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.

 

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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.

 

Mzungu in The Mist

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twenty bullets exploding into her face.

Twenty pools of blood.

Twenty pieces of brain sliding down the wall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crow and the Bowl of Cereal

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crow got a lot darker.

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

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