Battlegrounds – Owl Verus Crow

 

A few weeks ago I was at a combat reenactment.  The anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. Watching the actors clashing swords, I likened the event to my fight with OCD. On the one side – under the foreboding pennant of the Crow, snarling like orcs and goblins – we have the mixed ranks of intrusive thoughts, paranoid delusions, false memories, compulsions, anxiety, and depression.  Facing them over a shield wall, we have the defenders of my sanity – fighting under the flapping banner of the wise owl – the battered regiments of rational thought.

I imagined the weapons of the Crow army to be fierce and medieval – all spikes and pikes – but struggled to picture the arms of the defending force.  How and with what do I fight back?

I used to take a high dosage of Clomipramine and a lesser measure of Risperidone, but I found that it interfered too much with my personality.  Mentally and physically I was like a floating ghost, not to mention the effects it had on my sex drive. I didn’t fancy living the rest of my life as a eunuch, so decided to come off the tablets.  Of course, it wasn’t easy, and I tumbled into a pit of despair, but I survived.

I slowly built my own defences, brick by brick – most of the time I didn’t realise I was constructing a wall at all.  I was often crushed under the weight of my troubles, but I persevered, and my tolerance for OCD began to grow – like a snail climbing up a wall.

But what of my armoury? The weapons I took into the badlands?  I made a list. It looked quite hopeless on a scrap of paper. I’m certainly not suggesting anybody else use these tactics, and I’m not sure any of it would have helped me in the dark ages of my mental health, but here it is anyway:

Giving My Disorder a Face: It may not be wise for someone suffering from mental illness to give their problems a personality, a face, but it worked for me.  I had a psychologist once tell me, in her opinion, that it wasn’t a good idea, but she ultimately went on to say that it was up to me, and if it helped, then it was (kinda) OK.  So a Goblin was born, transforming into the Crow, occasionally becoming a swarm of flies or an ominous cloud. Giving my OCD a face enabled me to look it in the eye and challenge it.  I feel that I know my enemy a little better now.

The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword: I was told to write my issues down on paper; I was told to NEVER record my intrusive thoughts anywhere, EVER!  I tried both tactics and learned that the former works better for me. It helps to settle my attention when I can see my faulty thinking in black and white.  Now, when I’m struggling to make sense of the spikes, I scribble them down or punch them into my mobile phone notebook. I focus better on the written word, losing where I am when relying on memory alone, regularly misplacing the details of what it is I’m thinking about in the murky trenches of my mind.  It initiates confusion, and I end up remembering other issues or creating bogus problems to deal with.

I use shorthand or cryptic form, clues only I can decipher, security against my words falling on the wrong eyes.

Fighting the Fear: When Crow whispers murder in my ear, realising it’s a fear and not an urge is a giant leap forward.  Crow doesn’t want me to be happy, so describes situations that I dread the most. Many people get these thoughts – OCD sufferers struggle to shake them off.

One of my first fears was to bite off the ends of the guns of my plastic toy soldiers.  Of course, this was never a matter of life or death or any great horror, so I would do it, and spit the bits of plastic into the bin.  When the fears became much darker, I’d say to myself, “No way, Yan, I’m not doing that…it’ll kill me, or him, or her,” or whatever it was presenting itself in my mind.

“But you ruined your toy soldiers,” came the voice from within.  “And if you did that, then you’ll do this. Go on, Yan, kick her in the shins.  What do you think her expression will be when she realises that you’re not going to stop?”

I couldn’t think of anything else.

“You chewed the plastic with your teeth, Yan.  You couldn’t help yourself. This is the next step.  It’s inevitable!

The only way to get the image out of my head was to mentally ritualise, to think about every bone-crunching blow.  It could take days, weeks if it was a deep spike, obsessing over the same gruesome action until I could smell the violence in the room.

I use this tactic today, but if the horror is not out of my head after a few minutes, I’ll focus on the consequences.  What would happen after the event?

‘He or she would die horribly, and I would go to jail, or kill myself.’  I picture myself plunging off a cliff, and continue with my day.

Unfortunately, when I think that I’ve got an incurable illness, or that someone wants to do me harm, or a myriad of similar delusions, I cannot turn my back so easily, and it may take weeks to distance myself from the obsession.  I keep telling myself what it is, an obsessional thought and hope that a necessary part of me listens, or that other tactics reinforce my waning rationality. When the obsession of a fatal disease refuses to budge, then my next tip is…

Realising I’m Going to Die One Day:  Yep, that’s right, I’m going to die, and so is everybody else in the world.  Some peacefully, others more brutally – annihilation is inevitable, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  I still fear death, but not as much as I once did. I recall many compulsions attempting to keep the world alive.  But people continued to die, and these days I recognise that tapping my forehead mumbling a mantra doesn’t stall The Reaper.  My rituals never saved anybody but have killed many hours.

Routines I performed over the years to stop cancer or AIDS vary from imagining blinding white lights to tapping my fingers on my forehead to walking back and forth through doorways.  But nobody lives forever, and as soon as I came to terms with this indisputable fact, I felt better.

Five hundred years ago, my chances of dying were a lot larger than today.  Smallpox; malnutrition; butchered by a warrior’s axe fighting a barbaric war across Europe.  Death by Cholera at thirty-one? Not me. I was drinking rum in Ecuador with new friends from around the world.  I was lucky, I was born in an affluent country in affluent times. But nothing lasts forever.

Ditching God: I don’t believe in a God, or any supernatural force at all.  I believe there are things that science cannot yet explain, and maybe never will, but as far as the paranormal goes, I’m not convinced.  If you believe in a god yourself, whichever one it may be, then that’s your prerogative; I’m not telling you He or She doesn’t exist, simply that I don’t believe that they do.  You may suppose there are many gods, or you’re spiritual and hang a dream catcher over your bed, or you believe in fairies or ghosts or vampires in Eastern European castles. There are legions of supernatural ideologies to choose from – I hope they bring you joy or give you hope at the very least.  But they don’t for me, and admitting to myself that I didn’t believe in God was especially empowering. I no longer had to worry about going to Hell, touching my palms together in prayer a hundred times a day, ritualising until I burned with frustration at getting the words I was mumbling mixed up. More importantly, my dark intrusive thoughts were not being judged, because there was no one there to judge them.

I fear that searching for God, or even finding Him whilst suffering from OCD makes things far worse.  One minute I was telling myself that my compulsions were ridiculous – “Of course I needn’t walk through the doorway fifteen times,” the next I was on my knees begging forgiveness to an invisible entity that had created the Universe in six days – whose son could walk on water and cure leprosy with a click of his fingers.

Anyway, I ditched God and felt better for it.  If I go to Hell for not being convinced of something there is no proof of, then so be it.  I’ll not be bullied into believing something that genuinely doesn’t make any sense to me and only made me feel worse when I did submit to its dogma.  I don’t want to offend anyone or trigger an attack, but there are particular bigoted paragraphs in those ancient texts that are plainly offensive. I truly believe that leaving God has made me a better person.

The irony is that I still imagine a sweeping white light that I use to quell an obsessional thought.  I call it ‘The Blinding’, and it has followed me around the world for years. I believe The Blinding stems from growing up in a Christian country and is heavily influenced by the notion that white light is good and darkness and shadow are evil.

The Hurt Locker: These days I prefer to imagine hurting myself, instead of physically doing it like I have in the past.  I sometimes lay down, picturing Crusader knights chopping me up with medieval weapons – swords and axes and maces and flails and…you get my point.  Precise details of skin hacked open, bones crunched, organs pierced – a relentless attack on a terrible loop, over and over and over… As soon as the blade is withdrawn from my body I instantly heal and then the axe comes crashing down, followed by the mace and the spear and whatever else I care to imagine.  I don’t know if it calms me down, or if it simply consumes the time that I would instead use for punching or cutting myself.

The Size of the Universe:  The sheer scale of the cosmos, although terrifying – and let’s face it, unimaginable, gives me strength.  I realise that Earth is nothing but a grain of sand, and therefore everything that exists upon it is infinitesimal to the rest of the Universe – chaos theory aside of course; remember those butterflies?

What people think of me, what they say, what I fear will happen – none of it matters.  I’m an ant struggling up a hill, fumbling a leaf. Other ants cause a fuss, their antipathy towards me is palpable.  Suddenly the world is cast in shadow…and thirteen ants are crushed under the sole of a boot.

We are seven and a half billion ants, and I think that it helps to know it.

Infinite Spikes: They keep coming, falling from above like acid rain, or rising from the ground like hands of the undead.  I hope that each one will be the last, but the spikes are infinite, and coming to terms with this had a positive reaction.  Sometimes the number of intrusive thoughts flapping in my head becomes so great that the factory inside me spewing out all the negativity shuts down.  The wise owl inside me pulls the ‘stop’ lever and suddenly I’m in the eye of the storm, three cows and a tractor spiraling around me. “There are just too many thoughts; this is ridiculous,” says the owl, and throws his spreadsheets onto the floor.

I’ve created OCD walls that actually protect me.

These days, ninety-five percent of my ritualisation is in my head, which can be difficult to walk away from.  I’m forever going over words, phrases, and situations in my mind, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said to myself, “This will be the last spike!” while cracking my knuckles and maintaining the current compulsion.

Don’t be fooled, there is no such thing as one more spike.  It’s another OCD lie.

Use the Blues: Memories of opportunities wrecked by OCD burst into my head like fireworks exploding in the night sky.  It puts a bad taste in my mouth, like sucking on a metal spoon. But I try to use these bitter pills to my own advantage.  I use them to propel me forward, to continue in my quest to get more out of life – urging me on like a terrible spur in the side of a horse.  I have missed so much that I have nothing to lose.

Alcohol and Other Drugs: I’m not condoning it, and certainly not the harder stuff that I took in my younger years – some of the things I snorted and swallowed made my OCD a hell of a lot worse on the night, and for a while afterward.  L.S.D fried my brain, Cocaine turned me into a paranoid ghoul. Alcohol created a monster, and I’ve hurt more than a few bones in booze-fuelled skirmishes – with walls and windows as well as with people, and thank God (irony), I was always the one that came off worse.  It has to be controlled because too much alcohol can prove fatal for someone suffering intense mental stress. The right amount can chase away the Crow until morning, one too many and he’s screaming in my face. The golden rule is simple: Know your limits…

Marijuana, however, helps me to relax, because it calmly carries me away from the here and now.  It dilutes the black OCD mist, but I totally recognise the negatives too.  It took me a long time to control my thoughts under the influence of marijuana.  It’s a balancing act, and I smoke far less than I ever did. It’s not for everyone.

I Can Leave When I Want: This sounds extreme, but it’s the truth.  If things ever got TOO much, then I can leave this place in an instant.  I have complete control. It is this control that helps calm me down. I can leave whenever I choose, so why go now?  I said in my last entry that finishing it all would be the final full stop, but trust me, I’m not planning my last chapter, let alone my final word – I’m hoping that I’ve barely started the second half of the book!  I’m NEVER going to do it, but when I’m having a torturous day, I tell myself that I could. I don’t know why, but it helps to know that I have control.

That’s all I could think of today.  There may be more, or some of these may not actually be helping me at all, therefore there should be less.  After all these years, I’m still not sure how it all works.

It’s funny, but the thought I’m having now is deleting every word that I’ve written today.  And then emptying my computer trash file.

I’m making another copy.

F**K OFF, CROW!

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The Lip of the Void

I think I’ve started to enjoy being awake more than being asleep for the first time in my life.  I’m not one hundred percent sure but I’ll take this ambiguity over the certainty that I’d prefer to spend my time unconscious under a duvet – although I’m still fiercely bitter that intrusive thoughts and the knock-on effects destroyed my lust for life, and crushed all my experiences in it.  I remind myself how OCD is misrepresented in the media and shake a fist to the sky. Depression and anxiety too. No doubt every aspect of mental health. I wish they could have seen me standing at the edge of that black void.

It’s still there, with three stooped figures sitting on the verge of that empty pit, inviting me to join them with ill-fated, twitching gestures.  These days I smile at their pathetic attempts to draw me in – like three bloated sirens tempting sailors into the swirling currents with nothing but their toothy grins.  My waking hours are still difficult. But manageable now.

A few days ago, driving down the narrow country lane that connects the house to the main road, Little One had to hit the brakes to avoid a herd of deer that emerged from the bushes.  They bounded across the road, scrambling up the opposite embankment – all except one, who struggled to climb the wooded slope. The toiling deer panicked, opting instead for the easier route up the winding road.  She retreated around the corner. As we crawled down the lane, Little One came to another abrupt stop as the deer reappeared, hurtling towards the front of our car. A dog – husky looking and fierce – was giving chase.  There ensued a wild waltz of scampering hooves and twisting bodies. We observed the macabre ballet from the car, and when the impromptu hunt took the animals back up the country lane, we continued our journey to town. As we rounded the bend we saw that the dance was reaching its bloody climax.

Again, we drew the car to a halt, watching the dog pin the deer to the ground by its throat.  It was a savage moment, and if I ever needed reminding of the harshness of life, this would do it.  Little One blasted the car horn, startling the dog, ceasing it’s assault long enough for the apologetic owner to catch up, puffing and panting, and drag it, jaws salivating, from the doomed animal.  I went away thinking how lucky I was that I wasn’t that deer. The blessing soon replaced with a profound sadness that an animal had been mauled close to death in front of me.

At that moment, somewhere in the world, someone fell awkwardly and broke their neck.  I didn’t see it, but averages tell me that it happened. That it happens every day. I know I shouldn’t have dwelled on it – but I did.  My head was full of images of a dead deer and a dying man at the foot of the stairs. Why can’t I think of rainbows over rolling meadows? I mused.  Another question spawned in my mind.

Is life worth this mental pain?

Yes, life is tough, and I can leave at any moment, but it would be my final full stop, so why go now?

To kill a crow?

He can wait.

To stop the bad thoughts shredding my mind?

As I’ve just said, it can be the time of my choosing – and I don’t want to miss anything while I’m still able to function.

I turned up the stereo.

Onto brighter skies, and we spent an afternoon at the local pub.  We arrived at happy hour and the local ale calmed my nerves – we had a great time.  Yes, OCD knocked, but I didn’t let her in. In the bathroom mirror, I noticed my personal gorgon wiggling her hips and leering, tempting me to look at her head of writhing snakes.

“What are those shadows on your face?” she hissed.  “Is it cancer or an omen of approaching trouble, horses on the horizon?”

I turned away and washed my hands in the sink.  Nice try, but no cigar. I shut the door and ordered another drink – you’ve got to make the most of a happy hour in this part of the world.

That evening, The Crimson Knight, my violent trumpeter of self-harm, made one of his regular appearances, but I knocked him off his horse with a blank refusal to entertain him for any more than that first fleeting second.  He writhed on the ground, cursing.

I fell asleep quickly, with good thoughts on my mind.

Crow continues to know everything I think, counting my entire hand, every card that I draw from the pack.  But I can fight back, and today, when he blew a cloud of black smoke into my face, I looked over the surrounding hills, inhaled the cloud and blew it out.

I’m still not jumping into the black void.  Three figures turned their heads in disgust while I fought to appreciate the things that I have.  The cloud didn’t disperse but I was able to waft it away. Crow flew into a tree and knocked himself out.

I’ve been busying myself too, working in the garden of the house we’re looking after and also quite a lot of freelance writing.  The remaining hours are spent with a cold can of beer while relaxing in the lush countryside. Another reason I’m never going to choose to enter that void.  There are no rolling hills inside. Just a whole lot of nothing.

Today we’re off for a walk through the woods, revisiting the local pub.  A few more pints of the local ale perhaps – chemical warfare against the thundering divisions of OCD tanks.  There is often a bottle of vodka in the fridge too. It probably isn’t ideal but what is? A glass of wine, a drag on a joint, hypnotherapy, yoga, hyperventilating techniques, cutting myself, headbutting walls, psychotherapy, CBT, EMDR, ERP therapy?  The list is long and flaps about in the wind like a flag at half mast. Take your pick, choose your weapon but please don’t judge one another on what we sleep with under our pillows.

The fact that I’m going for a walk through the woods today is a testament to the battle I’m surviving.  Because even that would have been a struggle a few years ago. Flashback to a room in Rajasthan, India, keeled over my bed and sweating as the world rolled by my window, hunger pains gnawing at my stomach, intrusive thoughts battering the inside of my head.  Finally forcing myself outside for some street food, head looking down, eyes stinging with sweat that poured down my face. I can’t go on, I thought, stumbling past a scrawny cow, children playing cricket with crushed up plastic bags. But I did go on, and I’m glad that I never gave up.  Because I’m sweating a little less these days.

It can get better guys and girls.  I don’t know how but it just does. Maybe one day it will disappear altogether.  The whole gang exploding in a puff of pink smoke: The Crow, the Gorgon and that f*cking Crimson Knight – anxiety and depression gaining mass, the yellow river, and the black gas, spinning in a circle and getting sucked into that void.  I strive to never again think of that blackness until old age dangles me over its wispy lip.

I think the image will haunt me yet, but I think it’s worth sticking around for a chance to see my demons buried six feet in the ground before they bury me.

THE ANXIETY SOCIETY: A COMRADE’S STORY

I want to go shopping.  I need to go shopping.  My shoes are on and I’ve got my coat in my hand.   An old man shuffles past the window.

I look into the hallway mirror.  “For f**k’s sake, Yan. Get out there.”  My eyes are sad; my shoulders are slumped like my anxiety has mass, hanging down my back and dragging.

So I open the door, slipping into my coat as I stride through the gate.  “Confidence is looking the dragon in its eyes, Yan. It doesn’t matter that you’re scared.  Everybody gets scared sometimes.”

Anxiety is not my biggest issue.  My bane is a double-headed axe – cruel, intrusive thoughts and sweeping depression.  If Crow is my OCD, constantly in my skies, then my anxiety is a jack-in-a-box, wound up and tense, seven days or seven seconds away from leaping out and pouncing. 123456712345671234567…

When she comes she casts a vast shadow, raking her nails down a blackboard.  “The whole world is watching, Mr. Baskets.  And they’re not impressed.”

I look into the hallway mirror.  At those shadows under my eyes.

“I’m fine,” I whisper, more in hope than confirmation.

“No, you’re not, you’re useless,” sniggers Crow.

“I’ve done OK with the hand I’ve been dealt.”  I cringe inside; how I hate those cliches.

“This is not a game of cards, Yan.”

“I know, it’s a metaphor.”

“OK, so if life’s a game of poker, you should have bluffed.”

“I bluff every day.”

“Should’ve tried harder, Yan my man!”

“But you’re a worthy opponent.”

“I cheat!” shouts Crow, and pulls out the ace of clubs from his beneath his wings.  “Those that succeed in life have to be ruthless, or lucky. And you’re neither.”

Whatever I do or say, it’s never enough; Crow tells me that I’m ugly and weak and too thin and too fat and not funny and too silly and people are watching me and they know I’m useless and I know this is stupid but Crow’s claws are wringing out my nerves like a wet tea towel.

I get hot and angry, frustrated at my weakness.  I often head back home before my task is over, slump into a chair and wish I was asleep in a room in a castle underground.  Lock the doors and crawl into the cellar, head in my hands, listening to that jack in the box swinging on its springs – devious in the candlelight.

I recently went to a local music festival, and when I spoke with people I knew in the crowd, I saw myself from above – a crow’s-eye view – hands gesticulating, fake laughs in fits and spurts – like the crack of sniper-fire in the mountains.  Did those people suspect I was burning up inside? The bead of sweat running down my cheek was a subtle clue, but they were looking right through me.

“I think he was on drugs,” I imagined them saying when I lost myself in the throng.  Head looking down, constantly rethinking, avoiding eye contact, scalp itching like it was on fire.  Why did I come here? Because if I didn’t do these things, what would be the point? I’ve already wasted a lifetime in bed or hiding in plain sight on the couch.  “I’ve got a headache, I think I’ll stay here today.”

I got drunk at the festival, and the evening was easier to negotiate, but I often ask myself, “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Crow hops into my knee, but I already know the answer before he spits his poison onto my lap.

“I could die!” I snap.  “Or something could happen that would result in my death.”

Crow nods his head in agreement.

“So fuck it! Let’s go.  I’ve already put in motion the first steps of my death.  It’s the butterfly effect.” Every decision I make nudges me closer to my dying breath.  Just sitting here on the couch is a decision in itself. The fact that I’m here and not over there is proof of a chosen path.  And whichever path we choose leads to our inevitable extinction. Certain decisions may enable us to live longer, but relative to the age of the universe, it is infinitesimal.  The final destination is the same for us all, it’s just how we choose to get there.

So I choose to venture outside and sweat it out some days, whereas other times I lay in bed and lose myself in a loop of thought.  There are days when I force myself out, mumbling under my breath that I’m going to die anyway so it may as well be today, in the local supermarket, squeezing avocados or filling my bags at the cash register.   I admit this may not seem ideal, but it does get me out of the house. It has enabled me to travel across the world, daydreaming of my demise on a dusty bus through Honduras, looking at my reflection in a dirty window, uttering ‘f**k it,’ under my breath, or slumped in the back of a crowded Toyota Hilux, scrutinised by strangers, as it grinds across the Sahara desert in the dead of night – it’s hard to explain the sickness I feel in my stomach when I’m on these trips.  I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.

 

In a thousand years we’ll all be dead, anyway, and that goes for you too, Crow.

 

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 hunter’s 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 every day in the face, you finally learn to roll with the blows.  It 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 a 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.

INFINITE ROOMS

Life’s default position is not set on ‘fair.’  People struggle, and if there was a master designer, which I doubt, then he, or she, has made it this difficult on purpose.

“It’s supposed to be hard,” says the omniscient being, sharpening thunder-bolts on a cloud.

The injustice is not singularly mine, or ours, it belongs to billions of people around the world.  We share the pain, and there’s a lot of it to go around.

“Never feel alone in your agony,” sneers the Devil, lighting a cigarette and blowing the smoke into a puppy’s eyes.

I’ve been in a stupor for the last two days, ruminating over unhealthy fears, trying to figure out if certain events actually happened, or if Crow has thrown a handful of false memories into the pot.  I was fighting him at one point, had him trapped in the corner, unleashing my punches, focusing on the body, but then I got caught with a sucker-punch, and suddenly I was down on one knee, gloves on the canvas, crushed lungs gasping for air.  Clambering to my feet, I lifted my guard, changing tactics in the hope I would make it to the end of the round.

In other words, I followed Crow into the woods, or rather, decided to let the Horror Movie’ play out in my head, didn’t interact or turn away, watched it through to the end with heavy eyes.  I saw terrible things but left my seat only as the credits rolled, kicking the exit door open, sending it crashing against the wall with such force that it came back at me in a painful flash, colliding with the bridge of my nose, knocking me back into the empty cinema.  More thoughts flooded my mind as I fell onto a heap of warm bodies, rolling off onto the carpeted floor which was wet and sticky.  I didn’t have to look, it was blood and I knew it.  I needed to get out of there before the next feature-film began, and this time I eased the door open, walking out into the hot summer’s day, across the empty car park and into the desert beyond.  White light poured through a crack in the sky, soon everything was doused in the brilliant light, my own hands disappearing into the ‘blinding’ in front of my face, and then I was back home, sitting on the couch in the lounge, glaring at an empty space on the wall.

I left bodies in that rancid cinema.  I did terrible things and had terrible things done to me.  It sickened me but I went through the motions in my head anyway.  ‘But it was the OCD, Yan,’ and no one was hurt other than a little bit of me, mentally, emotionally, a paper cut would leave more of a physical scar.  I abandoned the Crimson Knight flicking popcorn into his helmet somewhere on the back row, and I know that if I hadn’t imagined those tortures, I wouldn’t have left the house.  It’s my OCD, and the next attack sees me going over old enemy lines.  It’s to do with Little One, something irrelevant but I have to make it ‘right’ in my mind.  I know it’s stupid, but it’s not me I have to satisfy, it’s the Crow that needs to be convinced.  I accept it’s a wicked, tricky illness, a magician in a hall of mirrors, but decided today to treat it as it presented itself.  Sometimes it can be easier this way, regurgitating old conversations in a holding cell in my mind.  Some thoughts are wonderfully vivid, and interaction is made easier, others are akin to kicking a dead horse across a ditch.

It used to scare me, but I’ve accepted it now.

I do fight it, I’ve sliced it in half, and half again, but the fears are still there, and I continue to imagine not only terrible things but ridiculous scenarios too.  And it works both ways, because I’ve beaten Crow with the stupidest of reasoning – laid a pair of jokers and scooped the entire pot while Crow flies off mumbling obscenities, with four aces up his sleeve.

I accepted I had OCD almost the instant I was diagnosed, but I have been taught different techniques on how to control it, with varying degrees of failure and success.  I suppose the doctors learn new things every day, and what works for Patient One might send Patient Two belly-flopping into a lake of boiling oil – the comfort blanket becomes a death shroud.

A building as high as the sky blinks into my mind.  Snow falls in heavy clumps restricting my vision but I know this place.  The ‘Seven Continents’ hotel is a looming structure of infinite floors.  A placard hangs above the gothic entrance, three faded blue stars on a yellowed background.  To me it was always more of a prison than a hotel, but with room service and cable tv.

“Think of somewhere you can put your intrusive thoughts and lock them away,” said the psychologist, flipping through her notes.

I pictured a coffin six feet under the wet earth.

“Put all of them in there and walk away.  When they poke at you, ignore them. Tell them that you will come back later in the day, or maybe tomorrow, and deal with them then.  Whenever you get another intrusive thought, send it there too.”

‘I’m gonna need a bigger coffin,’ I smiled.

So I thought of an alternative place to send them, and the Seven Continents hotel was constructed in my mind, a behemoth of structures I imagined bursting from the snow, deep within the arctic circle.  A million rooms, corridors that thinned to a pinprick at the end of my eyeline.  Snow lashed at the glass, “No f*cker’s going outside in this,” I said, gazing out over the Arctic Tundra.

And so I stuck Crows ‘guests’ in the rooms of this titanic hotel.

“When you’re ready, you can visit them and work with them, figure them out, and when they’re ready to go, send them home,” said the expert, slurping on her mug of tea.

However, the problems I sent to the Seven Continents Hotel simply festered in their rooms, metamorphosing into things far worse.  It may be a harmless old man knocking at the door in the dead of night, but if you don’t check, it might as well be a serial killer tapping an axehead on the porch.

Oh, I’ve been told to write my fears down. I’ve been told to NEVER write them down.  Tactics change, especially with mental illness.  It’s whatever works for the individual I guess.

The Seven Continents was only in operation for four or five months.  The guests ended up rampaging through the corridors like frenzied devils, trading in their prodding sticks for roaring chainsaws.  Thinking of it now has stirred up a thought or two.  A fist bangs on the inside of a cupboard door, an old lady coughs in one of the locked rooms.

“They’re just ghosts, Yan.  Harmless if you don’t look at them, dangerously mesmerising if you do.”  It’s Uncle Jack, and he takes my hand and leads me through the snow, away from the defunct hotel.

I flick through my big blue folder of notes on my lap, leaflets, and spreadsheets, my collection of OCD learnings.  Sometimes I practice the exposure technique, the philosophy that you face your fears, place your own finger on the ‘trigger’ and look into the mirror, call the gorgon out and glare directly into those green eyes and her head of writhing snakes.

Words in black ink and capital letters scream from a sheet of paper in the file.  Horrible fears that I used to believe would happen if I didn’t do this, or say that, or walk under a doorway twenty-nine times.  I read a sentence aloud, and get apprehensive, a ball tightening in my chest.  I close the large folder but refuse to ritualise, deciding that tonight I will expose myself to current, more relevant fears.  F*ck the Blinding, I’ll imagine a black tide enveloping me in bed.  I’ll sleep in shadows, not shade, (yeah, Crow, I just wrote that!)  The word ‘Shadow’ used to be a trigger word for me, used to send me into a spinning oblivion of physical and mental rituals.  ‘Shadows! Shadows! Shadows! Like cancer on the lung.  Cancer, Aids, burst arteries spraying infected blood all over the wall, death by germs and machetes and rabies and…..’

I’d have struggled to write these words ten years ago.  The world feels heavy around me even now, but I refuse to think of the ‘Blinding’ or touch my forehead or neutralise in any way the weight on my shoulders.

Crow cocks his head, watching from the coffee table, teasing me an inch out of reach.

“You’ll regret this,” he snides.

“I regret you!” I yell in my head.

But the tacks and nails in my belly are melting like marshmallows over a flame.  I’m comfortable again.

I wasn’t going to read through my old notes but I’m glad that I did.  There may be no time for travel plans this week, but maybe enough for a face-off with Crow and his cronies in a disused hotel.  Clutching my blue folder like a book of spells I peer out of the window, as a neighbour walks his dog across the road, a frown on his face signalling his own bag of problems.

“The price of life,” says Uncle Jack, and suddenly I’m a little less bitter.

Life’s default position is set on ‘tough.’  No-one has it easy, and that makes the injustice a pinch more bearable.

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.

 

 

The Chicken and the Crow

 

Moldova, Transnistria and Belarus have flashed past my window like car headlights, fierce and bright and then nothing as my eyes refocus on where I am today.

I woke up at home this morning with the last three months in Eastern Europe twitching like roadkill in my rear-view mirror.  Before me is an ominous fog.  My future, all our futures, are behind that swirling cloud.

F*cking clouds.

In my worst days I feel like I’m constantly falling through them.  A conversation is lost as  I tumble towards gravity’s mouth – that gaping maw, sucking me down, shouts fading to whispers a thousand feet above me; thoughts too drop out of my pockets and flap about in the turbulent flurry.  I get tired.  I could sleep for a century.  And as I spin head-over-heels, or plummet in a graceless belly-flop, or spiral like a broken rocket ship closer to the ground, another important ingredient tears off of me, tossed into the roaring wind, spinning away into the rushing oblivion.

I lost my confidence in Moldova.

My confidence is bi-polar.  It either fires me high into the sky, or leaves me stranded on a plank of wood, drifting towards the edge of the world.  When it circles around me like a guardian lion, tail swishing against my legs, I think it’s going to keep me company forever – but my confidence is really a cocky pigeon dressed in dragon scales, and it’s never a permanent feature.  (Like a friend popping round for a cup of tea).

Negotiating foreign lands; fumbling on google translate for the simplest of words; pretending not to be afraid of the drunken group of Georgian lads behind me; eyeball to eyeball with a raging motorist on the streets in Malawi; it all requires confidence, and even when I’m faking it, I remember its scent, what it feels like, and I emulate it until I’m away from compromising predicaments.  But when confidence has fled on a horse, bolting for the woods, leaving a trail of yellow swirling smoke in its wake, it takes with it its smells, its taste – its essence scattered in horse-shit in the direction of those trees.

I had nothing to give these last two weeks, avoiding all confrontation like the world had rabies.  The Crow was his usual charming self, pecking and scratching and cawing in my face.  But he wasn’t any worse than he had been.  My confidence simply decided to run off and have a holiday, take the next train or bus out of town, stranding me at the station.

For these weeks I was a knight without a sword or shield.  Vulnerable in a field as my horse dragged my banner through the mire – ‘I might as well be naked,’ I remember thinking recently, on more than one occasion.

“Cowardice is a chicken dipped in yellow paint,” is something Uncle Jack might have said.  And I feel like the chicken I watched being sacrificed in a church on the outskirts of San Cristobal – helpless, occasionally struggling against the old woman’s strong, bony hands.  She snapped its neck, and I switched my eye-line to the straw covered stone-floor.  It’s what they do there, and I had gone to watch it happen, in that strange church in Mexico.  I have been that chicken these last few days, meek in my voice and posture.  I felt my own neck could have been easily snapped by an old woman in a blue dress on a cold church floor.

I’m seeing friends and family now.  I must not complain.  There are seeds of dread in my stomach but I could be dying alone at the foot of a mountain.  Or starving in a field.  Or freezing in a cardboard box under a bridge in a wet city.  It’s all OK.  My family and good friends are here – although a crow with red eyes is pecking at the mistletoe…

Merry Christmas one and all, happy holidays, joy and all that stuff, not just in this season of good will, but always and forever..

 

Manic Metro, Morbid Mountain

Two weeks ago I was standing with Little One and a hundred strangers in a stifling underground metro station in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city.  A sound like heavy, rumbling thunder signalled the trains’ imminent arrival and a greasy wind lashed through the tunnel, cooling me down as it streaked across my face.  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 eaten a bowl of 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, accusing 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 and burn these thoughts into the back of your eyes until you think of every 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 usually 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, it’s 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, suddenly realising 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.  It’s been a tough two weeks but I’m still here, a little shaken but still walking forward.

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 manoeuvring 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’d take a week off work, and fester in bed grappling a particular intrusive thought, unable to concentrate on anything else for longer than a minute – I’d try but there would be a sickness in my stomach like I’d swallowed a glass of worms.  ‘I can’t feel worse than this,’ I’d think.  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 quickly 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 tumour, 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 tumour 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 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 smoking horizon.  I managed to leave Africa but missed my connecting flight to Mexico, I stumbled from Heathrow towards Gatwick, where my brother (who’d come to meet me in the layover) thrusted twenty pounds in my hand and guided me into a taxi at Kings Cross station.  A few hours later at the Hospital of Tropical Diseases, and quarantine was finally lifted when they accurately 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, 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 f*ck 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 that I’m wrong.  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 OCD 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.