SPLASHES OF LIGHT

 

There are splashes of light at the end of the tunnel, like candles burning behind frosted glass, or a campfire sizzling in a snowstorm.  On good days, when my OCD is less dominant, it feels like the sun is blazing; wings sprout from my shoulder blades and I zigzag through the skies like a beaming, wine-soaked angel.  But OCD is a bloodhound with a twitching snout.  It digs up buried bones and drops them on my doorstep, wagging its tail, delighted at my anguish, dropping them like dead rabbits at a hunters feet.  It’s what it does.  Don’t blame a dog for p***ing up a lamppost.

Last night I remembered Toronto, Canada.  It was my younger self, and I’m afraid to say I was in a strip-club bathroom – when I naively felt such places were cool, staring at shadows in a cracked mirror while strangers took their clothes off in the next room.  I ritualised for over twenty minutes, blinking and imagining blinding white light in the mimicked world, and when I slipped out of the room, still buried deep in thought, I headed back to the bar, ordered another bottle of beer and continued glaring at my reflection, this time in the glass of the refrigerator door.  I spent that night sleeping in a Toronto shop doorway.  Woke up with footsteps slapping on the pavement, people going to work, judging me homeless and pitying me.  I’d paid for a bed the previous night in a hostel but hadn’t made it, collapsing instead in that litter-strewn doorway until dawn.  Back to the hostel for breakfast I guess, if I could find it.  No smartphones in those days; I used Toronto tower as my GPS.  Oh, I had money to rent a bed wherever I wanted, that wasn’t an issue – the problem was the suffocating weight on my back from those terrible thoughts piling up like rocks falling from a cliff.

“How was Toronto?” said someone, somewhere in a conversation.
“All good, I enjoyed it.”
“What did you do there?”
Nothing in particular sprang to mind.  Just that mirror above the row of sinks in the strip-club bathroom.
I wanted to answer truthfully: “I Stared at mirrors, shop windows, still-water.  Anything with a reflection.”  But I just shrugged, said I got drunk and had a good time.  I genuinely can’t remember too much there, other than a large bus station where I bought a ticket to New York. Oh and the Toronto tower of course.

And that’s why, other than this blog, I tend not to look back on where I’ve been.

Reflections don’t affect me like they once did.  Although I found myself staring into the television screen yesterday… spent ten minutes glaring at my face and the shadows that the hollows of my eyes and cheeks formed, keeping the devil at bay with rituals in my head, until I forced myself away and had a strict word with myself.  “Don’t go back to Toronto!” I said aloud.  That’s why the strip-club sprang to mind, and that bathroom that stank of bleach and more than a little desperation.

Reminds me of how much better I am these days.  Oh I know there’s no cure, but years of constant battering has hardened my skin – soft tissue becomes leather, numbing the soles of my feet on the arduous road.  I’m still fighting howling mandrills in Hell, but these days I’ve got a stick and a tin helmet.  If you get punched everyday in the face, you finally learn to roll with the blows.  It’s still hurts, can break your nose or dislocate your jaw, but you know it’s coming and you stop wasting time saying to yourself, “Will I get hit in the face today?” Or, “why am I feeling like this?”

The answers are always ‘Yes,’ and ‘Because you have OCD.’

Joining twitter and reading the hardships of fellow sufferers is at first upsetting, because it reveals that so many people are struggling, but it also means that we are not battling this alone.  I guess it makes me feel part of a tribe.

You gotta take what you can, appreciate the light and what it illuminates before that morose, red-eyed caretaker switches off the generator.  I cling to every source of happiness, seeking to squeeze every last drop of sweetness from any experience that makes me smile.  It makes life worth fighting for.  It’s why I push myself to travel.  And that’s never easy.  I often ask myself what the Hell am I doing ritualising on this chicken bus rumbling through Malawi? Or why exactly am I hiking up this mountain when my OCDemon is on my back, trying to drag me back down to sea-level?  I need to go out to find food, but no-one understands a word I say, and it’s hot, and I’m covered in mosquito bites, and i need re-hydration tablets, and my intrusive thoughts are spiking and why do I enjoy this again?

I began travelling when the absence of light was apparent, when the tunnel was a hopeless black corridor.  I left a wasteful life behind because it was destroying me from the inside, mocking me with its comparisons of what I could be and what I actually was.  It was a mighty leap into the unfamiliar but the wind rustling through my hair woke me up like a slap to the face.  The journey can be torturous but when it’s over, the sense of achievement is immense.  Like I’m dancing in the ashes of my OCD and saying, “HA! You did your best to bring me crashing down, but I overcame your spiteful ways.  You failed, and I know you’ll be back, but so will I!”

It lifts me a little, and levitating an inch off the floor is sometimes enough to raise my head above those purple clouds.

The fact that I can now see the colour of the clouds around me, and the patterns on the tunnel walls, is testament to my slow crawl towards recovery, and that encourages me to stumble forward.


There are splashes of light at the end of the long, black tunnel.  And there never used to be.

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SCALDING CAULDRON: THE WITCH’S POT

 

OCD is like a hungry dog with a bone.  It’s just not letting go.  And people telling me to ignore it doesn’t help.  Especially when it’s one of my f*cking bones.

“So what have you learned from all your travels, Yan?” I’ve been asked more than once.

‘That you can’t outrun a mental illness,’ is my instinctive answer.

“The world is getting smaller,” I say instead.  Or something along those lines.

“You’ve been to Ecuador haven’t you? How was it?”

And my thoughts go back several years…

I was riding on the roof of a train in Ecuador.  Although it sounds like something out of a Hollywood adventure film, it wasn’t.  The locals rode in the carriages, the tourists, me and thirty other backpackers, took the opportunity to sit on top, just because we could.  Besides, it was in the Lonely Planet so…

The problem was that crow was being a devil that morning.  Dark stuff, claws in bone deep, a heavy duty spike driven into my eyeball like a stake through a vampires heart.  It killed me on the spot.

We were packed onto the rooftop, nowhere to hide, and a group of Irish girls sipped from plastic bottles in their day packs.  They sat around me, and we joked while they knocked back vodka and whiskey and aguardiente.  It was early, crow was swearing in my head, and I was looking down the barrel of a five hour journey with my new friends.  One of the girls offered me her canteen.

I can’t even remember what the intrusive thought was now, but Crow delivered his usual threats into my ear.  I couldn’t face the day like this.  There was nowhere to run!

A well-used excuse flashed into my mind like an old friend showing up on my doorstep.

‘Long time no see,’ I thought, as a figure in a long black mac slipped past me with a wink and a nod of the head.

“Cheers,” I said, holding up my hand and rejecting the alcohol, “But I had a late one last night and I’m suffering for it.”

And there went my day, f*cking off over the horizon with a skip and a leap.  It left behind a stinking present in a black plastic bag.  I kicked it off the train.

So I settled down, spread out on the metal roof, pretending to be hungover, closing my eyes and ruminating over a stupid thought as Ecuador sped past, whistling in my ears.  I glimpsed the Dragon’s Nose, or whatever mountain it was the train was headed for, between heavy eyelids and over the shoulder of giggling Irish girls.

“Yeah, Ecuador was fine,” I say.

But don’t look back in anger.

In fact, just don’t look back.

For me, looking back is like peering into a witch’s cauldron.  An old bony hand stirring the bubbling broth; disturbing the liquid until the memories and old thoughts, the rats’ tails and sheep’s eyes, bobble and turn on the surface – a renewed lease of life to haunt me all over again, a dead hand rising from the grave.

I was watching the TV and an actor reminded me of my old factory supervisor.  I hear the rubbing of leather as a black gloved finger gently squeezes on a trigger – Crow the assassin on a grassy knoll.  I try to forget those bad days; it’s like tap dancing in a minefield, limbs and shattered bones scattered on the grass as the Crimson Knight watches astride his braying horse, smoking a fat cigar and shouting, “‘tis but a flesh wound!”  I leap sideways, stuffing my supervisor into a cupboard and wedging a chair in front of the door.  But my thoughts are active…I’m a young Yan Baskets and Oasis are on the radio and I remember all the time I spent in bed, scratching the wall paper, trying to squeeze giant crow-shaped thoughts into tiny square boxes, sweating beneath the bedsheets in the clothes that I was too lethargic to take off the previous night.  An old chicken burger festered in its greasy box, balanced on a chair stacked to the ceiling with dirty jeans and t-shirts.  Whenever I heard my brother’s key in the front door, I’d jump out of bed, shuffle downstairs and pretend everything was normal, no problem, I haven’t been curled up in the foetus position all day.  I wasted days like this and now I’m angry at myself and that stupid crow.

I look deeper in the cauldron…

Another turn of the spoon and I’m further back in time, memories focusing on those confusing years in school, dark thoughts, like mangy wolves, howling inside my head as the teacher explained photosynthesis, thoughts turning over and over like a knife in a spin-dryer.  Heart-pounding dilemmas that look so silly now, why did I spend those lessons torturing myself over such ridiculous distortions of the truth?

I was told OCD sufferers rarely act on their ‘urges.’  But I remember as a child biting the hands off of my toy soldiers, or nibbling on their plastic guns.  I’d hold a tiny figurine between thumb and finger, and Crow (although I didn’t know him as that in those days), would encourage me to chew and mutilate anything that tempted him.  I’d do it too, and so I worried that I would carry out darker deeds that the crow whispered into my ear.  I scribbled on drawings I was pleased with, or scrunched up the paper into tiny balls, because my OCDemon said that I could, and when the fear or urges got violent I was terrified that I would act upon them, like I did the drawings, and I would remember biting the hands off of my toy soldiers and think “what if I grabbed the knife and…”

Another peek into that stinking broth and a rotting fear resurfaces, hot liquid scalding my face.  I had a month of trouble with this particular spike in the bad ol’ days – paranoia burned a hole and left a scar.  But did I ever get it ‘sorted’ in my thoughts? Or did it slip through the net? Should I be worrying again?  Is it current in today’s market? I twitch it away, and Little One asks me what I just said, quickly realising I was wrestling Crow and turning back to the TV.  She’s good like that.

So I rarely look back.  Even on the good times, because bad things are always lurking nearby.  Writing this blog often nudges old fears to life, but in the long run it helps.  Or it feels like it does.  And it’s the only time I dare reminisce.

Christmas is over and here we all are.  I suppose I’ll be on a plane again soon.  Of all the places I’ve been, because I tend not to look back, it sometimes feels like I’ve never been anywhere at all.  It’s a return to the drawing board I guess, I’ll stick a pin in a map and all the rest of the cliches I regurgitate when people ask me where I’m going next.

I recline on the sofa, ignoring the television, losing myself in the cosmos as I distance myself from the trigger on the grassy knoll.

I don’t look back; I don’t look forward, only sideways into space.

 

 

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 fuelled 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 smoky room, banged into furniture like a clumsy slapstick villain, almost comical as I fought his army of gnawing beetles.

We ate, we smoked, we tipped vodka down our necks like it was putting out a fire in our bellies.  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.’

 

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 blinding white explosions to light up the furthest corner in the darkest room.

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 flapping wings and gnashing pincers, forming a living cloud that hung over my head like a witches curse.  I spent a long time in concealed 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.  Little One wants to go to the Galápagos Islands, not cheap either but certainly not as cold.  I’m happy here at the moment, because the crow is high in the sky, a tiny pin prick in England’s gun-metal grey clouds.  Backpacking South America is another option.  I have hazy memories of travelling the continent several years ago.  It was a solo trip and I spent far too long wading waist-deep in the local vices – I tried to kill the crow but only stoked his fire.

Travelling with OCD, or mental health issues in any form is an uphill trek.  Mental illness and backpacking don’t fit together well, they’re 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 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 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 often 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 is dangerously close to snapping me in half, I enter this safe haven to catch my breath, to hide under the bedcovers in a secret place where the real world is dead or never existed at all.   Over the past few days, worrying over something so desperately, I visited these worlds to save me 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 fight records that I used to write down on paper – I still have them in a box in my parents garage.  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 charger.  Here I am Emperor Yan the Unscathed, civilising the barbarian horde, while in the real world I am staring at a wall, or a blank television screen in the corner of the room, or lying in a bed of course.

I’m lucky to have a pretty good imagination.  Sometimes, when the spikes are nailing me to the floor, or depression is smothering me with a wet blanket, although I struggle to function with a task as simple as walking to the shops, or leaving my dorm bed, or merely visiting friends, as long as I am lying down, eyes closed and still, I find it possible to gain breathing space with a jaunt to one of my far-away places.  An hour imagining invasions of distant solar systems creates the space to move away from the scattered minefields of Pure O.  It’s an O.C.Detour, if you like, or another weapon in the arsenal in my fight against the Crow, a tactic in my crusade for the Holy Grail – to find the chalice of reason and drink until the crow chokes on the sweet nectar and drowns in my stomach.

‘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.