The Magical Thinking Roundabout

I’m a cynical person.  Skeptical of anything the cold blade of science cannot dissect.  I’m an atheist, a…

“What about the Blinding?” asks Crow, and I shake a fist at that black ball of feathers.  “You use a blinding white light like a full stop to finish your thoughts.”

“And my reflection, of course?” says the gorgon in the mirror.  “I still catch you avoiding shadows in reflective surfaces.”

“Faces in photographs, ” says Uncle Jack.  “Sometimes you have to look at them until it ‘feels right,’ if not you think those people may die as a result.”

“Remember the first gulf war?” shouts Crow.  “The rituals you performed with the shadows on the wall.  If you didn’t avoid them with your eyes, you thought Saddam Hussein was going to roll into town with his Elite Republican Guard.”

OK, so it’s not easy to dismiss magical thinking.

“What about the AIDS epidemic. You thought you’d contract it unless—“

“But I believed in God in those days!”  I retaliate.  “Or at least, I didn’t NOT believe in Him!”

“But you didn’t pray.  You touched your forehead and counted to odd numbers, but not thirteen, and how many times did you go back and forth through that f*cking living room door?”

OK, I suffer from magical thinking OCD and it frustrates me to the bone because I don’t believe it for a second, but… my cynicism gets lost in the corridors of my mind, with all those dead ends, crossed wires and doubts that multiply and multiply again.  There’s a tiny part of me that thinks maybe, just maybe, a billion to one that I control the destiny of people I’ve never met before.  And that’s enough to send me spiralling into oblivion.  A tiny, niggling itch, a drop of acid dripped onto the roof of a skyscraper, eating through a thousand stories.  With all this magical thinking I should have joined the church.

ERP can help, piling more goods onto the conveyor belt at the tooth factory.  Look at all the products falling onto the floor.  I could have stopped the war in Syria, but the troubles in Oman, North Korea, that’s just ridiculous.  A crow swoops from the ceiling and grabs a thought from the growing pile, which wriggles like a worm in its black beak.  Off it flies, into the rafters, saving it for another day.

“For when it’s quieter in here, ” he’d probably say, if he was real and not my OCD avatar.

However absurd a thought sounds, an OCD brain struggles to make it disappear, dissecting it before it can toss it into the bin.  A non OCD brain would mark it as spam and send similar notions directly into the trash folder.  Unfortunately I take every thought on individual merit.  Reasoning that attempting to stop Saddam Hussein’s tanks with rituals was obviously my OCD, but Kim Jong-un’s rockets, that’s another matter altogether.  If I avoid those shadows on the wall, maybe, if we’re lucky, he won’t hit Seoul with a chemical warhead after all.

You may think it sounds silly, that such thoughts should be easy to dismiss, but to some, a fear of spiders is just as nonsensical, but try telling that to an arachnophobic with a spider on their head.  Or dangle someone with a fear of heights from a helicopter and try to convince them they’re being ridiculous.

I’m getting better managing my magical thinking but if I’m honest, sometimes a few fantastical notions get through, paralysing me with fear in front of the mirror as the shadows turn to cancerous tumours.  Have I deluded myself that I can cure COVID-19?  Not yet, but don’t let that worry medical science, I’m sure I could destroy the virus if I count backwards from two thousand and twenty.

“F*ck sake, Crow.  That’ll take me all day!”

“A small price to save humankind!”  he sneers, and yes, if I had the magical powers he says I possess, he’d be right.

Luckily, today, I know it’s OCD.

I CRY FOR HELP BUT SHE’S IN SPACE…

OK, so this Coronavirus thing is starting to hit home.  Crow, my OCDemon, has finally seen what it can do with the situation.  How he can twist it into a crude weapon and knock me over the head with it.  I’m trying not to think too much about the various possibilities, or lack of them, losing myself in other misery.  And I was, until the kidney stone passed into my bladder – although I’m still waiting to hear it plop into the lavatory bowl.  Meanwhile, the fear of COVID-19 has grown into a reasonably sized monster. And quarantine isn’t helping. I imagine Crow painting all my windows black, locking the doors and swallowing the house keys.  I cry for help, but she’s in space.

“This is it, Yan.  From now on it’s all there’ll ever be.  Other than the riots of course!” Trust Crow to twist the knife while it’s sticking out of my leg.

While I’m in the supermarket I don’t worry about the potential chaos, although I’m ashamed to say that the day before I go, I entertain Crow squawking on about what will happen in aisle three like he actually possesses precognitive abilities, bending spoons and reading minds in a circus tent.

“You’ll stand too close to someone, and that someone will be on edge, no sleep for a week and ready to blow.  Your close proximity will be the straw that shatters the camel’s back. He’ll punch you in the face and you’ll fall and crack your head.  I don’t think you’ll ever walk again. Imagine Little One’s face as your blood pools onto the supermarket floor!”

Depression sneaks into my day like a black gas.  Insidious, and smelling of rotten eggs. So what can I do about it?  Keep trucking. Keep telling my OCD to f**k off. Keep getting as much sunlight as possible.  Continue to live and take each day as it appears over the horizon. Yes, it could be better, but it could be a Hell of a lot worse.  I could be fighting marauding armies on a medieval battlefield. Cut in half, bleeding out as the town walls are breached. Or fighting in trenches, choking on mustard gas.  I could be a dog in a cage, starved of love and food, dying in my own faeces. I could be in a million other dark places, gagging on a cocktail of bleach and other household cleaners.  So I remind myself, and Crow, and try to make the best of being stuck in the house each day. I have Little One, and books, and the internet, and my freelance work and food in the fridge.  We don’t know what’s coming our way, but we will do soon. As each day passes we know what we’ve survived, as each day begins, we feel what it brings as we walk along the path. It’s tough on us all.

I cry for help, but she’s in space.  As she always is. As she always was.  Nothing’s changed. Stay safe…

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE ANXIOUS

“So what have you learned, Yan, with all that travelling under your belt?”  Uncle Jack takes a sip of rancid coffee from a plastic cup.

Every time, whenever somebody asks me this question, if I’m not expecting it, I always struggle to find something profound to fire back at them.

A casual thought falls from the sky…

 

…There are thousands of ways to stack a dishwasher.  While volunteering on a horse stud farm in New Zealand, my duties included cleaning the dishes after every evening meal.  I used to dread this event, as the lady of the house, a fierce middle aged woman with a temper like a pit bull chained to a fence, would scream her instructions as I fumbled to stack the cracked china plates.

“Don’t put them there, they go on the bottom, you idiot!  And not that way around, turn them so they face left!”

When I was working on an alpaca farm in Arizona, although they didn’t have a dishwasher, they did have a particular way of drying their tableware.  It became an after dinner game, attempting to delay the washing up until the hosts were settled in front of the TV.

“Be careful you don’t break anything!” a voice would bark from the next room.

Really, I didn’t realise, I was about to throw them at the wall.  Thank God you told me.

Little One and I are house sitting in Southport at the moment – a lovely residence, but with set rules on how to use the dishwasher.

“We don’t use it to actually wash the dishes, but as a place to stack them so they can dry without cluttering up the draining board. Oh, and not like that, the cutlery slides in from left to right.  It helps them to drip properly.”

And I thought I had an OCD problem.

I’ve never struggled with the tidying form of the illness.  Or washing my hands a hundred times an hour, or arranging sausages in parallel lines on my plate.  It must be extremely restricting, a particular room in Hell, and I do have experience battling with light switches and shadows on the wall, so I understand the frustration, the heavy dread that sits in the heart.  Although I obsess like a world champion, believe me, it comes with heavy doses of Crow evading compulsions too. They’re simply hidden behind my eyes, and if you could take a look inside my mind, you’d see a tiny version of myself on my knees, ritualising like a fanatic most days.  I suppose you could say I wash my hands and line up those sausages in my head. A twitching eye, a mumbled word under my breath, these are the signs of distress that appear if you look at me long enough. Evidence of the war raging within.

“So you learned how to operate a dishwasher?” says Uncle Jack.

“Not just one, several. And a thousand ways to balance plates.”

“Anything else?”

“How to fight intrusive thoughts when cramped on a packed bus spluttering through the Rwandan countryside.”

“What did you learn from all those different cultures?”

“That mental health affects all four corners of the world.  Black and white, rich and poor, tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor.  The religious and those with no faith at all.”

“OK,” nods Uncle Jack.  He crushes the plastic cup and lobs it into the bin.  It lands on a glob of yellow paint. “What did you eat in Rwanda?” he asks.

“Lots of pizza.”

Everyone takes away something different from an identical experience.  If I shared a table in a restaurant with Uncle Jack, ate the same dish, delivered by the same waiter, we’d both come away with different experiences.  For one, seafood gives Uncle Jack indigestion. And it’s even tougher to accurately envision something that we haven’t seen for ourselves. An exact reckoning is impossible.  A smile breaks out behind my mask when people ask what I got up to when I was travelling. Even without OCD, I think I’d surprise them. How do we evaluate a person’s experience at a restaurant, let alone their years living out of a backpack.

What did I do?  Lots of stuff.

What did I learn?  Plenty.

I try to avoid these questions because when I answer truthfully, I always think people will be disappointed when they hear what I have to say.  I’m no Bear Grylls catching breakfast from a river every morning. I like McDonalds’ sausage and egg McMuffins. And usually eat them staring at a picture of that clown’s stupid grin while batting away negative thoughts of how we might all die today.

What did I do yesterday?  You’re a nosy bastard, Uncle Jack.

But if you want to know, I delved into my bag of anxieties and obsessed over stuff, smashed out a few rituals to give me a bit of breathing space.  I went shopping too but if I only mentioned buying groceries, you’ll think I wasted my day and should have done better…

Anyway, Uncle Jack, enough about me.  What did you do?

JUST ENOUGH EDUCATION TO SURVIVE

I wake up several years ago – I’m fifteen and terrified of life.  Immediately I feel a weight upon my body, a pillow over my face. There is a tingle in the back of my mind, something stirs in my consciousness, a struggle from the night before that I don’t quite remember but feel is coming back to haunt me – an intrusive thought knocking at the door or twitching at the foot of the bed like a dog stirring from a deep sleep.  Thirty seconds tick by. Dragging on my socks, memory claps me on the back and I’m sucked into a whirlpool.

Messing around with my friend we walk through the school gates, fighting to keep the gnashing thoughts at bay, at least until my first lesson, where I’ll stare into my textbook, pretending to work, but concentrating on trying to dismiss these absurd ideas.  That first lesson is maths – how I hate numbers, always having to recount and ‘make sure’ and ‘did I carry the three over?’ It’s a minefield, so I don’t even try in my final year at school, just sit at the back of the class, dwelling on jumbled thoughts.

I was with a girl six months ago.  We never even kissed but she did allow my hands up her skirt, my fingers into her knickers.  A rumour began that last year she slept with a guy who was HIV Positive.  I’ve convinced myself I bit my nails after the event and now I have the virus.  I don’t yet realise that the fear is nonsensical, that won’t be for another four years when I’ll ring the National AIDS helpline and they’ll tell me that the virus doesn’t work like that – it would be near impossible for me to have contracted the disease this way.  But that’s in the future, at this moment in time I’ve convinced myself I’m going to catch a cold that will kill me before I reach sixteen. In those days there’s no Google for me to check how the virus is spread. Just that f**king leaflet posted through the front door.  ‘Don’t die of ignorance,’ it stated in bold letters.

I ritualise in my head, although I don’t know yet that’s what I’m doing.  I won’t find out that I have OCD for over ten years. The younger Yan Baskets thinks that everyone ruminates as much as I do – only they’re much better at it.  I manage to push ‘Death by AIDS’ into a dark room somewhere in the back of my mind. There is a four-minute respite where I manage to look forward to an event at the weekend – a hundred and eighty tranquil seconds.  And then a pupil in the year above passes by the window. He glances in, eyes loitering on mine for no more than a second. But that’s all it takes. At first, I think he just doesn’t like me. Slowly I convince myself he wants to punch me in the throat.  Eventually, by tea-time, in front of the TV, I’ll be ninety-nine percent sure that he wants to stick a knife in my stomach, slaughtering my family as a side note.

Later that night, drumming my fingers a hundred times on the small red Bible on my bedside table, I find peace of mind, enough to see me through to tomorrow morning at least.  But it has come at a cost. It takes me three-quarters of an hour to appease my inner demon, tapping the cover of the Bible, mumbling words to God, picturing a blinding white light that is never quite white enough.  I turn to face the wall, trying not to think about AIDS.

Do I sleep that night?  Yes, I do. I’ve been ruminating and ritualising from the moment I awoke, to the moment I withdraw my hand from the Bible and close my eyes – so yes, I am shattered, and I sleep.

My alarm buzzes beside me…

I wake up.  Immediately I feel a weight upon my body, a pillow over my face.  There is a tingle in the back of my mind, something stirs in my consciousness, a struggle from the night before that I don’t quite remember but feel is coming back to haunt me…

 

I don’t know how I got through those school years.  I learned next to nothing, barely enough education to survive.  But I did survive. I’m still here, and if I got through it, so can anybody, because I’m not special like the mental health posts on Instagram tell me.

Crow perches on my shoulder and nibbles my ear.  “Look, everyone, Yan has a mental illness.” I try to brush him away.  “Keep going, Yan. You’re brilliant. You’re sooooo strooooong. You’re amazing because it’s been written on a post-it note and plastered all over social media.”  He cackles and shits on my neck.

No, I’m really not special at all.

I know I’m no less of a person for suffering from a mental illness, but it doesn’t make me a hero either.  All life is awesome, just look at us, we’re on a rock spinning through space! So yes, I’m amazing, but so is a tapeworm.  Am I special for suffering like this? I haven’t cured cancer. I haven’t sacrificed an arm to save the human race. I don’t even play a musical instrument.  I suffer and live with extreme OCD and depression, but I don’t think that makes me awesome. If becoming awesome is simply not killing yourself then I think we need to raise the bar.

Sometimes we need a few messages saying that it’s OK to be average, that fighting for mediocrity is fine.  There are a lot of people suffering from mental health issues who are horrible bastards, and it has nothing to do with their illness.  If Jimmy Savile had suffered from a mental illness, and maybe he did, he’d still have died a monster “You’re bipolar, Jim,” sings Crow.  “Apparently that makes you a winner!”

I’m not a bad person but am I great?  Cynical as it may sound, I find it condescending when I’m told that I am.  You don’t f**king know me. I want to say, “Yeah, I’m in torment, but that doesn’t make me a better person.”  I guess I’m tougher than a lot of people think because of my internal battle, but what are my other options? Slip a noose around my neck and die hanging from a tree?

Having said that, embracing social media, reading the hardships of fellow sufferers on Twitter and Instagram confirmed that I am not battling this alone.  It made me feel part of a tribe. But peel back the post-it note and you notice the smear on the fridge door. Telling ourselves we are OK is not always the best option.  Sometimes it’s better to say, “Of course I’m not going to give in but I still feel f**ked!”

“It’s pathetic,” says Crow.  And the danger is, although extreme, he could be ‘a little bit’ right.  Yes, his belly is full of lies, but he once told me that someone wanted to do me harm, and the next time I saw that person, I was set upon and assaulted.

Although, thinking about it, I probably deserved it.

“You’re being paranoid,” I had chanted to the gaunt face avoiding shadows in the mirror.

“I told you he was gonna hurt you,” said Crow.

I wasn’t dismembered with an axe, but my fear was correct up to a point.  Two days earlier I’d read on a post-it note someone declaring that everything OCD says is a lie.

“But I’ve told you the truth before, Yan,” whispers Crow.  “I mix my lies with semi-truths. It’s the beauty of OCD. One percent is all it takes.  You listen to a thousand slurs and have to accept them all!”

“Or tell them all to f**k off!” says a frustrated voice at the back of my mind.  Sometimes bad things will happen and guess what, we’ve just gotta roll with it. Not deny it or worry whether it’s true or not.  Stick a post on Instagram and tell the world you’ll deal with it.  

Crow is the reflection distorted in the puddle.  The hooded figure spreading disinformation from the shadows.  But telling me everything it says is a lie, is itself dishonest.  That’s why OCD and other mental illnesses are such dangerous foes.  They match their hosts toe to toe. They are as clever as we are. As dark as we can become.

I suffer from OCD, and it has moulded me and caused me great distress which in turn has led me down paths I would otherwise not have trodden.  It has influenced my decisions and opinions, propelled me into certain action I may not have necessarily taken had a crow not been screaming murder in my ear.  It’s been tough to deal with, but am I great? I genuinely don’t think that I am. Maybe I could have been, but we’ll never know. Am I fine with this? Yes. Because I’ve got other things to worry about.

Personally, when I’m fighting Crow, honesty is my sharpest sword.  He ruined my education, that is a cold fact, but I probably would have failed Maths anyway.