Manic Metro, Morbid Mountain

Two weeks ago I was standing with Little One and fifty strangers in a hot underground metro station in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city. A greasy Wind lashed through the tunnel, cooling me down as it streaked across my face, and a sound like heavy, rumbling thunder signaled the trains imminent arrival; thirty seconds beforehand I was contemplating what I wanted for dinner, but all I could think of now was leaping onto the track, straight into the path of a thousand ton metal dragon. I leaned against the wall, trying my hardest to think of something less gruesome.
The day before I took the metro, niggling doubts were already knocking on my window. Rap rap rap, cold fingers drumming on the glass, words forming in my mind.  “Tomorrow, when the train approaches, you’re going to push yourself through the crowd and hurtle into its deadly jaws; there’s nothing and no one to stop you.” A constant thumping in my chest, my stomach heavy, like I’d swallowed ten raw potatoes. I went through the motions, from suicidal leap to bone-crushing contact, ruminating until I was free of the fake urge; the potatoes finally digested and I could put the fear away until I was physically inside the metro station the following day; where I would unwrap the horror like a dead rabbit in a parcel.
Flash forward to last week, and I suffered a similar fear, to jump off a mountain and tumble to my death on the rocks beneath.  I was hiking to an ancient Armenian fortress and church, two beautiful structures on the back of a giant rock golem punching into the crisp blue sky; a fantasy scene from a Hollywood blockbuster if ever I have seen one. We stopped for bread and cheese, near a drop that seemed a mile deep, and a familiar inner voice disguised as not an urge, but a fear, told me that I could jump to my death.
“But I don’t want to,” I replied.
“Doesn’t matter,” remarked the voice. “I just said that you could, whether you want to or not.”
Not a voice like the shop assistant asking if you want help packing your grocery bag, but a voice like a poking finger; a crisp packet blowing in the breeze.
I agree with Crow, there is actually nothing stopping me; no chain fence, no beefy security guy with a black jacket, no barrier at all.
I’m sure we all hear this terrible whisper during our daily lives, and many take several minutes to silence it with confidant dismissals like, ‘no thanks, that would be incredibly stupid.’  But Crow doesn’t listen to sense, so I tell him to f**k off instead, and he just cackles throatily, like a thirty cigarette-a-day witch.
“Go on and jump, and while you’re falling to your death, think of Little One’s face as you shatter your spine on the rocks at the bottom, or your parents dismay as the consulate tells them over the telephone how you tumbled down such a beautiful mountain, and split your skull in half and snapped your bones into a thousand pieces, like a hammer to a bread-stick.”  I was burning up at the notion of running over the abyss, digging my fingers into my stomach, trying to massage the sickness away.  “F**k off, Crow!” I said, teeth grinding, eyes searching for anything other than that throbbing, pulsating, (was I tempted?) rocky abyss.  He hopped onto my shoulder, “I’m going to flash these thoughts into the back of your eyes until you think of every single possible bone-splintering detail…or, you jump off this mountain and it’s over, and you take me with you!”
I thought I had got better with heights, and confronted with a dizzying vista, after several minutes contemplating leaping to my doom, the crow seemed happy to turn his attention to my camera, or maybe my wallet. Once I dangled my camera over the Chain Bridge in Budapest.
“Drop it, Yan, its easy. Just open your hand and watch it splash into the Danube.”
Now the fear is back to its nightmare worst, and hiking in Armenia, stopping for lunch on a rocky overhang, all I could think about was diving off, plummeting towards the stream a hundred deadly feet beneath me – at least his previous ramblings, from alarm-call to this lunchtime picnic, were silenced.
A day earlier we had arrived in Yerevan, Armenia, and covered much of the city on foot, including the educational Armenian genocide museum – The effects of OCD cause me depression at the best of times, and two hours in this informative museum and I loathed humanity more than I ever have. I wanted mankind to blow its head off with a shotgun loaded with a f*cking hydrogen bomb! So to cheer me up we decided that the following day we would take a hike in the mountains…
…And there I was, crawling closer in my mind to the edge because Crow had said that I could.
I coughed up a black feather. “Nothing could be easier,” he said.
We moved our picnic away from the tempting leap of death and ate away from that dreadful fear.
“It’s just another metro stop,” I whispered into the air – remembering the vivid thoughts of jumping into an oncoming train on the Tbilisi underground.
Another shift in time and I’m here, back in Georgia, today.  I’ve just hiked up probably my last mountain. We’re in Stepantsminda, in the shadow of the glorious mount Kazbek, and taking a shortcut through the recent snow, scrambling across a sweeping mountainside, four hundred meters from our destination, while slipping and sliding in the white powder, I glanced over my shoulder and suddenly realised how high we actually were. If we lost our footing, although probably not instant death, a broken bone or two was not off the menu. Crow seized the day, filling my head with countless terrifying possibilities; I had a minor panic attack, (if there can be such a thing) and I froze and struggled for breath and Little One had to talk me back to earth.
At the monastery at the top of our climb, I vowed never to put us in that situation again.
There’s no escaping these violent intrusive thoughts, so I tiptoe around them when I can, ignore them when I’m lucky, or entertain them when I’m at my lowest. After all, paragliding being the exception, I’ve not jumped off a mountain yet… and certainly not jumped into the path of an oncoming train.  Its been a tough two weeks but I’m still here, a little shaken but still walking forward.

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Black Beetles, Black Beetles, Black Beetles; A Time in Azerbaijan

A genuine smile split open my face the other day – like an axe through a watermelon.  I was in the passenger seat of a Lada as it sped through the streets of Sheki, Azerbaijan. The driver, a cousin of our home-stay host, was obviously auditioning for the fast and the furious 17, and I think I offended him by grabbing the passenger seat-belt.

“No worries, Azerbaijan is fine, no need for belt,” he said, as we swerved past a packed mini bus and nearly collided with another Lada driving just as manically on the opposite of the road.  I clicked in anyway, and took the cigarette he offered me. I don’t smoke so much these days, but my heart was trying to escape through my mouth, and I thought a few drags wouldn’t hurt on the grand scale of things.

So I smiled. Because regardless of my relentless OCD, here I was, in a town in Azerbaijan, in a Lada hurtling through the streets in the pouring rain – I was winning.

OCD ruined my education, lost me countless opportunities in life, crushed my hope, and it has left a bitter taste in the back of my throat. When Crow reminds me of what he’s taken away from me, I choke a little, fury rising inside me like a charging wave, and all sorts of negative emotions wrestle for control. Sometimes it takes a while to stop feeling so bitter, so sick in the stomach; I feel naked, helpless to a horde of black beetles scurrying over my face, into my mouth, swimming into my bloodstream.

Warp speed to yesterday evening, in Sheki, Azerbaijan – and I’m brushing off those beetles like dust from my jeans. Our host invited us for drinks with his family, and we talked, and smoked, and drank vodka and beer around the table. Crow nibbled at the back of my head, the intrusive thoughts knocking at the door, black beetles scuttling beneath the floorboards, but I held them off,  (the alcohol probably helped,) and again I smiled healthily, like a chimpanzee with a bag of bananas.  Yesterday we’d seen the local market; our host had driven us to a beautiful viewpoint over the city; we’d been fed tasty dishes and joked and laughed in broken English about subjects none of us fully understood, warmly accepted into their family as new friends, toasting life with the flowing vodka as Crow bit into my shoulder like a bitter, toothless, B-movie zombie.

“You are always smiling,” said Antigua, the wife of our host.

I told her that inside I was always crying. She took it as another vodka fueled quip. I wanted her to. It reminded me of my times at work in the noisy factories as I wore my clown mask in front of my work colleagues. I want to be remembered as the happy joker, not the manic juggler, or the sad shadow in the corner – laughing even as the Crows talons grind my insides to shreds.  I’d had a day and an evening to remember – a slice of life in Sheki Azerbaijan.  OCD had not taken this away from me, and the crow, although circling in the smokey room, banged into furniture like a clumsy slapstick villain, almost comical as I fought his army of gnashing beetles.

We ate, we smoked, we tipped vodka down our necks like it was a necessity to life.  We put the world to rights, agreed and disagreed, forgot that the world can be a terrible, frightening place, and I crawled into bed with a grin like a quartered watermelon.

My last coherent thoughts, regardless of Crows ferocious advances, were simple, ‘Today was a good day.’

Georgia On My Mind..

Georgians are an interesting bunch. They’re either plying you with homemade vodka or glaring at you on the local bus like they want to tear your arms off. We’re either being shoved aside on the Tbilisi metro or gifted free wine and food at a ramshackle hostel that’s barely standing up; knocking back shots of Chacha with staff at military museums like we’re old school friends, or being totally ignored by ice-cream street vendors as they look right through me into Wednesday next week. It can be as rough as sandpaper, a face still scarred by the soviet sickle, or a cushion of cool mountain air, a beautiful face smiling across a crowded room . It’s been interesting…we only had five days in its tough, ample bosom, but we’re going back in a week or two, after we’ve sampled the colourful delights of Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea.

We’re on the overnight train now as I pound this into my smartphone notes. I can’t sleep because I pushed the crow into a hole today and he’s not yet flown back. (Basically I’ve ruminated all day on the inane, then fought free of the useless fear and now I’m pumped and awake and want to be standing in broad daylight gazing at the Flame Towers on the Baku skyline.) Little One sleeps on the bed across the carriage, I’m going to be tired in the morning but I have a feeling she’s going to want to run around the asphalt of the Baku Formula One street circuit!

Georgia is on my mind – but in a good way, not stuck on loop on the ruminating highway. Georgia has a thousand adventures to offer, and if I’m well, I hope to sample a healthy farmer’s fist of them. We meet our friend from France back in Tbilisi early in October and he’ll want to hike, so I’ll need the clearest of minds I can muster. The war on OCD is never over, but I  think I won the battle today – and that’s a good start.

See you soon Georgia, I don’t think I love you yet but I like you a lot. Lets see what happens…

That B*stard Crow

   We’re off to Georgia (the country in Eastern Europe, not the US state), although I hear that’s lovely too. I’m interested in soviet history, and on my travels I’ve lost control of my mind from Russia to Kazakhstan, from Estonia to Latvia, Lithuania to Ukraine. I’ve ruminated on the ridiculous before Statues of Vladimir Lenin; touched my forehead for luck like my fingers were manipulating a typewriter deep inside defunct nuclear bomb shelters; imagined blinding white lights and chanted a thousand and one mantras while learning the horrors of a former Gulag or KGB headquarters. A visit to Georgia was only a matter of time, and I was fading to nothing at home so pushed myself to get back on the road. This trip I want to visit Azerbaijan and Armenia too, and a return to Ukraine. Belarus if I’m lucky…

“Why not a beach in Thailand?” I’ve been asked. Well, I went to a beach in Thailand, where I was asked “Why not go somewhere more off of the backpacker trail?” And so it goes…

It just means that the scenery is going to change around me, not the everyday struggle. I’ll still glare at myself in the mirror, threatening my reflection with violence when frustration sets my mind on fire. It’ll just be a mirror hanging on a wall in Georgia.

If I stayed at home I’d go through the same trials, I’d just feel worse about it, because I’d see it as wasting time, squandering my one life on this planet.  I’ve done plenty of that already; laying in my bed, forehead banging against the wall, hiding from the world and everyone in it, sentencing myself to solitary confinement as life passes overhead in the wind.  However ill I get, however deep the Crow’s claws scratch, I must always push forward.

OCD is like an extra layer of skin, itching beneath the other nine; or a third arm, a useless one that grabs onto anything that will slow you down; another eye that looks in on itself, searching for terrible fabricated secrets. OCD is a part of me, and that bastard crow is the first of us to pack his toothbrush.  He tries to ruin a trip to the local shop so of course he’ll try and ruin our time in Georgia.  I’m off and he’s coming with me, his shadow swishing around my throat like a black cloak, so get over it, Yan. This way I’m giving it a go, easing those knots in my stomach, making me feel a little better about myself.  Today, I still have no idea what we’re going to do when we get there, and that’s the adventure I guess… something I don’t want the crow to ever take away from me.

If I surrendered to the crow I’d never have met some of the great people that I have, from all over the world, from seventy-two year old adventurers to gap year students who share the same slightly twisted sense of humour; I’d never have disappeared down a pot-hole mid conversation in Kampala; never bathed naked with the local village greengrocer in the onsens of Japan; I’d never have embarrassed myself dancing salsa in a Havanan bar or booed the villains at the Lucha Libre in Mexico City. You’ve stopped me from doing a lot, bastard crow, but not everything.

‘Yeah yeah yeah, you’ll eat my eyes out, you’ll shove me down the stairs, you’ll set my hair on fire, you’ll bite my fingers off, you’ll smash my face into the wall. All these things and more if you had the chance. Do whatever you have to do, bastard crow, just don’t forget your toothbrush…’

OCD in Aisle Three

I’m back from the supermarket, tired but relieved. Throwing the last bag of frozen vegetables into the freezer, closing my eyes, smiling ironically at the amount of effort it took me just to buy these groceries, and wondering if maybe I should stay home a while longer..
Twenty minutes ago I was surrounded by microwave meals and bags of oven chips, people hunched over their trolleys, ambling through the aisles, nagging their partners with half an eye on the bumper pack of bacon with fifty per cent off.  A hundred brains pondering a thousand thoughts, lost in their own worlds, sidetracked on this weekly supermarket binge. I was here but also a million miles away, kicking at the crow as he attempted to rip my eyes out. And while stupid, useless memories leapt at my face like alien face-huggers, I clipped an old lady’s heal with my trolley.
“I’m so sorry,” I say, wondering why pleasant memories don’t ever jump at me like this? I’ve never looked back on the good times, I guess there’s no point because if I remembered the beach i’d ignore the breaking waves and focus on the shade of the beach-ball in the sand instead.
Back in aisle three and suddenly I’m clear of the current spike, the weight is lifted and I’m surging forward, rising from the black ocean and I want to dance.  “We’ve got a tap dancer in aisle five, I repeat, a tap dancer in aisle five!”
I have a good five minutes, but I don’t want to trigger anything so I fill my head with song, and find myself singing to the girl on the checkout till. It’s just a line from a Beatles track but she smiles a little nervously; I don’t need the crow to tell me what she’s thinking, although he does anyway.
I don’t care though, because the lead has gone from my blood, I feel great, I want to book a trip to Vegas and drink a pint of rum and play blackjack and watch a live show and…. a man at the magazine rack looks like the man who said that thing which triggered the fear that knocked me to the floor and ruined my week. “Shit!” I curse, and slap my forehead so hard it echoes down the sandwich aisle; my mouth twisting and snarling at the lights on the ceiling. The store manager walks past and I catch his eye. ‘Help me,’ I scream in my head, but he scuttles into toiletries giving me a wide berth.
I’m analysing something impossible to remember correctly, it’s making me so hot that i’m sweating, thoughts racing the wrong way round the tracks in my brain. Oh fuck, there’s my uncle, he’s gonna want to talk and I’m trapped filling plastic bags with tins of beans and cheap fruit. An ancient fear of doing something terrible bites through my stomach; he sees me and smiles and pushes his trolley over and all of a sudden I’m discussing the football while screeching mandrills spread chaos in my mind. I stutter, and speak at a thousand miles per hour, images of violence playing out in my head. “Stick your finger in his eye!!” commands that bastard crow.
“That’s eighty-three pounds, sixty-nine pence,” says the checkout girl.
“Sixty-nine! Sixty-nine!” Screeches crow, and I start to wonder if you can get AIDS from oral sex.
“You here for Christmas?” asks my uncle. I feel sweat drip down my face. My stomach is in knots. I hand eighty-five quid to the girl, trying to joke, to get a laugh, to pretend that everything is fine in my mind.
“Throw the milk as hard as you can against the wall,” suggests the crow.  I must admit, I’m actually tempted.
Fear curdles with the acid in my stomach; my Uncle waiting for a reply to his question; the checkout girl holding out my change; the man at the magazine rack busy reminding me of the man who said that thing which triggered the fear that knocked me to the floor and ruined my week…
But I’m home now, rockets still firing in my mind, doubts still niggling in the back of my head, but no one to watch me fumble my words as I slowly shuffle backwards towards the exit.
Simply leaving the house with OCD is tough enough, but navigating supermarkets with OCD is a cocktail mixed in a devils kitchen.
I think I’ll get the shopping delivered next week.

STUTTER

When I’m dealing with intrusive thoughts I often stare blankly at a space on the wall, like watching paint dry but without the exciting bit.  I’ve been looking at a lot of walls lately. I think it’s being back home but my nemesis, that blue/black bastard crow, has been busy these past two months. He has appeared in various forms and intensities, changing tactics like a desperate coach in a cup final. Some attacks have worked, they’ve knocked the wind out of my lungs, sat me down like I’ve got cramp in my legs, others I’ve swatted away as easily as a fly from a sandwich.

Crow has been an old man, sitting hunched over in a chair in the corner of the room, pointing to his throat, croaking out his words. “You’ve got the throat cancer,” he sneered.  He’s been a shadow on the wall, flickering in my peripheral, changing shapes like there were giant hands maneuvering in front of strobe lighting. Shadow puppets forming, a crow twisting into a seagull, a rabbit with myxomatosis, a limping horse, a snake with a leering, rubber mouth.  “You’re getting older, Yan. As is everyone around you, the ones you love, someone’s got to die soon.”

Last week he was a monkey on my shoulder, paranoid and devious, screeching fear into my ears, disguising them as urges and saying I was a dangerous man, “..and the people outside are watching you. They know your weaknesses, Yan. They can smell your skin; they’re concerned about you being here.”

So I’m still in the UK, telling friends I’m enjoying the summer, telling myself that tomorrow I’ll put the crow to sleep forever.

I have some ideas on where to go, and I’ll be OK when I get there. It’s just getting there that’s the problem right now.

Lumley, Palin and Crow

I love traveling but I dislike researching where to go.  I can’t get excited until I step off the plane and put my feet on actual foreign soil. I don’t watch travel shows because they bore me; I’ve got nothing against Joanna Lumley but I really have no urge to watch her eating a bowl of mashed fava beans while she drifts lazily down the Nile on a Victorian tugboat. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to do it myself, but I wouldn’t expect people I don’t know to watch a video of me doing it – my serotonin gets released from breathing the Sahara winds, not watching it blow through Michael Palin’s hair. I switch the channel over when the title music begins to tinkle in my ear.  ‘Trekking through the Amazon on a shoestring’ is probably a wonderful programme, but it reminds me of when I was there, and didn’t I have quite a few attacks in that jungle? Crow pulls the trigger and my day is dead.

I don’t really discuss much where I’m going even when I have the ticket in my hand – I’m going to be wrestling with crow wherever I go; I simply prefer to box him on foreign soil and glimpse a beautiful mountain or two between rounds.

Travelling with OCD has its issues.  The reason I continue to push myself to leave the country, even when I am at my lowest ebb, is because if at any point Crow had ruined this, I’d have done nothing with my life – a colossal negative of mental illness is what it stops you from achieving – the younger me, cooped up in my bedroom, had struggled hourly, and the last thing on my mind was studying, or choosing a career, or figuring out how to better myself when I’d spent all day trying to drag a crow out of my eye socket.

However, these last few days, Crow has been a black spider.  Not monstrously loud like a pneumatic drill, but clickety clack, like a tap dancer with hot shoes, heel-stepping across my thoughts. Nothing to make me want to tear my eyes out, but enough to remind me that he’s still there, lurking, loitering with intent.  Catastrophes like the horrific terrorist attacks in Manchester and London put him into perspective for a few minutes, but then he uses the fear and carnage for his own twisted intentions and suddenly I’m imagining my loved ones torn asunder in those very streets.  I thank fuck it’s in my mind and I’m not experiencing what those poor victims had to go through.  The Crow is an annoying fly next to a nail bomb attack, so i fought him with added vigor this week, and who am I to complain?  It’s not ideal – Crow makes me want to puke most days, but compared to yesteryear this torture is less waterboarding, more distant tap dripping in the next room. So I take it, and avoid triggers, quick to either neutralise my fears or pull myself away from them altogether. Like a sober friend pulling away a drunk colleague from a fight outside a kebab shop on a Friday night, there’s a lot of shouting but eventually you get them into the taxi.

It’s the best year I’ve had since I can remember, so I take it, and casually flick through my atlas to decide, at the very least, the direction of my next trip – as long as that heinous parasite remains a shadow of his former self, I’ll be content to go anywhere that will have me. It’s taken years to get me thinking like this, many therapists, packets of medicine, hours of reading, relentless trial and error. I’ve been naughty, and nice, and extremely lucky. I’ve been convinced I have all kinds of illnesses, neutralised negative thoughts with a million flashes of blinding light; I’ve imagined the death of everyone I know, horrifically murdered with gruesome tools, but we’re all still here, breathing, living our lives and contemplating our next moves.

Crow is white noise. Crow is the dripping tap. Crow is the host of desert islands discs with only Marilyn Manson albums to choose from, or a single picture on my bedroom wall, painted by a psychopath – Crow the Composer, splashing the canvas of my life with blacks and reds, forty years in fifty shades of violence.  Yes, Crow is a howling storm, but he used to be a fucking machine gun, so how can I complain when children are getting blown up all over the world?

The Crow will have me headbutting the wall again, but I’m not headbutting it now and have to take that as a positive.  I can blow this spider off my shoulder all day long, so I’m content waiting here for inspiration.  Compared to sweating on a bed as imaginary worms eat my stomach, crushing spiders underfoot is relatively….ok.

So it could be the Galapagos islands, or it could be Turkey.  Iceland or Uzbekistan.  I may struggle wherever I go, but I don’t want to give up and lay down just yet. I will pack my bag, treat myself to a new toothbrush and continue to battle that malicious, squawking bird.

“I’m with you forever, Yan,” says the Crow.

I hope you like travelling, my black feathered friend.

And don’t forget your toothbrush.