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…’

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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.

 

 

A THOUSAND PLANETS

We’re back in the UK. London was the cheapest city to fly to from Greece. It was a direct flight from the neighbouring island, and considerably cheaper than a forty minute flight to Athens. We couldn’t decide where to head next, and I can say it now because everything is OK, but we also had to make an important hospital appointment. Fucking crow was ten feet tall these last few days; the bastard had me imagining enough white lights to light up the darkest hour.

He became a black beetle scurrying on the wall, then two, then four, multiplied and multiplied again. The beetles, buzzing and humming, became a black stain and then a ball of limbs and wings and pincers, forming a living cloud that hung over my head like a curse. I spent a long time in dark places, but everything turned out fine. The Results came in, and damning the good news, crow flew over the mountain.

We surprised our families on their doorsteps, and are currently re-evaluating our plans from home. I want to head to Antarctica via Argentina but it’s not cheap, so I’ve placed that dream on a shelf for the moment.

Little One wants to go to the Galápagos Islands, not cheap either but much warmer. I’m just happy here at the moment, because the crow is high in the sky, a tiny pin prick in England’s gunmetal grey clouds.

Backpacking South America is certainly an option. I have hazy memories of travelling the continent several years ago.  It was a solo trip and I spent far too long waist deep in the local vices – I tried to kill the crow but only stoked his fire.

Travelling with OCD, or anxiety in any form is an uphill trek.  Mental illness and backpacking don’t fit well together, they are from a different jigsaw puzzle entirely.  You have to stamp on the pieces to make them fit, and these last two or three weeks have been tough for me, but especially for Little One, whose appointment at the hospital it was.  The Crow has been busy bloodying his talons, and I’ve done all I could to stop myself from throwing up black beetles. I’ve neutralised a hundred and one intrusive thoughts, and when they swelled like a black sea, I regressed to the bad old days, wrestling for every ounce of control.

These days, with all that I have learned, and if I am lucky, I imagine Crow is pecking on my shoulder and that is sometimes enough – I move on, my brain able to accept that it is the OCD. It has taken many years of practice but the night before the hospital appointment I managed to shoo him away every time he made an appearance. I handled it well and the good news we received took me over the rainbow.

I was crow free for a day or two, and when the crow is away my priorities quickly change to avoiding the triggers that bring him back. I have to keep my thoughts on something else – don’t stray from the path, stay in the light, avoid certain memories, travel at light speed or as fast as a thought can take me across the universe. If I’m crow free, I visit a place a million miles away, a land that time never knew, let alone forgot.I have a thousand planets that I often visit this way, and sometimes when the crow swells to monstrous proportions, if the mood is right, I am also able to enter this safe haven – where the real world is dead or never existed at all.  No more than these past days, worrying over something so much that I had to vacate the ‘here and now’ to stop from imploding.

I have a space opera in my mind that I began twenty years ago, fantasy football teams from across Europe that compete for the champions league in my head, an imaginary planet of warring continents, dreamed up boxers with records that I used to write down on paper – I still have them in a box in a shed.  I imagine tens of thousands of soldiers charging across sweeping plains, or spacecraft zigzagging across the universe in galactic dogfights – clashing in furious battles, swords hacking off limbs, titanium hulls cut in half by laser beams.  When the Crow is high in the sky, the last thing I need is to start remembering triggers and spikes from the past. So I beam aboard an interstellar star-ship or sit ringside at Caesar’s palace or climb into the saddle of a Knight’s armoured horse. In reality I am staring at a wall, or a blank television screen in the corner of the room, or laying in a bed of course.

I’m lucky to have a pretty good imagination. Sometimes when the spikes are nailing me to the floor, although I struggle to function with a task as simple as walking to the shops, or leaving my dorm bed, as long as I am lying down, eyes closed and still, I find it possible to gain breathing space with a visit to one of my far away places. An hour imagining explosions on distant planets can create vital distance from the scattered minefields of Pure O.  It’s another weapon in my arsenal in my fight against the Crow. Another tiny tactic in my crusade for the Holy Grail – a permanent off-switch to overcome OCD.

‘Every little helps,’ says the giant supermarket chain. Begrudgingly, and especially in my fight against OCD, I have to agree with them…and I also like their sandwiches.

 

CONFESSIONS OF A DOOR TO DOOR SALESMAN

I’m writing this on a plane.  Greece is a gently rolling landscape beneath the clouds.  The cat we were looking after was still purring when we clocked off, and the house was still standing – not even a broken plate to glue back together.  Mission success, but already it’s just a memory – another page of history flapping in my slipstream.  It felt like yesterday we landed here; I can still taste the first gyros. It was chicken. I wanted pork.

Funny how most of the things we did here will soon be forgotten, lost on the steaming, pulsating heap of other memories, scraps and old tins and strange bones sticking up from an ever distorting mountain of a lifetime of experiences.

Sometimes I stick my hand in the tottering jumble and pull out an old rag or rusted box – just to reminisce.  Sometimes a memory breaks free of its own accord, making a clatter and drawing my attention as it spills down the hill.  I often cringe at what I did, or said, or thought at the time. Like everyone else in the world I have a lot of regrets.

Regrets come in differing shapes and sizes.  On top of this, there’s regretting things that you’ve done, and there’s regretting things that you didn’t do, but also, and sometimes worse, there’s regretting things that you think you did, but you didn’t actually do at all. Punishing yourself for an action or conversation that you’ve convinced yourself happened but never did. The more you think, did I? The louder the crow, or the monkey, or the goblin begins to shout “Yes, yes of course you did this. Remember, it was so fucking bad but you did it and now people are suffering.”

Or did Little One do this? Or say that? Or….

“Yes, Yan. Yes she did, and much worse. Remember?” The more I try to remember if these memories are legitimate,  the more, over time, I am convinced that they are. Could I have done something so spiteful? Did that person really say those awful words?

“Yes, yes, yes!” squawks the crow, spitting his breakfast in my face.

A memory of something hurtful, or nasty, will introduce itself to me like a salesman at the door.  Some are familiar faces selling the genuine article – I remember their patter, and eventually, after a lot of pushing and shoving, I send them on their way.  Some however are new, memories from long ago that I have never thought worthy to dwell upon, or even remembered before.  At first I am dubious of their authenticity, and laugh them off, slamming the door in their smirking smug faces.

A little later the doorbell will ring again, and standing before me will be the same man, in the same cheap suit – perfect teeth, dazzling white, the smile cutting his face in half.

The salesman dangles the fake Rolex before my eyes.  This time my ninety nine per cent certainty of forgery has slipped to below seventy five.  I push the door closed.

‘Ding dong!’  I’ll ignore him until he goes away.

‘Ding dong!’  He’s a persistent little fucker.

‘Ding dong!  Ding dong!  Ding dong!’ the doorbell chiming like a church bell striking a hundred o’clock.

I know I have OCD, I know that this is how the OCDemon attacks.  But still I can’t walk away.

I throw open the door…”Listen friend.  I’m not interested, I…”

He opens a suitcase of gold watches…Is that a Rolex?

It took me a long time to realise that a good way to combat the rep at the door is to just buy everything that he is selling.  “Here’s my credit card, I’ll have it all, and more if you’ve got it – I agree with you Crow. I did do it; Little One did say that, and yes, probably much worse.  Yes,” I say, “and what the fuck are you going to do about it?”

It doesn’t always work but it’s better than hiding under the bedcovers, a quivering mess, hands covering my ears waiting for the doorbell battery to run out, or the salesman’s finger to fall off.

In years to come I wonder if the Crow will try and make me think something bad happened here in Greece.   I already have a backpack full of false memories to say that he will.

He will tell me something terrible occurred, or was said, maybe just hinted at, but it will be enough to spark a doubt.  I cannot say what memories I will depend on as true in the future.

That’s why it’s good to keep notes on this blog.  So Yan, if you’re reading this for confirmation, its ok, Greece was good for you, and you didn’t kill the cat.

 

BRANDO and the BLACK SPONGE

The crow is Godzilla and I am Tokyo. Yet another monster movie, but have you seen the performance from the lead protagonist? Blood surges in my ears, sounding like a drum roll, and on stage an old but legendary movie star fumbles open an envelope. “…And the award for best Actor goes to…”
…Yan Baskets, and Julia Brown, and Johnny Lester and Fernando Cortez and the millions of other sufferers hiding their mental illness from the world.

Years ago, struggling to hold down my job, every morning I would be greeted by the same friendly workmate. “Morning, Yan,” he would say, and I would smile and ask if he’d had a good evening, nodding and joking on the outside, but inside throwing up splinters.
The work floor would be noisy, an ugly rumination around every hissing corner – vampires on panpipes, and as the Crow attacked, the continuous whirring of the machines, the clanking and the banging, made my workplace feel like a state at war. There be injuns inside, and gun-toting Cowboys, Mexican bandits shooting pistols into the sky. Gun fight at the Not-so-Ok Coral. The fear I had in the morning always multiplied into a thirty foot monster by clocking out time. So yes, the Crow is Godzilla and I am Tokyo – but most of the time the city falls in silence, like a scene from an old black and white movie from the twenties.

“You’re a cheerful chap, Yan,” my colleague once said as, unbeknownst to him, Tokyo tower crumbled into my lap. I don’t regret not telling him. He had his own problems, everyone does. Tokyo would still fall. I’d cycle home after my shift, appreciating the quiet, making sense of those malicious thoughts on the battlefield, distorted shapes dancing through the gun smoke – becoming clear but still a mile away.
“Good day at work?” The voice of my mum, dad, girlfriend or brother. It wouldn’t matter, my answer was always a lie.
“Yeah, not bad thanks/I’m just gonna take a shower/Dinner smells good/We still going out tonight?” Fear bubbling in my stomach but my face stretched into a rictus grin – Marlon Brando on the outside, but inside, absorbing all the fears of the world like a black sponge.

I regret not telling certain friends and family. In the early days it wasn’t an option because I feared I was a lunatic, but when my OCD was diagnosed, I think I should have let another handful through the gates into my secret world. Certainly explained in more detail to those that I did tell. I guess I was unjustly embarrassed; it was easier to play a part in a mainstream movie than stand out in an avant-garde feature.
In this sense I believe I’m a good actor, because so many of my friends and acquaintances would have bet a month’s wages that I was the furthest someone could be from suffering a mental illness. And it goes the other way – I wonder how many of my friends are writhing in silence in the shadows of their own demons, whether its depression, or addiction, fear and loathing. How good an actor are they? And its not just on an epic-movie scale, once in a while its a twenty second scene as a walk on part in a play, a simple smile and nod to the shop assistant, or a thank-you to the bar-tender when inside, the world is falling apart.
Yan Baskets isn’t my real name, so I’m still doing it.

Ironic that on my trip to India, I was approached on the streets of Mumbai and offered to work as an extra in a Bollywood film. I also did an advert and a trailer for a tv show with the same agency. I loved the experience, but in those days the Crow was a sledgehammer, it had taken all my effort just to get on the plane out there, and on the film set, when they asked me to come back the next day, I’d been under such ferocious attacks, was so tired and battle scarred, that I declined and went to Goa to stick my head in the sand instead. I travelled down to the western state with a young Dutch couple, and pretended to be OK as the crow ate me from the inside. I should have stayed on the film set and at least got paid to be someone else.

So polish that Oscar, I’ve already written my speech. I’d like to thank my mum and dad, and of course the Crow, whose absence would mean I wouldn’t have had to take up acting in the fucking first place.