Battlegrounds – Owl Verus Crow

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fighting the Fear: When Crow whispers murder in my ear, realising it’s a fear and not an urge is a giant leap forward.  Crow doesn’t want me to be happy, so describes situations that I dread the most. Many people get these thoughts – OCD sufferers struggle to shake them off.

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

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

I couldn’t think of anything else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The irony is that I still imagine a sweeping white light that I use to quell an obsessional thought.  I call it ‘The Blinding’, and it has followed me around the world for years. I believe The Blinding stems from growing up in a Christian country and is heavily influenced by the notion that white light is good and darkness and shadow are evil.

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve created OCD walls that actually protect me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m making another copy.

F**K OFF, CROW!

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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.

 

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.

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.

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.