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 round – 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 the Crow is a sociopath, I began to suffer a resurgence of these nonsensical attacks.  I still 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 long shadow of a lamp-lit shelf cast across a wall. The crow would hop onto my shoulder.

“Just like a cancerous shadow on a lung,” he would say.

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 dark 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 the Crow, sniggering no doubt, with rusty scissors on his mind.

Ok, I’ll wait, standing in front of my thin reflection, eyes fixed upon my own eyes, imagining a flash of pure white.  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 scare me off 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 from the rolling hills of New Zealand, sat lonely in the ramshackle room in Ecuador, glaring at my reflection 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, bright like atomic explosions, detonate across the imitated world behind me.

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 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.

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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.”

 

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.

Crow the Impaler

The sun was throbbing in the sky, I had sore feet, and every stride 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, only accept if it’s offered again.  I don’t remember who taught me this nugget of wisdom, but I have missed out on several 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 the trek I did in Nepal all those years ago …and then it hit me. Didn’t I struggle with a particularly nasty spike during those eleven days…?

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

Little One and I had another hour or so before we reached 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 then.  But the crow doesn’t make sense of these things, for him it’s quite the opposite.  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 maneuvered to 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 eleven 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 guest house in the town of Pokhara, and having a cold beer away from the crow and his black book of lies.

But what was it that had ruined those eleven 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 cancer!  I’d felt a lump behind my knee on the first day 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 the next 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 my cancer from spreading.  The entire trek I was either sick with worry or walking through a thousand doors in my head.

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 had punched him from my shoulder, but tomorrow, when he comes, maybe I can gently push him off.

 

Swatting Flies

Yesterday the crow tried his best to ruin me.  I won’t say the nature of the spikes but they came from all angles.  They would have wedged themselves deep a year or so back but yesterday I knocked them aside like swatting flies.  It wasn’t pleasant.  Every time I took control of one, or shook it off, another was circling not too far away.  These ruminations took between two and thirty minutes to either disperse or ignore.  Not the longest fights I’ve had.  Spikes used to last for days, weeks, months in the bad old days.  Some of those old bastards still stir in the deeper canyons even now – if a familiar trigger is pulled, or the Crow rustles his feathers a certain way.

I have a lot of time on my hands right now: yesterday was spent on the porch overlooking lush green islands in a gently rolling sea – nothing to distract me from that pecking black beak on my shoulder.  It was inevitable the Crow would attack, I was simply taken aback from the various memories and images he used – I guess he showed imagination and creativity, (top of the class stuff.)  Yet it is when I am looking forward to something that he caws the loudest, proving what a devotedly spiteful devil he is.  Whether it’s death related, or violence threatening, or little one running off with the milkman, or something someone said last month or a million years ago, it usually manifests in my mind a day before an anticipated event and spirals so rapidly out of control that the next day that spike is in so deep it’s practically nailing me to the ground.  No fucking good to anyone.

But yesterday was a good day.  Not because the crow came, but because I sent him so curtly on his way again.

 

God, the Bible and All That Jazz.

I walked to the village shop today.  I passed a quaint church and as always, when I pass a pretty building, I had a peek inside.  Religious buildings interest me; churches, mosques, stone circles.  They are usually aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but even the ugly ones have a history, either through the architecture or its religious foundations.  Many of the people here in the village are practicing Christians; they seem a nice bunch – no-one has preached to us, or been judgmentally smug, basking in spiritual light.  But I don’t put this down to believing in their God, I just happen to think that they are pleasant people, and would still be pleasant people if they believed in Zeus, or Ra, or Apollo, or no God at all.

The church I visited today was quite austere, but the feeling I got as I first passed through the doors was a familiar one.

Incredulity; I couldn’t believe I’d once been hooked by this nonsensical propaganda.

I used to believe in God.  It is my strong opinion that this is a disaster for a sufferer of OCD.  In my opinion, believing that a divine power exists outside the realms of the natural laws of the universe only fuels the OCD engine.  Science says I can’t help find a cure for AIDS by walking through the doorway thirty-seven times every time I leave the kitchen, but I’ve still tried it, because hey, if the laws of nature and physics were suspended in biblical times, then who knows, maybe I do have a direct influence on a medical laboratory in California!  Maybe there’s only a 0.01 per cent chance but it’s still a chance, (there really isn’t) so I’ll do it anyway, just in case.

“You’ll save a million lives,” says the Crow.  “Or look at it another way, if you don’t walk through that door until it feels ‘right,’ then you’ll be responsible for a million deaths.”

It sounds ridiculous I know, and I knew it sounded ridiculous at the time, but I felt compelled to do it, lest I spend the rest of the week incapacitated with guilt.

When I was young and thought I had control over a particular rumination, I would either tap the Bible (if I was in my bedroom,) and think of the word ‘goodness’, or tap my forehead (this came from the superstition of tapping wood,) or, more and more as my compulsions became less physical, (or if I was in a room with other people,) I sealed the thought with imagining a pure white light, which I called ‘The Blinding.’  These compulsions could take over a hundred attempts until they felt ‘right,’ and were severely time consuming.  Lessons in life, future ambitions, homework, everything could be discarded except these brain-melting compulsions.

It is obvious to me that the bible tapping and white light (the Blinding,) derived from my belief, however twisted, in the roots of the Christian religion – God, the Bible and all that jazz.  It was like a blessed full stop.  If I was born in India I am convinced I would have drummed my fingers on my forehead to a Ganesh mantra.  Yet long after I became an atheist I still associated finishing a mental compulsion with this searing brightness.  People flash me a condescending smile if I tell them I had to imagine a blinding white light while counting to five hundred to stop war in central Africa.  But many of those people will nod their heads in approval if a person tells them they put their hands together each night and beg an invisible being who lives in an invisible Utopia, who had apparently but with no evidence created the universe and everything in it with a click of his omnipotent fingers, to stop the war in Syria.  How could I honestly say my counting to five hundred was any less powerful than my mumbling words under my breath to God?  There’s no proof for either, but one is accepted by society, the other is ridiculed.  Just because an old man with a strange hat in a billionaires palace in a tiny independent state in Rome says the Bible is the word of God doesn’t a; prove the existence of God, and b; that it is his word, even if it did.  Yet I was convinced that if billions of Christians thought it true, then obviously it must be.  What I neglected to acknowledge were the billions of Muslims, and Hindus and sharp suited Scientologists hiding behind dark glasses and flashy smiles, who all believed in something else.  I ignored the word of the Imams and the Rabbis and the Druids at Stonehenge, and I certainly never brought into the equation those soul-devoid, sin-wallowing atheists.

I could envisage Crow’s response – a raging ball of black feathers screeching in my face.  “How dare you imagine such wickedness?  Your family will be flogged in Hell!”  I’d have to tap my fingers on my forehead reciting Jesus’ name a hundred times if I’d dared to contemplate such a blasphemous idea.  I did this head tapping for over a decade.  It kept me awake long hours into the night, shuffling to school the next day with shadows under my eyes like purple bruises.

You won’t be struck down by lightning if like me you no longer believe in the God propaganda.  Well, you might be, but if you are, it’s because of an electrostatic discharge in a cloud, and not a supernatural being munching on a bunch of sour grapes.  I’m sure he’s too busy figuring out how to explain quantum mechanics and dinosaur bones than worry about someone who hasn’t washed their hands twenty-nine times before leaving the bathroom.

I believe it is totally up to the individual if he or she believes in an all-powerful supernatural being, but for me, it was fucking disastrous.  I wasted blood, sweat and YEARS on religion, and I am convinced it made my condition worse.  It didn’t make it any better, that’s for sure.

So I left the church with a bewildering shake of my head, but closed the door quietly in case anyone was praying inside.

I may not have God but I do have the Crow.  He is a metaphor for my OCD, not a real demon or supernatural being – purely a symbol I can sink my teeth into, and direct a few swear words at now and again.

The little fucker.

Amen.