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.”

 

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The Art of Stopping

Too much of anything is a bad thing.  I have to learn to stop, (like stop spending all my spare time on the Playstation.)  But things I enjoy are easy to stop.  It’s the things I don’t like doing that I struggle halting.

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 shouldn’t have watched those television shows about modern medicine because by the time the credits were rolling I’d diagnosed myself with Leukaemia and Parkinson’s and three types of lung disease.

Stop drinking – like waking up in a homestay in Havana, Cuba, mottled in vomit.  Apologising to the old woman whose house it was, 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 showed 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 magnifying the 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 crying.  God, how I wish now 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 whinging, 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 lap-top.

Mzungu in The Mist

I’ve been fortunate enough to see a healthy slice of the world, zig-zagging up, down and all around, and for the first few years, aside from the stowaway in my backpack (The Crow), I did it on my own.  These days I’m fortunate to travel with the person I love most in this world: my girlfriend, aka, Little One.  We’re currently house-sitting and keeping a cat alive on a beautiful Greek island, having begun this trip in Israel and the Palestinian Territories in early December.  From there our rambling, improvised travel itinerary has seen us hit Rome, across the Adriatic to Albania, up through Montenegro, Serbia, slipping into Hungary and finally a cheap flight here, to Greece, residing in a rustic house halfway up a hill.  We’ve been here for three weeks.

The village is small and half of its populous seem to have fled to the mainland for the winter months – so it is quiet, our average day consisting of cooking, baking bread, and hiking to the small shop at the top of the hill to buy a bottle or two of cheap local wine.  In the evening we play cards, watch movies and drink those bottles of cheap white wine.  And feed the cat of course.  There’s not much life in the streets, day or night – it’s like a town on horse tranquilisers.  I like it a lot.  Today on the steep stone steps on our way to the grocery store we passed an old man leading a donkey loaded with firewood, and a mangy looking cat eyeballing me from a trash can. This was a busy day. Yesterday the most exciting event was a lemon falling off a tree.

I am experienced enough to appreciate these times, a handful of years ago my OCD would have filled these tranquil hours with graphic scenes of horror.  This afternoon, sipping cold juice in a garden overlooking a glorious blue sea, and grateful of the peace, I regressed to less placid days…

…I was in Uganda, scratching swollen red insect bites on my arms, watching a creeping mist curl across the forest canopy like an army of ghosts swallowing the world.  My memory took me inside its white belly, wet foliage scrapping across my face, and I remembered the thoughts that accompanied me on my trek through that drizzling rain-forest – anxiety dragging me down with moist hands, a bag of iron ball-bearings slung over my shoulders.

Those horrible, persistent images swarmed like mosquitoes.  I had told myself that I was getting better, all I had to do was throw these intrusive thoughts away and stop thinking about them – they were supposed to get weaker and fade to nothing.  I tried to ignore them, but Crow was picking at my membrane, and they flashed back, bloodier than before.

I wasn’t counting but it must have been over twenty times.

Twenty bullets exploding into her face.

Twenty pools of blood.

Twenty pieces of brain sliding down the wall.

I tried to think of where I was; the mountains, the rain forest, the village with the children I’d be playing football with later in the day.  I couldn’t get excited – the image of my girlfriend getting shot point blank in the face by a Ugandan soldier was contaminating everything.

It was this damn gorilla trek that had triggered it, the march through the Ugandan rain-forest with the trackers and the two soldiers with AK47s.  The unwanted image had flashed into my mind the moment my eyes had lingered on the battered magazine clip.  I’d fired one of those guns – twice.  Once in Vietnam, once in Cambodia.  It was the time in Cambodia that had damaged me the most.  In Vietnam the gun had been fixed to a bracket; in Cambodia, once I’d paid for the clip, the soldier had simply dropped the gun into my hands and pointed to the target against the wall. “You could turn around and shoot everyone in the room,” squawked the crow.

My girlfriend had been there too; that was the first time I’d pictured her getting blown apart by an assault rifle.

Back to Uganda, and when we’d finally come face to face with a gorilla troop in its natural habitat (literally five feet in front of our party of eight), I’d been mesmerised for a whole minute, but then I remembered the gun, and what it could do, and what that would look like.  Another thought had briefly interrupted this …”If I pushed the man standing next to me into the silverback, what would that look like?”

The trek to find the gorillas had been through the forest at sunrise. Standing on a hilltop, watching that ghostly mist float across the rich canopy beneath me, and knowing what I was soon to witness, I felt like I was an extra in a David Attenborough documentary.  Here I was in the Bwindi impregnable forest, on the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and all I could think about was one of the soldiers, there to protect us against border-hopping FDLR rebels, unloading his clip into the handful of tourists unlucky enough to be there on the day he lost his mind.  If I didn’t think about it, it was like a heavy weight was dragging at my shoulders, and a wriggling sickness in my stomach like I’d swallowed live snakes – it was making the trek through the lush forest a ruthless uphill grind.  So I thought about it, because if I managed to think it out of my head, to get that ‘right’ feeling, then I could enjoy what should be a highlight of my African adventure.

“Go on,” teased the crow.  “Think about it one more time, and I promise I’ll fly away.”  Of course, every-time I pictured the scene, it wasn’t quite what the crow had in mind.  “Try a little more realism,” he smirked.

The trek had been blighted by an horrendous spike (intrusive thought); the silverback glancing at me over his shoulder, the baby gorilla waddling out of the bushes and hugging my leg, all those experiences were events I would remember forever, but the crow had been cawing in my ear all day, and he’d done his best to defile it.  If it was five years prior he’d have succeeded, but that day I’d managed to squeeze half a glass of goodness out of that bitter lemon.  The memory of the Gorilla trek stays with me, tainted by the imagined sounds of gunfire, but not ruined.

…My thoughts are back in Greece now, ruing the Crows influence, frustrated that the OCD had tarnished my adventure, but appreciating the donkey I passed on the stone steps earlier in the day – because he wasn’t surrounded by dead people.

It is the evening as I finish this post, and a headache looms over my left eye.  I blame the cheap local wine, but reliving my Ugandan gorilla trek has probably played its part.  Beneath the dull pain I am appreciative that the assault rifle that once promised to kill my girlfriend sits on a soldiers lap over two and a half thousand miles away.

Crow and The Bowl of Cereal

Before I begin I must say a big thank you to my Nan for buying me a Child’s Atlas when I was nine years old.  I remember clearly the picture of the boy picking fruit in Botswana and the list of international flags at the back of the book.  I slowly became obsessed…but in a good way.

This blog is purely and selfishly written to help me.  If it can help at least one other person, then I will be the happiest OCD sufferer ever to walk through the lounge door thirty-seven times before leaving the house.  I suppose this is my disclaimer; that if what I have done to battle the Crow doesn’t work for you, then I apologise but I’m neither a doctor nor a packet of Clomipramine.  If it can help, then great, but if it doesn’t, please continue with your medication.  This is an account of my own personal demon, and my attempts to drown it in the bathtub.  If anything, this is a blog dedicated to my teenage self, telling that terrified awkward shell that it was worth sticking around after all.

I’m sitting on a pebbled beach on a beautiful Greek Island as I write this.  There’s a dull thud in the back of my mind, as if the Crow is stirring, trapped beneath floorboards.  He is present, but at the moment contained.  I would have chopped off my hand for peace like this ten years ago.  Arguably the Crow attacks me as frequently as he ever did, but now he has those floorboards to get through before he can hurt me, or his beak is tied with duck-tape, or I manage to bat him away before his claws sink too deep into my skin.  He is an old enemy and we know each other well.  I can usually predict his tactics, smashing him with a pre-emptive strike, and some days he’s just a pathetic cawing black smudge on the horizon.  (Although on bad days he’s a pterodactyl with talons dipped in anthrax.)

I watch the gentle waves breaking on the stones, thinking back to an earlier time in my life, not the Crow’s first visit but certainly one I remember quite clearly…

…When I was ten years old, while eating breakfast in the kitchen, a sudden thought emerged in my head that I had the option, the possibility, to pour the milk and cereal over my dad’s head.  I could just do it, I thought.  It wouldn’t be a nice thing to do, I’d be in a lot of trouble, but if I went into the lounge I could quite easily empty the entire bowl over his head.  It wasn’t an urge but a fear.  And what is actually stopping me? I wondered.  So I stood up from the table and walked through the hallway to the lounge door, where I paused, aware that my insides were tied up in knots.  My body was hot and clammy.  I pictured the milk and cereal oozing through my father’s hair, dripping down his face in a series of zigzagging white rivers.  I imagined his shock that would quickly turn to fury, the scolding that would inevitably follow, but worse than that, I imagined his disappointment, upset that his son had done such a thing…I felt like I was being punched in the stomach?  The horror of this consequence was strong in my head, I focused all my attention on the sadness that would come of this act, and after fifteen minutes of concentrated effort outside the lounge door, it felt that I had actually followed through with my urge.  Had I imagined it so clearly that I’d actually tricked myself into thinking I’d witnessed first-hand the worst of what could happen?  The fear of doing it finally subsided, my intestines untying, my heart no longer pumping blood around my body quite so fast.  I felt odd that I should have had such a thought, but I was barely ten, and so finished my breakfast and moved on with my day.

I didn’t realise at the time but pouring milk over my Father’s head would be by far the tamest of acts I would have the urge to perform.

The crow got a lot darker.

My thoughts shuffle back to the present, to this beautiful beach in Greece, and I notice I am turning a smooth pebble over in my hand.

“F*ck you, Crow,” I mumble, picturing him drowned in a shallow rock-pool.  He floats motionless, face down in the salty water.  I take advantage of his silence, punching the first draft of my first ever blog-post into my phone.