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 fuelled 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 smoky room, banged into furniture like a clumsy slapstick villain, almost comical as I fought his army of gnawing beetles.

We ate, we smoked, we tipped vodka down our necks like it was putting out a fire in our bellies.  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.’

 

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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 until our stomachs threaten to explode 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 shawarma street vendors as they look right through me into Wednesday next week.  It can be as rough as sandpaper, its skin still scarred by the soviet hammer and 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.  Lewis Hamilton left behind in her wake.

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 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.  Let’s 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 a defunct nuclear bomb shelter; 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 a flat in Tbilisi, 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 chance of life in this vast universe.  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 on the wind.  However ill I get, however deep the Crow’s claws scratch, I will always try to 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 always the first of us on the plane.  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, a sense of worth hanging around me like a glowing aura.  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, whether it’s a seventy-two year old adventurer fighting cancer on the road, or a gap year student who shares the same slightly twisted sense of humour as me; 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 many things, 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 need to do, bastard crow, but I’m going to drag you all over the world by your scrawny neck if I can.  And I hope you despise every second of it.’

 

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, side-tracked 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 from last month 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 f*ck, 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 the 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 manoeuvring 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 television show, 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 bloody 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 – another 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 f*ck it’s in my mind and I’m not experiencing what those poor victims actually had to go through.  The Crow is an annoying fly next to a nail bomb attack, so I fought him with added vigour 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 depraved 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 and cartons of medicine, hours of reading, relentless trial and error.  During those laborious years my brain has been subjected to constant OCD attacks, long, cruel spikes thrust through me like javelins in a voodoo doll.  I’ve suffered heavy depression, 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 move.

Crow is white noise.  Crow is the dripping tap.  Crow is the host of desert islands discs offering only Marilyn Manson albums to choose between.  Crow is a single picture on my bedroom wall, painted by a psychopath – 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 f*cking machine gun, so how can I complain when children are getting blown up all over the world?

The Crow will have me head-butting the wall again, but I’m not head-butting it now so take that as a positive.  I can blow the 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 may 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.

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 blinding white explosions to light up the furthest corner in the darkest room.

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 flapping wings and gnashing pincers, forming a living cloud that hung over my head like a witches curse.  I spent a long time in concealed 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.  Little One wants to go to the Galápagos Islands, not cheap either but certainly not as cold.  I’m happy here at the moment, because the crow is high in the sky, a tiny pin prick in England’s gun-metal grey clouds.  Backpacking South America is another option.  I have hazy memories of travelling the continent several years ago.  It was a solo trip and I spent far too long wading waist-deep in the local vices – I tried to kill the crow but only stoked his fire.

Travelling with OCD, or mental health issues in any form is an uphill trek.  Mental illness and backpacking don’t fit together well, they’re 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 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 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 often 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 is dangerously close to snapping me in half, I enter this safe haven to catch my breath, to hide under the bedcovers in a secret place where the real world is dead or never existed at all.   Over the past few days, worrying over something so desperately, I visited these worlds to save me 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 fight records that I used to write down on paper – I still have them in a box in my parents garage.  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 charger.  Here I am Emperor Yan the Unscathed, civilising the barbarian horde, while in the real world I am staring at a wall, or a blank television screen in the corner of the room, or lying in a bed of course.

I’m lucky to have a pretty good imagination.  Sometimes, when the spikes are nailing me to the floor, or depression is smothering me with a wet blanket, although I struggle to function with a task as simple as walking to the shops, or leaving my dorm bed, or merely visiting friends, as long as I am lying down, eyes closed and still, I find it possible to gain breathing space with a jaunt to one of my far-away places.  An hour imagining invasions of distant solar systems creates the space to move away from the scattered minefields of Pure O.  It’s an O.C.Detour, if you like, or another weapon in the arsenal in my fight against the Crow, a tactic in my crusade for the Holy Grail – to find the chalice of reason and drink until the crow chokes on the sweet nectar and drowns in my stomach.

‘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.