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 can take 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…

SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY

Last night my mind was on its knees, crawling in the gutter, looking for trouble under the scree and rubble of my life.  I twisted under the bed sheets, trying to keep it busy with alternative thoughts, but all I got was a line of embarrassing memories queuing for my attention – recollections of school traumas; stupid ten-year-old conversations from when I worked in the factories; a surge of random, shameful, embarrassing actions from the last thirty years of my life.  Squadrons of fighter jets blackened my skies. I shot some down with reason. Others flew around in loops. I should have poured another shot of whiskey, but I can’t rely on drugs and booze to send me to sleep. Not every night.

Those embarrassing memories swiftly turned to darker notions.

Crow, my OCD in stereo, tried to tell me that war with Iran or North Korea was inevitable.  He told me we had a year left at the very most.

Would that be such a bad thing, Crow?

North Korea, huh?  I remembered my time in South Korea, and a trip to the Demilitarised Zone and the Joint Security Area.  At the JSA, a simple concrete strip was all there was of a demarcation line between North and South. We were able to cross it while inside one of the famous blue huts, a building where generals from both armies continue to meet, bickering and picking at each others’ ideologies under the looming threat of radioactive mushroom clouds.

We signed a disclaimer before we were allowed into bullet range – given strict orders of what we could and couldn’t do.  No pointing at the North Korean guard in the big hat, no taking the p*ss, only very specific places to take photographs, and DO NOT cross that line outside of the big blue hut.

“Or you won’t be coming back,” said the American soldier in thick black sunglasses.

Back outside, and standing before the concrete line, Crow suggested that I leap across it, run at the North Korean Guard the U.S soldiers had nicknamed Bob. I imagined being manhandled into the tall grey building opposite, angry North Korean soldiers pointing guns in my face.  Crow turned his attention to Little One.

“Push her across,” he said and, in my mind, I shoved my girlfriend into North Korean territory.  An image of Little One being escorted to a labour camp haunted my thoughts. In fact, the entire tour was interrupted by intrusive thoughts of how I could cause an international incident.

“You could start World War Three!” squawked Crow, snapping at my face.  OCD had taken the potential for a good day and drowned it in a bath of uranium.  Kim Jong-un would kill for that stuff, and does – allegedly…

 

An elbow nudged me gently in the ribs – I’d been making noises in my quest for sleep.  Little One asked if I was OK.

I pushed the thoughts away.  Turned onto my side and tried to think of the latest football results.

“What are the first signs of Cancer…?”

F**k off, Crow.

“Who will be the next person to die that you love?”

I’m not playing this game.

“If it’s you, how will your family take the news?”

They’d cope.  We’re all going to die anyway.

“Who does Little One want to f**k in your bed?”

Really, Crow?

“You’ll soon be leaving East Sussex.  Do you know how many people think you’re a waste of space in your home town?”

They don’t know my situation.

“Doesn’t matter, all that matters is that they think you’re a loser.”

I am a loser.

My home town festival was on last week.  I’m still house-sitting but I could have gone home for the weekend.  Unfortunately, my OCD has been working overtime lately, putting doubts into my head whenever I think of returning to Norfolk.  But deep down do I really care what people think? He changed tack again…

“You could throw boiling coffee in Little One’s face.”

Or I could choose not to.

“Bad things are coming.  Think of that blinding light and I’ll go away and let you sleep.”

I balled my fists and pictured a black space instead, but felt guilty that someone might die because of it.  I flashed white across my mind. Miraculously, it worked first time and Crow flew off to watch me from his perch in Hell.  I turned over with a sigh of relief, but couldn’t help thinking that with all my previous tossing and turning, I’d already lost the battle.

But I woke up this morning, which meant that I must have slept.

“Good morning, world,”  I stretched and yawned. Could have done with an extra hour in bed, and that’s why I have a whiskey nightcap or smoke a joint in the garden before I turn in – it puts me to sleep before the Devil slips between the sheets.

As always, from the moment I woke, negative thoughts spilled into my mind, congregating like safari animals around a watering hole.  I sat and watched the Springboks. They looked harmless enough, but Crow is the hunter in the silly hat, shooting beasts and dragging them back to camp for detailed dissection.

I toyed with rummaging through my old box of medication.  I’ve kept it for a while. The meds are out of date but I was tempted to swallow some anyway.  They lose power over time, so what’s the worst that could happen? They don’t work as they should?  I only need a little bit of respite, full powered tablets would glue me to the sofa all day. On full power, I struggle to operate an electric toothbrush, and I don’t want to go there again.  Muscles wasting to nothing in front of daytime TV – so many recipes, beauty tips and breakfast cereal commercials. Not a great way to go, drowning in a bathtub of uranium is much more rock ‘n roll!

Today, I decided against the out of date medication, although a litre bottle of whiskey sits on the kitchen worktop.

Tonight, I’m going to sleep like a lion.

VAMPIRE MOUTH

Welcome to the fun house.  Don’t get too excited, it’s really more like an abattoir.  Sometimes it can feel like being locked in a hall of mirrors with an axe wielding clown.  If life is a series of theme parks, you may want to skip OCD World. 

So what does having OCD feel like?  For me it’s not about washing my hands a hundred times a day or worrying that the back door is locked whenever I leave the house.  Although, for some sufferers, it might be. There is a lot of stigma towards OCD, I’m forever hearing people misinterpreting the disorder and the issues that walk beside it.  I may be contributing to this stigma myself, but everything here is written from personal experience, and if the truth hurts, well, it’s still the truth. This is my castle, in my world, and the dragons in the sky are my own demons.

I invite you into my home.  And yes, you can leave your shoes on.

 

…I’m sitting in the lounge with friends.  The conversation is free and easy, nothing profound, just lads watching television, talking about football, plans for the weekend, a brief discussion about a U.F.O somebody said they spotted hovering in the night sky almost twenty years ago.  My focus however, is elsewhere, eyes fixed and glaring at the far wall – it’s been decorated with a rich brown paint but I’m desperately trying to imagine that it’s actually a brilliant white. It’s proving to be an almost impossible task. Closing my eyes now, concentrating on not just white but the hottest, purest white imaginable – light from an atomic explosion, the heart of God.  Try it now, it’s not so easy – all I could see was the back of my eyelids. My friends stay for three hours. A weight pulsates in my skull, heavy like a bag of sand – fear swelling in my mind. “Look at the wall and imagine it white, or your family will die,” says a voice I don’t hear but feel in my bones.

…My girlfriend and I are drinking beer with friends watching the sunset over the Karoo, South Africa.  Fantastic colours splash across the sky as the sun sinks slowly into the horizon. We laugh, we talk, celebrating the end of another long day working for our African host.  It sounds hollow to me – other thoughts, less fun, are resonating in my mind. I’m obsessing again, concentrating on a single event from a thousand miles away – shadows from another lifetime.  A smile dominates my face but inside I’m crying, frustrated at the intrusion of such a stupid concept expanding like a mini universe. Holding down a conversation with the German couple next to me but screaming in my head, “F*******k!!!!”

…Knives glisten on the kitchen worktop – I picture myself grabbing the plastic handle and stabbing the blade into my best friend’s neck.  Watch his eyes bulge in disbelief, horror distorting those familiar features, crying as he dies. Just a second away, I’ve literally got the power in my trembling hands.  A swift movement and a gentle push, I can stick it into anything. Need to make the fear dissipate. Luckily, there are things I can do to push it away. I become a cleric burning candles on the floor.  Ritualise and ritualise again. Step away from the knife, Yan.

…Unwrapping Christmas presents now.  People looking at my face for a reaction to the gifts they’ve bought.  Got to put on a show, don’t want to disappoint. What if I throw the box at the wall and tell them how fat they all are?  Odd this one, because not a single person in the room is overweight. “But they’ll think they are if you tell them!” Biting my lip and shaking inside I smile and say thank you.  Get me out of this room!

…Feeling happy.  But not for long. Apparently my girlfriend is f**king everyone in the entire town.  Of course, she isn’t, but OCD doesn’t concern itself with facts – performing mental rituals will make the doubt fade away, but nothing else, certainly not the truth.  Distrust spreads like a virus, sickness in my belly like I’ve swallowed bleach. Maybe I should swallow bleach? There’s a bottle under the sink. How easy it would be to unscrew the cap and chug it down like cola from the fridge.  Maybe run into the lounge and die in front of my partner. That’ll teach her for f**king everyone she looks at. Or, should that be, that’ll teach her for fucking everyone that I look at?

…Glaring at my face in the mirror.  Searching for signs of dying while cursing my reflection.  Something moves in my gut – I feel nauseous again. Could it be Cancer?  Was that abrasion there last week? Last year? Lights flashing, sirens in my mind, a head of snakes hissing over my shoulder.  Meet those flashing red eyes and turn to stone.

…Do I want to go for a drink in town?  Do I Hell. Too busy trying to pick myself up off the couch.  Feeling guilty wasting away in front of the TV – volume down so I can concentrate on all the bulls**t buzzing around my brain like flies feasting on a pig’s corpse.  Promise myself I’ll try harder tomorrow. It’ll be different in the morning – but of course it never is.

“This time it’s the real deal,” whispers Crow, creating bizarre shadows on the wall.

I ball my hands into fists.  “I’m NOT ritualising today. No rumination.  No blinding white light behind my eyes.” My head feels heavy at the prospect, a hot flush prickling through my body.

“Then you’ll carry that weight in your head all day!”

…Got to keep these intrusive thoughts at bay.  Fantasising I have razor teeth, I imagine eating my own legs – gruesome concepts harming myself so that I don’t obsess on what I could potentially do to those around me.  Surrounded by imaginary trees I howl at an illusory moon, hypnotised and drooling, two fangs now, Nosferatu climbing the stairs. Keeping reason in a box I waste my night desperately chewing on intrusive thoughts, an explosion in my head like hydrogen bombs colliding.  No time to read, converse, or even play a round of cards. Just lay on my bed and wait for sleep to whisk me away. Thoughts pounding – upsetting, unrelenting, a continuous river of useless information. Some of it, probably true, the rest, a ball of lies spinning in my brain, collecting more untruths, growing like a snowball rolling down a hill.

Go anywhere, just not here.  Do anything, just not that. Be anyone, just not me.

 

You’ll have to go now, all this reminiscing has given me more things to think about.

And it’s harder to concentrate when you’re around…

BIRD BONES

That was a tough week.  I’ve not stared at walls like that for over ten years.  I thought I’d worn a hole in the brickwork.

“What the hell am I doing?” I asked myself as I twiddled and pulled out my hair.  But I didn’t panic, because staring at the wall and pulling out my hair is what I do best – the usual behaviour of a person lost in thought.  Yielding to the ridiculous is standard practice. It would be odd NOT to stare at the paintwork.

I know I’ve asked this question a thousand times, but how much of me has been shaped by OCD? Eighty, ninety percent?  If I stuck a hand down my throat and pulled out Crow, wrung his neck and threw him on the fire, what would be left of me?  Who is Yan Baskets? It would be like separating conjoined twins with a laser beam. The siblings would become ‘other’ people, perhaps not better, but certainly different.  Like having a coffee with a version of yourself who’d been living on the other side of the world for the last twenty years. The difference would be more than an exotic accent.  I imagine what it would be like to go to the bathroom without the Gorgon spitting at me in the mirror. To wake up and not roll over onto a horse’s head. No, definitely not just the accent.

I was talking to Little One yesterday.  My OCD had sent me spiralling into a puddle of despair, obsessing on the ridiculous, ritualising in my head – a thousand screaming shamans convulsing around a fire.  I referred to Crow, said he’d been particularly savage lately. Little One said she wished he’d fly away and die. I agreed but knew that it wouldn’t be happening any time soon.  That it would probably never happen. He isn’t a monkey on my back that I can chase off, rather a parasite in my blood swimming in the ventricles of my heart. He is part of me – a section of my brain, an extra bone in my body.  If I could remove him, I would, but it would be like cutting out a portion of ME. What would be torn out with him? What would grow in his place?

“He’s not going anywhere,” I conceded.  He’s been with me far too long. We opened our eyes simultaneously at the beginning, only he went back to sleep for eight or nine years.

Crow is part of me, but I am ALL of Crow.  I am the Crimson Knight, the Gorgon snarling in the mirror is my own reflection – it was my hand that held the razor blade, the snakeskin on the pillow came from my own scalp.  It’s been easy for me to give them faces, but essentially, they look identical and answer to the same name. Yan Baskets, pleased to meet you.

Bird bones or not, our house-sitting assignment will one day come to an end.  We’ve been discussing what to do next. We talked of leaving the U.K again, but where would we go?  I’m growing tired of feeling ill in strange places. All those thoughts and unwanted images swirling at the forefront of my mind.  Sweating in a heap in a corner of a room in Kathmandu or staring at the grass in a park in Moscow. I’m getting too old for nervous breakdowns on foreign soil.  But what else for me is there? I flashback to the breakdown I had in Mauritania, in a tent deep in the Sahara Desert. It was a camel that was the straw that broke its own back – snapped like vertebrae in a vice.  I’d been struggling with a horrendous image all week and suddenly the sight of the camel flashed another terrible concept into my mind. I pictured large yellow teeth chewing my girlfriends face off, and sank into the sand. Little One didn’t know what to do with me.  She told me later that she’d panicked and was close to a meltdown herself – I felt sick with remorse. She’s watched me break a million times, and whenever I put myself in her shoes, look out of her eyes, I feel insects wriggling in my stomach. How would I react to watching Little One crack like that?

“I like the worms in your belly,” states Crow.  And he sounds exactly like me. Because he is me.

Forget travelling, for the time being, I owe Little One some security.

But should we rent a house or buy a caravan?

No idea.

“You’ve got to do something, mate,” someone not long ago said to me.  “You’re not getting any younger.” Would they say that if I had a physical illness?  Something they could see. I very much doubt it. I know I said that I don’t want sympathy – I know people don’t understand all the details of my issues, but it’s frustrating when somebody you’ve known all your life appears to forget that you actually have a chronic illness.  Would they forget my ailments if I were on crutches? Maybe I should wear a black bag on my head, or a bell around my neck.

“Yan loves to travel.  He just left one day and never looked back.”  Are you kidding me? Never looked back? My neck is forever craned over my shoulder, fixating on where I went wrong.  Surely they meant never looked forward?

The phantom memory of somebody else now.  “I bet you can’t wait to get away again, Yan.”

I don’t think about it until I’m on the plane.  I have almost no plans when I board that aircraft.  Never had an itinerary in my life.

It’s taken me sixteen years to admit to myself that I’m not as interested in travelling as I pretended that I was.  It was just a means of escape. It gave me an excuse to be a real person in the real world.

“Look, everyone, I’m not wasting away in a paint factory.  I’m riding a bus through Bolivia!”

Pathetic really. But at least it got me out.

JUST ENOUGH EDUCATION TO SURVIVE

I wake up several years ago – I’m fifteen and terrified of life.  Immediately I feel a weight upon my body, a pillow over my face. There is a tingle in the back of my mind, something stirs in my consciousness, a struggle from the night before that I don’t quite remember but feel is coming back to haunt me – an intrusive thought knocking at the door or twitching at the foot of the bed like a dog stirring from a deep sleep.  Thirty seconds tick by. Dragging on my socks, memory claps me on the back and I’m sucked into a whirlpool.

Messing around with my friend we walk through the school gates, fighting to keep the gnashing thoughts at bay, at least until my first lesson, where I’ll stare into my textbook, pretending to work, but concentrating on trying to dismiss these absurd ideas.  That first lesson is maths – how I hate numbers, always having to recount and ‘make sure’ and ‘did I carry the three over?’ It’s a minefield, so I don’t even try in my final year at school, just sit at the back of the class, dwelling on jumbled thoughts.

I was with a girl six months ago.  We never even kissed but she did allow my hands up her skirt, my fingers into her knickers.  A rumour began that last year she slept with a guy who was HIV Positive.  I’ve convinced myself I bit my nails after the event and now I have the virus.  I don’t yet realise that the fear is nonsensical, that won’t be for another four years when I’ll ring the National AIDS helpline and they’ll tell me that the virus doesn’t work like that – it would be near impossible for me to have contracted the disease this way.  But that’s in the future, at this moment in time I’ve convinced myself I’m going to catch a cold that will kill me before I reach sixteen. In those days there’s no Google for me to check how the virus is spread. Just that f**king leaflet posted through the front door.  ‘Don’t die of ignorance,’ it stated in bold letters.

I ritualise in my head, although I don’t know yet that’s what I’m doing.  I won’t find out that I have OCD for over ten years. The younger Yan Baskets thinks that everyone ruminates as much as I do – only they’re much better at it.  I manage to push ‘Death by AIDS’ into a dark room somewhere in the back of my mind. There is a four-minute respite where I manage to look forward to an event at the weekend – a hundred and eighty tranquil seconds.  And then a pupil in the year above passes by the window. He glances in, eyes loitering on mine for no more than a second. But that’s all it takes. At first, I think he just doesn’t like me. Slowly I convince myself he wants to punch me in the throat.  Eventually, by tea-time, in front of the TV, I’ll be ninety-nine percent sure that he wants to stick a knife in my stomach, slaughtering my family as a side note.

Later that night, drumming my fingers a hundred times on the small red Bible on my bedside table, I find peace of mind, enough to see me through to tomorrow morning at least.  But it has come at a cost. It takes me three-quarters of an hour to appease my inner demon, tapping the cover of the Bible, mumbling words to God, picturing a blinding white light that is never quite white enough.  I turn to face the wall, trying not to think about AIDS.

Do I sleep that night?  Yes, I do. I’ve been ruminating and ritualising from the moment I awoke, to the moment I withdraw my hand from the Bible and close my eyes – so yes, I am shattered, and I sleep.

My alarm buzzes beside me…

I wake up.  Immediately I feel a weight upon my body, a pillow over my face.  There is a tingle in the back of my mind, something stirs in my consciousness, a struggle from the night before that I don’t quite remember but feel is coming back to haunt me…

 

I don’t know how I got through those school years.  I learned next to nothing, barely enough education to survive.  But I did survive. I’m still here, and if I got through it, so can anybody, because I’m not special like the mental health posts on Instagram tell me.

Crow perches on my shoulder and nibbles my ear.  “Look, everyone, Yan has a mental illness.” I try to brush him away.  “Keep going, Yan. You’re brilliant. You’re sooooo strooooong. You’re amazing because it’s been written on a post-it note and plastered all over social media.”  He cackles and shits on my neck.

No, I’m really not special at all.

I know I’m no less of a person for suffering from a mental illness, but it doesn’t make me a hero either.  All life is awesome, just look at us, we’re on a rock spinning through space! So yes, I’m amazing, but so is a tapeworm.  Am I special for suffering like this? I haven’t cured cancer. I haven’t sacrificed an arm to save the human race. I don’t even play a musical instrument.  I suffer and live with extreme OCD and depression, but I don’t think that makes me awesome. If becoming awesome is simply not killing yourself then I think we need to raise the bar.

Sometimes we need a few messages saying that it’s OK to be average, that fighting for mediocrity is fine.  There are a lot of people suffering from mental health issues who are horrible bastards, and it has nothing to do with their illness.  If Jimmy Savile had suffered from a mental illness, and maybe he did, he’d still have died a monster “You’re bipolar, Jim,” sings Crow.  “Apparently that makes you a winner!”

I’m not a bad person but am I great?  Cynical as it may sound, I find it condescending when I’m told that I am.  You don’t f**king know me. I want to say, “Yeah, I’m in torment, but that doesn’t make me a better person.”  I guess I’m tougher than a lot of people think because of my internal battle, but what are my other options? Slip a noose around my neck and die hanging from a tree?

Having said that, embracing social media, reading the hardships of fellow sufferers on Twitter and Instagram confirmed that I am not battling this alone.  It made me feel part of a tribe. But peel back the post-it note and you notice the smear on the fridge door. Telling ourselves we are OK is not always the best option.  Sometimes it’s better to say, “Of course I’m not going to give in but I still feel f**ked!”

“It’s pathetic,” says Crow.  And the danger is, although extreme, he could be ‘a little bit’ right.  Yes, his belly is full of lies, but he once told me that someone wanted to do me harm, and the next time I saw that person, I was set upon and assaulted.

Although, thinking about it, I probably deserved it.

“You’re being paranoid,” I had chanted to the gaunt face avoiding shadows in the mirror.

“I told you he was gonna hurt you,” said Crow.

I wasn’t dismembered with an axe, but my fear was correct up to a point.  Two days earlier I’d read on a post-it note someone declaring that everything OCD says is a lie.

“But I’ve told you the truth before, Yan,” whispers Crow.  “I mix my lies with semi-truths. It’s the beauty of OCD. One percent is all it takes.  You listen to a thousand slurs and have to accept them all!”

“Or tell them all to f**k off!” says a frustrated voice at the back of my mind.  Sometimes bad things will happen and guess what, we’ve just gotta roll with it. Not deny it or worry whether it’s true or not.  Stick a post on Instagram and tell the world you’ll deal with it.  

Crow is the reflection distorted in the puddle.  The hooded figure spreading disinformation from the shadows.  But telling me everything it says is a lie, is itself dishonest.  That’s why OCD and other mental illnesses are such dangerous foes.  They match their hosts toe to toe. They are as clever as we are. As dark as we can become.

I suffer from OCD, and it has moulded me and caused me great distress which in turn has led me down paths I would otherwise not have trodden.  It has influenced my decisions and opinions, propelled me into certain action I may not have necessarily taken had a crow not been screaming murder in my ear.  It’s been tough to deal with, but am I great? I genuinely don’t think that I am. Maybe I could have been, but we’ll never know. Am I fine with this? Yes. Because I’ve got other things to worry about.

Personally, when I’m fighting Crow, honesty is my sharpest sword.  He ruined my education, that is a cold fact, but I probably would have failed Maths anyway.