UTOPIA ON FIRE

OCD is the great deceiver.  A perverter of truths. When something nice happens, OCD whispers reasons not to believe it – or tells you that events and relationships will turn out bad because of it.  Maybe sticks horrific images into your brain just because you were smiling ten minutes ago. When something unfavourable happens, it exaggerates the fallout, misrepresenting the reasons why it happened in the first place.  Bad things are magnified to awful, end of the world catastrophes – good things, suddenly distorted to not so good after all, overrated at the very least. You could win the lottery in paradise and OCD would kick the jubilation out of your lungs and set fire to all the palm trees.

“I don’t know why I bother sometimes,” I say to an empty field.

“Because the fire consuming the city can still look pretty,” says a crow on a crooked fence post.

I live on the dark side of the moon – I always have.  As a child, if Santa Claus delivered a teddy bear, OCD would tell me it had Leukaemia, and the man in the red hat was probably a rapist.  Since I can remember, positive experiences have been turned upside down and set on fire – every memory punctuated by a question mark, twisted into a dangerous riddle or littered with false memories.  “I’m sure I felt the tip of a sharp object stab into my thigh last night. Could it have been a needle infected with AIDS? Was there a man in the corner of the nightclub wishing I was dead? – Am I on a serial killer’s death-list?”  I either dwell on negative crumbs or search out shadows that were never there. Looking back over my shoulder is risky business, a cerebral minefield – like rolling a dice, where one to five means my day is ruined. Ninety-nine percent of the time I choose not to reminisce, but sometimes, memories jump out from the darkness like somersaulting ninjas.

Yesterday, Ice Cube played on the radio and it took me back several years.  All of a sudden I’m walking with friends to Compton, L.A, cameras and day-packs slung over our shoulders, watching as a car pulls up alongside us, the face of a beautiful woman beaming from the driver side window.

“This isn’t a place for tourists,” was her opening line, and as we turned to walk away, she handed me her number scrawled on a card – “But if you guys want a private dance,” she smiled.  I never did call her. But like falling dominoes, this L.A recollection nudged into another memory from the same city. I’m with the usual friends, but this time I’m talking with a local man outside an adult entertainment shop near Hollywood Boulevard at three in the morning – eagerly awaiting his driver after a promise of dancing girls back at his apartment.

“I’m a music producer, I’ve worked with Janet Jackson,” he told us.  A few hours later and two of us woke up groggy on his sofa, our other friend opening his eyes in an unfamiliar bedroom, his shirt unbuttoned and a porn movie playing on a large screen – luckily before anything too sinister could happen.  Outside I threw up in a bush. Two police cars screeched to a halt in front of us, cops jumping from their vehicles, yelling at us to put our hands on our heads as their fingers rested on the grips of their holstered guns. Our drinks had been spiked.  The cops said the man had done something like this before, but it was us they threatened to arrest because we were the ones threatening to kill the potential rapist – the predator had called the police on his own victims. Back at the dormitory we lamented that it had been like a scene from a movie.  Gunshots rang out later that night, seeming to confirm our analogy.

These recollections failed to pull a trigger, so I continued my journey along the stale corridors of my mind.  I rode a bull in New Mexico (for around ten seconds before it threw me to the ground) and stroked a great white shark as it swam past my steel cage in South Africa.  I wouldn’t do it now, I’m more aware of an animal’s right not to be touched, and although it doesn’t make up for it, in Nicaragua, I did release baby turtles into the sea, so…

People, actions and exotic locations flashed across my mind in glorious technicolor.  From sunrises in Fiji to sunsets in Chile, via coups in Mauritania and skidding off my mountain bike on the world’s most dangerous road in the mountains of Bolivia.  From a local football derby in Buenos Aires to the wrestling world cup in Mexico City. From working with young Mormon missionaries in Estonia to losing motorbike cops in a crazy taxi ride through Bogota’s back roads.  I’ve taught Koreans conversational English, leaving them with a subtle Norfolk accent, and helped Hungarians prepare business proposals in a swish hotel retreat – I wonder if they ever got the contract? OCD was with me every step of the way, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t do it.  It just meant that it hurt like Hell – like lots of things do with the Devil on your back.

“But you only touched the surface,” says Crow.  Yes, I agree, adventures were certainly restrained because the OCD coachman was pulling hard on the reins.  Opportunities cut short or never seeing the light of day as I lay huddled and cursing on a dishevelled bed. Declining an invitation to a ceremonious rock-throwing battle in a Bolivian village resonates in my head.  Cruel, intrusive thoughts had knocked the wind out of my lungs and I made my excuses, but I sometimes wonder what would have happened had I accompanied those young Bolivian men on that primitive skirmish. Probably have lost an eye.

“You’ve got another one!” squawks Crow.

All these memories make me smile, for different reasons, but yes, the recollections are always jaded – Utopia on fire.  There is always another thought poking into my membrane, a darker visual, or potential catastrophe promising to ruin all the fun.  People I’ve met along the way have regretfully become triggers too, natives and fellow travellers with whom I’ve shared great adventure.  My mental health was in particularly bad shape in India and Nepal, and whenever I think of my time there, and the people I met along the way, I twitch and cringe in discomfort.  I was an extra in a Bollywood movie, I trekked across the Himalayan mountains, but every memory pulls a particular trigger and I lose the next few hours like my head’s in a cement mixer.  Tambien in South America. I made a great friend in Colombia but still feel that I somehow let him down. From  Popayán to Cartagena, Cali to Bogota, it’s all just a whir and a sweaty panic attack – even Crow needs to breathe through a paper bag to stop his wings from shaking.

Even our good memories don’t necessarily start out that way – there will be times when we cried in fear and frustration that only now plant a smile on our face if we dare to look back.  Even if a crow was there, we still have the memories of what we’ve seen, what we’ve achieved – the apples on the tree may be bruised but they’re still partially edible, and better than eating soil, even if we prefer bananas.

Besides, somewhere in the world there are people with OCD being water-boarded as I type this, bones snapped in half in torture chambers and depressed child labourers breaking rocks in stone quarries…When you hear me complain, don’t feel too sorry for me, because I’ve had some fun along the way.  It’s just that everything was on fire at the time.