“LET’S KILL ALL THE FISH!”

Achieving anything under the influence of OCD is like having to climb over a sheer concrete wall with rocks in your boots.  I find the same with depression; the black dog sinking its fangs into your calf, snarling, head shaking from side to side, dragging you down to the ground like a convict in spotlights.  I look at my OCD as a crow, but I’ve heard others describe their own demon as a goblin, a monkey, a swarm of flies. I’ve been scolded by a psychologist for giving OCD a face but, like I told the doctor at the time, it helps me to fight it, and you don’t suffer with it, so thanks for the advice but…

Either way, mental illness is a bag of lead ingots, slung across your back.

“Ok,” says the Crow, with mischief on his mind.  “Let’s see how far up the wall you can get today!”

So I fight it.

But it’s tough to fight an opponent who knows your every move.  It’s like playing poker with yourself and trying to bluff your hand.

“You’re wasting your life, make a decision and do something,” some might say.

I am doing something, I tell them.  I’m wrestling an electric eel every second of every day.  The fact that I’m not banging my head against that concrete wall is a huge achievement for me.

They say they understand, but I don’t think ‘THEY’ actually do.  And I don’t blame them, because I don’t know much about the other hundred thousand illnesses and disorders that I don’t suffer with.  In fact, there are legions of diseases out there, killing people every day, that I don’t even realise exist. It doesn’t mean I disrespect those afflicted by them.

I read many tweets, facebook messages and social media comments jovially describing OCD as an eccentric distraction.  “I’m so OCD because I group all my clothes by colour,” wrote a former work colleague on his facebook wall last year. Huddled under the bed sheets, I yelled my disdain but soon went back to fighting my own irrational thoughts before they ruined another day for me.  There was no need to get aggressive with him for an off-the-cuff comment, to troll him and vilify him and bite and scratch and kick him into a corner; it wouldn’t help my condition one bit. If you want a fight, then take on ISIS, or the bully at work, or the drunk causing aggro at the bar.  But go easy with the miseducated teenager arranging her shampoo’s by the colour of the bottle-caps.

I hear people complain, “They don’t understand my condition.”  Well educate them, and if they still don’t agree, or lack empathy, then that’s their prerogative.  Bosses at work come under fire for not allowing someone with depression take six months off every year.  I struggled at work in factories for years, the last thing I expected was to take a day off every time I battled a spike.  I’d never have worked a day in my life.  I knew someone who was paralysed from the waist down, and the first thing he admitted to me was that he’d never be a fireman!  Imagine if he argued that the fire service should invest and create a special ladder that could winch him up a tree to rescue the old ladies cat.  Of course, I agree with sick days, but I think that if you need to take every other day off work, then you need to find a new career.  If a restaurant owner employed six staff, all suffering from a mental illness, and each employee took half the week off sick, that person wouldn’t be in the restaurant business for very long.  The bank would send in the bailiffs and come Monday, there would be seven depressed people filing into the unemployment office instead of six.

Cancer isn’t pleasant either, or AIDS, or Spina Bifida, or Schizophrenia, or acne, or war, or racism, or homophobia, or… the world isn’t fair, it’s full of creatures – from dogs to human beings – struggling to survive.  And we fight the injustice as much as we can, but essentially, no-one owes us anything. There are over seven billion people on the planet. SEVEN BILLION! And I’d bet my thumbs that not many of those seven billion live a perfect life.  Every one of us has a list of problems, obstacles lined up like gravestones, vultures perched on telephone wires, shadows under our eyes from restless nights worrying about money, injustice, death. Maybe one in three will get Cancer, and one in four might suffer mental health issues during a life raising children who will also suffer the consequences of being born.  Every one of them will know grief and pity and envy and will be a victim of someone else at some point in their life. Because that’s what life is, a series of problems, of walls to scale, of paths to tread with backpacks full of lead, with black dogs snapping at our heels.

Of course, I would like everyone to understand my daily plight.  Of course, it would make life a little easier for me if everyone were able to empathise with my disorder.  Yes, I roll my eyes when I hear someone say that depression is all in your head! – Oh the irony! – Of course, I try to educate people when they say “Isn’t OCD that thing when you can’t stop hovering?”  But I won’t be angry, because I don’t know much about Alpha 1-Antitrypsin Deficiency…do you?

 

 

It’s another problem in a world of f*****g problems. And ideally, everyone should know everything about everything.  And I understand that we have to continually educate ourselves and others, and constantly push forward with mental health awareness, but we shouldn’t get angry with those that don’t quite get it yet – let’s not vilify them like they are the next Ted Bundy or Chairman Mao.  Yes, of course, it is ignorance, but there’s a lot of things in this world I’m ignorant of. I wouldn’t have been able to write a paragraph on OCD if I didn’t suffer so badly from it myself. Why would I? I don’t know much about cerebral palsy either, or world trade, or basketball, or athlete’s foot.  If someone makes the comment, “I’m so OCD because I’m always rearranging my shoe closet,” then instead of screaming at them like you’ve stumbled across a dead body in the woods, educate them – politely – and don’t tie them to a railway track.  When my OCDemon is thrashing drums in my head, I couldn’t care less if a friend thinks he’s OCD because he can’t wear odd socks on weekdays.  He may not have OCD, but for sure, he’ll have other problems in his life.  He might have a voice telling him to jump off the church roof.  He might be waiting for test results at the hospital, or owe twice his wages to his landlord, or have to visit a terminally ill relative at a hospice later in the day.  Why the hell would they be learning about OCD?  If nothing bad is going on in their life right now, be happy for them.  By all means, reveal your issues to people, but know they’ll have issues of their own.  Punching and spitting won’t get the monkey off your back.  It’s too easy to vent our frustration at a soft target rather than the beast itself.  If the scourge of the ocean is too cunning and strong, don’t take your frustration out on the sardines.

“They don’t understand the trouble the Kraken causes us, I hate those fucking sardines! Let’s kill all the fish!”

The world is a tough place to live in.  To fit into.  To negotiate.  Every person you pass on the street has their own circling crow.  I know it can be irritating but let’s not be spiteful to those that don’t understand.  You can’t beat ignorance with hate.  (Trust me, they’ll just hate you back.)  It’s love we need to load into our guns, or we’ll all suffer the consequences.

 

 

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SPLASHES OF LIGHT

 

There are splashes of light at the end of the tunnel, like candles burning behind frosted glass, or a campfire sizzling in a snowstorm.  On good days, when my OCD is less dominant, it feels like the sun is blazing; wings sprout from my shoulder blades and I zigzag through the skies like a beaming, wine-soaked angel.  But OCD is a bloodhound with a twitching snout.  It digs up buried bones and drops them on my doorstep, wagging its tail, delighted at my anguish, dropping them like dead rabbits at a hunters feet.  It’s what it does.  Don’t blame a dog for p***ing up a lamppost.

Last night I remembered Toronto, Canada.  It was my younger self, and I’m afraid to say I was in a strip-club bathroom – when I naively felt such places were cool, staring at shadows in a cracked mirror while strangers took their clothes off in the next room.  I ritualised for over twenty minutes, blinking and imagining blinding white light in the mimicked world, and when I slipped out of the room, still buried deep in thought, I headed back to the bar, ordered another bottle of beer and continued glaring at my reflection, this time in the glass of the refrigerator door.  I spent that night sleeping in a Toronto shop doorway.  Woke up with footsteps slapping on the pavement, people going to work, judging me homeless and pitying me.  I’d paid for a bed the previous night in a hostel but hadn’t made it, collapsing instead in that litter-strewn doorway until dawn.  Back to the hostel for breakfast I guess, if I could find it.  No smartphones in those days; I used Toronto tower as my GPS.  Oh, I had money to rent a bed wherever I wanted, that wasn’t an issue – the problem was the suffocating weight on my back from those terrible thoughts piling up like rocks falling from a cliff.

“How was Toronto?” said someone, somewhere in a conversation.
“All good, I enjoyed it.”
“What did you do there?”
Nothing in particular sprang to mind.  Just that mirror above the row of sinks in the strip-club bathroom.
I wanted to answer truthfully: “I Stared at mirrors, shop windows, still-water.  Anything with a reflection.”  But I just shrugged, said I got drunk and had a good time.  I genuinely can’t remember too much there, other than a large bus station where I bought a ticket to New York. Oh and the Toronto tower of course.

And that’s why, other than this blog, I tend not to look back on where I’ve been.

Reflections don’t affect me like they once did.  Although I found myself staring into the television screen yesterday… spent ten minutes glaring at my face and the shadows that the hollows of my eyes and cheeks formed, keeping the devil at bay with rituals in my head, until I forced myself away and had a strict word with myself.  “Don’t go back to Toronto!” I said aloud.  That’s why the strip-club sprang to mind, and that bathroom that stank of bleach and more than a little desperation.

Reminds me of how much better I am these days.  Oh I know there’s no cure, but years of constant battering has hardened my skin – soft tissue becomes leather, numbing the soles of my feet on the arduous road.  I’m still fighting howling mandrills in Hell, but these days I’ve got a stick and a tin helmet.  If you get punched everyday in the face, you finally learn to roll with the blows.  It’s still hurts, can break your nose or dislocate your jaw, but you know it’s coming and you stop wasting time saying to yourself, “Will I get hit in the face today?” Or, “why am I feeling like this?”

The answers are always ‘Yes,’ and ‘Because you have OCD.’

Joining twitter and reading the hardships of fellow sufferers is at first upsetting, because it reveals that so many people are struggling, but it also means that we are not battling this alone.  I guess it makes me feel part of a tribe.

You gotta take what you can, appreciate the light and what it illuminates before that morose, red-eyed caretaker switches off the generator.  I cling to every source of happiness, seeking to squeeze every last drop of sweetness from any experience that makes me smile.  It makes life worth fighting for.  It’s why I push myself to travel.  And that’s never easy.  I often ask myself what the Hell am I doing ritualising on this chicken bus rumbling through Malawi? Or why exactly am I hiking up this mountain when my OCDemon is on my back, trying to drag me back down to sea-level?  I need to go out to find food, but no-one understands a word I say, and it’s hot, and I’m covered in mosquito bites, and i need re-hydration tablets, and my intrusive thoughts are spiking and why do I enjoy this again?

I began travelling when the absence of light was apparent, when the tunnel was a hopeless black corridor.  I left a wasteful life behind because it was destroying me from the inside, mocking me with its comparisons of what I could be and what I actually was.  It was a mighty leap into the unfamiliar but the wind rustling through my hair woke me up like a slap to the face.  The journey can be torturous but when it’s over, the sense of achievement is immense.  Like I’m dancing in the ashes of my OCD and saying, “HA! You did your best to bring me crashing down, but I overcame your spiteful ways.  You failed, and I know you’ll be back, but so will I!”

It lifts me a little, and levitating an inch off the floor is sometimes enough to raise my head above those purple clouds.

The fact that I can now see the colour of the clouds around me, and the patterns on the tunnel walls, is testament to my slow crawl towards recovery, and that encourages me to stumble forward.


There are splashes of light at the end of the long, black tunnel.  And there never used to be.

INFINITE ROOMS

Life’s default position is not set on ‘fair.’  People struggle, and if there was a master designer, which I doubt, then he, or she, has made it this difficult on purpose.

“It’s supposed to be hard,” says the omniscient being, sharpening thunder-bolts on a cloud.

The injustice is not singularly mine, or ours, it belongs to billions of people around the world.  We share the pain, and there’s a lot of it to go around.

“Never feel alone in your agony,” sneers the Devil, lighting a cigarette and blowing the smoke into a puppy’s eyes.

I’ve been in a stupor for the last two days, ruminating over unhealthy fears, trying to figure out if certain events actually happened, or if Crow has thrown a handful of false memories into the pot.  I was fighting him at one point, had him trapped in the corner, unleashing my punches, focusing on the body, but then I got caught with a sucker-punch, and suddenly I was down on one knee, gloves on the canvas, crushed lungs gasping for air.  Clambering to my feet, I lifted my guard, changing tactics in the hope I would make it to the end of the round.

In other words, I followed Crow into the woods, or rather, decided to let the Horror Movie’ play out in my head, didn’t interact or turn away, watched it through to the end with heavy eyes.  I saw terrible things, but left my seat only as the credits rolled, kicking the exit door open, sending it crashing against the wall with such force that it came back at me in a painful flash, colliding with the bridge of my nose, knocking me back into the empty cinema.  More thoughts flooded my mind as I fell onto a heap of warm bodies, rolling off onto the carpeted floor which was wet and sticky.  I didn’t have to look, it was blood and I knew it.  I needed to get out of there before the next feature-film began, and this time I eased the door open, walking out into the hot summer’s day, across the empty car park and into the desert beyond.  White light poured through a crack in the sky, soon everything was doused in the brilliant light, my own hands disappearing into the ‘blinding’ in front of my face, and then I was back home, sitting on the couch in the lounge, glaring at an empty space on the wall.

I left bodies in that rancid cinema.  I did terrible things, and had terrible things done to me.  It sickened me but I went through the motions in my head anyway.  ‘But it was the OCD, Yan,’ and no one was hurt other than a little bit of me, mentally, emotionally, a paper cut would leave more of a physical scar.  I abandoned the Crimson Knight flicking popcorn into his helmet somewhere on the back row, and I know that if I hadn’t imagined those tortures, I wouldn’t have left the house.  It’s my OCD, and the next attack sees me going over old enemy lines.  It’s to do with Little One, something irrelevant but I have to make it ‘right’ in my mind.  I know it’s stupid, but it’s not me I have to satisfy, it’s the Crow that needs to be convinced.  I accept it’s a wicked, tricky illness, a magician in a hall of mirrors, but decided today to treat it as it presented itself.  Sometimes it can be easier this way, regurgitating old conversations in a holding cell in my mind.  Some thoughts become animated, and interaction is made easier, others are akin to kicking a dead horse across a ditch.

It used to scare me, but I’ve accepted it now.

I do fight it, I’ve sliced it in half, and half again, but the fears are still there, and I continue to imagine not only terrible things, but ridiculous scenarios too.  And it works both ways, because I’ve beaten Crow with the stupidest of reasoning – laid a pair of jokers and scooped the entire pot while Crow flies off mumbling obscenities, with four aces up his sleeve.

I accepted I had OCD almost the instant I was diagnosed, but I have been taught differing techniques on how to control it, with varying degrees of failure and success.  I suppose the doctors learn new things every day, and what works for Patient One might send Patient Two belly-flopping into a lake of boiling oil – the comfort blanket becomes a death shroud.

A building as high as the sky blinks into my mind.  Snow falls in heavy clumps restricting my vision but I know this place.  The ‘Seven Continents’ hotel is a looming structure of infinite floors.  A placard hangs above the gothic entrance, three faded blue stars on a yellowed background.  To me it was always more of a prison than a hotel, but with room service and cable tv.

“Think of somewhere you can put your intrusive thoughts and lock them away,” said the psychologist, flapping through her notes.

I pictured a coffin six feet under the wet earth.

“Put all of them in there and walk away.  When they poke at you, ignore them. Tell them that you will come back later in the day, or maybe tomorrow, and deal with them then.  Whenever you get another intrusive thought, send it there too.”

‘I’m gonna need a bigger coffin,’ I smiled.

So I thought of an alternative place to send them, and the Seven Continents hotel was constructed in my mind, a behemoth of structures I imagined bursting from the snow, deep within the arctic circle.  A million rooms, corridors that thinned to a pinprick at the end of my eyeline.  Snow lashed at the glass, “No f*cker’s going outside in this,” I said, gazing out over the Arctic Tundra.

And so I stuck Crows ‘guests’ in the rooms of this titanic hotel.

“When you’re ready, you can visit them and work with them, figure them out, and when they’re ready to go, send them home,” said the expert, slurping on her mug of tea.

However, the problems I sent to the Seven Continents Hotel simply festered in their rooms, metamorphosing into things far worse.  It may be a harmless old man knocking at the door in the dead of night, but if you don’t check, it might as well be a serial killer tapping an axehead on the porch.

Oh, I’ve been told to write my fears down. I’ve been told to NEVER write them down.  Tactics change, especially with mental illness.  It’s whatever works for the individual I guess.

The Seven Continents was only in operation for four or five months.  The guests ended up rampaging through the corridors like frenzied devils, trading in their prodding sticks for roaring chainsaws.  Thinking of it now has stirred up a thought or two.  A fist bangs on the inside of a cupboard door, an old lady coughs in one of the locked rooms.

“They’re just ghosts, Yan.  Harmless if you don’t look at them, dangerously mesmerising if you do.”  It’s Uncle Jack, and he takes my hand and leads me through the snow, away from the defunct hotel.

I flick through my big blue folder of notes on my lap, leaflets and spreadsheets, my collection of OCD learnings.  Sometimes I practice the exposure technique, the philosophy that you face your fears, place your own finger on the ‘trigger’ and look into the mirror, call the gorgon out and glare directly into those green eyes and her head of writhing snakes.

Words in black ink and capital letters scream from a sheet of paper in the file.  Horrible fears that I used to believe would happen if i didn’t do this, or say that, or walk under a doorway twenty-nine times.  I read a sentence aloud, and get apprehensive, a ball tightening in my chest.  I close the large folder, but refuse to ritualise, deciding that tonight I will expose myself to current, more relevant fears.  F*ck the Blinding, I’ll imagine a black tide enveloping me in bed.  I’ll sleep in shadows, not shade, (yeah, Crow, I just wrote that!)  The word ‘Shadow’ used to be a trigger word for me, used to send me into a spinning oblivion of physical and mental rituals.  ‘Shadows! Shadows! Shadows! Like cancer on the lung.  Cancer, Aids, burst arteries spraying infected blood all over the wall, death by germs and machetes and rabies and…..’

I’d have struggled to write these words ten years ago.  The world feels heavy around me even now, but I refuse to think of the ‘Blinding’ or touch my forehead or neutralise in any way the weight on my shoulders.

Crow cocks his head, watching from the coffee table, teasing me an inch out of reach.

“You’ll regret this,” he snides.

“I regret you!” I yell in my head.

But the tacks and nails in my belly are melting like marshmallows over a flame.  I’m comfortable again.

I wasn’t going to read through my old notes but I’m glad that I did.  There may be no time for travel plans this week, but maybe enough for a face-off with Crow and his cronies in a disused hotel.  Clutching my blue folder like a book of spells I peer out of the window, as a neighbour walks his dog across the road, a frown on his face signalling his own bag of problems.

“The price of life,” says Uncle Jack, and suddenly I’m a little less bitter.

Life’s default position is set on ‘tough.’  No-one has it easy, and that makes the injustice a pinch more bearable.

SCALDING CAULDRON: THE WITCH’S POT

 

OCD is like a hungry dog with a bone.  It’s just not letting go.  And people telling me to ignore it doesn’t help.  Especially when it’s one of my f*cking bones.

“So what have you learned from all your travels, Yan?” I’ve been asked more than once.

‘That you can’t outrun a mental illness,’ is my instinctive answer.

“The world is getting smaller,” I say instead.  Or something along those lines.

“You’ve been to Ecuador haven’t you? How was it?”

And my thoughts go back several years…

I was riding on the roof of a train in Ecuador.  Although it sounds like something out of a Hollywood adventure film, it wasn’t.  The locals rode in the carriages, the tourists, me and thirty other backpackers, took the opportunity to sit on top, just because we could.  Besides, it was in the Lonely Planet so…

The problem was that crow was being a devil that morning.  Dark stuff, claws in bone deep, a heavy duty spike driven into my eyeball like a stake through a vampires heart.  It killed me on the spot.

We were packed onto the rooftop, nowhere to hide, and a group of Irish girls sipped from plastic bottles in their day packs.  They sat around me, and we joked while they knocked back vodka and whiskey and aguardiente.  It was early, crow was swearing in my head, and I was looking down the barrel of a five hour journey with my new friends.  One of the girls offered me her canteen.

I can’t even remember what the intrusive thought was now, but Crow delivered his usual threats into my ear.  I couldn’t face the day like this.  There was nowhere to run!

A well-used excuse flashed into my mind like an old friend showing up on my doorstep.

‘Long time no see,’ I thought, as a figure in a long black mac slipped past me with a wink and a nod of the head.

“Cheers,” I said, holding up my hand and rejecting the alcohol, “But I had a late one last night and I’m suffering for it.”

And there went my day, f*cking off over the horizon with a skip and a leap.  It left behind a stinking present in a black plastic bag.  I kicked it off the train.

So I settled down, spread out on the metal roof, pretending to be hungover, closing my eyes and ruminating over a stupid thought as Ecuador sped past, whistling in my ears.  I glimpsed the Dragon’s Nose, or whatever mountain it was the train was headed for, between heavy eyelids and over the shoulder of giggling Irish girls.

“Yeah, Ecuador was fine,” I say.

But don’t look back in anger.

In fact, just don’t look back.

For me, looking back is like peering into a witch’s cauldron.  An old bony hand stirring the bubbling broth; disturbing the liquid until the memories and old thoughts, the rats’ tails and sheep’s eyes, bobble and turn on the surface – a renewed lease of life to haunt me all over again, a dead hand rising from the grave.

I was watching the TV and an actor reminded me of my old factory supervisor.  I hear the rubbing of leather as a black gloved finger gently squeezes on a trigger – Crow the assassin on a grassy knoll.  I try to forget those bad days; it’s like tap dancing in a minefield, limbs and shattered bones scattered on the grass as the Crimson Knight watches astride his braying horse, smoking a fat cigar and shouting, “‘tis but a flesh wound!”  I leap sideways, stuffing my supervisor into a cupboard and wedging a chair in front of the door.  But my thoughts are active…I’m a young Yan Baskets and Oasis are on the radio and I remember all the time I spent in bed, scratching the wall paper, trying to squeeze giant crow-shaped thoughts into tiny square boxes, sweating beneath the bedsheets in the clothes that I was too lethargic to take off the previous night.  An old chicken burger festered in its greasy box, balanced on a chair stacked to the ceiling with dirty jeans and t-shirts.  Whenever I heard my brother’s key in the front door, I’d jump out of bed, shuffle downstairs and pretend everything was normal, no problem, I haven’t been curled up in the foetus position all day.  I wasted days like this and now I’m angry at myself and that stupid crow.

I look deeper in the cauldron…

Another turn of the spoon and I’m further back in time, memories focusing on those confusing years in school, dark thoughts, like mangy wolves, howling inside my head as the teacher explained photosynthesis, thoughts turning over and over like a knife in a spin-dryer.  Heart-pounding dilemmas that look so silly now, why did I spend those lessons torturing myself over such ridiculous distortions of the truth?

I was told OCD sufferers rarely act on their ‘urges.’  But I remember as a child biting the hands off of my toy soldiers, or nibbling on their plastic guns.  I’d hold a tiny figurine between thumb and finger, and Crow (although I didn’t know him as that in those days), would encourage me to chew and mutilate anything that tempted him.  I’d do it too, and so I worried that I would carry out darker deeds that the crow whispered into my ear.  I scribbled on drawings I was pleased with, or scrunched up the paper into tiny balls, because my OCDemon said that I could, and when the fear or urges got violent I was terrified that I would act upon them, like I did the drawings, and I would remember biting the hands off of my toy soldiers and think “what if I grabbed the knife and…”

Another peek into that stinking broth and a rotting fear resurfaces, hot liquid scalding my face.  I had a month of trouble with this particular spike in the bad ol’ days – paranoia burned a hole and left a scar.  But did I ever get it ‘sorted’ in my thoughts? Or did it slip through the net? Should I be worrying again?  Is it current in today’s market? I twitch it away, and Little One asks me what I just said, quickly realising I was wrestling Crow and turning back to the TV.  She’s good like that.

So I rarely look back.  Even on the good times, because bad things are always lurking nearby.  Writing this blog often nudges old fears to life, but in the long run it helps.  Or it feels like it does.  And it’s the only time I dare reminisce.

Christmas is over and here we all are.  I suppose I’ll be on a plane again soon.  Of all the places I’ve been, because I tend not to look back, it sometimes feels like I’ve never been anywhere at all.  It’s a return to the drawing board I guess, I’ll stick a pin in a map and all the rest of the cliches I regurgitate when people ask me where I’m going next.

I recline on the sofa, ignoring the television, losing myself in the cosmos as I distance myself from the trigger on the grassy knoll.

I don’t look back; I don’t look forward, only sideways into space.

 

 

The Chicken and the Crow

 

Moldova, Transnistria and Belarus have flashed past my window like car headlights, fierce and bright and then nothing as my eyes refocus on where I am today.

I woke up at home this morning with the last three months in Eastern Europe twitching like roadkill in my rear-view mirror.  Before me is an ominous fog.  My future, all our futures, are behind that swirling cloud.

F*cking clouds.

In my worst days I feel like I’m constantly falling through them.  A conversation is lost as  I tumble towards gravity’s mouth – that gaping maw, sucking me down, shouts fading to whispers a thousand feet above me; thoughts too drop out of my pockets and flap about in the turbulent flurry.  I get tired.  I could sleep for a century.  And as I spin head-over-heels, or plummet in a graceless belly-flop, or spiral like a broken rocket ship closer to the ground, another important ingredient tears off of me, tossed into the roaring wind, spinning away into the rushing oblivion.

I lost my confidence in Moldova.

My confidence is bi-polar.  It either fires me high into the sky, or leaves me stranded on a plank of wood, drifting towards the edge of the world.  When it circles around me like a guardian lion, tail swishing against my legs, I think it’s going to keep me company forever – but my confidence is really a cocky pigeon dressed in dragon scales, and it’s never a permanent feature.  (Like a friend popping round for a cup of tea).

Negotiating foreign lands; fumbling on google translate for the simplest of words; pretending not to be afraid of the drunken group of Georgian lads behind me; eyeball to eyeball with a raging motorist on the streets in Malawi; it all requires confidence, and even when I’m faking it, I remember its scent, what it feels like, and I emulate it until I’m away from compromising predicaments.  But when confidence has fled on a horse, bolting for the woods, leaving a trail of yellow swirling smoke in its wake, it takes with it its smells, its taste – its essence scattered in horse-shit in the direction of those trees.

I had nothing to give these last two weeks, avoiding all confrontation like the world had rabies.  The Crow was his usual charming self, pecking and scratching and cawing in my face.  But he wasn’t any worse than he had been.  My confidence simply decided to run off and have a holiday, take the next train or bus out of town, stranding me at the station.

For these weeks I was a knight without a sword or shield.  Vulnerable in a field as my horse dragged my banner through the mire – ‘I might as well be naked,’ I remember thinking recently, on more than one occasion.

“Cowardice is a chicken dipped in yellow paint,” is something Uncle Jack might have said.  And I feel like the chicken I watched being sacrificed in a church on the outskirts of San Cristobal – helpless, occasionally struggling against the old woman’s strong, bony hands.  She snapped its neck, and I switched my eye-line to the straw covered stone-floor.  It’s what they do there, and I had gone to watch it happen, in that strange church in Mexico.  I have been that chicken these last few days, meek in my voice and posture.  I felt my own neck could have been easily snapped by an old woman in a blue dress on a cold church floor.

I’m seeing friends and family now.  I must not complain.  There are seeds of dread in my stomach but I could be dying alone at the foot of a mountain.  Or starving in a field.  Or freezing in a cardboard box under a bridge in a wet city.  It’s all OK.  My family and good friends are here – although a crow with red eyes is pecking at the mistletoe…

Merry Christmas one and all, happy holidays, joy and all that stuff, not just in this season of good will, but always and forever..

 

WORM-EATERS

When you’ve thrown up in a bucket because a three month long intrusive thought simply WILL NOT go away, advice like, “Just don’t think about it, you’re not trying hard enough,” becomes offensive and provocative, like lashings of a stick across a bare back.

It doesn’t matter what the thought is, violent or silly – (and some are sillier than others), but the one thing they have in common is that they won’t go away.  Like a flickering ghost, it remains until you trick it into the light, or until the next fear squashes it underfoot – I imagine monsters falling off a conveyor belt.

Alcohol distorts it, usually for the worse – yes it can numb it, but it can also poke it in the eye and enrage it.  C*caine gives you a forged confidence, a cheap weapon to kill it, but it re-animates in the morning, because the sword wasn’t real, and now you’re depressed and in a sinkhole and back to being useless.  It can also fuel it, like spraying oil on a fire.  My heaviest indulgences in South America often flash back to haunt me – the times I pulled my hair out, and once threw up against a wall in a Bogota hotel because my thoughts became twisting spikes – dangerously active, like a troubled, twitching child sharpening razor blades.  I ruined friendships on that continent, all because I was embarrassed to tell those I was with why I was acting like a selfish dog.  I don’t touch the stuff anymore.

Weed can calm me, certainly more than gin, but probably because it puts me to sleep, (and I’m already good at that).  It also interrupts my line of thinking, and although that actually helps on one hand, on the other it confuses me to shambles. It offers its best advice at the end of the day, collapsed on my bed, transporting me to those other places.

When I first used LSD at sixteen years of age, (my second drug experience after alcohol), the trip hurled my problems into a washing machine, spinning them so fast they became an elongated blur, the buzz melting my perceptions like marshmallows in a microwave oven – I called for help but she was lost in space, and that suited me just fine.  But the more acid I dropped, the darker my hallucinogenic experiences became.  Visions of loved ones’ funerals were so gruesome and felt so real that I panicked in bathrooms, while downstairs friends skipped over rainbows with tap dancing armadillos – Oh, those long misshapen evenings and the carnage I imagined.

It left me in a bag for days – I was a puddle on the ground, a cigarette butt stamped on the ground.  At nineteen I promised never to touch acid again. I’ve kept that promise.

So the drugs don’t work and there is no cure, and so succeeding with a tolerable life takes time and considerable amounts of effort.  (I’m not advocating drugs nor condemning them.)  It’s a constant clash of steel on steel, fighting OCD on one flank and depression on the other. The horde is relentless, its number infinite, but to win a battle has its particular rewards, and as I mentioned in my last post, I appreciate the quiet times sometimes with nothing more than a smile.  But it feels priceless – SO IT IS PRICELESS.

We made it to Moldova; the journey in a crowded marshrutka was on slow roads through flat fields and small scattered towns, the horizon blotted out by a blanket of heavy fog.  Although I couldn’t see my surroundings further than the fence at the side of the road, I felt relatively good, happy to be on the move.  But the crow is a worm-eater, and worm-eaters pick at the ground.  I was reminded of sour times, little jabs of false memories that I worried could turn out to be true; torn banners on old battlefields rustling on sudden gusts of wind – like a mischievous God was blowing them back to life; shadows of worlds I should have left behind, wars I’ve already lost but must fight again in a mind-wracking loop.  The ground may look dead and worthless, but there are worms rotating beneath that grey soil, and therefore worm-eaters picking them to the surface.

I imagined the great field behind the white fog.  And those meek worms turning the soil, the vicious birds digging for their fill.  I was the soil AND the sky, the flesh AND the feather – I am the wriggling worm, and I am Crow, the worm-eater.

Another fear rose up like a wave.

‘Oh, F*ck you, Yan, just don’t think about it. You’re not trying hard enough..’

The bus rolled on through squeaking gears, and I clambered off in Chisinau, an austere but interesting capital.

This was a new land, and I thought back to Ukraine with a wry smile.  We had located Little One’s Ukrainian family, and as we drank vodka and ate cake around the table with her Uncle and cousins, Crow pulled on a juicy worm – yet he did not get to eat it because I barked and he scattered like it was a blast from the farmer’s shotgun.

We’d sat and watched the Opera in Lviv, and sometimes my eyes burned and it felt like I was chewing mud, but with gnashing teeth I managed to keep the crow at a tolerable distance, far enough away to enjoy the show.

I’d lumbered through some of these days with forced smiles, surviving ’til dusk, when the bottle caps flipped to the floor and forty per cent of my liquid intake aided in my recovery – but not an amount to poke the bull in the eye.  I’d also lashed out and fought the worm-eater, and gained experience and pleasure among the detritus of battle.  Like a video game villain, Crow the Usurper is king of the hill, but I’ve knocked him about for a few bloody rounds this trip.  It’s been interesting times spent in Eastern Europe so far; especially true of the land I rode out of today – so cheers to Ukraine and all who sail in her – (I’ll be back soon, anyway, because I fly to Belarus from Lviv).  Until then, ‘do pobachennya.’

So now I am in Moldova, with Transnistria on the fog-strewn horizon.  Worm-eaters circle in my smokey skies, one in particular twitching like a nibbling eel.  I form the barrel of a gun with two fingers and aim at his desperate red eyes.  Another three minute round, Crow?

“One more for the road,” I think would be his reply.

Lying b*stard.  It’s never just one more…

DEVILS IN GAS MASKS

“Life can be odd,” said the man wiping a gob of yellow paint from his face.  “You can’t get angry, because rules are rules, and the rules state that the world is chaos, bubbling in a glass jar.”  Or something like that.

I had six years in a factory mixing paint and pouring it into plastic bottles.  I looked up to the older man who probably didn’t say this, because inside I was a twitching wreck, and Uncle Jack (as I’ll call him) was calm, even when the industrial machine threw its guts up into his face.  (I later found out that it was a mask he wore, and actually at home he was a cantankerous old b*stard but…)

Odd that my happiest times this trip have been sandwiched between strangers inside a cramped bus on a rain-swept afternoon in Lviv, a tour through the Chernobyl disaster zone and surrounding towns and villages, and an afternoon spent in a Ukrainian village cemetery counting headstones.  In older days, when my OCD was a gunship and my depression a black fog that trailed it, any reprieve was multiplied to such manic proportions that when it came, I went supernova, from a hobbled, twitching creature lurking in a corner to a soaring rocket man annoying the skies with my roaring jet pack. Imagine a tin of paint dropped from the top floor of a skyscraper.  It explodes on impact with the ground and tendrils stretch across the immediate world; a tree is splattered in orange paint, a shop window, a passing car.  I wanted to be everywhere, and know everything and everyone.  My parents would never see me like this, but when I was out and Crow free, my confidence conquered a square mile, running on adrenaline; a greyhound released on a coiled spring, tail wagging, tongue slapping over my shoulder.  Drink sometimes gave me the same reprieve, only on these occasions the fireworks were louder still, but with a bigger price to pay. (Gunpowder ain’t cheap.)

These days when I’m free of Crow and his black umbrella, I’m content to celebrate with a deep breath of fresh air, tasting the day and chewing it over.  I’m not past mania, but now I’m a little afraid of where it can take me.

So we took a tour of Chernobyl, and the towns and villages the 1986 nuclear disaster had forced into non existence.  It was an interesting but rather bleak day. I was expecting it.

Drudging through the evacuated ghost town of Pripyat with the rest of the tour, I found myself lagging, and took several minutes for myself in a ruined room.  Water dripped from the flaking ceiling, a broken chair lay dislocated on the concrete floor beside a single brown shoe, and a gas mask, tactically placed by a tour guide no doubt, dangled eerily from a twisted hook – Everything, from wet concrete walls to burned plastic dolls, looked dead.  So grim and blighted were my surroundings that I prepared for a wave of depression to crush me against the cold floor.  No black tsunami came.

My demons nudged me with their crooked elbows, and breathing in the stale air, I decided to entertain them.  I looked into the smeared glass of a gas mask eye socket, and imagined a long table filled with food in the reflection – They were all there, eating their pie and cake; the Crimson Knight, the symbol of my violent self harm, devouring the apple crumble, stuffing it into his metal face-plate; the temptress Gorgon, my fear, spilling beef broth down her filthy gown; Crow himself, Lord of the entire dance, didn’t even look up from his wooden bowl as he poured hunks of wet meat into his glistening black beak.  A vast array of squabbling diners picked and pecked and pawed at the food.  It reminded me of a phrase I once wrote on a cardboard box, deep in a factory warehouse, many years ago.

‘Watch them, let them feast, but never join them at the table.’  I knew what I meant when I scribbled it in thick black marker pen all those years ago, but only now did I see who it was slobbering over the juicy platter.  It was me, or at least the ghosts of me.

And so I watched them, I let them gorge on barbecued chicken legs and gigantic hocks of roasted ham, lips smacking, knocking over jeweled goblets of red wine.  But I never sat beside them.  Never joined them in their gluttony.  And I never will, because to join them is to drop dead on the ground.

It was Chernobyl, I was expecting them here, everyone on the tour must have felt a personal demon poke a finger or two into their ribs.  But mine were quieter than usual, content almost to share stories with each other across the cluttered table.  Of course I was dodging OCD spikes every few footsteps, but I could see them breaking through the floor, or protruding through walls like slow broken traps in an old Indiana Jones set.  There were grey autumn clouds casting shadows across that ramshackle town, bloated behemoths setting the mood as lethargy thumped in my lungs and my nostrils were filled with the stench of things gone wrong; I saw Devils in gas masks, so bleak and grey and damp to the bones, this should have been a great harvest for that bastard Crow.  Yet I was fine with my desolate surroundings.

Maybe it’s the beautiful places that pull the trigger, because Crow doesn’t want me to be happy and he detects a smile further away than a shark smells a severed artery.  Maybe it’s the colourful markets in Central America that tempt his malice that little bit more – hiding in wooden crates of those succulent avocados and oranges and ripened bananas like a stowaway tarantula. Crow likes to suck away the juicy insides, until a damp husk is all that is left.  When he leaves me a slice of meat, it’s the most succulent morsel of food I’ve ever tasted, or best film I’ve watched in years, or the funniest show, the sweetest treat, the happiest hour of the entire month – so when he’s absent, even if I’m in a trench half filled with water, I remember it as a positive occasion.  Every minute without OCD breaking my toes, or depression suffocating me like a hangman’s hood thrown over my face, blows my mind every which way, just like that tin of paint dropped from the top floor of a skyscraper.

It is the ruination of a spectacular day that hurts the most, I guess.  The rancid hut looms ominously, you already know not to sleep on the p*ss-stained mattress, the roaches are already on the wall, there’s nothing that wants to jump out at you that you don’t already know about.  It’s the five star apartment you have to check for bedbugs. So Chernobyl was depressing, but it was meant to be, there were no surprises.

And today, in the cemetery beneath the gun smoke sky, searching for Little One’s Ukrainian family plot, there wasn’t a black feather in sight – but as mourners paid homage with flowers, it just wasn’t the place for celebration.

Forget another trip to Asia or South America, I could have stayed in that graveyard forever if it meant peace like this – and I suppose it will one day.

It’s an odd world indeed, Uncle Jack. An odd world indeed.