I’ve said to people in the past that suffering from a mental illness is worse than breaking a bone. And then I broke a bone and realised that’s no fun either. They’re both painful; it doesn’t have to be a competition.
I’d take a week off work, and fester in bed grappling a particular intrusive thought, unable to concentrate on anything else for longer than a minute – I’d try but there would be a sickness in my stomach like I’d swallowed a glass of worms. ‘I can’t feel worse than this,’ I’d think. But then I caught malaria in Uganda, and along with shaking chills and a burning fever, the throbbing, thumping headaches I endured silenced the crow as quickly as a shotgun blast to his head.
It was an odd relief, and thanks to an incompetent doctor in the Ugandan town of Jinja, who falsely diagnosed a torn shoulder muscle instead of malaria, the parasite had gone undetected. I was suffering. The pain in my head was unbearable at times, but after the crow had told me it was an inoperable tumour, all of a sudden he became useless, obsolete as the illness took a firm hold in my blood. I couldn’t think of a shopping list let alone dissect the meandering cunning of an OCD riddle.
‘If it’s a tumour then I’ll die. The end.’ I could not think past that simple equation, so loud was the banging in my skull, like goblins pounding on steel drums. When the throb became a constant pain, as if my head was jammed in a vice, the crow fled the battlefield like the yellow devil I always knew he was, white flag flapping in tatters as he disappeared over the smoking horizon. I managed to leave Africa but missed my connecting flight to Mexico, I stumbled from Heathrow towards Gatwick, where my brother (who’d come to meet me in the layover) thrusted twenty pounds in my hand and guided me into a taxi at Kings Cross station. A few hours later at the Hospital of Tropical Diseases, and quarantine was finally lifted when they accurately diagnosed the infection. There was relief, but the moment the medication took control, the Crow was back hopping on my hospital bed, claws clanking on the metal headrest.
I sat incredulous between white sheets, but smiled anyway.
He jabbed a talon in my eye, I blinked and thought of murder.
“I missed you, crow,” I lied.
And there we were again, biting, scratching, rolling around like two lovers in a barn, like rival drunks wrestling on the sawdust floor of a wild west saloon. I smiled at the injustice of it all. But his smile is always wider than mine, a black rainbow slashed across his face. “You could punch that window and cut your wrist in a second, or swallow bleach from the cleaners’ storeroom, imagine their faces while you’re choking to death on your own blood. What’s stopping you, Yan?” He sank his beak into my cheek. “Erase these urges by concentrating on a blast of pure white light. It’s worked before, but remember, you have to do it perfectly.”
Success was a brilliant, obliterating explosion in my mind. No more talk of dying today. But…
…”Did you know that Little One wants to f*ck that doctor, just look at their body language. What else could it all mean, think it through, you know I’m wrong but you know how it works, I need proof that I’m wrong. Make it feel right? Come up with an alternative and seal it quickly with another blinding flash.”
For a second I wished I still had malaria.
In 2011, I had ingested a different parasite and contracted Giardiasis from a stream in Belize. By the time I reached Honduras, I was suffering from nausea and extreme diarrhoea. “You’re belching like a swamp monster,” said Little One. As I lay stinking and rancid, huddled on the bathroom floor, there wasn’t a feather in sight.
As vicious as he may be, it turns out the crow has more than one chink in his black armour, and it’s not a straw-man standing in a field. It’s a broken bone, but only when it snaps; a sickness in the belly, but only during the most nauseating hours; a parasite in the blood, but only when it knocks me to the floor and I cannot move.
Physical or mental, pain hurts by default, if not it wouldn’t be pain. But which is worse? The quick snap of the fibula or the long, drawn out horror of an intrusive OCD spike? I’d probably choose to lose an arm if it meant the crow would follow it into the incinerator, but if I had to cut it off myself with a hacksaw, I might only get to break the skin before I changed my mind. I guess I’ll never know because medical science doesn’t work like that, not since the Middle Ages anyway – and I’d have taken the leeches for sure.
I hate mental anguish – anxiety and fear.
I hate physical pain – high fever and broken bones.
A quick death by fire, or much slower, from venom in my blood?
Incineration by flames or suffocation by madness?
Dragon or Hydra?