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 harshness 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 it happens 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 mental pain?

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, 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 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 looking after and also quite a lot of freelance writing.  The remaining hours are spent with 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. 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 guys and girls.  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.

I think the image will haunt me yet, 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.

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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, imagining a well-groomed man, with a smile 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.

I was suddenly an old man coughing up blood in a long corridor.  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 hallways.

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.

I fought against some, 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. 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 the cloud and it was black like a bucket of coal.

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

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 this situation,” I imagined him taunt.

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

 

I’m home now.  The OCD cloud is still thankfully dispersed, 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 STORY

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.  “Confidence is looking the dragon in its eyes, Yan. It doesn’t matter that you’re scared.  Everybody gets scared sometimes.”

Anxiety is not my biggest issue.  My bane is a double-headed axe – cruel, intrusive thoughts and sweeping 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.”

“Should’ve 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.  “Those that succeed in life have to be ruthless, or 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 my 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 here 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 something could happen that would result in my death.”

Crow nods his head in agreement.

“So fuck it! Let’s go.  I’ve already put in motion the first steps of my death.  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 us all, 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, 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!”

Achieving anything under the influence of OCD is like having to climb over a sheer concrete wall with rocks in your boots.  I find the same with depression; the black dog sinking 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 with.  In fact, there are legions of diseases out there, killing people every day, that I don’t even realise exist. It doesn’t mean I disrespect those afflicted by them.

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.  But go easy with the miseducated teenager arranging her shampoo’s by the colour of the bottle-caps.

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 off every year.  I struggled at work in factories for years, the last thing I expected was to take a day off every time I battled a spike.  I’d never have worked a day in my life.  I knew someone who was paralysed from the waist down, and the first thing he admitted to me was 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 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, 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, or… the world isn’t fair, it’s full of creatures – from dogs to human beings – struggling to survive.  And we fight the injustice as much as we can, but essentially, no-one owes us anything. There are over seven billion people on the planet. SEVEN BILLION! And I’d bet my thumbs that not many of those seven billion live 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 during a life raising children who will also suffer the consequences of being born.  Every one of them will know grief and pity and envy and will be a victim of someone else at some point in their life. 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.  Of course, 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! – Of course, I try to educate people when they say “Isn’t OCD that thing when you can’t stop hovering?”  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 everything about everything.  And 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 are the next Ted Bundy or Chairman Mao.  Yes, of course, it is ignorance, but there’s 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 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 telling him to jump off the church roof.  He might be waiting for test results at 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 they be learning about OCD?  If nothing bad is going on in their 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 in.  To fit into.  To negotiate.  Every person you pass on the street has their own circling crow.  I know it can be irritating but let’s 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 threw its guts up 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 my roaring jet pack. 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 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 forced into non existence.  It was an interesting but rather bleak day. I was expecting it.

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.  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 filled with food in the reflection – They were all there, eating their 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 fear, 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 poured 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 legs 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 mine were quieter than usual, content almost 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 in an old Indiana Jones 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 artery.  Maybe it’s the colourful markets in Central America that tempt his malice that little bit more – 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 is left.  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, or the funniest show, the sweetest treat, the happiest hour of the entire month – so 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 just 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.

 

UTOPIA UNHINGED

It’s all a matter of perspective.  The glass is either half empty, or half full, or bubbling over with hydrochloric acid, about to topple over into your lap.

The woods are beautiful from a distance, but woe betide those who venture inside its tangled mouth.  There are wolves lurking, and snakes slithering, and Screamin’ Jean, the witch who eats children, dancing naked in the thicket.  I’m travelling the world, Little One by my side, money in our pockets, adventure never further than a bus ride away – we’ve dived with sharks, boarded down active volcanoes, jumped out of aeroplanes, but even on those days, (Jaws’ sister chewing on my heels as I tumbled through clouds,) I was spinning in space, worrying over the ridiculous, unable to do much of anything else.

The ferry to Odessa was cancelled and so we flew instead.  I smiled because Crow had been heckling me over my inadequate swimming abilities.  “You swim like a giraffe.  If the boat goes down, you’ll go down with her, and I’ll meet you at the bottom,” he promised.

“But I can’t fly either,” I said, and chased him away with a flick of my plane ticket.

I’m grateful that I’m here, and I don’t want to sob in front of violins scratching out somber tunes, because I’m not yet flirting at death’s door in a hospital for the terminally ill, and I can saunter at my own pace, hands untied, across the plains quite freely.  I don’t know what my next meal will be but I know that it’s coming, and it’ll probably be Borscht soup.

I sit inside a great theatre, a sparkling chandelier sprinkling its light upon a mesmerised crowd.  On the centre stage a man with flowing white hair works a grand piano, fingers dancing fiercely upon the ivories, humbling the congregation with his melodic skills, making them useless as they fall in love again – all slack-jawed and corkscrew-eyed, squirming like maggots in his hand.  But to some his music becomes the trigger of a gun, and my thoughts spiral downward to the gutter and brown.  I’ve taken a sideways step, a shimmy to my left, and suddenly he becomes a monster with rabies banging piano keys in a crumbling hall.  Water splashes at my feet, and I’m dragged thirteen fathoms beneath the floorboards.  But man, could that guy play.

I was born into a loving family, in a small town in England, and never went without a meal, never got a smack across the back of the legs for messing around with things I shouldn’t, never sent to clean chimneys or break stones in child labour camps.  I had everything a child could ask for, and more.  I was a rabbit gifted a field of carrots – no predator for a hundred acres.

It’s the angle you look at things I guess, and I promise that I try as hard as I can to see the positive in things, it’s just that I see the negative too – and it’s impossible to get the ink out of the water once it’s been tainted.

And sometimes things ARE pretty sh*t.  From a distance a village looks quaint in the cleavage of a green valley.  It isn’t until you get up close and enter a house, open the cupboard door that the handle falls off in your hand.  Or you put your ear to the wall and realise there are insects scuttling behind the plasterboard, maybe the river that runs through the centre of town is riddled with parasites, and squinting your eyes you see the dead man swinging from a noose beneath the bridge that spans it.  I’m well aware there are worse places, more dangerous and far filthier, with bloodier eyes to look through, but I can only describe what I see through mine.

Yet I know that I am lucky, because I’m not scrambling five miles across cracked, sun-bleached earth for drinking-water every day, and although I left school early, without furthering my education, I still learned how to read and write.  I was never molested by a drunk uncle or beaten in a filthy room by secret police.  I couldn’t have been further from poverty or famine or war-torn lands.  I always had shade from the sun, and shelter from the pouring rain, and I grimace in gut-wrenching empathy when I think of those who are in these dire predicaments AND suffering from a mental illness.  It must be the ground floor of hell, the boiler room in the devils basement, and I shudder when I try to imagine it.  What would the crow have left of me if I had been abused and fed such scraps? I’m red with guilt at the ease with which I buy bread and fresh water, and still complain that I’m not f*****g happy.  Because it doesn’t make that manic crow fly any higher, fails to silence his shrieking threats of violence and paranoia.  I still get depressed and have harmful thoughts and worry when I hear certain words, and succumb to false memories and tic and obsess and feel compelled to ritualise and imagine the blinding white light that cures all – and everything else just as ridiculous to write down or say aloud that I know my sense cannot convince my brain is harmless and untrue.  It’s not just my OCD, I get jealous and envious far too easy, I hate to be copied, and although they say it’s a compliment, I grow fangs and become frustrated and pretend to myself I would follow a man to the end of the world to pull his teeth out if it went too far.

But however much I moan and slump and drift in ashes, please don’t ever think I don’t know how lucky I am.  I appreciate the love I’ve been given, the amount of precious time certain people have invested in me, and the helping hands that have pulled me up mountains.

 

Punch

I didn’t see the punch, I just felt a jolt and then I was inside a cavernous dome, ears ringing, head cut off from the rest of my body.  Or maybe my head was in a fish-tank, water rushing into my ears, eyes blinking, vision blurring; was that a goldfish swimming past me? I distinctly remember swaying, as my body caught up with the power of the right cross, and then I was on the floor, blood spilling down my chin.

That was over fifteen years ago, inebriated after a night out, when my inside had burst out of my skin, like a clenched fist through wet paper.  I’d spent all day ruminating on a single intrusive thought, and then I’d drank the evening into oblivion, gaining brief respite as I drowned the crow in a barrel of beer, topped with vodka chasers and cheap red wine.  In the fresh air, on my way home, like many drunks, I began to contemplate my life story, and feeling melancholy, angry with the direction it was heading, becoming bitterly savage with my OCD, I lost my reason in a sea of red-mist.  Hatred stirred in my belly and my outside, that smiling loon, that gormless joking fool, didn’t simply leave the building, the rotting, self-loathing Yan kicked him off the roof.

My inside now had control, and I was resentful and screaming and deserved that hammer punch, and many more besides.  As the man whose fist had split my bottom lip in two calmly walked away, I remember hauling myself to my feet while complimenting him on such a perfectly delivered right hand cross.  I knew I’d been an arse; I realised that my frustrations at wasting another day, ruminating my life away, had simply broken through the surface of the water and smashed into the hull of an iron battleship.  Yet I’d relearned that same valuable lesson for the thousandth time, (which I’d forgotten by morning light) – mental illness and copious amounts of alcohol don’t mix; someone’s always going to get hurt, and thankfully it was usually me.

My OCD is not the worlds problem, it’s mine, and I never could fight but I could certainly get hit, and did, and got black eyes and bloody lips and bruised ribs and worse of all, a damaged ego as I faced certain individuals the following day.  I still beat myself up inside, every day, fantasizing that crude weapons are smashing into my body parts – like recently, on a bus travelling to the next city in Georgia.  I was looking out of the window as we pulled out of Gori, Joseph Stalin’s home town. Without provocation a three year old spike pierced my thoughts, terror curling in my stomach like a finger on a trigger; I grew hot, I worried unnecessarily, fear, sorrow and bitterness splashing around inside of me like eels in a bucket.

But I smiled at the old woman beside me, I thanked the man in the seat in front when he bought me a cold cola, laughed like an hysterical hyena at a shitty joke when all I wanted to do was scream so loud that it burst my eardrums.  I imagined shattering the bus windows, from the back row to the windshield, as I shrieked like a banshee who’d stubbed her gangrened toe on a rock – I watched in my minds-eye as the passengers were drenched in tiny glass fragments, Luciano Pavarotti singing the Marriage of Figaro as they dived for cover in classic Hollywood style slow motion, and a knight in crimson armour, with a red crow emblazoned on his shield, materialized into existence beside me, clobbering a heavy mace across the back of my head with all his might.  Frustration yelled its name in my face…but I waved at the young boy peering over his seat like my only thoughts were flowers blowing in the breeze.

I’ve been told to wear my heart on my sleeve; to be honest and open about my illness.  But I really don’t think the passengers on the bus wanted to see me cry.  It would have been an awkward experience for us all.  So I kept my inside in, lurking in the swamp as deep as I could send it; and painted my face with a beaming smile like a f*cking LSD rainbow whenever someone looked my way.

Many on the fringe who think they know me believe I’m having a great time out here; carefree and effervescent, a million miles from harmful thoughts and bouts of depression.  And of course I do enjoy myself, even without having to get drunk like when I first went away, staring at the bottom of a shot glass until Crow was blind and staggering and harmless unless the music stopped and I began to think of what he was doing to me – then of course my inside popped its head over the fence and met with a flying fist.  But even now it’s certainly no bunch of roses, and if life IS a box of chocolates, there are a lot of praline truffles in there.  And they make me gag.

Note to Mum and Dad; Of course it’s debilitating, but believe me, looking at it relatively, these days it’s not like it was – in comparison it’s like having a runny nose instead of pneumonia – snot on my sleeve instead of phlegm on my lungs.

I’m out of the factories and running, something I’d never have been able to do all those years ago.

 

 

BRANDO and the BLACK SPONGE

The crow is Godzilla and I am Tokyo. Yet another monster movie, but have you seen the performance from the lead protagonist?  Blood surges in my ears, sounding like a drum roll, and on stage an old but legendary movie star fumbles open an envelope. “…And the award for best Actor goes to…”

…Yan Baskets, and Julia Brown, and Johnny Lester and Fernando Cortez, and the millions of others hiding a mental illness from the world.

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

“You’re a cheerful chap, Yan,” my colleague once said as, unbeknownst to him, Tokyo tower crumbled into my lap.  I don’t regret not telling him.  He had his own problems, everyone does.  Tokyo would still fall.  I’d cycle home after my shift, appreciating the quiet, struggling to make sense of those malicious thoughts on the battlefield, distorted shapes dancing through the gun smoke.

“Good day at work?”  The voice of my mum, dad, girlfriend or brother.  It wouldn’t matter, my answer was always a lie.

“Yeah, not bad thanks/I’m just gonna take a shower/Dinner smells good/We still going out tonight?”  Fear bubbling in my stomach but my face stretched into a rictus grin – Marlon Brando on the outside, but inside, my mind absorbing all the fears of the world like a black sponge.

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

Yan Baskets isn’t my real name, so I’m still doing it.

Ironic that on my trip to India, I was approached on the streets of Mumbai and offered to work as an extra in a Bollywood film.  I also did an advert and a trailer for a TV show with the same agency.  I loved the experience, but in those days the Crow was a sledgehammer, it had taken all my effort just to get on the plane out there, and on the film set, when they asked me to come back the next day, I’d been under such ferocious attacks, was so tired and battle scarred, that I declined and went to Goa to stick my head in the sand instead.  I clearly remember the sickness in my belly as the busy world of Bollywood moved in a blur around me.  I spoke with the director, the actors and actresses, but Crow banged on a drum in my head, ruining the experience like stirring a glass of wine with a liquorice stick.  Physically I was in the Bollywood studios in Mumbai; mentally I was shivering on the wet floor of a concrete cell.  Crow battered me with a cricket bat during those three days, and I regrettably walked away, travelling down to the western state with a young Dutch couple, and pretended to be OK as the crow ate me from the inside. I should have stayed on the film set and at least continued getting paid to be someone else.

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

 

 

TOO MANY TEETH IN THE TOOTH FACTORY

I live in the shadow of a colossal factory, its thirteen chimneys spewing black smoke into the ozone. Wherever I go in the world, I smell its toxins polluting the space around me, the thirteen brick towers casting their gloom over my sagging shoulders.  A long conveyor belt loops around the foundry floor, and whenever my head is clear, or I am happy, a spike falls into a box and is delivered, wherever I am in the world (via ‘Crow Express Delivery Service’,) to my doorstep.

To help me cope, to understand what is happening in my mind, I have used many metaphors over the years.  Often I think of these spikes, these intrusive thoughts, as teeth.  Each fear is a fang, and sometimes I am bitten by one tooth, sometimes by an entire row.  I usually obsess over one intrusive thought until I can bury it, often in a shallow grave in the woods, but occasionally somewhere more permanent, like deep in the foundations of a city new-build, or maybe Mafioso style and thrown into the sea with concrete boots.  However, when there are several spikes, or teeth, the day generally spirals into an inescapable black pit.

A while ago now, at the end of one particularly cruel day, I counted that thirteen intrusive thoughts had spiked me – thirteen yellow teeth biting into my bones, puncturing thirteen holes direct into my marrow.  It was mid-March, seventy-seven days into the year.  I calculated that another two and a half months like today would mean being mauled, potentially, by one thousand and one teeth. It was a mortifying prospect. So far that year I’d done absolutely nothing, not a plan made or a dream realised since January the first. No memories but a thousand terrible maybes, and not a single one of them had come true. But still I worried.

As panic incapacitated me two considerable things happened. First, I realised that I had to do something, anything, before I died with a spike in my throat, choking on splinters, having achieved nothing in my life; but more importantly, it was the start of my resignation period. As my condition worsened over the years, my multiple attacks began to have a bizarre calming effect. The more teeth that punctured me meant more rituals, more time touching wood or imagining blinding sheets of lightning, sweating on my bed, howling at the wall and wishing I was in a coma – but something else was occurring too.  My brain felt like it was vibrating, stressed under the flashing red lights and plumes of smoke from the overworked cogs and dials. One especially bleak day of ruminating ridiculous events, pinned to my bed and pulling out my hair strand by strand, I experienced a type of shut-down. The factory had produced excess items and the conveyor belt was jammed as it meandered through the various machinery, or there were too many teeth in the attack dog’s mouth and it was unable to gain a proper purchase, or the Crow’s beak was blunted with the excess pecking, like a reused nail hammered into one piece of wood too many. It didn’t matter what metaphor I chose, the important thing was that I rode a wave of euphoria that lasted a considerable amount of time.

It’s strange, but I learned that the more the Crow flexes his wings, or the dog bares his teeth, or when extra spikes roll off the production line, the more peace I feel because of my resignation to the cold fact that I simply cannot handle the ferocity of the attacks.  I forget the lies the Crow has whispered in my ear because on such formidable days he talks too much, or the pain from the bite wound on my leg eclipses the throb from the one on my arm, or the factory warehouse loses stock in its jungle of boxes.  The irony is laughable, the more spikes that puncture my mind, the more I can heal.

“Too many cooks spoil the broth,” sneers Crow.

Of course the Crow still flies, and the dog still bites and the factory continues to produce, but when that invisible line is crossed, there becomes much less ruffle to the feathers, strength in the jaws and far less pollution in the river.  More is less, or something like that.

I nearly forgot this is a travel blog too.

I’m currently still in Greece waiting to be relieved of house sitting duties.  The cat is still alive and I’ve not stabbed myself to death or died of a brain tumour or been burnt alive by angry villagers in a giant wicker-man. Since I’ve been here the factory has produced these exact fears, and lots more besides.  Or, depending on my metaphor, the Crow has whispered them in my ear, or gnashing teeth have gnawed them into my skin.  But the factory is rusting and the Crow is getting old, because his feathers are starting to fall out and his peck (on good days) feels no more than a tickle.

At this moment, peeling a lemon with my free hand, I have no idea where my next destination will be.  I do know there’ll be a factory close by, and a crow, turning slightly grey, circling in the sky.

 

Chewing Feathers

By far, the most enjoyable part of my travelling has not been what I’ve seen along the way but who I’ve met.  If I had stayed in my hometown in England I’d never have shared a smoke and a few lines with inmates in their cell during a prison visit in Ecuador, or had a conversation with a freight-hopping Brooklyn vagabond in the alleyways of New York City, or played a thousand hands of cards with an eccentric Panamanian who drank Las Vegas dry and escaped the US owing thousands in medical bills.  From drinks with a ’60s Slovenian pop star to a night in Thailand with a Hawaiian pot dealer, for me, it’s all about the people.

It’s just a shame that I’ve either had to cut the meetings short, (I should have gone to the golf club in Ljubljana), or missed the bones of a conversation (what was the moral of the homeless man’s tale again?) If I hadn’t had the Crow flapping in my ears, maybe I’d have learned and experienced more than I have.  But then again, if it wasn’t for that feathered demon from the abyss, I probably wouldn’t have sold my home in England – I wouldn’t be here, house-sitting in Greece, watching the distant fishing boats idle on the calm blue sea.

I often lament those split conversations, the times when you find yourself talking to someone in the outside world, but you’re also busy trying to talk sense to yourself somewhere on those chaotic plains in your head.  Dissecting a thought you take too long answering a question, there’s an awkward silence, maybe you didn’t quite catch what was said.  You ask them to repeat their question, just as another spiked cannonball roars from the Howitzer, hurtling in your direction.  You’ve missed the real world conversation AGAIN! You’re standing there, literally face to face with a man you met on a train, and you’re listening but struggling to hear a single word he’s spoken all morning.  A third time, and yes, you hear what’s being said but it makes no sense because you missed the critical three minutes of dialogue before this current query.  You smile apologetically, “Sorry mate, I was miles away.”  You blame a late night, say you’re a prolific daydreamer, or, “that joint has really hit me, man.”  You certainly can’t mention the screeching bird in your cerebrum.  “Sorry mate, I was talking to the Crow,” is not an option.

The problem is not only missing the key words but also, when you know precisely what’s being said, your stomach can feel so full of lead that you don’t have the mental strength to join in, or expand the question, or debate it, or anything at all because you’ve got the black feathered Prince of Doubt pecking holes on your head.  Chances are I’ve missed out on more than a fistful of profound revelations because of this.  I could have had the answer to life explained to me in glorious detail but was too busy thinking about killing myself in front of my Nan to heed the advice.

If it worked the other way around it would be the perfect solution to my problems.  “Sorry Crow, I was talking to my friend, you’ll have to wait.  Stand in line, or come back tomorrow.”

The greatest problem with OCD, for me, is that big fat O – Obsessional thoughts that fight for my absolute attention the moment I’m conscious.  My alarm sounds and I open my eyes, and there’s my breakfast on the bedside table, six inch nails on toast.  Of course, most people experience dark thoughts every day, but with the crow, and the millions of other crows, imps, and demon monkeys out there perched on peoples’ shoulders, it’s not just every day, but every second of every minute of every hour of every day.

It’s not surprising that we miss things.  We just have to make the most of the conversations we do have, and as the Crow circles me a little higher these days, here is a plea to all OCDemons the world over to ignore:  “Give your hosts a break, let them have a spike-free conversation with whoever is sharing their table, whether it’s in a bar in Southeast Asia or in the lounge of their grandmother’s house, back the f*ck off for an hour or so.”