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 drunken revellers, I began to contemplate my life story, and feeling melancholy, angry with the direction it was heading, bitterly savage with my OCD, I lost my reason in a sea of red-mist.  Hatred stirred in my belly and my mask slipped. The rotting, self-loathing Yan Baskets kicked the gormless, joking fool I always pretended to be off the roof.

My demons 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 arsehole; my frustrations at wasting another day, ruminating my life away, had broken through the surface of the water and smashed into the hull of an iron battleship.  I’d relearned the 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 world’s 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 through Georgia.  I was looking out of the window as we pulled out of Gori, Joseph Stalin’s hometown. Without provocation a three-year-old spike pierced my thoughts, terror curling in my stomach like a finger ’round a trigger; I grew hot, I worried unnecessarily, fear, sorrow, and bitterness splashing around inside 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 a 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 didn’t think the passengers on that bus wanted to see me cry.  It would have been an awkward experience for us all. So I kept my fears within – drove them to swampland, buried them in the mire as deep as I could, and painted my face with a beaming smile like a f**king LSD rainbow whenever someone looked my way.

No doubt, many on the fringe who think they know me imagine 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, at least until 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 usually 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 praline truffles make me gag.

Note to mum and dad:  My OCD remains 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.

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

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That B*stard Crow

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

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

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

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

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

If I surrendered to the crow I’d never have met some of the great people that I have, from all over the world, whether it’s a seventy-two-year-old adventurer fighting cancer on the road, or a gap year student who shares the same slightly twisted sense of humour as me; I’d never have disappeared down a pothole mid-conversation in Kampala; never bathed naked with the local village greengrocer in the onsens of Japan; I’d never have embarrassed myself dancing salsa in a Havana bar or booed the villains at the Lucha Libre in Mexico City.  You’ve stopped me from doing many things, bastard crow, but not everything.

Yeah yeah yeah, you’ll eat my eyes out, you’ll force me to shove Little One down the stairs, you’ll set my hair on fire, you’ll bite my fingers off, you’ll smash my face into the wall.  All these things and more if you had the chance. Do whatever you need to do, bastard Crow, but I’m going to drag you all over the world by your scrawny neck if I can.  And I hope you despise every second of it.

A shadow of a crow flickers on the wall. I wait for his cracked words of wisdom.

“Good luck with that, Yan,” says my OCDemon, cackling on my shoulder.  “You struggle buying groceries at the supermarket.”

FAKE GOLD WATCH

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

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

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

Regrets come in different shapes and sizes.  We regret things that we’ve done, and we regret things that we didn’t do, but also, and sometimes worst of all, we regret things that we think we did but didn’t actually do at all.  We end up punishing ourselves for an action or conversation that never happened.  The more we think, did I? The louder the crow, or the monkey, or the goblin shouts back. “Yes, of course you did this. Remember, it was so fucking bad but you did it and now people are suffering.”

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

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

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

A memory of something hurtful, or nasty, will introduce itself to me like a salesman at the door.  Some are familiar faces selling the genuine article – I remember their patter, and eventually, after a lot of pushing and shoving, I send them on their way.  Some, however, are ‘new’ memories from long ago that I have never thought worthy to dwell upon, or ever recalled before. At first I am dubious of their authenticity.  “Did that really happen?”  I laugh them off, slamming the door and continuing with my day.

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

The salesman dangles the fake Rolex before my eyes.  This time my ninety-nine percent certainty that this is a forgery has slipped to below seventy-five.  I push the door closed but there is doubt in my bones.

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

‘Ding dong!’  He’s persistent, I’ll give him that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a year or two, I wonder if the Crow will try and make me think something bad happened here in Greece.  I already have a backpack full of false memories to suggest that he will.  He’ll tell me something horrific occurred here, or something terrible was said, maybe only hinted at, but it will be enough to stir doubt into the pot, creating a spark in the dry bush that Crow will gently blow upon, feeding it fuel until a mighty inferno lashes at my door.

I cannot say what memories I will rely upon to be true in the future.  That is why it is good for me to keep notes on this blog. So Yan, if you’re reading this for confirmation, its OK, Greece was good for you, and you didn’t kill the cat.

 

BRANDO and the BLACK SPONGE

The crow is Godzilla and I am Tokyo.

Another monster movie, another red carpet premiere.  But wait a minute, have you seen the performance from the lead protagonist?  A burst of light and I’m sitting at a table at the Oscars ceremony.  Hollywood claps and cheers around me.  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 Seth Harper, and Delia Hastings and Fernando Ramirez, and the millions of others struggling to conceal their mental illness from the world.

Years ago, battling to hold down my job at a paint factory, I was greeted every morning by the same friendly work colleague.  “Morning, Yan,” he would say, and I would smile and ask if he’d had a good evening. There would be plenty of nodding and laughing on the outside, but inside I was 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 whir of the machines, the clanking and the banging, made the factory floor feel like a state at war.  There be injuns inside, and gun-toting cowboys, Mexican bandits shooting pistols into the sky. Gunfight at the Not-so-OK Corral. The fear I had in the morning would multiply into a thirty foot monster by the time I clocked out. So yes, the crow is Godzilla and I am Tokyo – but most of the time the city falls in silence, with maybe a tinkling of a piano in the background, like from a scene in a 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 all 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 of 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.  It goes the other way too – 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?  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 bartender when inside, the world is falling apart.

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

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 a commercial warning about sex tourism and a trailer for a TV show.  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 over 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.  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 and actors but Crow banged on a drum in my head, ruining the experience like stirring a glass of good 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 out. I should have stayed on the film set and at least continued getting paid to pretend 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 Crow, whose absence would mean I wouldn’t have had to take up acting in the first f**king place.

DRAGON versus HYDRA

I’ve said to people in the past that suffering from a mental illness is worse than breaking a bone. And then I broke a bone and realised that’s no fun either.  They’re both painful; it doesn’t have to be a competition.

I’d take a week off work, and fester in bed grappling a particular intrusive thought, unable to concentrate on anything else for longer than a minute – I’d try but there would be a sickness in my stomach like I’d swallowed a glass of worms.  ‘I can’t feel worse than this,’ I’d think. But then I caught malaria in Uganda, and along with shaking chills and burning fever, the thumping headaches I endured silenced the crow as quickly as a shotgun blast to his head.

It was an odd relief, and thanks to an incompetent doctor in the Ugandan town of Jinja, who falsely diagnosed a torn shoulder muscle instead of malaria, the parasite had gone undetected.  I was suffering. The pain in my head was unbearable at times, but after the crow had told me it was an inoperable tumour, all of a sudden he became useless, obsolete as the illness took a firm hold in my blood.  I couldn’t think of a shopping list let alone dissect the meandering cunning of an OCD riddle.

‘If it’s a tumour then I’ll die.  The end.’ I could not think past that simple equation, so loud was the banging in my skull, like goblins pounding on steel drums.  When the throb became a constant pain as if my head was jammed in a vice, the crow fled the battlefield like the yellow devil I always knew he was, white flag flapping in tatters as he disappeared over the smoking horizon.  I managed to leave Uganda but missed my connecting flight to Mexico, stumbling from Heathrow towards Gatwick, where my brother (who’d come to meet me in the layover) thrust twenty pounds in my hand and guided me into a taxi at Kings Cross station.  A few hours later, at the Hospital of Tropical Diseases, quarantine was finally lifted when they accurately diagnosed the parasite in my blood.  I caught a train back home but spent two days in my local hospital while the medication took control.  I felt relieved, until Crow came back, hopping on my hospital bed, claws clanking on the metal headrest.

I sat incredulous between white sheets but smiled anyway.

He jabbed a talon in my eye, I blinked and thought of murder.

“I missed you, Crow,” I lied.

And there we were again, biting, scratching, rolling around like two lovers in a barn, like rival drunks wrestling on the sawdust floor of a wild west saloon.  I smiled at the injustice of it all. But his smile is always wider than mine, like a black rainbow slashed across his face. “You could punch that window and cut your wrist in a second, or swallow bleach from the cleaners’ storeroom, imagine their faces while you’re choking to death on your own vomit.  What’s stopping you, Yan?” He sank his beak into my cheek. “Erase these urges by concentrating on a blast of pure white light. It’s worked before, but remember, you have to do it perfectly.”

Success was a brilliant, obliterating explosion in my mind.  No more talk of dying today. But…

…”Did you know that Little One wants to f*ck that doctor, just look at their body language?  What else could it all mean, think it through, you know I’m wrong but you know how it works, I need proof that I’m wrong.  Make it feel ‘right?’ Come up with an alternative and seal it quickly with another blinding flash.”

For a second I wished I still had malaria.

In 2011, I had ingested a different parasite and contracted Giardiasis from a stream in Belize.  By the time I reached Honduras, I was suffering from nausea and extreme diarrhea. “You’re belching like a swamp monster,” said Little One.  As I lay stinking and rancid, huddled on the bathroom floor, there wasn’t a feather in sight.

As vicious as he may be, it turns out the crow has more than one chink in his black armour, and it’s not a straw-man standing in a field.  It’s a broken bone, but only when it snaps; sickness in the belly, but only during the most nauseating hours; a parasite in the blood, but only when it knocks me to the floor and I cannot move.

Physical or mental, pain hurts by default.  But which is worse? The quick snap of the fibula or the long, drawn-out horror of an intrusive OCD spike?  I’d probably choose to lose an arm if it meant the crow would follow it into the incinerator, but if I had to cut it off myself with a hacksaw, I might only get to break the skin before I changed my mind.  I guess I’ll never know because medical science doesn’t work like that, not since the Middle Ages anyway – and I’d have taken the leeches for sure.

I hate mental anguish – anxiety, and fear.

I hate physical pain – high fever and broken bones.

A quick death by fire, or much slower, from venom in my blood?

Incineration by flames or suffocation by madness?

Dragon or Hydra?

No contest.

Neither.

 

Medusa in the Mirror

Our house-sitting assignment in Greece is coming to an end.  The cat is still alive. We have two more weeks on the island but it’s time to decide where to head next, and there are plenty of options, a million corners of the world I haven’t seen.  A part of me wants a country I’ve not set foot in, to see alternative things, experience different ways, and hopefully drink cold beers with new friends. But a big part feels I should go back somewhere I’ve already visited, a place where the crow ruined my experience the first time around – and there are plenty of those.

Although the majority of my compulsions are invisible to others, either fighting or appeasing them in my head, away from prying eyes, I did at one time suffer from an absurd relationship with shadows, particularly in a reflection.  Today, although niggled and prodded when I stare into a mirror or window, I can generally ignore it, but in the bad old days, when the feathered one was a much stronger force, I spent hours standing in front of bathroom mirrors or lounge windows, glaring into my own face and battling to get that perfect ‘safe’ feeling.  I dread to think of the accumulated time I’ve wasted imagining a blinding white light every-time I noticed a shadow in a mirror. I stamped this particular fire out as I got older, but when I first went travelling, for no other reason than Crow is a sociopath, I began to suffer a resurgence of these nonsensical attacks. I continued to obsess over a thousand other fears, but this particular compulsion saw me miss countless buses in Thailand, insane sunrises in New Zealand, and endless days of adventure in the heart of South America.

It would go a little like this…

I would walk past a mirror, head looking down or over my shoulder because I wouldn’t want to trigger the spike.  Maybe I’d glance up, or simply catch a reflection in the corner of my eye, either way, I would notice the dark shade of my eye sockets, or possibly the shadow of a lamp-lit shelf cast along a wall.  The crow would hop onto my shoulder.

“Looks like a shadow on a lung,” he would say, propelling me into an evening of peculiar compulsions.

I’d become transfixed, stomach churning like a vat of old milk, legs as heavy as stone, searching the reflected world for unnecessary shadows.  The darkly shaded hollows in my cheeks symbolised cancer, so concentrate on that blinding fake white light and what? The cure?

“Yes,” whispers the crow.  “The cure for the cancer in your bones.”

Will this be the last time?

“Of course,” says Crow, sniggering no doubt, with rusty scissors on his mind.

I stand in front of the mirror, eyes fixed upon my reflection, imagining a blinding flash of pure white light.  Crow blows smoke into my eyes. “That’s not white enough! Do it again! Again!” God’s light burning bright, except it’s not there, just like the cancer and the liver disease and the AIDS virus I imagine swimming in my veins – but the crow has promised me this will be the last time, and although he’s lied a million times before, maybe this promise is genuine.

But never trust your OCDemon.

I would eventually capture that evasive white light and yes, he would let me walk away.  However, as I passed a mirror in the next room, he would reappear as another shadow, another snake on Medusa’s head hissing threats of terrible disease and random ways to die.  I’d turn to stone again. A family member will die of AIDS, unless…

“Concentrate Yan, the blinding light will prevent this tragedy, and vanquish me for good, no doubt.”

Let me guess, this will be the very last time?

“Of course,” says the crow, a razor smile and the devil in his eye.  “One for the road.”

So I missed the bus to Pattani, remained in bed as the amazing sunset burst across the rolling hills of New Zealand, sat lonely in the ramshackle room in Ecuador, glaring at my reflection in the window as my day pack sat useless on the bed.  I spent a lot of time in foreign lands frozen in front of a mirror, apparently saving my own life and the lives of relatives as I pictured dazzling blasts of light erupting across the imitated world behind me, bright like atomic explosions.

It’s ironic that I travelled halfway across the world to stare at myself in an empty room.  Yet I smiled as I wrote that last sentence, proving to myself that I’m leaps and bounds from where I was before.  A few years ago the bitter frustration at the missed opportunities would have seen me launch a mug of coffee at the wall – or my own head.

I’m not sure where I’ll be next month but I know that someday I must return to a hundred and one places and look OUT of the window instead.  Maybe this time catch that bus to Pattani.

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, (via ‘Crow Express Delivery Service’,) to wherever I am in the world.

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 new-build in the city, or maybe Mafioso style and thrown into the sea with concrete boots.

A while ago now, at the end of one particularly cruel day, I counted that I had struggled with thirteen intrusive thoughts – thirteen yellow teeth biting into my bones, puncturing thirteen holes in 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 a thousand teeth in less than six months. 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 list of 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 choking on splinters, having achieved nothing in my life.  And second, but more importantly, a new thinking process began to kick its feet. As my condition worsened over the years, those 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 a piece of wood one too many times.  It didn’t matter what metaphor I chose, the important thing was that I rode a wave of euphoria that lasted two or three days.

It’s strange, but I learned the more Crow flexes his wings, or the dog bares his teeth, or when extra spikes roll off the production line, the greater peace I feel because of my resignation to the cold fact that I simply cannot handle the ferocity of the attacks.  For a moment I forget the lies the Crow has whispered in my ear because on such formidable days he has talked too much; the pain from the bite wound on my leg eclipses the throb from the one on my arm; the factory warehouse loses stock in its towering 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 remains in the sky, the dog still bites and the factory continues to produce spikes, 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 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.  However, 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 but who I’ve met along the way.  If I had stayed in my hometown in England I’d never have shared a joint and a few cheeky lines with inmates in a 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 had drank Las Vegas dry and escaped the US owing thousands of dollars in medical bills.  From drinks with a ’60s Slovenian pop star to a night in Thailand with a Hawaiian pot dealer, for sure, 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 the OCD, 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 real world, but you’re also busy trying to talk sense to yourself somewhere in the chaotic disco in your head.  Dissecting a thought you realise you’ve taken too long answering a question, there’s an awkward silence, maybe you didn’t quite catch what was said. You ask the person to repeat their query, just as another spiked cannonball roars from the Howitzer.  You’ve missed the real world conversation AGAIN! You’re standing face to face with a man you met yesterday on the 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 previous three minutes of dialogue.  You smile apologetically, “Sorry Alejandro, I was miles away.” You blame a late night, say you’re a prolific daydreamer, or, “that joint has really hit me.” You certainly can’t mention the screeching bird in your cerebrum. “Sorry mate, I was talking to Crow,” is not an option.

The problem is not only missing the keywords 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 in the side of your head.  You can spill words from your mouth but it’s more of a ramble than a discussion.  Chances are I’ve missed out on 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.  (Did he say forty-two or fifty-two?)

How I would love it to work the other way around.  “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, 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 for me, with the crow for company, and for the millions of other sufferers with imps, monkeys, and demons perched on their 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 Crow circles me a little higher these days, I have time to reflect on all the discussions that I know I’ve missed out on.

And believe me, I can talk.  At school I tried to fill every silence with noise.  I just didn’t absorb the crucial information, just the stuff that made me laugh.  I messed around and talked nonsense and tried to laugh loudly because it was the only way to keep the crow off my shoulder.  My mouth was the farmer’s gun but indiscriminate like an AK47. My sense of humour was a twisted scarecrow in a field.

I took these tactics into adulthood.  I was quite loud when I was with friends because it was the only way not to dwell on the questions buzzing around my head.  It was at home I was quiet, where I would lay upstairs ruminating for hours, pretending to be on my computer. One evening in my late teens, my parents came with me to the local pub.  “I can’t believe how loud you are,” said mum. She hadn’t witnessed my coping methods while out socialising before. “You’re the loudest in here,” she noted. And it was a busy night.

I still talk a great deal.  But it’s because I’m appreciating the moment.  The difference is I listen these days – at least sometimes.

The Art of Stopping

Too much of anything is a bad thing.  I have to learn to check, (and not spend all my spare time on the PlayStation.)  But the things I enjoy are easy to stop. It’s the things I don’t like doing that I struggle to put the brakes on.

Stop thinking – like in my younger years pretending to be upstairs on my computer when I was actually laying on my bed, facing the wall, worrying, ruminating, obsessing over AIDS, paranoid that a boy at school wanted to stab me to death – are those heart murmurs in my chest?  I should have stopped watching those television shows about modern medicine because by the time the credits were rolling I’d diagnosed myself with Leukaemia and Parkinson’s disease and three types of lung infection.

Stop drinking – like waking up in a homestay in Havana, Cuba, mottled in vomit.  Apologising to the old woman whose room we were renting, taking the sheets to the launderette, humiliated when they refused to wash them.  “Too dirty to clean,” they said. Oh, the irony! Our new Cuban friend, Alex, had shown us the particulars of local life, cheap bars, and hole-in-the-wall eateries, and nicknamed me ‘El Dragón’ the previous night, because of the noises I was making, the roars and facial tics, as he and his friend helped me home along the Malecón.  It had been a hard few days, spikes-a-plenty me hearties, and I was trying to drown the crow in a barrel of rum. I was drunk, ecstatic that the crow was silenced, but I didn’t know when to stop, the cheerful haze mutating to a red mist, angry at myself that I didn’t feel like this all the time. That fucking crow! And then the facial churns and the roars as the two Cuban men helped me to my homestay through the dawn-lit Havana streets.

Stop joking – know when to be serious.  At school I tried to keep the OCDemon at bay by laughing loudly, the class fool, taking the jokes too far, forcing them out when inside I was terrified of everything in the world.  The silent moments between antics analysing the various ways I could die, how unless I thought things through to their conclusion, I was going to have my house set on fire by school bullies, with my parents still inside, or worse, maybe I would lose control, pouring the petrol and striking the match myself.  So fuck silence, my education, a chance to be someone. Be silly instead, force out those crappy jokes because when the class is laughing, the crow is sobbing in a bucket.  God, how I wish I’d stopped and learned something useful.  But I know, struggling in that classroom all those years ago, it was impossible to absorb any information other than how I could draw blood, or ruin lives, or shock old people to death by screaming in their ears.  I must not be too hard on myself, and I’m not – I don’t cut myself anymore for being plagued by these thoughts.

Stop ruminating, stop worrying, stop whining, stop taking those tablets that turn me into the walking dead – shuffling around the room searching for my lost libido.

Stop writing – when I’ve said enough for the day because thinking of the Crow is making me sad, know when to close the laptop.

 

Crow the Impaler

The sun was throbbing in the sky, I had sore feet, and every step seemed to be uphill, even on the way back – today’s little jaunt had all the usual discomforts of a hot, mid-afternoon hike.  Yet the scenery was so stunning that I did the unthinkable for someone who would prefer to catch a bus to Shangri-La rather than walk it, and on the return leg, back on the narrow roadway, I declined a lift from the only vehicle that had passed us all day.  The instant the car pulled away, struggling and spluttering on its ascent up the steep hill, I regretted it, because my decision hadn’t been genuine. It reminded me of when someone offers you a slice of pizza – I was always told to decline the first offer, and only accept if it’s offered again.  I don’t remember who taught me this nugget of wisdom, but over the years I have missed out on numerous portions of Hawaiian deep-crust, so I hope one day I’ll forget it. However, several amazing views later and I was glad I had turned down the man in the silver Sudan. I got some fabulous shots on my camera – yes I was hot and bothered, tired and hungry, but here I was rambling in Greece and it reminded me of trekking in Nepal several years ago …and then it hit me. Didn’t I struggle with a particularly nasty spike during those thirteen days…?

…A flap of black feathers and there he was, perched on the shoulder-straps of my rucksack.  “Yes, you did,” said Crow.

Little One and I had another hour or so before we made it back home, it was going well but all of a sudden the light had changed, and for me, the sun-bleached tarmac road was immediately overcast with black crow-shaped clouds.  At first, I couldn’t even remember what the spike had been made of all those years ago, but I knew it was a sharp one, mood controlling even now as the great doubter, Crow the Impaler, contaminated my day with his constant pecking.  My God, it was over eleven years ago, I had less of a grip on my problems back then. But the crow doesn’t make sense of these things, for him it’s quite the opposite. Crow loves a riddle. For him, it’s all about the chaos.

He continued to bait me.  “Was it a cancer scare? A pseudo impulse to jump off the mountain?  Did you think you had AIDS again? Was it the psychopath obsession- did you worry you were going to kill your family when you returned home?”  He hopped onto my other shoulder. “Whatever it was, Yan, it’s still here, with me, and I’m gonna whisper my name in your ear until you remember, and I’ll make sure it ruins your NEXT thirteen days.”

But I can take a step back now.  I can give myself time to breathe.  I can rationalise – a little, anyway.  Whatever the issue was, I had previously overcome it, because when I’d completed the trek I remember returning to my guesthouse in the town of Pokhara, and having a cold beer away from the crow and his little black book of lies.

But what was it that had ruined those thirteen days?

I know I should ignore these challenges but today I gave it my full attention, concentrating until I was back in the shadow of those great Himalayan mountains, and my stomach was hot and my bones were heavy and my head was scrambling, and I remember a problem with my leg, and that’s it, it was a cancer scare!  I’d felt a lump behind my knee on the first day of hiking, and Crow said it was a tumour. He had ruined my trek across the Himalayas because he convinced me I was going to die in another six months. While I hiked among beautiful snow-capped mountains, he made me not care, convincing a tiny part of me (and that was enough) that thinking of certain things certain ways, punctuated by that blinding white light, would prevent the disease from spreading.  The entire trek I was either sick with worry or walking through a thousand doors in my mind.

But it wasn’t cancer, was it, Crow?  The lump went away and never came back.

Returning to Greece and the iron ingot fell out of my day-pack.  I was lighter by thirty kilos. The sky was blue again, the crow circling above me but a mile away and harmless.  I was happy but also slightly annoyed with myself, frustrated I’d spent time ruminating on something so long ago. But I will only take positives from it – it means that I can do better.  Today, I punched him from my shoulder, but tomorrow, when he comes, maybe a gentle push is all it will take.