Manic Metro, Morbid Mountain

Two weeks ago I was standing with Little One and fifty strangers in a hot underground metro station in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city. A greasy Wind lashed through the tunnel, cooling me down as it streaked across my face, and a sound like heavy, rumbling thunder signaled the trains imminent arrival; thirty seconds beforehand I was contemplating what I wanted for dinner, but all I could think of now was leaping onto the track, straight into the path of a thousand ton metal dragon. I leaned against the wall, trying my hardest to think of something less gruesome.
The day before I took the metro, niggling doubts were already knocking on my window. Rap rap rap, cold fingers drumming on the glass, words forming in my mind.  “Tomorrow, when the train approaches, you’re going to push yourself through the crowd and hurtle into its deadly jaws; there’s nothing and no one to stop you.” A constant thumping in my chest, my stomach heavy, like I’d swallowed ten raw potatoes. I went through the motions, from suicidal leap to bone-crushing contact, ruminating until I was free of the fake urge; the potatoes finally digested and I could put the fear away until I was physically inside the metro station the following day; where I would unwrap the horror like a dead rabbit in a parcel.
Flash forward to last week, and I suffered a similar fear, to jump off a mountain and tumble to my death on the rocks beneath.  I was hiking to an ancient Armenian fortress and church, two beautiful structures on the back of a giant rock golem punching into the crisp blue sky; a fantasy scene from a Hollywood blockbuster if ever I have seen one. We stopped for bread and cheese, near a drop that seemed a mile deep, and a familiar inner voice disguised as not an urge, but a fear, told me that I could jump to my death.
“But I don’t want to,” I replied.
“Doesn’t matter,” remarked the voice. “I just said that you could, whether you want to or not.”
Not a voice like the shop assistant asking if you want help packing your grocery bag, but a voice like a poking finger; a crisp packet blowing in the breeze.
I agree with Crow, there is actually nothing stopping me; no chain fence, no beefy security guy with a black jacket, no barrier at all.
I’m sure we all hear this terrible whisper during our daily lives, and many take several minutes to silence it with confidant dismissals like, ‘no thanks, that would be incredibly stupid.’  But Crow doesn’t listen to sense, so I tell him to f**k off instead, and he just cackles throatily, like a thirty cigarette-a-day witch.
“Go on and jump, and while you’re falling to your death, think of Little One’s face as you shatter your spine on the rocks at the bottom, or your parents dismay as the consulate tells them over the telephone how you tumbled down such a beautiful mountain, and split your skull in half and snapped your bones into a thousand pieces, like a hammer to a bread-stick.”  I was burning up at the notion of running over the abyss, digging my fingers into my stomach, trying to massage the sickness away.  “F**k off, Crow!” I said, teeth grinding, eyes searching for anything other than that throbbing, pulsating, (was I tempted?) rocky abyss.  He hopped onto my shoulder, “I’m going to flash these thoughts into the back of your eyes until you think of every single possible bone-splintering detail…or, you jump off this mountain and it’s over, and you take me with you!”
I thought I had got better with heights, and confronted with a dizzying vista, after several minutes contemplating leaping to my doom, the crow seemed happy to turn his attention to my camera, or maybe my wallet. Once I dangled my camera over the Chain Bridge in Budapest.
“Drop it, Yan, its easy. Just open your hand and watch it splash into the Danube.”
Now the fear is back to its nightmare worst, and hiking in Armenia, stopping for lunch on a rocky overhang, all I could think about was diving off, plummeting towards the stream a hundred deadly feet beneath me – at least his previous ramblings, from alarm-call to this lunchtime picnic, were silenced.
A day earlier we had arrived in Yerevan, Armenia, and covered much of the city on foot, including the educational Armenian genocide museum – The effects of OCD cause me depression at the best of times, and two hours in this informative museum and I loathed humanity more than I ever have. I wanted mankind to blow its head off with a shotgun loaded with a f*cking hydrogen bomb! So to cheer me up we decided that the following day we would take a hike in the mountains…
…And there I was, crawling closer in my mind to the edge because Crow had said that I could.
I coughed up a black feather. “Nothing could be easier,” he said.
We moved our picnic away from the tempting leap of death and ate away from that dreadful fear.
“It’s just another metro stop,” I whispered into the air – remembering the vivid thoughts of jumping into an oncoming train on the Tbilisi underground.
Another shift in time and I’m here, back in Georgia, today.  I’ve just hiked up probably my last mountain. We’re in Stepantsminda, in the shadow of the glorious mount Kazbek, and taking a shortcut through the recent snow, scrambling across a sweeping mountainside, four hundred meters from our destination, while slipping and sliding in the white powder, I glanced over my shoulder and suddenly realised how high we actually were. If we lost our footing, although probably not instant death, a broken bone or two was not off the menu. Crow seized the day, filling my head with countless terrifying possibilities; I had a minor panic attack, (if there can be such a thing) and I froze and struggled for breath and Little One had to talk me back to earth.
At the monastery at the top of our climb, I vowed never to put us in that situation again.
There’s no escaping these violent intrusive thoughts, so I tiptoe around them when I can, ignore them when I’m lucky, or entertain them when I’m at my lowest. After all, paragliding being the exception, I’ve not jumped off a mountain yet… and certainly not jumped into the path of an oncoming train.  Its been a tough two weeks but I’m still here, a little shaken but still walking forward.

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STUTTER

When I’m dealing with intrusive thoughts I often stare blankly at a space on the wall, like watching paint dry but without the exciting bit.  I’ve been looking at a lot of walls lately. I think it’s being back home but my nemesis, that blue/black bastard crow, has been busy these past two months. He has appeared in various forms and intensities, changing tactics like a desperate coach in a cup final. Some attacks have worked, they’ve knocked the wind out of my lungs, sat me down like I’ve got cramp in my legs, others I’ve swatted away as easily as a fly from a sandwich.

Crow has been an old man, sitting hunched over in a chair in the corner of the room, pointing to his throat, croaking out his words. “You’ve got the throat cancer,” he sneered.  He’s been a shadow on the wall, flickering in my peripheral, changing shapes like there were giant hands maneuvering in front of strobe lighting. Shadow puppets forming, a crow twisting into a seagull, a rabbit with myxomatosis, a limping horse, a snake with a leering, rubber mouth.  “You’re getting older, Yan. As is everyone around you, the ones you love, someone’s got to die soon.”

Last week he was a monkey on my shoulder, paranoid and devious, screeching fear into my ears, disguising them as urges and saying I was a dangerous man, “..and the people outside are watching you. They know your weaknesses, Yan. They can smell your skin; they’re concerned about you being here.”

So I’m still in the UK, telling friends I’m enjoying the summer, telling myself that tomorrow I’ll put the crow to sleep forever.

I have some ideas on where to go, and I’ll be OK when I get there. It’s just getting there that’s the problem right now.

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