SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY

I struggled to get to sleep last night.  Nothing too unusual there. My mind was on its knees, crawling in the gutter, looking for trouble.  I tried to keep it busy with other thoughts, but all I got was a line of embarrassing memories queuing for my attention – recollections of school traumas; stupid ten-year-old conversations from when I worked in the factories; a surge of random, shameful, embarrassing actions from the last thirty years of my life.  Squadrons of fighter jets blackened my skies. I shot some down with reason. Others flew around in loops. I should have poured another shot of whiskey, but I can’t rely on drugs and booze to send me to sleep. Not every night.

Those embarrassing memories swiftly turned to darker notions.

Crow, my OCD in stereo, tried to tell me that war with Iran or North Korea was inevitable.  He told me we had a year left at the very most.

Would that be such a bad thing, Crow?

North Korea, huh?  I remembered my time in South Korea, and a trip to the Demilitarised Zone and the Joint Security Area.  At the JSA, a simple concrete strip was all there was of a demarcation line between North and South. We were able to cross it while inside one of the famous blue huts, a building where generals from both armies continue to meet, bickering and picking at each others’ ideologies under the looming threat of radioactive mushroom clouds.

We signed a disclaimer before we were allowed into bullet range – given strict orders of what we could and couldn’t do.  No pointing at the North Korean guard in the big hat, no taking the piss, only very specific places to take photographs, and DO NOT cross that line outside of the big blue hut.

“Or you won’t be coming back,” said the American soldier in thick black sunglasses.

Back outside, and standing before the concrete line, Crow wanted me to leap across, run at the North Korean Guard the U.S soldiers had nicknamed Bob. I imagined being manhandled into the tall grey building opposite, angry North Korean soldiers pointing guns in my face.  Crow turned his attention to Little One.

“Push her across,” he said and, in my mind, I shoved my girlfriend into North Korean territory.  An image of Little One being escorted to a labour camp haunted my thoughts. In fact, the entire tour was interrupted by intrusive thoughts of how I could start an international incident.

“You could start World War Three!!” squawked Crow, snapping at my face.  OCD had taken the potential for a good day and drowned it in a bath of uranium.  Kim Jong-un would kill for that stuff, and does – allegedly…

 

An elbow nudged me gently in the ribs – I’d been making noises in my quest for sleep.  Little One asked if I was OK.

I pushed the thoughts away.  Turned onto my side and tried to think of the latest football results.

“What are the first signs of Cancer…?”

Fuck off, Crow.

“Who will be the next person to die that you love?”

I’m not playing this game.

“If it’s you, how will your family take the news?”

They’d cope.  We’re all going to die, anyway.

“Who does Little One want to f**k in your bed?”

Really, Crow?

“You’ll soon be leaving East Sussex.  Do you know how many people think you’re a waste of space in your hometown?”

They don’t know my situation.

“Doesn’t matter, all that matters is they think you’re a loser.”

I am a loser.

My home town festival was on last week.  I’m still house-sitting but I could have gone home for the weekend.  Unfortunately, my OCD has been working overtime lately, putting doubts into my head whenever I think of returning to Norfolk.  But deep down do I really care what people think? He changed tack again…

“You could throw boiling coffee in Little One’s face.”

Or I could choose not too.

“Bad things are coming.  Think of that blinding light and I’ll go away and let you sleep.”

I balled my fists and pictured a black space instead, but felt guilty that someone might die because of it.  I flashed white across my mind. Miraculously, it worked first time and Crow flew off to watch me from his perch in Hell.  I turned over with a sigh of relief, but couldn’t help thinking that with all my previous tossing and turning, I’d already lost the battle.

But I woke up this morning, which meant that I must have slept.

“Good morning, world,”  I stretched and yawned. Could have done with an extra hour in bed, and that’s why I have a whiskey nightcap or smoke a joint in the garden before I turn in – it puts me to sleep before the Devil slips between the sheets.

As always, from the moment I woke, negative thoughts spilled into my mind, congregating like safari animals around a watering hole.  I sat and watched the Springboks. They looked harmless enough, but Crow is the hunter in the silly hat, shooting beasts and dragging them back to camp for detailed dissection.

I toyed with rummaging through my old box of medication.  I’ve kept it for a while. The meds are out of date but I was tempted to swallow some anyway.  They lose power over time, so what’s the worst that could happen? They don’t work as they should?  I only need a little bit of respite. On full med power, I can’t operate an electric toothbrush, and I don’t want to go there again.  Daytime TV from the sofa – so many recipes, beauty tips and breakfast cereal commercials. Not a great way to go – drowning in a bathtub of uranium is much more rock ‘n roll!

Today, I decided against the out of date medication, although a full litre bottle of whiskey sits on the kitchen worktop.

Tonight, I’m going to sleep like a lion.

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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 that would 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 might 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 on a blank television screen.  I imagined a well-groomed man, a smile on his face like a knife slash in pigskin, pointing to a weather map in a familiar television studio.  The 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.

It became an old man coughing up blood in a hospital waiting room.  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.  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 corridors.

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. But I did it anyway.

I fought against some intrusive thoughts, 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 a piece of the world. 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 a cloud, black like a bucket of coal.

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

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 do? Can I save a life by repeating certain words in my head?  And what is it you can actually do right now?”

Black feathers stirred in the sky.

“You’re the one who can stop the situation,” I imagined him taunting.

I broke once.  I’d almost upheld a policy of zero tolerance, but not quite.  And no, it didn’t help. The news was bad.

I’m home now.  The OCD cloud is floating over other fields, 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 crisply dressed weatherman with the sinister smile.  He points to the video map projected over his shoulder, where 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.

I thought I was going to die from a horrendous disease.

I ritualised and I lived.

But someone I loved did die.

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 are going to happen throughout our lives, whether we surrender to our compulsions or not – and it’s hard to convince ourselves that we have no control over such incidents.  OCD says we can change the world, and we can, but not by avoiding odd numbers or imagining shadows doused in blinding white light.

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 – the usual bombastic traveller remarks.  But a big part feels I should go back somewhere I’ve already visited, a place where the crow ruined my experience the first time around – and there are plenty of those.

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

It would go a little like this…

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

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

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

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

Will this be the last time?

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

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

But never trust your OCDemon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 through the window instead of at it.  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.  Inside the great construction, a lengthy conveyor belt loops around the foundry floor, and whenever my head is clear, or I am happy, a spike falls into a box and is delivered, (via ‘Crow Express Delivery Service’,) to wherever I am in the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I nearly forgot this is a travel blog too.

 

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

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

CHEWING FEATHERS

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

It’s just a shame that I’ve either had to cut the meetings short, (I should have gone to the golf club in Ljubljana), or missed the bones of an interesting 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 OCD, I probably wouldn’t have sold my home in England – I wouldn’t be here, house-sitting in Greece, watching the distant fishing boats idle on the calm blue sea.

I often lament those split conversations, the times when you find yourself talking to someone in the real world, but you’re also busy trying to talk sense to yourself somewhere in the chaotic disco in your head.  Dissecting a thought, you realise you’ve taken too long answering a question, there’s an awkward silence, maybe you didn’t quite catch what was said. You ask the person to repeat their query, just as another spiked cannonball roars from the Howitzer.  You’ve missed the real-world conversation AGAIN! You’re standing face to face with a man you met yesterday on the train, and you’re listening but struggling to hear a single word he’s spoken all morning. A third time, and yes, you hear what’s being said but it makes no sense because you missed the previous three minutes of dialogue.

You smile apologetically, “Sorry Lorenzo, I was miles away.”  You blame a late night, say you’re a prolific daydreamer, or, “that joint has really hit me hard.”  You certainly can’t mention the screeching bird in your cerebrum. “Sorry mate, I was talking to a crow,” is not an option.

The problem is not only missing keywords but also, when you know precisely what’s being said, your stomach can feel so full of lead that you don’t have the mental strength to join in, or expand the question, or debate it, or anything at all because you’ve got the black feathered Prince of Doubt pecking holes in the side of your head.  You can spill words from your mouth but it’s more of a ramble than a discussion. I’ve missed a million punchlines this way. Maybe I’ve had the answer to life explained to me in glorious detail but was too busy thinking about killing myself in front of my gran to heed the advice. (Did he say forty-two or forty-three?)

How I would love it to work the other way around.  “Sorry Crow, I was talking to my friend, you’ll have to wait.  Stand in line or come back tomorrow.”

The greatest problem with OCD, for me, is that big fat O – Obsessional thoughts that fight for my absolute attention the moment I’m semi-conscious.  The 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 for me, with Crow for company, and for the millions of other sufferers with imps, monkeys, and demons perched on their shoulders, it’s not just every day, but every second of every minute of every hour of every day.  It’s not surprising that we miss things. We just have to make the most of the conversations we do have control over. Crow circles me a little higher these days and I’m able to reflect on all the discussions that I’ve had to cut short.

But believe me, I can talk.  At school I tried to fill every silence with noise.  I didn’t absorb crucial information, was only interested in things that made me laugh.  I messed around and talked nonsense and tried to laugh loudly because it was the only way to keep the crow out of my personal space.  My mouth was the farmer’s gun but indiscriminate like an AK47 – my sense of humour, a twisted scarecrow in a field. My classmates must have thought I was an idiot.

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

I still talk a great deal but it’s less to silence the crow, more because I want to.  Another difference is I also listen these days – at least sometimes.

The Art of Stopping

I really need to learn how to stop.  I must learn to put things on hold and not just the things I don’t like doing.  Too much of anything is a bad thing.  I should probably walk away from my PlayStation when I’m at home, and maybe not smoke so much weed.  But stopping something can be difficult, it can take years to grind to a halt on certain roads.

I’m not talking about cutting things out for good, just pausing enough for reflection, interrupting a negative flow – like switching off the television when you’ve got a headache; closing the fridge door when you know you’ve already eaten too much.

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

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

I should stop joking so much too – 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 afraid of everything in the world.  Silent moments between antics spent analysing various ways I could die, how unless I thought things through to their conclusion, I was going to have my house set on fire by school bullies, with my parents still inside, or worse, maybe I would lose control, pouring the petrol and striking the match myself.  F**k silence, my education, a chance to be someone. Be silly instead, force out those crappy jokes because when the class is laughing, Crow is sobbing in a bucket. God, how I wish I’d stopped and learned something useful. But 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 insidious thoughts.

The list goes on.  Stop worrying, stop whining, stop taking those tablets that turn me into the walking dead, shuffling around the room searching for my lost libido.  Stop watching adult movies when I’m not taking those tablets, stop fooling around like life is a f**king TV show, STOP WRITING – when I’ve said enough for the day because thinking of Crow is making me sad, know when to close the laptop.

Crow the Impaler

The sun was throbbing in the sky, I had sore feet, and every step seemed to be uphill, even on the way back down – 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 there, 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 my decision, because it hadn’t been genuine. It reminded me of when someone offers you a slice of pizza – I was always told to decline the first offer, and only accept if it’s offered again.  My memory doesn’t recall who taught me this nugget of wisdom, but over the years I have missed out on numerous slivers of Hawaiian deep crust. However, several amazing views later and I was glad I had turned down the man in the silver Sudan. I got some fabulous shots on my camera – yes, I was hot and bothered, tired and hungry, but here I was rambling in Greece and it reminded me of trekking in Nepal several years ago …and then it hit me.  Didn’t I struggle with a particularly nasty spike during those thirteen days…?

…A flap of black feathers and there he was, perched on the shoulder-straps of my rucksack.

“Yes, you did,” said Crow.

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

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

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

But what was it that had ruined those thirteen days?

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

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

 

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

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 disperse, certainly not the longest fights I’ve had, but the number of attacks was disturbing.  But how can I complain? Spikes used to last for days, weeks, months in the bad old days. Some of those old bastards stir in the deeper canyons of my mind even now – if a familiar trigger is pulled, or 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 was getting creative. It’s when I’m looking forward to something that he caws the loudest, proving what a spiteful devil he truly is.  Whether it’s death related, threatening violence, fear that Little One will run off with the milkman, or dwelling on something someone said last month or a million years ago, it manifests in my mind a day before an anticipated event and spirals rapidly out of control, impaling me with it’s spike so deep that it practically nails 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.  Along the way, I passed a quaint church and as always, when I pass a pretty building, I had a peek inside.  Religious structures interest me; churches, mosques, stone circles. They are usually aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but even the ugly ones have an interesting history.  Many of the people here in the village are practicing Christians; they seem like a nice bunch – no-one has preached to us or been judgmentally smug. They’re warm, friendly people but not because they believe in the Christian God, I just happen to think that they are pleasant people and would still be pleasant if they believed in Allah, or Zeus, or no God at all.  The church I visited today was quite austere inside, but the feeling I got as I passed through the doors was a familiar one. 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 catastrophe for anyone suffering from 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-three times, but 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.  So I do it anyway, just in case.

“You’ll save a million lives,” says 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 now, 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, to seal the feeling and move on, I would drum my fingers on a copy of the Bible (if I was in my bedroom,) or tap my forehead while thinking of the word ‘goodness’ (from the superstition of knocking on wood,) or, more and more as my compulsions became less physical, (or if I was in a room with other people,) I confirmed the ‘feeling’ of control by imagining a pure white light, which I called the ‘Blinding.’  These compulsions could take hundreds of attempts before they felt ‘right’. They were severely time-consuming – homework, future ambitions, lessons in life, everything would be discarded to make room for these brain-melting compulsions.

It is obvious to me that envisioning a blinding white light 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. White light is good and darkness and shadow are evil. If I was born in India, I am convinced I would have drummed my fingers on my forehead to a Vishnu mantra.  Yet long after I became an atheist, I continued to complete mental compulsions by visualising a searing brightness. To my irritation, I continue to imagine the Blinding today, albeit at a lesser intensity.

People flash me a condescending smile when 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 plead to an invisible being who lives in a multidimensional 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 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 billion-dollar palace in a tiny independent state in Rome says the Bible is the word of God doesn’t prove that it is. Let alone that He exists. Yet I was convinced that if billions of Christians thought it true, then obviously it must be. I neglected to acknowledge the billions of Muslims, Hindus and the growing number of those 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 the opinion of atheists. I could envisage Crow’s response – a raging ball of black feathers screeching in my face.

“How dare you imagine such wickedness?” he’d scream.  “The devil will rape your family in Hell!”

I’d have to tap my fingers on my forehead reciting Jesus’ name a hundred times if I even dared to contemplate such a blasphemous idea.  This head tapping lasted for over a decade – it kept me awake for long hours of the night, shuffling to school the next day with shadows under my eyes like I’d been punched in the face.

So 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 eternity in 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 muddled and confused – a monster on my bedpost screaming in my ear, “Start again, Yan. Start again!”

More importantly, I concluded that my dark intrusive thoughts were not being judged after all, because there was no one there to judge them.  I fear that searching for God, or thinking that you’ve found 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 supposedly created the Universe in six days – whose son could moonwalk on water and cure leprosy with a click of his fingers.

You won’t be struck down by lightning if like me you no longer believe in God propaganda.  Well, you might be, but if you are, it’s because of 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 thirty-three times before leaving the bathroom.  I believe it is totally up to the individual whether or not they worship an all-powerful supernatural being, but for me, it was f**king 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.

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 Crow, 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 f**ker. 

Amen.

Machine Guns in the Mist

It’s not all bad news.  I’ve been fortunate enough to see quite a lot of the world, zigzagging up and down and all around, and for the first few years, aside from Crow, the stowaway in my backpack, 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. I’m writing this post while 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 for Christmas, then cross a stormy Adriatic Sea to Albania, travelling up through Montenegro, Serbia, and Hungary, before finally catching 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.  It is quiet, our average day consisting of cooking pasta, 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 local 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 pile of black bin bags. 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 imagined scenes of torture – murder on a loop.  Or tried to convince me that I had a terminal illness, or that Little One was having an affair. This afternoon, sipping cold juice in a garden overlooking a glorious blue sea, and grateful for 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 scraping across my face, and I remembered the thoughts that accompanied me on my trek through that sodden rain-forest – anxiety dragging me down with moist hands, a bag of ball-bearings slung across 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 appreciate my surroundings; the mountains, the rainforest, the village at the end of a winding road.  But I couldn’t get enthusiastic about anything – 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 rainforest with the trackers and the two soldiers with AK47s.  The unwanted image had flashed into my mind the moment my eyes 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 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, 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 …”I can push the man standing next to me into the silverback.”

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 pulling on my shoulders, and a wriggling sickness in my stomach like I’d swallowed tiny snakes – it was making the trek through the lush forest seem like 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 maybe 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 a 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, rueing the Crows influence, frustrated that 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 imaginary 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 soldier’s lap over two and a half thousand miles away.