SEMI-AUTOMATIC

Judging by some of the other motorist’s expressions, the best place to break down in a car is not on a busy round-about.  You’d have thought we did it on purpose. Luckily, not everyone was red in the face, and a drunk passenger from a passing car helped me push our stagnant vehicle up onto the grass verge – our little semi-automatic was stuck in first gear so this took a lot of heavy grinding.

It was a little bit embarrassing, mildly frustrating and annoying, but we got over it.  What could we do about it? I’m no mechanic and things like this happen all the time. Just gotta put your head down and wait for road recovery.  It’s a wise old proverb but let’s face it – sh*t happens…

Sh*t happens and counting backward as I walk through doors isn’t going to prevent world war three, or eradicate the Ebola virus, or delay ice-caps melting into the sea.  Easy to say, harder to execute, because OCD convinces us we have supernatural powers. That if we perform certain rituals, mental or physical, wars will end, cancer won’t spread, the laws of the universe won’t apply to us.  OCD makes us feel special, but not in a good way. Mental illness convinces us that what we’re experiencing is the process of a fair system – I feel bad, so I must deserve it.

Today I conversed with family, friends and strangers.  At home, appreciating the quiet, a familiar thought struck me as I stirred sugar into my coffee.  I’d been three different people again, adapting my personality with each group – hiding behind three very different masks.  It was instinctive, a practised craft, at the time I didn’t give it a second thought – too busy grinding through the day on semi-automatic.

But why couldn’t I just be me?

“Ah, but who are you exactly?” asked an inner voice.

I’m someone who wants an easy life.  I want to protect my family from worry when they ask how I am.  With my friends, I’m all silly jokes and busy hand gestures while intrusive thoughts churn liquid in my stomach.  When it comes to people I don’t know, it depends on my mood, but today, I answered their questions with what I thought they’d want to hear.  Rule 32 section b: Smile, be friendly and try not to invite them into the house.

We all hide behind masks.  That feeling when you really don’t want to go out and socialise but you’re already out – and socialising – so you’ve just got to get on with it.  Someone asks you how you are, and you smile and tell them that you’re good. That’s a mask. You’re pretending to be happy when you really want to cry, or jump at the wall and knock yourself unconscious.  Of course, you shouldn’t be embarrassed by how you’re feeling. But do you really have to tell everyone at the party that you’re a bit f**ked up today? Of course not. So you slip the mask over your face, open another beer and ask them how they are.

“I’m great!” they reply.  But you doubt that very much.

The party has become a Venician masquerade – elongated beaks and jewelled eye masks.  We all do it from time to time. It’s become instinctive in our society, even if it may be the wrong thing to do.  When suffering from bad mental health, the mask sometimes feels that it is permanently stuck to our face – stapled and bound in duct tape, only removed with magic, or when you turn the lights out and collapse onto the bed.

Wearing masks may not be the perfect answer in a perfect world, but the world isn’t perfect and so there are no perfect answers.  Some days we’ve just got to put our heads down and get through it as best we can. That doesn’t mean we can’t ask for help. On the contrary.  We should help each other whenever we can, and never be ashamed to ask for it. Never be ashamed of talking about mental health issues, never be ashamed of discussing what we fear.  But sometimes, you’ll get away from your old school friend in the high street a lot quicker if you just smile and say you’re feeling OK.

I could have broken down and screamed when the car stopped on the roundabout, but I pulled a mask over my face and pretended that I didn’t care.  And good things did come of it – the relief I felt when we’d pushed the car safely onto the grass verge was overpowering. I think I may have been singing.

It’s late afternoon as I write this, and it feels like I’m waiting for the end of the world.  I look inwards and tell myself that it doesn’t matter, everything comes to an end, why would the world be any different?  No use performing rituals to save loved ones from the unavoidable fact that one day, none of us are going to be here. Sound depressing?  Well, it is. But that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. If an atom bomb fell from the skies, I’d watch the mushroom cloud spill into the heavens, ruining the sky like oil poured into bathwater – no use turning my back and missing the show, and better than dying, staring at my feet.

“I’m going to fill your head with funeral pyres!” squawks Crow.

I don’t fear death, only the journey getting there – it’s Crow who wants to know the finer details, experience the final breath so he can mock and pull faces.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Little One and I are waiting for our next house-sitting assignment.  We’ve just returned from Hull, where we fed a cat, made sure all the doors were locked and watered the tomato plants.  It was only for two weeks and OCD loitered on the periphery, making a terrible nuisance out of itself, but failed to wreck the experience – it could have been a Hell of a lot worse.

So where do we go from here?

We’re booked in to a house-sit at the end of November.  It’s for three months. We have another cat to fuss over.  Have we planned beyond that? Not a chance. We’ve bought a cheap second hand car but it’s already in the garage.  You can’t rely on plans even when you do make them.

As I’ve stated before, the urge to travel has shrivelled up and died.  But the realisation that I don’t want to sleep on train-station floors any more presents me with a dilemma.  What do I do instead? I’m certainly not going back to the factories, not that there’s anything wrong with them, but I know they would kill me this time around.  When Crow is shrieking in my ear, it helps that I’m not filling paint bottles on a production line. At the moment, if it’s too loud to think, I just walk into the next room. There’s not a supervisor in the world who could excuse that – and I don’t blame them.

There’s no rush, freelance writing has put some money in the bank, I’m not going to starve, I should really look at the next chapter of my life as a new adventure.  And I’m certainly not saying I’ll never travel again, just next time do it in a little more comfort.

I wonder what Crow would be like on like a cruise ship?

“The same as I am on a sun bleached beach or in a Las Vegas casino,” I imagine would be his reply.  “F**king relentless.”

BIRD BONES

That was a tough week.  I’ve not stared at walls like that for over ten years.  I thought I’d worn a hole in the brickwork.

“What the hell am I doing?” I asked myself as I twiddled and pulled out my hair.  But I didn’t panic, because staring at the wall and pulling out my hair is what I do best – the usual behaviour of a person lost in thought.  Yielding to the ridiculous is standard practice. It would be odd NOT to stare at the paintwork.

I know I’ve asked this question a thousand times, but how much of me has been shaped by OCD? Eighty, ninety percent?  If I stuck a hand down my throat and pulled out Crow, wrung his neck and threw him on the fire, what would be left of me?  Who is Yan Baskets? It would be like separating conjoined twins with a laser beam. The siblings would become ‘other’ people, perhaps not better, but certainly different.  Like having a coffee with a version of yourself who’d been living on the other side of the world for the last twenty years. The difference would be more than an exotic accent.  I imagine what it would be like to go to the bathroom without the Gorgon spitting at me in the mirror. To wake up and not roll over onto a horse’s head. No, definitely not just the accent.

I was talking to Little One yesterday.  My OCD had sent me spiralling into a puddle of despair, obsessing on the ridiculous, ritualising in my head – a thousand screaming shamans convulsing around a fire.  I referred to Crow, said he’d been particularly savage lately. Little One said she wished he’d fly away and die. I agreed but knew that it wouldn’t be happening any time soon.  That it would probably never happen. He isn’t a monkey on my back that I can chase off, rather a parasite in my blood swimming in the ventricles of my heart. He is part of me – a section of my brain, an extra bone in my body.  If I could remove him, I would, but it would be like cutting out a portion of ME. What would be torn out with him? What would grow in his place?

“He’s not going anywhere,” I conceded.  He’s been with me far too long. We opened our eyes simultaneously at the beginning, only he went back to sleep for eight or nine years.

Crow is part of me, but I am ALL of Crow.  I am the Crimson Knight, the Gorgon snarling in the mirror is my own reflection – it was my hand that held the razor blade, the snakeskin on the pillow came from my own scalp.  It’s been easy for me to give them faces, but essentially, they look identical and answer to the same name. Yan Baskets, pleased to meet you.

Bird bones or not, our house-sitting assignment will one day come to an end.  We’ve been discussing what to do next. We talked of leaving the U.K again, but where would we go?  I’m growing tired of feeling ill in strange places. All those thoughts and unwanted images swirling at the forefront of my mind.  Sweating in a heap in a corner of a room in Kathmandu or staring at the grass in a park in Moscow. I’m getting too old for nervous breakdowns on foreign soil.  But what else for me is there? I flashback to the breakdown I had in Mauritania, in a tent deep in the Sahara Desert. It was a camel that was the straw that broke its own back – snapped like vertebrae in a vice.  I’d been struggling with a horrendous image all week and suddenly the sight of the camel flashed another terrible concept into my mind. I pictured large yellow teeth chewing my girlfriends face off, and sank into the sand. Little One didn’t know what to do with me.  She told me later that she’d panicked and was close to a meltdown herself – I felt sick with remorse. She’s watched me break a million times, and whenever I put myself in her shoes, look out of her eyes, I feel insects wriggling in my stomach. How would I react to watching Little One crack like that?

“I like the worms in your belly,” states Crow.  And he sounds exactly like me. Because he is me.

Forget travelling, for the time being, I owe Little One some security.

But should we rent a house or buy a caravan?

No idea.

“You’ve got to do something, mate,” someone not long ago said to me.  “You’re not getting any younger.” Would they say that if I had a physical illness?  Something they could see. I very much doubt it. I know I said that I don’t want sympathy – I know people don’t understand all the details of my issues, but it’s frustrating when somebody you’ve known all your life appears to forget that you actually have a chronic illness.  Would they forget my ailments if I were on crutches? Maybe I should wear a black bag on my head, or a bell around my neck.

“Yan loves to travel.  He just left one day and never looked back.”  Are you kidding me? Never looked back? My neck is forever craned over my shoulder, fixating on where I went wrong.  Surely they meant never looked forward?

The phantom memory of somebody else now.  “I bet you can’t wait to get away again, Yan.”

I don’t think about it until I’m on the plane.  I have almost no plans when I board that aircraft.  Never had an itinerary in my life.

It’s taken me sixteen years to admit to myself that I’m not as interested in travelling as I pretended that I was.  It was just a means of escape. It gave me an excuse to be a real person in the real world.

“Look, everyone, I’m not wasting away in a paint factory.  I’m riding a bus through Bolivia!”

Pathetic really. But at least it got me out.