots of times, mother fucker,” I said, squinting the tears out of my eyes, feeling the dread roll around in my stomach like a hot ball bearing.

For the remainder of the video call I felt the scratching of talons at the back of my mind.

“We’ve got a lot to think about, Yan,” said a familiar voice, washing his wings in a bath of imagined blood. Reminiscing is a journey across a minefield – the border crossing between Western Sahara and Mauritania springs instantly to mind, shells of vehicles littering the roadside as our hired car drove steadily between the twisted wrecks.

“One wrong turn and BOOM,” laughed the driver.  I had images of Little One being ripped apart in an explosion for a month.

“If you think about it just a little more, it’ll never happen,” said Crow.  I knew it was bullshit but I went through the motions anyway.  One hundred and sixty eight hours poured down the drain.  When the fear finally subsided, another took its place.  This time it was Cancer knocking on my door.  Followed by an affair that never happened and a few days worrying I’d contracted AIDS.

I used to tell my family and friends that travel shows on TV bored me, that I’d rather be out there myself than watching somebody else do it all for me.  But I’m not ashamed to tell the truth now.  Travel shows trigger bad memories EVERY SINGLE TIME – visions of wrestling dragons on bus station floors or pulling out my hair in hostel bathrooms, OCD chewing on my brain, spitting it into the sink.  Of course, memories of safaris, the gorilla trek, the shark dive still stir in my mind, but they focus on the intrusive thoughts I was having at the time.  The phantom conversations, the images of shooting my girlfriend with an AK47, pushing her into the sea as a shark rises to the surface for the hunk of tuna tossed into the water as bait.

When I returned from my first trip I accepted the triggers.  I’d never done anything like this before and was proud of what I’d achieved, recalling my experiences through drunken, stoned anecdotes, always aiming for the next laugh, and if I’m honest, to boast about where I’d been.  But I was suffering silently inside, battling regurgitated intrusive thoughts as I retraced my steps across those hot coals.  The more I travelled the less I spoke of it.  Rarely do Little One and I talk of where we’ve been, and never do I look back in my mind’s eye (other than here, at my laptop), unless Crow forces my hand, making me walk the plank, pushing me into dark waters.

So no, I don’t watch travel shows, I’d rather watch cartoons, and no, I’m not going backpacking again – I’m too scared of another breakdown on foreign soil.  I’m proud of what I did, but the wounds are still raw. OCD never lets me forget, so the less I do, the less there is to make me miserable.

Ordinary Monsters

My OCD compulsions are mainly mental actions, it’s no surprise that sometimes people think I’m not listening to a conversation, don’t realise I’m performing cartwheels behind my eyes.  Feel like an invisible performer in a vicious OCD circus – lions licking their lips and growling, a girl in a sparkling leotard, all teeth and red lipstick, juggling chainsaws.  You think I’m being rude but I’m not.  I’m deconstructing my last sentence before the lion eats my family, while the ringmaster screams into a megaphone.  “You’re a twat.  You’re a twat.  You’re a twat.”

A few years ago, in Tanzania, Little One and I met an older gentleman on a bus in Tanzania.  After the three hour journey he invited us for a meal at his house the following day.  I remember his wife preparing the chicken while he introduced us to his daughter and grandchildren. Two men in football tops smiled at us from the living room – I’m still not sure who they were.

The old man told us about his life, asked us questions about our own, but inside I was fighting OCD with silent mental compulsions, staring at the wall and imagining a blinding white light to cleanse my addled brain.  He paused mid-sentence, peering into my eyes.  Could he see a crow pulling worms from my membrane?

I apologised, told him I’d come over a little dizzy.  Explaining to him about my OCD seemed futile, and probably not the conversation he wanted to get into.  The entire afternoon my head was filled with compulsions.  The equivalent to scrubbing my hands til they bled, or walking through doorways a hundred and thirteen times – but I still listened to everything he said.

He thanked us for coming.  We parted ways and I worried I’d appeared rude in his home.  Back at our hotel I saw a familiar face drinking beer at the bar.  It was another guy we’d met on the bus the previous evening and although I wanted to join him for a drink, thoughts swished around my head like tractors and cows in a tornado.  I was lost in mental compulsions.  I needed to lie down.

How many times have I been involved in a conversation while fighting off terrible thoughts?  The person an inch away from my face, a million miles from the truth.  Nobody sees the battle taking place behind my eyes.

“You have a gift for me?” asked the officer behind the desk in the dusty police outpost, somewhere in the disputed Western Sahara.  Policemen had boarded the bus every half an hour, ignoring the other passengers, demanding to see our passports, asking us why we were in this part of the world.  This was the first time they’d asked us to leave the bus.

“It is because you are foreigners,” said the man in the seat behind us.

The man behind the desk, surrounded by fading photographs of enemies of the state, members of the Polisario Front, seemed satisfied with our passports and reason to be travelling these lands.  He just wanted ten dollars.

I told him we were poor.  That we stayed in the cheapest hostels and hotels.  I grinned, tried to appear as friendly as possible, but not weak.  Little One looked sweet and harmless as usual.  All the while my internal struggle was threatening to bring me to my knees.  Battering back intrusive thoughts, I had no room for these real world worries, and anyway, if he asked one more time I’d give him twenty dollars, never mind ten.

“OK, OK.  You can get back on the bus,” he said.  I paused, battling the regular dragons in my head, monsters that had become ordinary by now.

“Pronounce the words he just said in your mind,” said Crow.  “Or your mother gets shot by jihadists.”

I must have looked confused, teeth grinding as OCD threw another spanner in the works.  The machine grinding to a halt as another experience fell to pieces.

Mental compulsions continuously play out in my mind.  Thoughts eating thoughts eating thoughts.  We said thank you, turned away from the photos on the walls.  Those faces were harmless to me, but I’ve lost count of the accumulated hours I’ve stared at a photo of someone I love, trying not to think about cancer or the Devil.  I avoid photographs like landmines, and there were plenty of those in Western Sahara.

Another policeman, rifle slung across his shoulder, escorted us back to the waiting vehicle.

Maybe I should have been honest with everybody from day one.  But I didn’t know what the problem was until the damage had already been done – first impressions and all that.  I imagine that fucker Crow grinding down my brain to the size of a pea.  All those doubts, all those niggling questions.  Real event OCD dissecting previous conversations, killing me with its lies, lining my rationality against the wall and riddling it with bullets.

“That policeman thought you were a cunt!” says my OCD.  “Everybody you know thinks you’re a cunt.” 

What’s the worst I can take from that?  The world is full of them.  One more won’t make much difference.

Hell Is A Chainsaw

Chainsaws make me tense.  I generally keep well away from anything with rotating metal teeth.  However, volunteering on farms around the world has occasionally seen me in situations where I’ve needed to use one.

“You could push your fingers into the whirring blade,” my OCD would suggest, sniggering like a jiggling bag of razor blades. “What if you slipped and lopped your leg off?  And watch out for kickback.  Imagine Little One finding you cold and dead in a puddle of blood and bone.  You could always grind those blades into her back, then cut your host’s head off!”

In South Africa I used a chugging petrol behemoth of a chainsaw.  That night I struggled with violent images that refused to leave my head until lunchtime the following day.  I vowed to never use a chainsaw again.  Then I found myself in New Mexico, volunteering for a job that required cutting heavy wood.  Those intrusive thoughts shot up from the ground, and came at me all over again.  I promised myself that this was definitely the last time.  So far I’ve kept my word, refusing to use a chainsaw on two other occasions.  Fortunately, I’m writing to pay the bills these days, and a chainsaw is pretty redundant for that type of work, unless I’m sharpening a particularly gnarly pencil.

I struggled handling sharp knives too.  One night, several years ago, I woke up in the kitchen looking through the cutlery drawer.  I was a teenager and for years after the event, feared I’d wake up in the early hours of the morning sinking a bread knife into my parents sleeping bodies.  Would even avoid steak in restaurants because I didn’t like handling the serrated blade, the face of my OCD screaming hell in my ear,  “Cut a hole in someone’s face, you evil little cunt!”

These days I cut food with only a fleeting fear that I’ll plunge the knife into somebody’s guts.  But I’ll never forget the wasted hours wrestling those terrible anxieties, images on a loop, picking up more dark passengers as they raced around the track, keeping me occupied while life waved at me through the window.  Nowadays, when OCD reminds me I could spend the day slashing throats, I’m more often than not able to blow the fear away within a few minutes, blinking it out of existence before continuing to slice the cucumber for my salad sandwich.  Gone in 60 seconds, if I’m lucky.  Although, I admit, when I’m struggling, it takes a lot longer than that, and even now, I often go to bed ruminating over potential bloodbaths.

And of course, it’s not just violence against myself or the people I love, that I fear.  I can be watching TV in the lounge and my OCD will nonchalantly remind me that I could throw a plate through the window.  Yep, even ceramics can be a trigger for me.  My OCD wants me to say hurtful things too.  Breaks my heart every time I hear my inner voice spouting potential poison I could whisper or yell into the faces of the ones I love.  Words can scar like barbed wire.  I remember lots of nasty things said to me in the past.  Crow knows this and wants me to share the love.

Little One and I are looking after a couple of donkeys and a handful of other animals at the moment.  Again, no need for chainsaws.  There are two wood burners but fortunately our hosts have already carved the firewood into neat wedges, suggesting they used an axe before they flew to South Africa on business – who knows, maybe afraid they’d turn the chainsaw on the donkeys themselves.

I’m not seeing a specialist at the moment for my OCD, and came off medication years ago.  But I remember what I’m supposed to do, and what I’m NOT supposed to do.  Realising long ago that I wouldn’t get far in life if I avoided every potential trigger – the bag of fear is bottomless, afterall.  It certainly wasn’t easy exposing myself to all those sharp edges, but I did it.  Bread knives and broken glass still cause a tremor but they used to shatter the richter scale.  Chainsaws however are another issue.  I’ve never been trained to use one, so feel that avoiding them seems the sensible thing to do.

Besides, we’ve enough firewood to see us through three winters if we were to need it, and we could always turn up the central heating.

An Itch In The Back Of My Eyes – Backpacking with OCD

It wasn’t until the government said I couldn’t fly out of the country that I realised that I wanted to travel again. Don’t get me wrong, I’m done with twenty-four hour night buses and concrete train station floors – quotes about the journey being better than the destination don’t really work when your seat is down-breeze from the night-bus toilet, and surely it all depends on where your final destination is, and what you do when you get there. However, I do miss the buzz from visiting unfamiliar lands.

Last week I was looking on Facebook for an old photo. I hadn’t used that site for years, and scrolling down my travel albums I felt a pang of sadness. Why on earth did I stop travelling? I quickly remembered the OCD induced breakdowns on foreign soil, the fear of ending up on a cold police station floor miles from home, and knew that I was romanticising all those Facebook memories. The reality wasn’t like I’d told my family and friends. Yes, I had great adventures, but I’d struggled too, and needed a break from trying not to fling myself onto Eastern European train tracks.

I’ve missed a few travel opportunities too, due to my OCD, although not many. Sri Lanka sticks its hand up and coughs at the back of the room. To be fair, when I was in India and had the chance to go, the Tamil Tigers were still causing trouble with their AK47’s. But the real reason I didn’t book a ticket to the Island of Dharma was because my OCD was rampant and causing me great distress. At the time, I found I could barely get out of bed to eat, let alone make it to the airport to fly to another country. Of course, I should have gone, but I was travelling on my own at that point, so I had nobody to encourage me over the hot coals.

Looking at the pictures on Facebook, for an instant I had almost convinced myself that a backpacking life was the perfect existence for me, but as I remembered some of the thoughts buzzing around the back of my head on those travels, the truth grabbed me around the ankles like a zombie hand from a shallow grave. Intrusive thoughts had eaten me from the inside out, I mused.  I recalled crying in frustration at my OCD in Ecuador, and felt a historic attack bubbling up in the basement of my mind.

“It can be discomforting to remember where I’ve been,” I said to Little One.

She knows this, as we barely reminisce about our past adventures, but she gave me a hug anyway.

We prefer to discuss where we’ll go next, and yesterday we came up with ideas like a holiday in the Galapagos Islands, or even a Scandinavian cruise to see the Northern Lights.

“It won’t be travelling like before,” I said.

“Good,” she said, and I remembered a lot of unnecessary stress I’d put her through – the countries we’d visited and how I was when we got there.  Luckily, for me, she’s never been a big beach-holiday fan, much preferring the dark tourism routes we usually take – Chernobyl, the killing fields in Cambodia, genocide museums in Armenia and Rwanda, the atomic trail from White Sands, New Mexico, to Hiroshima, Japan.

“You’re really showing her a good time,” croaked Crow, somewhat sarcastically.

“No more Gulags,” I said. “Lets see some fucking mountains, maybe stay at a nice hotel instead of the cheapest hostel in town.”  To be fair, we’d already started to do the guest house approach.  It may have cost an extra pound or two, but keeping my sanity in faraway lands was a price I finally decided I was willing to pay.

Whether we actually go again or decide to stay in the UK depends on whether we’re allowed to leave the country any time soon (COVID restrictions, nothing sinister,) and also, it has to feel like the right thing to do (not easy for somebody suffering with OCD.)  And we still have a six month US visa to use.  Over the last couple of years we’ve been freelance writing – I’m writing stories for a YouTube channel and Little One is running several businesses’ social media accounts – also teaching English and writing websites (she’s the academic of the partnership,) so wherever we go, we need online access.  We’ve been house-sitting too and a strong WiFi signal is our only requirement.  We’re currently in Suffolk, looking after two donkeys, two dogs, two goats and two chickens.  “Like Noah and his Ark,” said a friend recently.  I looked to the heavens, the clouds so dark they could almost rain for forty days.

We’ve got to walk the dogs now, and yes, it’s still pouring with rain. With the new UK lockdown I think there’s going to be a lot of time to make plans. Hopefully we’ll get the chance to execute them this time.

Good luck to everybody out there.

WHO DO WE THINK WE ARE?

I’ve lost time to Existential OCD in the past, but not for a while.  However, last night, after thinking up a couple of storylines for work, my mind began to dwell on more philosophical affairs. Little One and I had returned to Norfolk, after finishing a house-sit in Greater Manchester, and on our first night back I was already struggling with the universe. Am I really the person who I think I am? Or am I the person who OTHERS think I am?  Will my legacy be something I’ve strived for, or something I’ve always feared?  Who will write my eulogy?  A family member or an old friend? Would I agree with what they had to say?  And which friend or family member will get to do it?  Does my uncle know me like my cousin does?

Surely we’ve all been different people down the years? If someone who only knew me at high school wrote my eulogy, it would be very different from someone writing it from a perspective of my late teens, vastly contrasting to who I was in my twenties, a world apart from my mid to late thirties.  And so it goes on.

So who am I?  Ninety-nine percent of people who know me have no idea about my OCD.  Will the guy I connected with in Korea have the same opinion of me as the girl I met in Argentina?

Thank the gods I don’t believe in an afterlife.  If I’m wrong, I have no idea where I’ll end up.  Will there be different versions of me on separate planes?  I know a Yan who probably deserves to scrape shit off the devil’s toes for eternity, but there’s another version of me who may just about sneak into the other place, albeit through the back door.  And which actions and events would I be judged on?  Does trying to be a better person affect the result?  Surely Saint Peter appreciates mitigating circumstances?  I hope I’d have a case to avoid the ninth circle, but I don’t make the rules of the universe.  My imagination looks to the heavens.  Would Brahma take my OCD into consideration?  And if not, would I come back as a maggot or a tapeworm?  

I guess the answers are in the lap of the Gods, or in the mouths of my dearest friends.

Half a second conceptualising the gates of heaven and I’m already having a panic attack.

I just hope any potential angels have forgotten my early years, and does it really matter who reads my eulogy?  For my surviving family and friends, I guess it does…

Because I was a different person when I was younger.

Or at least I thought I was.

It Wasn’t Funny The First Time

The media often makes out that OCD is nothing more than an inconvenience, a coffee stain on the couch, when in reality, it’s usually the greatest bane of the sufferer’s life, the killer clown in their own personal horror movie.  But as much as that shark toothed clown tortures me with intrusive thoughts (think razor blades on the back of my eyes,) occasionally, looking back, I’m able to see the funny side.  Not laugh out loud hysterical funny, but funny like watching the Exorcist as Regan’s head spins around 360 degrees, when I know I’m not in that room any more.

Like biking home from school as a teenager, when an idea suddenly exploded in my head.  Could I control my bike with my left hand on the right handlebar, while my right commanded the left? Struggling to keep control of my cycle, I swerved into the road, a car beeping it’s horn as it sailed past, inches from my body.  At the time, I thought I needed to do things in threes or fives, or ironically, I believed I would die. As my friend laughed at my moment of madness, I was already preparing my second attempt at reverse control.  Whoosh, another car blinked past my swaying bike.

“You twat!” shouted my friend, cycling behind me, but I believed I needed to do it one more time, less I die in horrible circumstances, (maybe crunched under the wheels of a car.)  For the third attempt, I waited for my friend to wave goodbye, turning down the road that led to his house.  This time I focused on leaning my weight away from the roadside, and ended up in a tangled heap on the pavement, which although painful, was a lot less bloody than being hit by the bus that roared past my crumpled body – several passengers shaking their heads at the idiot on the ground.  OCD nearly killed me that day, but I have to agree with my friend’s original diagnosis, I really had been a twat for risking my life like that.

A million memories shout for attention in my temporal lobes, and I catch one in my eye.  It’s years later at a nightclub, and I’ve noticed a man looking at me across the dance floor, probably because I’ve been blinking into red strobe lights, trying to imagine they were bright white, (which was one of my common compulsions for warding off the Devil, and still is, although not as intense these days.)  I look away, but OCD convinces me to stare at him another three times, (I was on even numbers by then.)  On the fourth glare, he’s literally snarling, two of his friends holding him back, preventing him from tearing into me.  Seven nights later, his buddies aren’t there to keep the peace, and we end up trading blows beside a screeching cloakroom attendant.  All because OCD wouldn’t let me look away.  No, it wasn’t funny when his fists were pounding into my head, but I’m smiling now.

It wasn’t always so dramatic.  In Bolivia I missed a bus.  There I sat in a dingy hotel room, transfixed on a red wall, trying to paint it white in my mind.  Why?  Because I believed my family might die if I didn’t.  From the window I actually saw the bus depart, cursing my OCD when I realised I’d have to pay two hundred Bolivianos on another bus ticket.  I’ve missed the endings to a hundred films this way, focusing on a dark patch on the screen as the hero saved the world.  Did I really think those black smudges represented brain tumors?  And more than that, did I genuinely believe that staring at them would cure the cancers I imagined growing in my body?

In my younger days, a girl smiled at me in a bar, and I felt the need to look away, and then back again, and then away and then back, on and on and on until it felt right.  Six or seven times I performed this ritual, the girl eventually turning her attention to the floor, avoiding the gaze of the strange guy acting like a defective android, straight out of a cheap sci-fi movie.

Remembering another instance now, when I remained silent to a question that was asked of me, as my internal OCD battle reached a potential climax, drawing bemused looks from the girl across the table.  Real event OCD causing me to obsess over something that was said ten minutes ago – sixty awkward seconds staring at my hands as my brain reordered the previous topic of conversation.  Ha! At least I’m laughing now.

The memories keep coming.  Hiding from my friends in rancid toilet cubicles of cheap nightclubs, while intrusive thoughts battled against the music – no contamination OCD for me, thank God.  And the time I retraced my exact footsteps on the streets of Buenos Aires, blinking every time my feet touched the ground, to bemused looks from an incredulous security guard, “Estas bien, amigo?” he asked.

“Not really,” I replied, praying my failure to complete the task wouldn’t result in the death of my family.

My first time in Hong Kong wasn’t exactly momentous.  I spent the initial 48 hours in a hotel room, pulling my hair out, wrestling an intrusive thought that had popped into my head in New Zealand – six months prior.  The only reason I went outside was to eat, but couldn’t face the rigmarole of ordering a local dish, instead taking the easy option of a burger at a famous fast food restaurant.  “How’s Hong Kong?” asked my brother over the phone when I called him later that day.

“It’s great,” I said, but all I’d seen was my tiny room and the inside of the nearest McDonalds.

“You’re always sleeping,” said my friend in India, as we travelled the mountainous roads of Kashmir in a 4×4.  The world whizzed by unseen an inch from my face, and I wished that I WAS sleeping, instead of imaging violent images of my family dying in a house fire.  When we reached our destination I flicked through the photos on his camera, in awe of what I saw, kicking myself that it had been outside the jeep’s windows for most of the journey.  Today, I’m laughing at the irony, at the time, I wanted to smash my head against a brick wall as punishment for missing the unique scenery of those mountain roads.

In fact, one of the only times I’ve successfully ignored an intrusive thought was on another mountain road in India.  I’d noticed the driver’s eyes in the rear-view mirror, they kept closing as he struggled to stay awake behind the wheel.  For the remainder of the journey my Chilean friend and I had to shout at him every few minutes.  “Wake up, you fucking crazy bastard!”  If the vehicle had left the road, we’d have tumbled down the mountainside and died along the way.  The predicament of the situation pushed the Devil back into his box.  When we reached our destination we found a room and the thoughts returned.

Still grinning, remembering playing football at school when I let the striker run unchallenged to score a goal because I was looking back at the goalposts and chanting a mantra in my mind.  And at work, needing the quiet of a dark cupboard on my lunch break.  “You’re like a vampire” said my colleague as he opened the door and noticed me lying on the cold floor.  But the only vampire in that cupboard was OCD, fang deep in marrow and sucking my life away.

“You’re a fucking lunatic, Yan,” laughed Uncle Jack as I took my OCD frustration out on a cardboard box.  Punching and biting I was tempted to tell him about the stupid thought that was looping around the highways of my mind, but feared he would agree with his first statement.

OCD is a debilitating disease, and these memories make me feel sick, but occasionally I’ll shake my head and dare to smile.  Yes, it was Hell at the time, but surely we’re allowed to laugh at the Devil every now and again.

I guess even killer clowns tell jokes once in a while.