Black Beetles, Black Beetles, Black Beetles; A Time in Azerbaijan

A genuine smile split open my face the other day – like an axe through a watermelon.  I was in the passenger seat of a Lada as it sped through the streets of Sheki, Azerbaijan. The driver, a cousin of our home-stay host, was obviously auditioning for the fast and the furious 17, and I think I offended him by grabbing the passenger seat-belt.

“No worries, Azerbaijan is fine, no need for belt,” he said, as we swerved past a packed mini bus and nearly collided with another Lada driving just as manically on the opposite of the road.  I clicked in anyway, and took the cigarette he offered me. I don’t smoke so much these days, but my heart was trying to escape through my mouth, and I thought a few drags wouldn’t hurt on the grand scale of things.

So I smiled. Because regardless of my relentless OCD, here I was, in a town in Azerbaijan, in a Lada hurtling through the streets in the pouring rain – I was winning.

OCD ruined my education, lost me countless opportunities in life, crushed my hope, and it has left a bitter taste in the back of my throat. When Crow reminds me of what he’s taken away from me, I choke a little, fury rising inside me like a charging wave, and all sorts of negative emotions wrestle for control. Sometimes it takes a while to stop feeling so bitter, so sick in the stomach; I feel naked, helpless to a horde of black beetles scurrying over my face, into my mouth, swimming into my bloodstream.

Warp speed to yesterday evening, in Sheki, Azerbaijan – and I’m brushing off those beetles like dust from my jeans. Our host invited us for drinks with his family, and we talked, and smoked, and drank vodka and beer around the table. Crow nibbled at the back of my head, the intrusive thoughts knocking at the door, black beetles scuttling beneath the floorboards, but I held them off,  (the alcohol probably helped,) and again I smiled healthily, like a chimpanzee with a bag of bananas.  Yesterday we’d seen the local market; our host had driven us to a beautiful viewpoint over the city; we’d been fed tasty dishes and joked and laughed in broken English about subjects none of us fully understood, warmly accepted into their family as new friends, toasting life with the flowing vodka as Crow bit into my shoulder like a bitter, toothless, B-movie zombie.

“You are always smiling,” said Antigua, the wife of our host.

I told her that inside I was always crying. She took it as another vodka fueled quip. I wanted her to. It reminded me of my times at work in the noisy factories as I wore my clown mask in front of my work colleagues. I want to be remembered as the happy joker, not the manic juggler, or the sad shadow in the corner – laughing even as the Crows talons grind my insides to shreds.  I’d had a day and an evening to remember – a slice of life in Sheki Azerbaijan.  OCD had not taken this away from me, and the crow, although circling in the smokey room, banged into furniture like a clumsy slapstick villain, almost comical as I fought his army of gnashing beetles.

We ate, we smoked, we tipped vodka down our necks like it was a necessity to life.  We put the world to rights, agreed and disagreed, forgot that the world can be a terrible, frightening place, and I crawled into bed with a grin like a quartered watermelon.

My last coherent thoughts, regardless of Crows ferocious advances, were simple, ‘Today was a good day.’

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A THOUSAND PLANETS

We’re back in the UK. London was the cheapest city to fly to from Greece. It was a direct flight from the neighbouring island, and considerably cheaper than a forty minute flight to Athens. We couldn’t decide where to head next, and I can say it now because everything is OK, but we also had to make an important hospital appointment. Fucking crow was ten feet tall these last few days; the bastard had me imagining enough white lights to light up the darkest hour.

He became a black beetle scurrying on the wall, then two, then four, multiplied and multiplied again. The beetles, buzzing and humming, became a black stain and then a ball of limbs and wings and pincers, forming a living cloud that hung over my head like a curse. I spent a long time in dark places, but everything turned out fine. The Results came in, and damning the good news, crow flew over the mountain.

We surprised our families on their doorsteps, and are currently re-evaluating our plans from home. I want to head to Antarctica via Argentina but it’s not cheap, so I’ve placed that dream on a shelf for the moment.

Little One wants to go to the Galápagos Islands, not cheap either but much warmer. I’m just happy here at the moment, because the crow is high in the sky, a tiny pin prick in England’s gunmetal grey clouds.

Backpacking South America is certainly an option. I have hazy memories of travelling the continent several years ago.  It was a solo trip and I spent far too long waist deep in the local vices – I tried to kill the crow but only stoked his fire.

Travelling with OCD, or anxiety in any form is an uphill trek.  Mental illness and backpacking don’t fit well together, they are from a different jigsaw puzzle entirely.  You have to stamp on the pieces to make them fit, and these last two or three weeks have been tough for me, but especially for Little One, whose appointment at the hospital it was.  The Crow has been busy bloodying his talons, and I’ve done all I could to stop myself from throwing up black beetles. I’ve neutralised a hundred and one intrusive thoughts, and when they swelled like a black sea, I regressed to the bad old days, wrestling for every ounce of control.

These days, with all that I have learned, and if I am lucky, I imagine Crow is pecking on my shoulder and that is sometimes enough – I move on, my brain able to accept that it is the OCD. It has taken many years of practice but the night before the hospital appointment I managed to shoo him away every time he made an appearance. I handled it well and the good news we received took me over the rainbow.

I was crow free for a day or two, and when the crow is away my priorities quickly change to avoiding the triggers that bring him back. I have to keep my thoughts on something else – don’t stray from the path, stay in the light, avoid certain memories, travel at light speed or as fast as a thought can take me across the universe. If I’m crow free, I visit a place a million miles away, a land that time never knew, let alone forgot.I have a thousand planets that I often visit this way, and sometimes when the crow swells to monstrous proportions, if the mood is right, I am also able to enter this safe haven – where the real world is dead or never existed at all.  No more than these past days, worrying over something so much that I had to vacate the ‘here and now’ to stop from imploding.

I have a space opera in my mind that I began twenty years ago, fantasy football teams from across Europe that compete for the champions league in my head, an imaginary planet of warring continents, dreamed up boxers with records that I used to write down on paper – I still have them in a box in a shed.  I imagine tens of thousands of soldiers charging across sweeping plains, or spacecraft zigzagging across the universe in galactic dogfights – clashing in furious battles, swords hacking off limbs, titanium hulls cut in half by laser beams.  When the Crow is high in the sky, the last thing I need is to start remembering triggers and spikes from the past. So I beam aboard an interstellar star-ship or sit ringside at Caesar’s palace or climb into the saddle of a Knight’s armoured horse. In reality I am staring at a wall, or a blank television screen in the corner of the room, or laying in a bed of course.

I’m lucky to have a pretty good imagination. Sometimes when the spikes are nailing me to the floor, although I struggle to function with a task as simple as walking to the shops, or leaving my dorm bed, as long as I am lying down, eyes closed and still, I find it possible to gain breathing space with a visit to one of my far away places. An hour imagining explosions on distant planets can create vital distance from the scattered minefields of Pure O.  It’s another weapon in my arsenal in my fight against the Crow. Another tiny tactic in my crusade for the Holy Grail – a permanent off-switch to overcome OCD.

‘Every little helps,’ says the giant supermarket chain. Begrudgingly, and especially in my fight against OCD, I have to agree with them…and I also like their sandwiches.