JUST ENOUGH EDUCATION TO SURVIVE

I wake up several years ago.  Immediately I feel a weight upon my body, a pillow over my face.  There is a tingle in the back of my mind.  Something looms in my consciousness, a struggle from the night before that I don’t yet remember but know that is there – an intrusive thought knocking at a door, or twitching at the foot of the bed like a dog stirring from a deep sleep.  Thirty seconds tick by. Dragging on my socks, memory stabs me in the back and I’m sucked into a whirlpool.

Messing around with my friend we walk through the school gates.  Keeping the gnashing thoughts at bay, at least until my first lesson, where I’ll stare into my textbook, pretending to work, but instead, concentrating on trying to dismiss these absurd ideas.  That first lesson is maths.  How I hate f*cking numbers, always having to recount and ‘make sure’ and ‘did I carry the three over?’  It’s a minefield, so I don’t even try these days.  Just sit at the back of the class, dwelling on jumbled thoughts.

I fingered a girl six months ago.  A rumour began that last year she slept with a guy who was HIV Positive.  I’ve convinced myself I bit my nails after the event and now I have the virus.  I don’t yet realise that the fear is nonsensical, but that won’t be for another four years when I’ll ring the National AIDS helpline and they’ll tell me that the virus doesn’t work like that – it would be near impossible for me to have contracted the disease.  But that is in the future, at the moment I think I’m going to catch a cold that will kill me in the next few months.  In those days there’s no Google for me to check how the virus is spread.  Just that f*cking leaflet posted through the front door.  ‘Don’t die of ignorance,’ it stated in bold letters.

I ritualise in my head, although I don’t know that’s what I’m doing yet.  I won’t find out that I have OCD for over ten years. The younger Yan Baskets thinks that everyone ruminates as much as I do – that they just deal with it better.  I manage to push ‘Death by AIDS’ into a dark room somewhere in the back of my mind. I get three or four minutes respite. Even manage to look forward to an event at the weekend – for a hundred and eighty tranquil seconds.  And then a pupil in the year above passes by the window. He glances in, eyes loitering on mine for no more than a second. But that’s all it takes. At first, I think he just doesn’t like me. Then I convince myself he wants to kick me in the face.  Eventually, by tea-time, in front of the TV, I’ll be one hundred percent sure that he wants to slit my throat, slaughtering my family as a side note.

Later that night, touching the small red Bible on my bedside table, I find a peace of mind that may see me through to tomorrow morning.  But it has come at a cost. It takes me three-quarters of an hour to appease my inner demon, tapping the cover of the Bible, mumbling words to God, picturing a blinding white light that is never quite white enough.  I turn to face the wall, trying not to think about AIDS.

Did I sleep that night?  Yes, I did. I was ruminating and ritualising from the moment I awoke, to the moment I withdrew my hand from the Bible and closed my eyes, so yes, I was shattered and I slept.

My alarm buzzes beside me…

I wake up.  Immediately I feel a weight upon my body, a pillow over my face.  There is a tingle in the back of my mind. An intrusive thought from last night, one that I don’t yet remember but I know that it’s there.  Thirty seconds later, as I’m dragging on my socks, memory stabs me in the back and I’m sucked into a whirlpool.

I don’t know how I got through those school years.  I learned next to nothing, barely enough education to survive.  But I survived, I’m still here, and if I got through it, so can anybody.  Because I’m not special like the posts on Instagram tell me.

Crow perches on my shoulder and nibbles my ear.  “Look, everyone, Yan has a mental illness.” I try to brush him away.  “Keep going, Yan. You’re brilliant. You’re sooooo strooooong. You’re amazing because it’s been written on a post-it note, stuck to a fridge and plastered all over social media.”  He cackles and sh*ts on my neck.

No, I’m really not.

I know I’m no less of a person for suffering from a mental illness, but it doesn’t make me a hero either.  All life is awesome. We’re on a rock spinning through space! Yes, I’m amazing, but so is a tapeworm. Am I special for suffering like this?  I haven’t cured cancer. I haven’t sacrificed an arm saving the human race. I don’t even play a musical instrument. I suffer and live with extreme OCD and depression, but I don’t think that makes me awesome.  If becoming awesome is simply not killing yourself then I think we need to raise the bar.

Sometimes we need a few messages saying that it’s OK to be average, that fighting for mediocrity is fine.  There are a lot of people suffering from mental health issues who are horrible b*stards, and it has nothing to do with their illness.  If Jimmy Saville had suffered from a mental illness, and maybe he did, he’d still have died an abhorrent beast. “You’re bi-polar, Jim,” sings Crow.  “You’re a winner!”

I’m not a bad person but am I great?  Cynical as it may sound, I find it condescending when I’m told that I am.  You don’t f*cking know me.  I want to say, “Yeah, I’m in torment, but that doesn’t make me a better person.”  I guess I’m tougher than a lot of people think because of my internal battle, but what are my other options?  Slip a noose around my neck?

Having said that, embracing social media, reading the hardships of fellow sufferers on Twitter and Instagram confirmed that I am not battling this alone.  It made me feel part of a tribe. But peel back the post-it note and you notice the smear on the fridge door. Telling ourselves we are OK is not always the best option. Sometimes it’s better to say, “Of course I’m not going to give in but I’m still F**KED!”

“It’s pathetic,” says Crow.  And the danger is, although extreme, he could be ‘a little bit’ right.  Yes, his belly is full of lies, but he once told me that someone wanted to do me harm, and the next time I saw that person, the psycho punched me in the face.

Although, thinking about it, I probably deserved it.

“You’re being paranoid,” I had chanted to the gaunt face avoiding shadows in the mirror.

“I told you he was gonna hurt you,” said Crow.

I wasn’t dismembered with an axe, but my fear was correct up to a point.  Two days earlier I’d read on a post-it note someone declaring that everything OCD says is a lie.

“But I’ve told you the truth before, Yan,” whispers Crow.  “I mix my lies with semi-truths. It’s the beauty of OCD. One percent is all it takes.  You listen to a thousand slurs, and have to accept them all!”

“Or tell them all to f**k off!” says a frustrated voice at the back of my mind.  Exactly. Sometimes bad stuff will happen and guess what, we’ve just got to roll with it.  Not deny it, or worry about if it’s the truth or not.  Stick a post on Instagram and tell the world you’ll deal with it.  

Crow is the reflection distorted in the puddle.  The figure spreading disinformation from the shadows.  But telling me everything it says is a lie, is itself dishonest.  That’s why OCD and other mental illnesses are such dangerous foes.  Because they match their hosts toe to toe. They are as clever as we are.  As dark as we can become.

I suffer from OCD, and it has moulded me and caused me great distress which in turn has led me down paths I should not have trodden.  It has influenced my decisions and opinions, propelled me into certain action I may not have necessarily taken had a Crow not been screaming murder in my ear.  It’s been tough to deal with, but am I great? I genuinely don’t think that I am. Maybe I could have been but we’ll never know. Am I fine with this? Yes. Because I’ve got other things to worry about.

Personally, when I’m fighting Crow, honesty is my sharpest sword.  He ruined my education, that is a cold, hard fact. But I’d probably have failed Maths anyway.

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A Fear Not an Urge

OCD is not just washing your hands.

OCD is ruminating on all the ways you can die.  All the ways you can kill your family.

OCD is not just protecting yourself from germs.

OCD is doubting your own sanity.  Losing yourself in the darkest corridors of your mind.

OCD is not just arranging the ornaments on the shelf.

OCD is living alongside your greatest fears.  The key to room 101.

 

I am caught in a tangle of loops.  The most recent was envisioning the humiliation of someone I dearly love.  I’m an OCD veteran, and I should have put up a better fight, yet however hard I tried, I just could not leave that terrible circle.  That f*cking abhorrent loop.

I’m back house-sitting in East Sussex and it’s good here, but good attracts the OCDemons – bad thoughts are insects, good times are a candle in the dark; pleasure is a magnet attracting metal teeth.

I listened to the lies and slander, the cawing of the crow.  I wasted my time ruminating; obsessing; throwing myself against walls.  I was hopelessly distressed, performing countless rituals in my head – I had fallen into the familiar trap and was trying to climb out the usual way.  I had temporarily accepted the twisted reasoning that if I thought it, I must obviously want to go through with it.  I had forgotten my own mantra – that it’s a fear, not an urge.

My stomach was in knots.  I was spiralling toward catatonia.  Then I got lucky with a mental compulsion, the ‘feeling’ snapping into place, and I managed to pull myself out.  I was thankful for my lucky break, yet disappointed that I had returned to such a gaping abyss. Smaller, bothersome thoughts continued to buzz around my brain – they’re always there – and that night I stared into the mirror, reminding myself that I would never be free of this suffering.  I’ve known that for a long time; there is only so much I can do to prepare.

“Indeed, Yan,” says the crow.  “A fireproof jacket won’t save you when you fall into the mouth of a volcano.”

The triggers are out there, landmines on every road, in every possible direction, waiting for my footfall like exploding snakes sleeping in the grass.  Immobilising me for the day, maybe two, longer if the thought resonates – digs deep.  I flashback to the bad old days, cringing at my slumped body on a messy bed, ritualising until I collapsed into a deep sleep.  Those spikes were long, stretching into the sky for a hundred miles. The crow was a Tyrannosaurus Rex with wings, swallowing months of my life with every bite.

But it isn’t always violent images or gloomy pessimism, fear of deadly diseases or paranoia with Little One.  Sometimes it can be the power of words, the fear of saying hurtful things to someone. How easy it would be to open my mouth and utter such hateful condemnation – poison dripping from my lips like yellow ooze.  We have the power to ruin someone’s day so easily. And I find it terrifying that the people we love are undeniably more vulnerable. I imagine familiar eyes glazed with tears as noxious words fly from my mouth like fighter jets.  “How could you say those things, Yan?” Like a surprise punch to the stomach from your grandad.

Recently, as one particularly nasty thought subsided, I thought that maybe I should tell the person beside me how close I was to spitting vile words into their face?  Prepare them for a future offensive. Should I warn everyone I love about the sickening comments I often think to shout? Tell them that if I ever open up with a barrage of oral abuse, don’t worry, I don’t actually mean it.  Should I Inform them all of the finer details of my OCD?

Maybe I should come clean, hand them the binoculars and point them to the crow in the sky.

I had a meltdown during my last week in Spain.  I was spinning in a loop, tired and frustrated, getting nowhere but back to the beginning.  I lost the evening but thought I’d seized the morning until something failed to click into place and I broke again.  Little One hadn’t deserved what she’d witnessed the previous evening, and that morning, as we returned from feeding the pig, I lost control again and ended up running from the car into the wilderness, screaming as I fled.  The attack didn’t last long, and I managed to pull myself together, but I was ashamed that I’d entertained the Crow like that. I had invited him into my kitchen, served him the flesh from my own thighs. My head hung low as I returned to the house.  Full of apologies and self-hate and a red face glowing like a dawn sun.

I’d been doing so well.

I guess I just want to reaffirm to people that I’m not lazy, incompetent or a waste of space.  Yes, physically I may be staring at the wall, but mentally I’m wrestling a f**king Grizzly Bear.  Fighting the bear is demanding, and although OCD doesn’t define me, it has certainly hustled me to this field in England.

 

OCD is not just looking for patterns, doing things in threes.

OCD is a constant battering of the senses.  Encouraging you to f*ck everything up.

OCD is not just checking that the front door is locked.

OCD is the worm that burrows deep into your bones.  An unscratchable itch in the back of your eye. Ceaseless in its pettiness.  Cruel in its intentions.

OCD is never “JUST” OCD.

Same Game, Different Rules

The world is too much.  The world is not enough.  I want everything in it. I need to let it all go.  Am I greedy to want it all and nothing at the same time?  Is this bitterness because I let life slip through my fingers?  What would I have become if I hadn’t been tossed and flung and sucked beneath the OCD ocean?

Maybe nothing.

It is certainly possible that I could have settled for much less.  Would I have even known what was out there? Have I seen more of the world BECAUSE of the leash around my neck?  Did I push myself further with the dragon on my back? Were those bitter pills the reason I eventually escaped the smoking industrial estates?  Of course, I’ll never know, only that the multiverse is full of Yan Baskets festering at the end of a factory line.

I suppose it doesn’t matter.  I’m here, you’re over there, what has already happened is floating further down the river.  We’ve just lost some of our potential, the what-could-have-beens leaking out of our pockets.  In twenty years time I may regret what I didn’t do today, and depending on where I am in twenty years, I guess that’s inevitable.

I don’t believe in a higher supernatural power, life is not a gift from God, but I believe we are lucky to be here nonetheless.  Out of all those millions of sperm cells, the chance for ‘our’ conception is a mixture of a million lucky breaks, and like great comedy, the perfect timing.  Yet I must never forget this weight in my bones, this cawing crow. Not to use it as an excuse, but as a valid reason that some things were inevitably made more difficult.  Just because something is invisible doesn’t mean it’s not there. You can’t see the wind, only the leaning trees and tumbling leaves – the path it batters.  Yet a strong wind can knock down a forest, and like the wind, a mental illness breaks and shatters and can easily push us off the edge of the world.  Sometimes I want to stand up and turn to the people looking out of their windows and shout, “I’m over here and bending like this because the wind is blowing me this way.”

A woman beckons me over, inviting me into her house.

A woman beckons me over, inviting me into the room.

“I can’t get there,” I yell.  “The wind is too strong!” But I don’t think she would hear me.  Simply shake her head and turn to the person beside her, who would glance up, put his arm around her shoulders and lead her further into the room.

“It’s the wind,” I say, but my words are carried away into the sky.

But I know what I’ve suffered.  What I’ve been through. The acid in my belly.  I know the full force of the wind even if others do not.  And that’s all that matters.

Suffering, one way or another, is part of life, and life isn’t fair –  it’s a mentally unhealthy universe. And that’s good to know, but knowing doesn’t change the rules.

I could be living under a bridge, or dead in the ground, or yes, I concede, a multi-billionaire drinking cocktails on a yacht.

OCD AWAY DAYS – EL CUERVO and OTHER ANIMALS

I’ve been awake for less than an hour and I’m tossing a bucket of corn over a stone wall to feed a ravenous pig.  Three rams peer over a crooked fence, twisted horns like the Devil’s fingers – they’re next in line to receive breakfast.

“Morning, friends,” I holler over the howling wind.  But it should really be ‘Buenos Dias, amigos,’ as I’m actually in Spain – or Catalan if you want to get political.  We’re house-sitting again, but this time we have four horses, three rams, a pig, and a large German Shepherd to keep alive.

The last three months moved fast.  Seems like I blinked and suddenly I’m here, in Catalan, filling the three amigos’ trough with water.

All going well, we should be returning to the house in East Sussex in February, but first, we have the small task of staying alive in Spain.  Could be tougher than it sounds, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

I reminisce about that house on a hill in such a picturesque part of England.  I remember the walk through the woods to reach the village pub, the savage garden that needed taming, and then the drive back home for Christmas; Crow telling me to jump out of the car as it sped along the motorway – I pictured losing my face on the asphalt a hundred and one times.  A handful of Christmas presents later and Little One and I were sleeping on the cold floor at Barcelona airport, waiting for the train ticket office to open – to catch a train to a town near the border with France, and make our way into the Spanish countryside to a converted mill house, with solar panels and a noisy electric generator – just in case.  We really are in the middle of nowhere again.

It’s a clear day if a little cold.  There is a bright blue sky above us, like the Mediterranean Sea on a beautiful, calm day.  I visualise the serotonin pouring into my brain but my mind is still in East Sussex, and our day trip to Beachy Head where Little One and I saw a poor woman on the edge of the crumbling cliff, behind her a team of psychologists, police officers and coast guards, attempting to talk her out of performing what would be her final act.  Maybe we had passed her in the street last week, or she’d served us a burger meal in a fast food restaurant, or jumped ahead of us at the supermarket check-out. So many people with demons on their minds – so many crows perched on hunched shoulders. A policeman tells us we have to detour from the path we’re walking, and we silently wish her well as we turn away.

My thoughts return to the here and now; I stride up a slight incline towards a stone barn and the three dishevelled rams, hoping that she didn’t jump.  Of course, Crow tells me that she did – then whispers that maybe I should take a leap from one of the mountains on the horizon.

“Shut your face, Crow.”  I throw a slice of alfalfa over that crooked fence.  The three rams lock horns. Sh*t, I must remember to separate their feed into three equal handfuls for this evenings meal.  One of them could lose an eye.

My gaze returns to the blue sky, the surrounding hills, the scattered rocks and the grunting pig feasting on the corn.  I should be more excited than this. To be staying where I am, in this renovated mill house on the side of a Spanish hill. I really feel that I’m starting to get over this traveling lark, although it’s taken a good few years to drip from my system.  Maybe I’m tired of running away. Perhaps I should stay and fight Crow on home soil? My first trip, a year backpacking around the world, seems like a lifetime ago. And it is a lifetime. Sixteen years and counting. Crow promised me I’d be dead by now.

On the one hand, it’s worrying that I’m not excited to be here.  On the other, I see it as a positive that I want to go back home. A black cloud begins to crawl across the distant Pyrenees mountain range; dark thoughts and the rumblings of a heavy stomach – depression is Nosferatu’s shadow creeping up the stairs.  Got to keep my mind busy, but not with anything that will trigger an attack. Above all, I want to keep my OCD at a healthy distance. Which would be floating harmlessly in the Balearic Sea if I had my way. Think I’m going to have a lot of time to think out here.

“You’re f****d,” says Crow.

“You’ve been saying that since I was nine,” I reply.

 

It’s the next day, and everything was going so well.  But I must always be vigilant because I’m typing this with a gash on the top of my head and my right temple swabbed and bandaged.  Antibiotics swim in my blood, and my left arm aches from a tetanus jab.

The dog we’re looking after bit me last night.  I was stroking him as usual, speaking to him calmly and telling him how lovely he was.  All of a sudden I had the jaws of a German Shepherd clamped around my head. I pulled away and he sank back down on his blanket.  I looked at Little One and saw the horror in her eyes. The right side of my face became warm. I gently touched my temple, and when I looked at my hand, blood dripped along my fingers.

We drove to the nearest hospital, where the staff was skilled and efficient – pleasant too.  They looked after me, gave me a jab and a prescription for antibiotics, then sent me on my way, back to the house in the Spanish hills.

“He’s going to attack you the moment you open the gate,” said Crow.

He didn’t.  He wanted to be stroked.

Of course, Crow keeps telling me that I have rabies now, or a mutated dog disease that eventually turns its human victims into the walking dead.  I’m mostly ignoring him, but it can be difficult at times, even though I’m used to his macabre, twisted logic. I know it could have been much worse, and somewhere in the multiverse, my entire face is digesting in a dog’s stomach.

I was worried that the horses would cause me the most stress but, so far, they’ve been trouble free.  They don’t really do much. Which is way better than trying to bite my face off. They walk around the field.  They eat alfalfa and two buckets a day of horse feed. I wonder what it would be like to be a horse and suffer depression and anxiety?  Pretty sh*t, I guess, no better than it is for the rest of us.

So that’s it for now.  We’re in Spain and we have to keep nine animals alive, plus ourselves.  It’s only for a month but the dog attack was on the third day. I hear him scratching at the door as I type.  What does he want? I lean over to let him in. What could possibly go wrong?

Please don’t answer that, Crow…

 

Battlegrounds – Owl Verus Crow

A few weeks ago I was at a combat reenactment.  The anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. Watching the actors clashing swords, I likened the event to my fight with OCD. On the one side – under the black pennant of the Crow, snarling like orcs and goblins – the mixed ranks of intrusive thoughts, paranoid delusions, false memories, compulsions, anxiety, and depression.  Facing them over a shield wall are the defenders of my sanity, the battered regiments of rational thought fighting under the flapping banner of the wise old owl.

Soldiers shake their fists into the sky; a horse neighs and a trumpet blows.

I imagined the weapons of the Crow army to be fierce and medieval – all spikes and pikes – but struggled to picture the arms of the defending force.  How and with what do I fight back?

I used to take a high dosage of Clomipramine and a lesser measure of Risperidone, but I found that it interfered too much with my personality.  Mentally and physically I was like a floating ghost, not to mention the effects it had on my sex drive. I didn’t fancy living the rest of my life as a eunuch, so decided to come off the tablets.  Of course, it wasn’t easy, and I tumbled into a pit of despair, but I survived.

I slowly built my own defences, brick by brick – most of the time I didn’t realise I was constructing a wall at all.  I was often crushed under the weight of my troubles, but I persevered, and my tolerance for OCD began to grow – like a snail climbing up a wall.

But what of my armoury? The weapons I took into the badlands?  I made a list. It looked quite hopeless on a scrap of paper. I’m certainly not suggesting anybody else use these tactics, and I’m not sure any of it would have helped me in the dark ages of my mental health, but here it is anyway:

Giving My Disorder A Face: It may not be wise for someone suffering from mental illness to give their problems a personality, a face, but it worked for me.  I had a psychologist once tell me, in her opinion, that it wasn’t a good idea, but she ultimately went on to say that it was up to me, and if it helped, then it was OK.  So a Goblin was born, transforming into the Crow, occasionally becoming a swarm of flies or an ominous cloud. Giving my OCD a face enabled me to look it in the eye and challenge it.  I feel that I know my enemy a little better now.

The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword: I was told to write my issues down on paper; I was told to NEVER record my intrusive thoughts anywhere, EVER!  I tried both tactics and learned that the former works better for me. It helps to settle my attention when I can see my faulty thinking in black and white.  Now, when I’m struggling to make sense of the spikes, I scribble them down or punch them into the notebook on my mobile phone. I focus better on the written word, losing where I am when relying on memory alone, regularly misplacing the details of what it is I’m thinking about.  It initiates confusion, and I end up remembering other issues or creating bogus problems to deal with.

I use shorthand or cryptic form, clues only I can decipher, security against my words falling on the wrong eyes.

Fighting The Fear: Every day Crow whispers murder in my ear.  But the day I realised it was fear and not an urge was a stride in a positive direction.  Crow doesn’t want me to be happy, so describes situations that I dread the most. Many people get these thoughts – OCD sufferers struggle to shake them off.

One of my first fears was to bite off the ends of the guns of my plastic toy soldiers.  Of course, this was never a matter of life or death or any great horror, so I would do it, and spit the bits of plastic into the bin.  When the fears became much darker, I’d say to myself, “No way, Yan, I’m not doing that…it’ll kill me, or him, or her,” or whatever it was presenting itself in my mind.

“But you ruined your toy soldiers,” came the voice from within.  “And if you did that, then you’ll do this. Go on, Yan, kick her in the shins.  What do you think her expression will be when she realises that you’re not going to stop?”

I couldn’t think of anything else.

“You chewed the plastic with your teeth, Yan.  You couldn’t help yourself. This is the next level.  It’s inevitable!

The only way to get the image out of my head was to mentally ritualise, to think about every bone-crunching blow.  It could take days, weeks if it was a deep spike, obsessing over the same gruesome action until I thought I could smell the violence in the room.

I use this tactic today, but if the horror is not out of my head after a few minutes, I’ll focus on the consequences.  What would happen after the event?

‘He or she would die horribly, and I would go to jail, or kill myself.’  I picture myself plunging off a cliff, and continue with my day.

Unfortunately, when I think that I’ve got an incurable illness, or that someone wants to do me harm, or a myriad of similar delusions, I cannot turn my back so easily, and it may take weeks to distance myself from the obsession.  I keep telling myself what it is, an obsessional thought and hope that a necessary part of me listens, or that other tactics reinforce my waning rationality. When the obsession of a fatal disease refuses to budge, then my next step is…

Coming To Terms With Death:  Yep, that’s right, I’m going to die, and so is everybody else in the world.  Some peacefully, others more brutally – annihilation is inevitable, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  I still fear death, but not as much as I once did. I recall many compulsions attempting to keep the world alive.  But people continued to die, and these days I recognise that tapping my forehead mumbling a mantra doesn’t stall The Reaper.  My rituals never saved a single soul, but they have certainly killed many hours.

Routines I performed over the years to stop cancer or AIDS vary from imagining blinding white lights to tapping my fingers on my forehead to walking back and forth through doorways.  But nobody lives forever, and as soon as I came to terms with this indisputable fact, I felt better.

Five hundred years ago, my chances of dying were a lot larger than today.  Smallpox; malnutrition; butchered by a warrior’s axe fighting a barbaric war across Europe.  Death by Cholera at thirty-one? Not me. I was drinking rum in Ecuador with new friends from around the world.  I was lucky, I was born in an affluent country in affluent times. But nothing lasts forever.

Ditching God: I don’t believe in a God, or any supernatural force at all.  I believe there are things that science cannot yet explain, and maybe never will, but as far as the paranormal goes, I’m not convinced.  If you believe in a god yourself, whichever one it may be, then that’s your prerogative; I’m not telling you He or She doesn’t exist, simply that I don’t believe that they do.  You may suppose there are many gods, or you’re spiritual and hang a dream catcher over your bed, or you believe in fairies or ghosts or vampires in Eastern European castles. There are legions of supernatural ideologies to choose from – I hope they bring you joy or give you hope at the very least.  But they don’t for me, and admitting to myself that I didn’t believe in God was especially empowering. I no longer had to worry about eternity in Hell, touching my palms together in prayer a hundred times a day, ritualising until I burned with frustration at getting the words I was mumbling mixed up.  “Start again, Yan. Start again!”

More importantly, I concluded that my dark intrusive thoughts were not being judged after all, because there was no one there to judge them.

I fear that searching for God, or thinking that you’ve found Him, whilst suffering from OCD makes things far worse.  One minute I was telling myself that my compulsions were ridiculous – “Of course I needn’t walk through the doorway fifteen times,” the next I was on my knees begging forgiveness to an invisible entity that had supposedly created the Universe in six days – whose son could walk on water and cure leprosy with a click of his fingers.

So I ditched God and felt better for it.  If I go to Hell for not being convinced of something there is no proof of, then so be it.  I’ll not be bullied into believing something that genuinely doesn’t make any sense to me and only made me feel worse when I did submit to its dogma.  I don’t want to offend anyone or trigger an attack, but there are particular bigoted paragraphs in those ancient texts that are plainly offensive. I truly believe that leaving God has made me a better person.

The irony is that I still imagine an all encompassing light, (The Blinding,) that I use to quell an obsessional thought.  I believe the quest for this searing white light stems from growing up in a Christian country and is heavily influenced by the notion that white light is good and darkness and shadow are evil.

The Hurt Locker: These days I prefer to imagine hurting myself, instead of physically doing it as I have in the past.  I sometimes lay down, picturing Crusader knights chopping me up with medieval weapons – swords and axes and maces and flails and…you get my point.  Precise details of skin hacked open, bones crunched, organs pierced – a relentless attack on a terrible loop, over and over and over… As soon as the blade is withdrawn from my body I instantly heal and then the axe comes crashing down again, followed by the mace and the spear and whatever else I care to imagine.  I don’t know if it calms me down, or if it simply consumes the time that I would instead use for punching or cutting myself.

The Size Of The Universe:  The sheer scale of the cosmos, although terrifying – and let’s face it, unimaginable, gives me strength.  I believe that Earth is nothing but a grain of sand, and therefore everything that exists upon it is infinitesimal to the rest of the Universe – chaos theory aside of course; remember those butterflies?

What people think of me, what they say, what I fear will happen – none of it matters.  I’m an ant struggling up a hill, fumbling with a leaf. Other ants cause a fuss, their antipathy towards me is palpable.  Suddenly the world is cast in shadow…and thirteen ants are crushed under the sole of a boot.

We are seven and a half billion ants, and I think that it helps to know it.

Spikes Are Infinite: They keep coming, falling from above like acid rain, or rising from the ground like hands of the undead.  I hope that each one will be the last, but the spikes are infinite, and coming to terms with this had a positive reaction.  Sometimes the number of intrusive thoughts flapping in my head becomes so great that the factory inside me spewing out all the negativity shuts down.  The wise owl inside me pulls the ‘stop’ lever and suddenly I’m in the eye of the storm, three cows and a tractor spiraling around me. “There are just too many thoughts; this is ridiculous,” says the owl, and throws his spreadsheets onto the floor.

I’ve created OCD walls that actually protect me.

These days, ninety-five percent of my ritualisation is in my head, which can be difficult to walk away from.  I’m forever going over words, phrases, and situations in my mind, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said to myself, “This will be the last spike!” while cracking my knuckles and maintaining the current compulsion.

Don’t be fooled, there is no such thing as one more spike.  It’s another OCD lie.

Use The Blues: Memories of opportunities wrecked by OCD burst into my head like fireworks exploding in the night sky.  It puts a bad taste in my mouth, like sucking on a metal spoon. But I try to use these bitter pills to my own advantage.  I use them to propel me forward, to continue in my quest to get more out of life – urging me on like a terrible spur in the belly of a horse.  I have missed so much that I have nothing left to lose.

Alcohol And Other Drugs: I’m not condoning it, and certainly not the harder stuff that I took in my younger years – some of the things I snorted and swallowed made my OCD a hell of a lot worse on the night, and for a long while afterward.  L.S.D fried my brain, Cocaine turned me into a paranoid ghoul. Alcohol created a monster, and I’ve hurt more than a few bones in booze-fuelled skirmishes – with walls and windows as well as with people, and thank God (irony), I was the one that came off worse.  It has to be controlled because too much alcohol can prove fatal for someone suffering intense mental stress. The right amount can chase away the Crow until morning, one too many and he’s screaming in my face. Know your limits.

Marijuana, however, helps me to relax, because it calmly carries me away from the here and now.  It dilutes the black OCD mist, but I totally recognise the negatives too.  It took me a long time to control my thoughts under the influence of marijuana.  It’s a balancing act, and I smoke far less than I ever did. It’s not for everyone.

I Can Leave When I Want: This sounds extreme, but it’s the truth.  If things ever got TOO much, then I can leave this place in an instant.  I have complete control. And it is this control that helps calm me down. I can leave whenever I choose, so why go now?  I said in my last entry that finishing it all would be the final full stop, but trust me, I’m not planning my last chapter, let alone my final word – I’m hoping that I’ve barely started the second half of the book!  I’m NEVER going to do it, but when I’m having a torturous day, I tell myself that I could. I don’t know why, but it helps to know that I have control.

 

That’s all I could think of today.  There may be more, or some of these may not actually be helping me at all, therefore there should be less.  After all these years, I’m still not sure how it all works.

It’s funny, but the thought I’m having now is deleting every word that I’ve written today.  And then emptying my computer trash file.

I’m making another copy.

F**K OFF, CROW!

The Lip of the Void

I think I’ve started to enjoy being awake more than being asleep for the first time in my life.  I’m not one hundred percent sure but I’ll take this ambiguity over the certainty that I’d prefer to spend my time unconscious under a duvet – although I’m still fiercely bitter that intrusive thoughts and the knock-on effects destroyed my lust for life, and crushed all my experiences in it.  I remind myself how OCD is misrepresented in the media and shake a fist to the sky. Depression and anxiety too. No doubt every aspect of mental health. I wish they could have seen me standing at the edge of that black void.

It’s still there, with three stooped figures sitting on the verge of that empty pit, inviting me to join them with ill-fated, twitching gestures.  These days I smile at their pathetic attempts to draw me in – like three bloated sirens tempting sailors into the swirling currents with nothing but their toothy grins.  My waking hours are still difficult. But manageable now.

A few days ago, driving down the narrow country lane that connects the house to the main road, Little One had to hit the brakes to avoid a herd of deer that emerged from the bushes.  They bounded across the road, scrambling up the opposite embankment – all except one, who struggled to climb the wooded slope. The toiling deer panicked, opting instead for the easier route up the winding road.  She retreated around the corner. As we crawled down the lane, Little One came to another abrupt stop as the deer reappeared, hurtling towards the front of our car. A dog – husky looking and fierce – was giving chase.  There ensued a wild waltz of scampering hooves and twisting bodies. We observed the macabre ballet from the car, and when the impromptu hunt took the animals back up the country lane, we continued our journey to town. As we rounded the bend we saw that the dance was reaching its bloody climax.

Again, we drew the car to a halt, watching the dog pin the deer to the ground by its throat.  It was a savage moment, and if I ever needed reminding of the brutality of life, this would do it.  Little One blasted the car horn, startling the dog, ceasing it’s assault long enough for the apologetic owner to catch up, puffing and panting, and drag it, jaws salivating, from the doomed animal.  I went away thinking how lucky I was that I wasn’t that deer. The blessing soon replaced with a profound sadness that an animal had been mauled close to death in front of me.

At that moment, somewhere in the world, someone fell awkwardly and broke their neck.  I didn’t see it, but averages tell me that it happened. That people fall and break their necks every day. I know I shouldn’t have dwelled on it – but I did.  My head was full of images of a dead deer and a dying man at the foot of the stairs. Why can’t I think of rainbows over rolling meadows? I mused. Another question spawned in my mind.

Is life worth this misery?

Yes, life is tough, and I can leave at any moment, but it would be my final full stop, so why go now?

To kill a crow?

He can wait.

To stop the bad thoughts shredding my mind?

As I’ve just said, it can be the time of my choosing – and I don’t want to miss anything while I’m still able to function.

I turned up the stereo.

Onto brighter skies, and we spent an afternoon at the local pub.  We arrived at happy hour and the local ale calmed my nerves – we had a great time.  Yes, OCD knocked, but I didn’t let her in. In the bathroom mirror, I noticed my personal gorgon wiggling her hips and leering, tempting me to look at her head of writhing snakes.

“What are those shadows on your face?” she hissed.  “Is it cancer or an omen of approaching trouble, apocalyptic horses on the horizon?”

I turned away and washed my hands in the sink.  Nice try, but no cigar. I shut the door and ordered another drink – you’ve got to make the most of a happy hour in this part of the world.

That evening, The Crimson Knight, my violent trumpeter of self-harm, made one of his regular appearances, but I knocked him off his horse with a blank refusal to entertain him for any more than that first fleeting second.  He writhed on the ground, cursing.

I fell asleep quickly, with good thoughts on my mind.

Crow continues to know everything I think, counting my entire hand, every card that I draw from the pack.  But I can fight back, and today, when he blew a cloud of black smoke into my face, I looked over the surrounding hills, inhaled the cloud and blew it back out.

I’m still not jumping into the black void.  Three figures turned their heads in disgust while I fought to appreciate the things that I have.  The cloud didn’t disperse but I was able to waft it away. Crow flew into a tree and knocked himself out.

I’ve been busying myself too, working in the garden of the house we’re living in and also quite a lot of freelance writing.  The remaining hours are spent sipping a cold can of beer while relaxing in the lush countryside. Another reason I’m never going to choose to enter that void.  There are no rolling hills inside that black pit. Just a whole lot of nothing.

Today we’re off for a walk through the woods, revisiting the local pub.  A few more pints of the local ale perhaps – chemical warfare against the thundering divisions of OCD tanks.  There is often a bottle of vodka in the fridge too. It probably isn’t ideal but what is? A glass of wine, a drag on a joint, hypnotherapy, yoga, hyperventilating techniques, cutting myself, headbutting walls, psychotherapy, CBT, EMDR, ERP therapy?  The list is long and flaps about in the wind like a flag at half mast. Take your pick, choose your weapon but please don’t judge one another on what we sleep with under our pillows.

The fact that I’m going for a walk through the woods today is a testament to the battle I’m surviving.  Because even that would have been a struggle a few years ago. Flashback to a room in Rajasthan, India, keeled over my bed and sweating as the world rolled by my window, hunger pains gnawing at my stomach, intrusive thoughts battering the inside of my head.  Finally forcing myself outside for some street food, head looking down, eyes stinging with sweat that poured down my face. I can’t go on, I thought, stumbling past a scrawny cow, children playing cricket with crushed up plastic bags. But I did go on, and I’m glad that I never gave up.  Because I’m sweating a little less these days.

It can get better ladies and gentlemen.  I don’t know how but it just does. Maybe one day it will disappear altogether.  The whole gang exploding in a puff of pink smoke: The Crow, the Gorgon and that f*cking Crimson Knight – anxiety and depression gaining mass (the yellow river, and the black gas,) spinning in a circle and getting sucked into that void.  I strive to never again think of that blackness until old age dangles me over its wispy lip.

The idea will continue to haunt me, but I think it’s worth sticking around for a chance to see my demons buried six feet in the ground.  Before they bury me.

A HOLE IN THE SKY

I don’t exclusively visualise my OCD as that b*stard crow.  Last month my OCD felt like a wall crawling with ants; recently it’s been a black cloud the size of a continent, drifting over a world in a corner of a cosmos created somewhere within the sparking wires of my mind.

I had been suffering violent intrusive thoughts for a long stretch of time.  But it wasn’t only physical harm that terrorised my world; thoughts about injuring people with abhorrent, hurtful words constantly threatened to spill from my mouth, to wash away those that I love like village huts in the path of a tsunami.  I imagined whispering such dreadful things, blowing hell into a loved one’s ears, remarks to wound and scar for life. And then one morning I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the bathroom mirror, and I noticed an abrasion on my skin.

“Here I come!” shrieked the Crow, and I lost two days ruminating over what that blemish could mean.  Of course, when the crow smells fear, he becomes a great white shark. Cancer was the word of the week.  Cancer in my stomach, cancer on my skin, cancer in my liver, my brain, my blood. The cloud was above that place in my mind where every time I looked into that cursed mirror, or felt a bruise on my flesh, or suffered a thumping headache, I imagined it was the beginning of the end of my life.

I glared at my sombre reflection in a television screen.  I imagined a well-groomed man, a smile on his face like a knife slash in pigskin, pointing to a weather map in a familiar television studio.  A world spun gently on its axis, as a dark shadow crept slowly across the globe like a noxious gas.

“This afternoon the cloud continues to cover most of the north-western continent,” he said through that wicked smile – cracking across his face like a splitting sheet of ice.

My OCD can manifest itself as violent images, false memories, a need for symmetry and fear of contamination.  But for two weeks my OCD cloud had cast a shadow over a patch of land that has been storm free for quite a while.

It became an old man coughing up blood in a hospital waiting room.  In five days I convinced myself I was going to die of three or four different cancers.  I rang health lines and visited the doctors, and ‘Little One’ had to go for blood tests too (for different reasons) and of course, Crow convinced me of the worst possible outcome, and I became a twitching mess at the bottom of a deep black sea, as well as that tired old man in slippers, shuffling down infinite corridors.

Urges to ritualise, to keep those germs away, flashed past the window like cars on a motorway fast-lane.  Would picturing a blinding white light wash away my medical fears? Of course not, Yan. But I did it anyway.

I fought against some intrusive thoughts, I capitulated to others – on my knees and following orders over the trench wall like a frontline soldier.

The doctor told me I was ok.

The doctor told ‘Little One’ that she was ok.

I thought that meant that the world was going to be fine, at least for the time being.

And then we got a phone call in the middle of the night.

I’m not going into too much detail but after three days at the hospital, we lost someone very close to us.

Irrational compulsions hadn’t saved the day.  We lost a piece of the world. And I think the crow knew that under such stressful circumstances he wasn’t even on the horizon.

I couldn’t see him. The world was too black.

I couldn’t hear him.  The world was too loud.

I saw people I love break down in tears, and that wrenched me across the floor, crashing me into walls.

One evening, while pacing across the hospital waiting room, a shadow crept across a familiar, well-trodden field in a corner of my mind.  It was a cloud, black like a bucket of coal.

“What are you going to do, cloud?  Rain on me? I’ve just come from the Critical Care Unit.  Your threats are useless!”

A thought rolled across my mind’s eye, a black plastic bag tumbling on a breeze – could compulsive visualisation change this situation?

I thought of Crow.  “Shall I look at a spot on the back of a chair and think of a brilliant white light?”

I glared at a picture on the wall – a village church in a field.  “Should I blink at the image, Crow? Is that fair trade for a miracle?  Or is there anything else I should worry about? Can I save myself from incurable illness by repeating certain words in my head?  But what is it you can actually do right now? Send me to Hell? I’m already here, Crow.”

Black feathers stirred in distant skies.

“You can stop the situation,” I imagined him taunting.

I broke once.  I almost upheld a policy of zero tolerance, but not quite.  And it didn’t help. The news was bad.

I’m home now.  The OCD cloud is floating over other fields, replaced however by a great sadness.  Not a fog but a vast hole in the sky.

“It’s not known when the storm will return,” says the neatly dressed weatherman with the sinister smile.  He points to the video map projected over his shoulder, but the world spins in semi-darkness. “However, anomalies continue to blot out the sun.”

I purposely picture him ravished by raptor dinosaurs.

Crow has been quiet all day.  I imagine him sleeping in a nest of snakes.

I know he’ll be back.  But today I’m so numb I don’t think there’s an opening for one of those OCD ants crawling up the wall, let alone a mischievous crow with nuisance on his mind.

Yes, I thought I was going to die from a horrendous disease.

I ritualised and I lived.

But someone I loved did die from a medical condition.

I only had a couple of OCD attacks, so should I have ritualised more than I did?  Of course not, but somewhere down the line, I’m expecting Crow to tell me that I should have.

Terrible things will happen, whether you surrender to your compulsions or not.  It can be hard to convince ourselves that we have no control over certain things – over most things, in fact.

The Crow will be flying my way soon.

I know he’s coming.

And I’ll be waiting.

THE ANXIETY SOCIETY: A COMRADE’S TALE

I want to go shopping.  I need to go shopping. My shoes are on and I’ve got my coat in my hand.   An old man shuffles past the window.

I look into the hallway mirror.  “For f**k’s sake, Yan. Get out there.”  My eyes are sad; my shoulders are slumped like my anxiety has mass, hanging down my back and dragging.

So I open the door, slipping into my coat as I stride through the gate.  A memory of Uncle Jack whispers in my ear. “Confidence is looking the dragon in its eyes, Yan. It doesn’t matter that you’re scared.  Everybody gets scared sometimes.”

My bane is a double-headed axe – cruel, intrusive thoughts and heavy depression.  If Crow is my OCD, constantly in my skies, then my anxiety is a jack-in-a-box, wound up and tense, seven days or seven seconds away from leaping out and pouncing. 123456712345671234567…

When she comes she casts a vast shadow, raking her nails down a blackboard.  “The whole world is watching, Mr. Baskets. And they’re not impressed.”

I look into the hallway mirror.  At those shadows under my eyes.

“I’m fine,” I whisper, more in hope than confirmation.

“No, you’re not, you’re useless,” sniggers Crow.

“I’ve done OK with the hand I’ve been dealt.”  I cringe inside; how I hate those cliches.

“This is not a game of cards, Yan.”

“I know, it’s a metaphor.”

“OK, so if life’s a game of poker, you should have bluffed.”

“I bluff every day.”

“Shoulda’ tried harder, Yan my man!”

“But you’re a worthy opponent.”

“I cheat!” shouts Crow, and pulls out the ace of clubs from his beneath his wings.  “You have to have a ruthless streak to succeed in life. Or be extremely lucky. And you’re neither.”

Whatever I do or say, it’s never enough; Crow tells me that I’m ugly and weak and too thin and too fat and not funny and too silly and people are watching me and they know I’m useless and I know this is stupid but Crow’s claws are wringing out my nerves like a wet tea towel.

I get hot and angry, frustrated at my weakness.  I often head back home before a task is over, slump into a chair and wish I was asleep in a room in a castle underground.  Lock the doors and crawl into the cellar, head in my hands, listening to that jack in the box swinging on its springs – devious in the candlelight.

I recently went to a local music festival, and when I spoke with people I knew in the crowd, I saw myself from above – a crow’s-eye view – hands gesticulating, fake laughs in fits and spurts – like the crack of sniper-fire in the mountains.  Did those people suspect I was burning up inside? The bead of sweat running down my cheek was a subtle clue, but they were looking right through me.

“I think he was on drugs,” I imagined them saying when I lost myself in the throng.  Head looking down, constantly rethinking, avoiding eye contact, scalp itching like it was on fire.  Why did I come here? Because if I didn’t do these things, what would be the point? I’ve already wasted a lifetime in bed or hiding in plain sight on the couch.  “I’ve got a headache, I think I’ll stay at home today.”

I got drunk at the festival, and the evening was easier to negotiate, but I often ask myself, “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Crow hops into my knee, but I already know the answer before he spits his poison onto my lap.

“I could die!” I snap.  “Or at least set in motion the events that would lead to my death.”

Crow nods his head in agreement.

“So fuck it! Let’s go.  I’ve already put in motion the first steps.  It’s the butterfly effect.” Every decision I make nudges me closer to my dying breath.  Just sitting here on the couch is a decision in itself. The fact that I’m here and not over there is proof of a chosen path.  And whichever path we choose leads to our inevitable extinction. Certain decisions may enable us to live longer, but relative to the age of the universe, it is infinitesimal.  The final destination is the same for everyone on the planet, it’s just how we choose to get there.

So I choose to venture outside and sweat it out some days, whereas other times I lay in bed and lose myself in a loop of thought.  There are days when I force myself out, mumbling under my breath that I’m going to die anyway so it may as well be today, in the local supermarket, squeezing avocados or filling my bags at the cash register.   I admit this may not seem ideal, but it does get me out of the house. It has enabled me to travel across the world, daydreaming of my demise on a dusty bus through Honduras, looking at my reflection in a dirty window, uttering ‘f**k it,’ under my breath, or slumped in the back of a crowded Toyota Hilux in Mauritania, scrutinised by strangers, as it grinds across the Sahara desert in the dead of night – it’s hard to explain the sickness I feel in my stomach when I’m on these trips.  I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.

In a thousand years, we’ll all be dead, anyway, and that goes for you too, Crow.

“LET’S KILL ALL THE FISH!”

For someone suffering from OCD, achieving anything is tough.  The simplest task becomes a sheer concrete wall. Dread curdles in your stomach like spoiled milk – the mere thought of leaving the house uses all your energy.  The same goes for depression; the black dog sinks its fangs into your calf, snarling, head shaking from side to side, dragging you down to the ground like a convict in spotlights.  I look at my OCD as a crow, but I’ve heard others describe their own demon as a goblin, a monkey, a swarm of flies. I’ve been scolded by a psychologist for giving OCD a face but, like I told the doctor at the time, it helps me to fight it, and you don’t suffer with it, so thanks for the advice but…

Either way, mental illness is a bag of lead ingots, slung across your back.

“Ok,” says the Crow, with mischief on his mind.  “Let’s see how far up the wall you can get today!”

So I fight it.

But it’s tough to fight an opponent who knows your every move. It’s like playing poker with yourself and trying to bluff your hand.

“You’re wasting your life, make a decision and do something,” some might say.

I am doing something, I tell them. I’m wrestling an electric eel every second of every day. The fact that I’m not banging my head against that concrete wall is a huge achievement for me.

They say they understand, but I don’t think ‘THEY’ actually do.  And I don’t blame them, because I don’t know much about the other hundred thousand illnesses and disorders that I don’t suffer from. In fact, there are legions of diseases out there, killing people every day, that I don’t even know exist. It doesn’t mean I disrespect those afflicted by them, the victims piling up by the door.

I read many tweets, Facebook messages and social media comments jovially describing OCD as an eccentric distraction. “I’m so OCD because I group all my clothes by colour,” wrote a former work colleague on his Facebook wall last year. Huddled under the bed sheets, I yelled my disdain but soon went back to fighting my own irrational thoughts before they ruined another day for me.  There was no need to get aggressive with him for an off-the-cuff comment, to troll him and vilify him and bite and scratch and kick him into a corner; it wouldn’t help my condition one bit. If you want a fight, then take on ISIS, or the bully at work, or the drunk causing aggro at the bar.

I hear people complain, “They don’t understand my condition.” Well educate them, and if they still don’t agree, or lack empathy, then that’s their prerogative. Bosses at work come under fire for not allowing someone with depression take six months sick leave every year. I struggled at work in factories for years, the last thing I expected was my boss to give me a day off every time I didn’t feel well. I’d never have worked a day in my life.  I knew someone who was paralysed from the waist down, and he was the first to admit that he’d never be a fireman! Imagine if he argued that the fire service should invest and create a special ladder that could winch him up a tree to rescue the old ladies cat. Of course, I agree with sick days, but I think that if you need to take every other day off work, then you need to find a new career. If a restaurant owner employed six kitchen staff, all suffering from a mental illness, and each employee took half the week off sick, that person wouldn’t be in the restaurant business for very long. The bank would send in the bailiffs and come Monday morning, there would be seven depressed people filing into the unemployment office instead of six.

Cancer isn’t pleasant either, or AIDS, or spina bifida, or schizophrenia, or acne, or war, or racism, or homophobia.  The world isn’t fair, it’s full of life struggling to surive – from dogs to human beings to fish in the sea. A good person will want to fight injustice, but essentially, no-one owes us anything. There are over seven billion people on the planet. SEVEN BILLION! And I bet my thumbs that not many of those seven billion have a perfect life. Every one of us has a list of problems, obstacles lined up like gravestones, vultures perched on telephone wires, shadows under our eyes from restless nights worrying about money, injustice, death. Maybe one in three will get Cancer, and one in four might suffer mental health issues.

I was on a bus last week with three other passengers. One couldn’t walk without a crutch, one struggled to see, one sat at the back of the bus looking forlorn, running fingers through greasy hair – I could see demons dancing in his eyes. We all suffer the consequences of being born.  Every one of us will know grief and pity and envy and will be a victim of someone else at some point in our lives. Because that’s what life is, a series of problems, of walls to scale, of paths to tread with backpacks full of lead, with black dogs snapping at our heels.

Of course, I would like everyone to understand my daily plight. Certainly, it would make life a little easier for me if everyone were able to empathise with my disorder. Yes, I roll my eyes when I hear someone say that depression is all in your head! – Oh the irony! I try to educate people when they say “Isn’t OCD that thing when you can’t stop vacuuming?” But I won’t be angry, because I don’t know much about Alpha 1-Antitrypsin Deficiency. Do you?

It’s another problem in a world of f*****g problems. And ideally, everyone should know all there is about everything. I understand that we have to continually educate ourselves and others, and constantly push forward with mental health awareness, but we shouldn’t get angry with those that don’t quite get it yet – let’s not vilify them like they’re the next Ted Bundy or Chairman Mao.  It may be ignorance, but there are a lot of things in this world I’m ignorant of. I wouldn’t have been able to write a paragraph on OCD if I didn’t suffer so badly from it myself. Why would I? I don’t know much about cerebral palsy either, or world trade, or basketball, or athlete’s foot. If someone makes the comment, “I’m so OCD because I’m always rearranging my shoe closet,” then instead of screaming at them like you’ve stumbled across a dead body in the woods, educate them – politely – and don’t tie them to a railway track. When my OCDemon is thrashing on drums in my head, I couldn’t care less if a friend thinks he’s OCD because he can’t wear odd socks on weekdays. He may not have OCD, but for sure, he’ll have other problems in his life. He might have a voice in his head telling him he’s the new messiah. He could be waiting for test results from the hospital, or owe twice his wages to his landlord, or have to visit a terminally ill relative at a hospice later in the day. Why the hell would he be learning about OCD? If nothing bad is going on in someone’s life right now, be happy for them. By all means, reveal your issues to people, but know they’ll have issues of their own.  Punching and spitting won’t get the monkey off your back. It’s too easy to vent our frustration at a soft target rather than the beast itself. If the scourge of the ocean is too cunning and strong, don’t take your frustration out on the sardines.

“They don’t understand the trouble the Kraken causes us, I hate those fucking sardines! Let’s kill all the fish!” The world is a tough place to live. To negotiate. To survive. Every person you pass on the street has their own circling crow. It’s irritating but I will not be spiteful to those that don’t understand. You can’t beat ignorance with hate. (Trust me, they’ll just hate you back.) It’s love we need to load into our guns, or we’ll all suffer the consequences.

DEVILS IN GAS MASKS

“Life can be odd,” said the man wiping a gob of yellow paint from his face.  “You can’t get angry, because rules are rules, and the rules state that the world is chaos, bubbling in a glass jar.”  Or something like that.

I had six years in a factory mixing paint and pouring it into plastic bottles.  I looked up to the older man who probably didn’t say this because inside I was a twitching wreck, and Uncle Jack (as I’ll call him) was calm, even when the industrial machine puked its guts into his face.  (I later found out that it was a mask he wore, and actually at home, he was a cantankerous old b*stard but…)

Odd that my happiest times this trip have been sandwiched between strangers inside a cramped bus on a rain-swept afternoon in Lviv, a tour through the Chernobyl disaster zone and surrounding towns and villages, and an afternoon spent in a Ukrainian village cemetery counting headstones.  In older days, when my OCD was a gunship and my depression a black fog that trailed it, any reprieve was multiplied to such manic proportions that when it came, I went supernova, from a hobbled, twitching creature lurking in a corner to a soaring rocket man annoying the skies with roaring jet engines.  Imagine a tin of paint dropped from the top floor of a skyscraper. It explodes on impact with the ground and tendrils stretch across the immediate world; a tree is splattered in orange paint, a shop window, a passing car. I wanted to be everywhere, and know everything and everyone. My parents would never see me like this, but when I was out and Crow free, my confidence conquered a square mile, running on pure adrenaline; a greyhound released on a coiled spring, tail wagging, tongue slapping over my shoulder.  Drink sometimes gave me the same reprieve, only on these occasions the fireworks were louder still, but with a bigger price to pay. (Gunpowder ain’t cheap.)

These days when I’m free of Crow and his black umbrella, I’m content to celebrate with a deep breath of fresh air, tasting the day and chewing it over.  I’m not past mania, but now I’m a little afraid of where it can take me.

So we took a tour of Chernobyl, and the towns and villages the 1986 nuclear disaster had dragged into oblivion.  It was an interesting but rather bleak day. I was expecting it to be.

Drudging through the evacuated ghost town of Pripyat with the rest of the tour, I found myself lagging, and took several minutes for myself in a ruined room.  Water dripped from the flaking ceiling, a broken chair lay dislocated on the concrete floor beside a single brown shoe, and a gas mask, tactically placed by a tour guide no doubt, dangled eerily from a twisted hook.  Everything, from wet concrete walls to burned plastic dolls, looked dead. So grim and blighted were my surroundings that I prepared for a wave of depression to crush me against the cold floor. But no black tsunami came.

My demons nudged me with their crooked elbows, and breathing in the stale air, I decided to entertain them.  I looked into the smeared glass of a gas mask eye socket and imagined a long table in the reflection, filled with food.  They were all there, eating pie and cake; the Crimson Knight, the symbol of my violent self-harm, devouring the apple crumble, stuffing it into his metal face-plate; the temptress Gorgon, my figure of fear and loathing, spilling beef broth down her filthy gown; Crow himself, Lord of the entire dance, didn’t even look up from his wooden bowl as he dropped hunks of wet meat into his glistening black beak.  A vast array of squabbling diners picked and pecked and pawed at the food. It reminded me of a phrase I once wrote on a cardboard box, deep in a factory warehouse, many years ago.

‘Watch them, let them feast, but never join them at the table.’  I knew what I meant when I scribbled it in thick black marker pen all those years ago, but only now did I see who it was slobbering over the juicy platter.  It was me, or at least the ghosts of me.

And so I watched them, I let them gorge on barbecued chicken wings and gigantic hocks of roasted ham, lips smacking, knocking over jeweled goblets of red wine.  But I never sat beside them. Never joined them in their gluttony. And I never will, because to join them is to drop dead on the ground.

It was Chernobyl, I was expecting them here, everyone on the tour must have felt a personal demon poke a finger or two into their ribs.  But my demons were quieter than usual, content to share stories with each other across the cluttered table. Of course, I was dodging OCD spikes every few footsteps, but I could see them breaking through the floor, or protruding through walls like slow broken traps on an old Indiana Jones film set.  There were grey autumn clouds casting shadows across that ramshackle town, bloated behemoths setting the mood as lethargy thumped in my lungs and my nostrils were filled with the stench of things gone wrong; I saw Devils in gas masks, so bleak and grey and damp to the bones, this should have been a great harvest for that bastard, Crow.  Yet I was fine with my desolate surroundings.

Maybe it’s the beautiful places that pull the trigger because Crow doesn’t want me to be happy and he detects a smile further away than a shark smells a severed leg.  Maybe it’s the colourful markets in Central America that tempt his malice that extra mile – hiding in wooden crates of those succulent avocados and oranges and ripened bananas like a stowaway tarantula.  Crow likes to suck away the juicy insides until a damp husk is all that remains. When he leaves me a slice of meat, it’s the most succulent morsel of food I’ve ever tasted or best film I’ve watched in years, the funniest show, the sweetest treat, the happiest hour of the entire month – and when he’s absent, even if I’m in a trench half filled with water, I remember it as a positive occasion.  Every minute without OCD breaking my toes, or depression suffocating me like a hangman’s hood thrown over my face, blows my mind every which way, just like that tin of paint dropped from the top floor of a skyscraper.

It is the ruination of a spectacular day that hurts the most, I guess.  The rancid hut looms ominously, you already know not to sleep on the p*ss-stained mattress, the roaches are already on the wall, there’s nothing that wants to jump out at you that you don’t already know about.  It’s the five-star apartment you have to check for bedbugs. So Chernobyl was depressing, but it was meant to be, there were no surprises.

And today, in the cemetery beneath the gun smoke sky, searching for Little One’s Ukrainian family plot, there wasn’t a black feather in sight – but as mourners paid homage with flowers, it wasn’t the place for celebration.

Forget another trip to Asia or South America, I could have stayed in that graveyard forever if it meant peace like this – and I suppose it will one day.

It’s an odd world indeed, Uncle Jack.  An odd world indeed.