BACKPACKING WITH OCD – A hostel in San Diego

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

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

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

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

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

Another person staggers into the kitchen.

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

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

“Are you coming to the mall?”

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

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

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

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

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

DARK PHOTOGRAPH – A picture of OCD

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

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

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

We’re still house-sitting in the U.K.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ordinary Monsters – An OCD Circus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harm OCD – Hell Is A Chainsaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck to everybody out there.

WHO DO WE THINK WE ARE?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because I was a different person when I was younger.

Or at least I thought I was.

It Wasn’t Funny The First Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REAL EVENT OCD

The breeze that becomes a tornado

The days I spent in bed staring at a blank wall pulling my hair out I could have literally walked to Vladivostok and back – several times.  It’s been a lifetime of hesitation and mistrust.  Niggling doubt to paranoid certainty, fear of the past, present and future – anxiety is a time bomb that can explode in any direction.  I’ve been an octopus juggling infinite possibilities, dwelling on the implausible while time drives past in a Ferrari.  It’s been a long, bitter war with myself, mainly because there are so many edges to the OCD war machine.  So many weapons in it’s arsenal.

Real Event OCD is one of those weapons, a machete in the dark.  Provoking me to ruminate over a recent conversation, or maybe something I did over a decade ago.  Sometimes convincing me something entirely different happened instead, harsher words spoken in a far sinister tone.

Everything I ever did, every conversation, every action – every inaction – is scrupulously dissected.  Did I overstep the mark?  Was I offensive?  Did I really say that?  Should I have said something else?  WHAT HAVE I DONE?  Of course, it’s usually nothing serious, but OCD doesn’t care about the truth.

“Do you think that went well ,Yan?” says Crow, poking me in the eye with a bony wing tip.

I shrug my shoulders.  A gentle breeze in my ear.

“You should have said this or that or both or neither,” whispers a cracked black beak.  “What you said could be misinterpreted as a threat or a cuss, or maybe it’s the most ridiculous thing they’ve ever heard.  I think you’ve offended them, they probably think you’re a moron now.  Perhaps they want to kill you.”

“So tell me Crow, how DO you think they took the conversation?”

“They hated it of course!”

A conversation from last month, an action from twenty years ago.  Self reflection turns into self flagellation, punishing myself for something that never actually happened.  Balling my fists in frustration I flash back to my younger days.  Going out with friends in town, acting the clown because alcohol allowed me to be brash and clueless, and I took the bait.  Conversations I dwelled upon for all the wrong reasons.  Not to mention the fear.  The paranoid delusions, the snarling gang of lads looking over their shoulders when I walked through the pub doors.  Tadpoles that grew into sharks.  A constant victim in a movie, a haunting score accompanying me wherever I stumbled – musicians playing tubular bells as literally nothing crept up behind me.  I acted the twat because it drew attention from my shaking bones.

“The girls want to shun you, the boys want to kill you.”

Bastard Crow. 

“He’s probably carrying a knife.”

Ridiculous!

“She liked you but then you said something ridiculous and she went away laughing.  And not in a good way.”

Oh well, never mind.

“NEVER MIND!!!! Ha! You wish!”

I hang my head in shame.  A lifetime of confusion.  Who needs 100% certainty?  It was mostly lies anyway!

“Ha!  You wasted years thinking about me.”

Every innocent action, however mundane, striking a spark that caught fire.  Spreading to every bone in my body, encouraged by that gentle breeze that suddenly became a howling wind – a tornado bouncing around my brain.

Getting older, I genuinely care less than I ever have.  And Little One holds my hand these days, so who cares how girls perceive me.  Crow knows this and moved on years ago.  Now it’s all about embarrassing myself in front of the rest of the world.  And the fake memories of course, the conversations that change tone and even add sentences every time I think about them.  Thankfully it’s less about dying these days, more about humiliation.  Although death and destruction still sit at the table. 

As I write this post, Little One and I are looking after two cats at a house in Greater Manchester, We’re still freelance writing and, as Crow says, “Still doing things wrong.”  I’m Cringing at night over past conversations as well as new ones, trying to dream of faraway worlds but usually falling to sleep with wounded pride and a red face.

Why should I care?

I don’t.

But OCD makes me think that I do.

SLICE

A Pure O story. A slice of my life in the 1990’s, when I didn’t know what OCD was.

You wake up fully dressed on your bed, tongue dry in your mouth, eyes wandering around the room. Dried blood stains your shirt, missing skin on your knuckles, a distant drum banging in your head, another busy night, more hazy memories to file under embarrassing moments – another hunk of meat to choke on for the rest of your life. Part of your brain is still asleep, but the portion that is wide awake and paranoid whispers that you may have been a naughty boy. Previous experience and the dried blood on your fist suggests that this time, the demon on your shoulder may be telling the truth.

“I was drunk,” you blurt out to the empty room.

Coffee would go down well, but that means getting out of bed, and your anxiety is already scratching at your membrane, although not as much as most mornings – must be the remaining alcohol in your system, continuing to perform, feeding you confidence on a drip. By ten o’clock you’ll be dry, back to staring at walls, fighting grizzly bears in your head.

“I hate you, Crow.” An image of a girl laughing dances in your mind. What did you say to her? And is it the good kind of laughing, or the fake sort that adds to the self doubt already circling in your head? Multiply and multiply again.

‘Sarcastic,’ suggests Crow, your cruel, self doubting OCD avatar. ‘Probably thinks you’re a c*nt.’

The coffee is ruined by negative thoughts spiralling out of control. One particularly nasty spike is something you’ve been struggling with for five years now. How can your memory be true to an event that happened so long ago? Every time you go back to that field in Norfolk, Crow adds another ingredient to the pot. You convince yourself that you’ll be dead this time next year anyway. Not in the mood for breakfast now – nerves too jittery, stomach too heavy. Why was that girl laughing? Was it at you or maybe something her friend had said – maybe she just happened to look up and innocently catch your eye?

‘Definitely at you,’ sneers Crow, and of course, you believe him, ritualising internally, imagining blinding white light to eradicate the insidious thoughts curling around your mind like smoke. In the kitchen, a coffee stain on the counter reminds you of a picture you once saw of a tumor on a lung. The memory of the laughing girl is yanked to the back of your head by an invisible wire, hair billowing in front of her face by the force of the removal. Replaced by a doctor sitting in his office staring at a computer screen.

“It’s terminal,” he says. And you know he doesn’t give a damn about the test results.

If you look at the coffee stain and picture a blinding white light, would the cancer shrink to nothing? Ridiculous, and you know it, but choose to imagine that brilliant white light, nonetheless. It eases the stress of dying.

‘You got it this time,’ says Crow. ‘But it’ll grow back.’

Football Focus is on BBC1 but you can’t enjoy it, or your coffee, because you’re thinking such awful thoughts. Things like, I could kill my grandad today. And maybe you will just because you can. Push him down the stairs, sink a kitchen knife into his belly. Imagining the grisly details of the kill turns your stomach, but you’re convinced the potential threat will only go away if you continue to think about it until his final breath feels ‘real’ enough. Forty minutes later and your coffee sits cold on the table. But at least you’re not going to murder your Granddad. Not today, anyway.

The afternoon is spent laying on your bed, recovering from the chemical abuse you subjected your body to last night. You’re trying not to think about anything other than football, because thinking is always a risk, a chance you’ll remember past delusions, trigger old obsessions.
Why was that girl laughing at you?

Luke calls you early evening. “You OK? How’s your hand? You gotta stop punching things.”

“Feels a bit sore,” you say. “I drank too much.”

Arrangements are made for tonight. Seven o’clock in The Five Bells. A couple of pints and a taxi into town. Sounds great, just gotta get those twisted images out of your head, and stop worrying about last night. Did you punch a window out of frustration? Maybe a wall? Or did you pummel your fists into the floor like last time? Have to be more careful, you promise the weary reflection in the mirror. Shit, is that a mole on your forehead? A lump on your neck? Burn it out with that blinding white light…

‘You’ll die if you don’t,’ promises Crow.

“Don’t be fucking ridiculous.” But a tiny doubt is growing like a puddle in the rain, a pool spreading into a lake, becoming a small sea and finally an ocean. Takes you fifteen minutes to imagine a sheet of pure white light that you are satisfied with. To get the ‘right’ feeling.

You should really have a shower but you’re feeling too lethargic. Feels like energy is dribbling out of every pore in your skin. You imagine a vampire sucking the marrow from your bones. Such pressure in your head. Sadness and sorrow are like sacks of lead, but fear weighs the heaviest. Feels like you’re dragging a bag of cement everywhere you go. You decide to spray some deodorant over your shirt instead. No-one in the pub will notice.

“Here he comes, crazy little fucker.” Almost a hero’s welcome at the bar. Friends saying hello, recalling tales of the night before. They think you were so funny when you punched the side of that bus. So that was it. Not the first vehicle you’ve assaulted, but certainly the first public transport. Don’t they ever ask why you do these things? Would they care? It’s not an excuse but it’s certainly a reason. Should you tell them what you think about all day? Those intrusive thoughts, the triggers and compulsions, the fear and the loathing. Crow vomiting lies into your ear all day long.

That blinding white light.

Another pint, Crow not asleep but certainly dazed and confused. Leave him in the gutter, he’s dragged you there enough times. A few blinding lights to keep him settled, like stroking his feathers with the tip of your finger. You order a shot of vodka to keep him pacified. It helps him sleep but knocking back enough spirits can wake him too. So what should you do? If he stirs, you can always hold him to the ground with a promise of suicide. Going through the motions in your mind has worked before.

“Don’t tease me,” says Crow, and you wish that he was a physical entity, so you could drag him out of your eyes and drown him in a bucket of water.

Standing at a urinal in the pub bathroom now, your bladder is empty but you remain where you are, glaring at the wall in front of you – thinking, thinking, constantly thinking. Your friends are at the bar, where you’ll soon return to continue talking shit, joking around because laughter drowns out the self-doubt, the uncertainty of your actions, how you say particular words, touch certain surfaces. Yes, you gotta keep them laughing because silence nurtures fear and don’t you dare give that bastard crow a foothold. The door opens and in walks Luke. Can’t stay here now, unless you complain of an upset stomach and sit in the cubicle, pretending to shit but sitting with your jeans up and your head in your hands.

“Lucy’s just walked in. Daz is already all over her.”

“She’s leading him on,” you say. “He bought her three drinks last week and she went home with that twat, Shilton.” You shake your head, pretending to be concerned but not giving a damn because all you can think about is why the fuck was that girl laughing at you last night? Has that lump on your neck gone down yet? And maybe you’ll end up killing your Granddad, after all.

It’s hours later, your friends have gone home and you’re standing alone in the nightclub. But you don’t want the night to end because tomorrow is Sunday. No-one will be about, and then it will be Monday morning, and you lost your job so it’ll be a week on the sofa watching daytime TV, pulling out your hair, trying to work out which memories are fake, which ones mean nothing at all. And if they were all true, what could you do about them anyway?

A guy bangs into your side and tells you to watch your fucking step. It’s not fair because he walked into you and you’ve been thinking all day so he must be a c*nt. You tell him and he turns around and snarls, “What you fucking say, mate?”

You know that he heard every word but you tell him again anyway, but this time you shout it so there’s no doubt that your insult reaches him over the banging music. Suddenly he’s punching you and you’re hitting him back, but you’re much smaller and far too drunk and your fists fall like pillows on the side of his head. Thank fuck the bouncers are alert and pulling you both apart before he knocks your teeth out.

That girl again, watching you pick yourself up off the sticky carpet. She’s not laughing now but looking concerned. She’s coming over.

The next morning, walking back from the girl’s flat, you realise that your thoughts had distorted the truth again. You’ll feel better one day, never cured but at least able to do things other than lie in bed thinking of trouble and a million ways to die. But this is 1998 and you’ve not yet been diagnosed with OCD. Mostly because you’re too ashamed of your feelings to tell the psychologists the truth. Afraid of your behaviour too. You haven’t given the doctors a fair chance. You haven’t given yourself a fair chance. You’re keeping too many secrets. They’re here to help you – they won’t laugh or tell you to take it on the chin like a man.

Surely you’ve suffered enough? Your school education was the first to go. You left as soon as it was legal to do so and headed into the factories. But your condition got worse, and you spent a couple of years signing on, feeling sick to the stomach with an insidious fear of almost everything. And it’s not only your school education that was ruined but your life education too. How can you become a better person when you haven’t got the headspace to think about what’s right and wrong? How do you find the time to learn from your mistakes, to understand how the world works. Feels like there’s no time to ask questions about the life which is passing by without you. This will come back to bite you in the face a thousand times.

You watch TV in the afternoon, but an article on the news triggers a dark thought that was sleeping at the bottom of your mind – like a tiger in a well. Six hours lost in a ditch and when it finally ‘feels’ over another wildcat creeps into the abyss. This one will last the entire week. You’ll still be ruminating on potential consequences when you’re back in The Five Bells next Saturday.

The following three days are spent climbing in and out of bed. A bad smell follows you around because you still haven’t taken that shower. You promise to clean your body before you leave the house, but that won’t be for another two days. Your bed covers could do with a wash too. Watching your life wasting away from beneath the duvet makes you feel bitter, which makes your skin sweat and your teeth grind. Should you kill yourself? You’ve thought about it every day for the past six years. What the fuck is wrong with you? Somewhere in your future life, a doctor will tell you that it’s OCD, but you have no idea what that means yet.

Outside, a car honks its horn, a man shouts in the street, dogs are barking. In your room, the devil scrapes his claws along your back. You lay on your bed, fighting a zillion thoughts with flashes of bright white light that are never quite white enough.

Another thought stirs at the back of your mind.

You try to ignore it, push it away and forget about it.

But it’s not going anywhere.

OCD AND DEPRESSION (Dogs in the Water)

OCD attacks our weakest flank, it knows our vulnerabilities because it lives in the room in our brain where we store our most intimate secrets.  If a hunting dog goes for the jugular, OCD goes for the box under the bed labelled ‘personal fears.’  And when it bites, it doesn’t let go, locking its jaw and shaking us to the ground.  But unlike the hound, OCD is invisible to everyone but the person that it eats.  Onlookers may see the symptoms, the compulsive tics, the obsessive cleaning, the strange behaviour by the man at the bar, but they don’t see the dog.

We all handle the dog differently.  Some confront it with a poke in the eye, some let it chase them to the hills and back, others appease it, throw a little bit of meat at its feet and walk away to fight another day.  You’ve probably heard the saying, ‘walk a mile in someone’s shoes before you judge them.’  Add to this that people often take away contrasting experiences from the same encounter, and you’ll realise we all handle life differently, each of us using various tactics to deal with the same problem.  Throw in mental illness and it all gets a lot more confusing.

Before lockdown I heard a conversation at a bar.  “I can’t believe he killed himself, such a selfish thing to do,” said a man staring into a pint glass.  These types of words are usually said by someone who has never experienced such sombre despair, cruising through life a million miles from mental illness, which is good for them but not so good for their struggling friends, the compassionate compartment in their brains empty but for a bluebottle headbutting the locked door, ‘dueling banjos’ playing on loop.  But I recognised the guy at the bar, knew he suffered from depression himself.

How I wish science was capable of swapping a person’s conscious thought with their neighbour, to walk half a mile up the road and back.  To experience each other’s fear and loathing, what we love and what we cannot stomach.  If identical twins can be emotionally opposite, then what are the chances of strangers on a train having the same life philosophies, the same reactions to a painting, or sentence overheard in a pub.  People share the same needs on a basic level – food, water, shelter – but how different we are when it comes to how we adapt to life’s challenges, what we accept as reasonable, or diabolical, how we view the world as it unfurls before our eyes.  What bewilders me may not even register with you, and vice versa, extreme reaction versus a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders.

Thoughts meander like a river but unlike water flowing into the sea, they don’t always take the easiest path.  Thoughts buck against the grain, detour to other spaces, merge with personal experiences, creating a hybrid of images and feelings – some see a simple butterfly resting on a petal, others, a six-headed, snake-tailed beast galloping towards a house fire.

I attempt to deal with OCD and depression with what works best for me.  Describing the way those teeth bite into my bones helps me to focus on the problem at hand.  It’s far from perfect but with the way I think, what I’ve experienced, who I am, my personal passions and fears, how I handle these two dogs keeps them from smashing through the front door and taking control of the room.  For me it’s the easiest way, like water flowing down a mountain.  But it’s my terrain, and water on your mountain may take an alternative route to the bottom.  It’s about respecting the choices other people make, and I wanted to tell the man talking at the bar that maybe the person who took their own life saw life differently than he did.

But I didn’t fancy a row or a punch in the face, so I took the easy option, and followed the water to the other end of the bar.