DRAGON versus HYDRA

I’ve said to people in the past that suffering from a mental illness is worse than breaking a bone. And then I broke a bone and realised that’s no fun either. They’re both painful; it doesn’t have to be a competition.

I once took a week off work, festering in bed grappling one particular intrusive thought, and couldn’t concentrate on anything else for longer than a minute – I tried but there was a sickness in my stomach like I’d swallowed a glass of worms. ‘I can’t feel worse than this,’ I thought. But then I caught malaria in Uganda, and along with shaking chills and a burning fever, the throbbing, thumping headaches I endured silenced the crow as quick as a shotgun blast to his head.

It was an odd relief, and thanks to an incompetent doctor in the Ugandan town of Jinja, who falsely diagnosed a torn shoulder muscle instead of malaria, the parasite had gone undetected. I was suffering. The pain in my head was unbearable at times, but after the crow had told me it was an inoperable tumor, all of a sudden he became useless, obsolete as the illness took a firm hold in my blood. I couldn’t think of a shopping list let alone dissect the meandering cunning of an OCD riddle.

‘If it’s a tumor then I’ll die. The end.’ I could not think past that simple equation, so loud was the banging in my skull, like goblins pounding on steel drums. When the throb became a constant level pain, as if my head was jammed in a vice, the crow fled the battlefield like the yellow devil I always knew he was, white flag flapping in tatters as he disappeared over the smokey horizon. I missed my connecting flight to Mexico, my brother thrusting twenty pounds in my hand and guiding me into a taxi at Kings Cross station. A few hours later at the Hospital of Tropical Diseases, quarantine was finally lifted when they properly diagnosed the infection. There was relief, but the moment the medication took control, the Crow was back hopping on my hospital bed, claws clanking on the metal headrest.

I sat incredulous between white sheets, but smiled anyway.

He jabbed a talon in my eye, I blinked and thought of murder.
“I missed you, crow,” I lied.

And there we were again, biting, scratching, rolling around like two lovers in a barn, like rival drunks wrestling on the sawdust floor of a wild west saloon. I smiled at the injustice of it all.  But his smile is always wider than mine, and a black rainbow slashed across his face. “You could punch that window and cut your wrist in a second, or swallow bleach from the cleaners’ storeroom, imagine their faces while you’re choking to death on your own blood. What’s stopping you, Yan?” He sank his beak into my cheek. “Erase these urges by concentrating on a blast of pure white light. It’s worked before, but remember, you have to do it perfectly.”

Success was a brilliant, obliterating explosion in my mind. No more talk of dying today. But…

…”Did you know that Little One wants to be fucking that doctor, just look at their body language. What else could it all mean, think it through, you know I’m wrong but you know how it works, I need proof. Make it feel right? Come up with an alternative and seal it quickly with another blinding flash.”
For a second I wished I still had malaria.

In 2011, I had ingested a different parasite and contracted Giardiasis from a stream in Belize. By the time I reached Honduras, I was suffering from nausea and extreme diarrhoea. “You’re belching like a swamp monster,” said Little One.  As I lay stinking and rancid, huddled on the bathroom floor, there wasn’t a feather in sight.

As vicious as he may be, it turns out the crow has more than one chink in his black armour, and it’s not a straw-man standing in a field. It’s a broken bone, but only when it snaps; a sickness in the belly, but only during the most nauseating hours; a parasite in the blood, but only when it knocks me to the floor and I cannot move.

Physical or mental, pain hurts by default, if not it wouldn’t be pain. But which is worse? The quick snap of the fibula or the long, drawn out horror of an intrusive spike? I’d probably choose to lose an arm if it meant the crow would follow it into the incinerator, but if I had to cut it off myself with a hacksaw, I might only get to break the skin before I changed my mind. I guess I’ll never know because medical science doesn’t work like that, not since the Middle Ages anyway – and I’d have taken the leeches for sure.

I hate mental anguish – anxiety and fear.

I hate physical pain – high fever and broken bones.

A quick death by fire, or much slower, from venom in my blood?

Incineration by flames or suffocation by madness?

Dragon or Hydra?

No contest.

Neither.

The Art of Stopping

Too much of anything is a bad thing. I have to stop more.
Stop thinking – like in my younger years pretending to be upstairs on my computer when I was actually laying on my bed, facing the wall, worrying, ruminating, obsessing over AIDS, paranoid that a boy at school wanted to stab me to death, and are those heart murmurs in my chest? I shouldn’t have watched those television shows about modern medicine because by the time the credits were rolling I’d diagnosed myself with Leukemia and Parkinson’s and three types of kidney failure.
Stop drinking – like waking up in a homestay in Havana, Cuba, mottled in vomit. Apologising to the old woman whose house it was, taking the sheets to the launderette, humiliated when they refused to wash them. “Too dirty to clean,” they said. Oh the irony! Our new Cuban friend, Alex, had showed us the particulars of local life, cheap bars and hole-in-the wall eateries, and nicknamed me ‘El Dragón’ that night, because of the noises I was making, the roars and facial tics, as he and his friend helped me home along the Malecón. It had been a hard few days, spikes-a-plenty me hearties, and I was trying to drown the crow in a barrel of rum. I was drunk, ecstatic that the crow was silenced, but I didn’t know when to stop, the cheerful haze mutating to a red mist, angry at myself that I didn’t feel like this all the time. That fucking crow! And then the facial churns and the roars as the two Cuban men helped me to my homestay through the dawn lit Havana streets.

Stop joking – know when to be serious. At school I kept the OCDemon at bay by laughing loudly, the class fool, taking the jokes to the next level, forcing them out when inside I was terrified of the world. The silent moments between antics magnifying the ways I would die, how unless I thought things through to their conclusion, I was gonna have my house set on fire by school bullies, with my parents still inside, or worse, maybe I would lose control, pouring the petrol and striking the match myself. So fuck silence, my education, a chance to be someone, be silly instead, force out those crappy jokes because when the class is laughing, the crow is crying. God, how I wish now I’d stopped and learned something useful! But I know this was impossible at the time, so I must not be too hard on myself.

Stop writing – when I’ve said enough for the day because thinking of the Crow is making me sad, know when to close the lap-top.

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 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 a little 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 ten 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 once sun bleached tarmac road was immediately overcast with black crow-shaped clouds. At first I couldn’t even remember what the spike had been 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 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 it’s name in your ear and you’re gonna remember and it’s gonna ruin your NEXT ten 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.
But what was it that had ruined those ten 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 tumor. 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 had fallen 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, all it really means is 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.

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 eagerly looking forward to something that he caws the loudest – he’s a spiteful devil. 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

Crow and The Bowl of Cereal

Before I begin I must say a big thank you to my Nan for buying me the Child’s Atlas when I was nine years old.  I remember clearly the picture of the boy 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 I could leave 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 bath.  If anything, this is a blog 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 trapped beneath floorboards in my head.  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 can do damage.  He is an old enemy and we know each other well.  I can usually predict his tactics, smashing him with a preemptive strike, and some days he’s just a pathetic cawing black smudge on the horizon.

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

…When I was ten years old, while eating my 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 hands were 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…was this what being punched in the stomach felt like?  The horror of this consequence was strong in my head, I focused all my attention on the sadness that could come of this act, and after fifteen minutes of concentrated effort outside the lounge door, I almost felt that I had 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 would happen?  The fear of actually doing it subsided, my intestines untying, my heart no longer racing 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.