A BRIDGE, THREE COWS AND A MILLION BUTTERFLIES

Today we conversed with cows.  Myself and Little One making friends over a wire fence.  We’re on the move again. We’ve dusted down our backpacks, locked the front door and put the keys through the letterbox.  It didn’t involve flying halfway around the world this time – in fact, we didn’t have to get on a plane at all. Not even a boat, just got in our car and drove south for four hours.  We’re housesitting in East Sussex, a beautiful part of the world, and similar to Norfolk, our home county, only with rolling hills, and fields of roaming cows instead of dormant sugar beet.  We were supposed to be housesitting in Hungary but after our terrible news we cancelled and made alternate plans – so here we are, watching a sunset over verdant hills, gossiping with cattle.

I spoke last entry of how Crow, my OCD avatar, went missing after we received such horrific news.  Sadly, he’s been trying to sneak back into my life, and presented himself as a clamouring crackpot yesterday on the M25, when he suggested that I open the passenger door and fling myself onto the busy road.  I beat him back, refusing to listen to his fiendish ramblings. It was tough, and during the battle, I lost myself in a fog of depression, which worked in my favour, as I fell onto the cold blade of sadness rather than the machine gun fire of intrusive thought.  Oh, lucky me, suffocating in a black bin liner instead of walking into the spray of an AK47 on full automatic fire. I remember the old saying, how the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

We crossed the Dartmouth Bridge – such an amazing structure, and a testament to what the human race can achieve.  “You also cut each other’s heads off for conflicting religious beliefs,” smirked Crow. And I had to agree with him.

He’s made other appearances this week, but I fought him off with a returning compulsion of blinking my eyes at set intervals, and other daft rebuffs that for one reason or another give me moments of peace away from those flapping wings.

I’ve met new people, which can be hard for me – approached them with a firm handshake and a nudge in the back of my brain, a careful reminder that no-one lives forever.  F*ck feeling awkward at new relationships; who cares if these well-spoken locals think I’m less of a human being, or a gibbering moron, a babbling lunatic even? All three if they choose – although I’ll be the first to concede that they’re probably not thinking these things at all…they actually seem rather nice.

I smile because we’re all going to be gone in a blink of the Universe’s eye anyway.

When I meet new people, they get one of three Yans.  On a good day, they get Yan the Optimist. He is confident, hopefully pleasant, probably talkative, eyes focused on the positive.  Often courageous, sometimes fearless, this fleeting figure is unfortunately scarce, a limited edition, and I feel lucky when I step into his shoes.

On a bad day – a typical day – they get one of the other, not so user-friendly versions.  There’s Yan the Furtive – doubtful, forgetful, stammering, red-faced as he looks for an exit to leave the immediate area.  You will frequently find this Yan laying on his bed, or in the corner of the room pretending to read a book.

Finally, there’s Yan the Berserker, existing only when there are other people in the room, like the sound of a tree falling in the forest.  He is restless, looking to flood the dark alleyways with water from a gushing river. Obliterating awkward silence with any available noise.  Dead inside, but outside painting his walls with an electric brush doused with metallic, glowing paint. He is a blazing ball of red light – the worse he feels, the brighter he burns.  He is a hungry wind, a foghorn in the mist, a manic clown juggling sticks of dynamite. “Yan’s a character, isn’t he?” I hear them say. “He mustn’t have a care in the world…”

A few people peer through my mask like it was made of glass.  It’s usually the fellow sufferers of depression, anxiety or blasting intrusive thoughts.  It takes one to know one I suppose.

I’ve said it before but I think the clever ones, or the ones with great social skills, are able to hide their pain better than others.  They wear louder, more detailed masks because they don’t want to be a burden – which of course they’re not. They know how to apply the makeup, and can sometimes recognise the mask on other people too.  I’m not one of the clever ones, by the way, I just don’t like being the reason for people to stress or worry, so I cover up my woes with strips of colourful wallpaper. Time and experience have made me quite the handyman – I have friends who think I’m the happiest person on the planet.

I often wonder what my world would have been like living as Yan the Optimist.  Using my time to create a better life, planning for the future instead of years spent dwelling on Crow’s cruel whispers.  Today would have been a different day indeed. Although let’s face it, I could also be dead. Sliding doors and all that. I’d simply be on another path, and maybe I wouldn’t have met Little One, and that would be unthinkable.

There are a thousand forks in every road, each leading to a new destination – another fork.  A man who is killed on his way to the shop would still be alive if he’d had his newspaper delivered to his doorstep.  Tiny things create mighty waves. Butterflies and flapping wings.

Back to the here and now, and those cows have shuffled over to the other side of the field.  Was it something I said?

There are sights to see and adventures to be had, even this close to home.  Things to do in this little corner of the world. A new road. Norfolk with bumps.  I’m watching a crow perched on a telephone wire. I point it out to Little One and we both smile.  That f*cker follows me everywhere.

“He’s part of you,” says Little One.

It’s cooler now, time for a hot drink, followed by a cold beer.  I’m closing the conservatory door as well as the laptop.

Speak soon,

Yan Baskets

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“LET’S KILL ALL THE FISH!”

For someone suffering from OCD, achieving anything is tough.  The simplest task becomes a sheer concrete wall. Dread curdles in your stomach like spoiled milk – the mere thought of leaving the house uses all your energy.  The same goes for depression; the black dog sinks its fangs into your calf, snarling, head shaking from side to side, dragging you down to the ground like a convict in spotlights.  I look at my OCD as a crow, but I’ve heard others describe their own demon as a goblin, a monkey, a swarm of flies. I’ve been scolded by a psychologist for giving OCD a face but, like I told the doctor at the time, it helps me to fight it, and you don’t suffer with it, so thanks for the advice but…

Either way, mental illness is a bag of lead ingots, slung across your back.

“Ok,” says the Crow, with mischief on his mind.  “Let’s see how far up the wall you can get today!”

So I fight it.

But it’s tough to fight an opponent who knows your every move. It’s like playing poker with yourself and trying to bluff your hand.

“You’re wasting your life, make a decision and do something,” some might say.

I am doing something, I tell them. I’m wrestling an electric eel every second of every day. The fact that I’m not banging my head against that concrete wall is a huge achievement for me.

They say they understand, but I don’t think ‘THEY’ actually do.  And I don’t blame them, because I don’t know much about the other hundred thousand illnesses and disorders that I don’t suffer from. In fact, there are legions of diseases out there, killing people every day, that I don’t even know exist. It doesn’t mean I disrespect those afflicted by them, the victims piling up by the door.

I read many tweets, Facebook messages and social media comments jovially describing OCD as an eccentric distraction. “I’m so OCD because I group all my clothes by colour,” wrote a former work colleague on his Facebook wall last year. Huddled under the bed sheets, I yelled my disdain but soon went back to fighting my own irrational thoughts before they ruined another day for me.  There was no need to get aggressive with him for an off-the-cuff comment, to troll him and vilify him and bite and scratch and kick him into a corner; it wouldn’t help my condition one bit. If you want a fight, then take on ISIS, or the bully at work, or the drunk causing aggro at the bar.

I hear people complain, “They don’t understand my condition.” Well educate them, and if they still don’t agree, or lack empathy, then that’s their prerogative. Bosses at work come under fire for not allowing someone with depression take six months sick leave every year. I struggled at work in factories for years, the last thing I expected was my boss to give me a day off every time I didn’t feel well. I’d never have worked a day in my life.  I knew someone who was paralysed from the waist down, and he was the first to admit that he’d never be a fireman! Imagine if he argued that the fire service should invest and create a special ladder that could winch him up a tree to rescue the old ladies cat. Of course, I agree with sick days, but I think that if you need to take every other day off work, then you need to find a new career. If a restaurant owner employed six kitchen staff, all suffering from a mental illness, and each employee took half the week off sick, that person wouldn’t be in the restaurant business for very long. The bank would send in the bailiffs and come Monday morning, there would be seven depressed people filing into the unemployment office instead of six.

Cancer isn’t pleasant either, or AIDS, or spina bifida, or schizophrenia, or acne, or war, or racism, or homophobia.  The world isn’t fair, it’s full of life struggling to surive – from dogs to human beings to fish in the sea. A good person will want to fight injustice, but essentially, no-one owes us anything. There are over seven billion people on the planet. SEVEN BILLION! And I bet my thumbs that not many of those seven billion have a perfect life. Every one of us has a list of problems, obstacles lined up like gravestones, vultures perched on telephone wires, shadows under our eyes from restless nights worrying about money, injustice, death. Maybe one in three will get Cancer, and one in four might suffer mental health issues.

I was on a bus last week with three other passengers. One couldn’t walk without a crutch, one struggled to see, one sat at the back of the bus looking forlorn, running fingers through greasy hair – I could see demons dancing in his eyes. We all suffer the consequences of being born.  Every one of us will know grief and pity and envy and will be a victim of someone else at some point in our lives. Because that’s what life is, a series of problems, of walls to scale, of paths to tread with backpacks full of lead, with black dogs snapping at our heels.

Of course, I would like everyone to understand my daily plight. Certainly, it would make life a little easier for me if everyone were able to empathise with my disorder. Yes, I roll my eyes when I hear someone say that depression is all in your head! – Oh the irony! I try to educate people when they say “Isn’t OCD that thing when you can’t stop vacuuming?” But I won’t be angry, because I don’t know much about Alpha 1-Antitrypsin Deficiency. Do you?

It’s another problem in a world of f*****g problems. And ideally, everyone should know all there is about everything. I understand that we have to continually educate ourselves and others, and constantly push forward with mental health awareness, but we shouldn’t get angry with those that don’t quite get it yet – let’s not vilify them like they’re the next Ted Bundy or Chairman Mao.  It may be ignorance, but there are a lot of things in this world I’m ignorant of. I wouldn’t have been able to write a paragraph on OCD if I didn’t suffer so badly from it myself. Why would I? I don’t know much about cerebral palsy either, or world trade, or basketball, or athlete’s foot. If someone makes the comment, “I’m so OCD because I’m always rearranging my shoe closet,” then instead of screaming at them like you’ve stumbled across a dead body in the woods, educate them – politely – and don’t tie them to a railway track. When my OCDemon is thrashing on drums in my head, I couldn’t care less if a friend thinks he’s OCD because he can’t wear odd socks on weekdays. He may not have OCD, but for sure, he’ll have other problems in his life. He might have a voice in his head telling him he’s the new messiah. He could be waiting for test results from the hospital, or owe twice his wages to his landlord, or have to visit a terminally ill relative at a hospice later in the day. Why the hell would he be learning about OCD? If nothing bad is going on in someone’s life right now, be happy for them. By all means, reveal your issues to people, but know they’ll have issues of their own.  Punching and spitting won’t get the monkey off your back. It’s too easy to vent our frustration at a soft target rather than the beast itself. If the scourge of the ocean is too cunning and strong, don’t take your frustration out on the sardines.

“They don’t understand the trouble the Kraken causes us, I hate those fucking sardines! Let’s kill all the fish!” The world is a tough place to live. To negotiate. To survive. Every person you pass on the street has their own circling crow. It’s irritating but I will not be spiteful to those that don’t understand. You can’t beat ignorance with hate. (Trust me, they’ll just hate you back.) It’s love we need to load into our guns, or we’ll all suffer the consequences.

CONFESSIONS OF A DOOR TO DOOR SALESMAN

I’m writing this on a plane.  Greece is a gently rolling landscape beneath the clouds.  The cat we were looking after was still purring when we clocked off, and the house was still standing – not even a broken plate to glue back together.  Mission success, but already it’s just a memory – another page of history flapping in the slipstream. It felt like yesterday we landed here; I can still taste the first gyros.  It was chicken. I wanted pork.

Funny how most of the things we did here will soon be forgotten, lost on the steaming, pulsating heap of other memories – scraps and old tins and strange bones sticking up from an ever distorting mountain of experiences.

Sometimes I stick my hand in the tottering jumble and pull out an old rag or rusted box – just to reminisce.  Sometimes a memory breaks free of its own accord, making a clatter and drawing my attention as it spills down the hill.  I often cringe at what I did, or said, or thought at the time. Like everyone else in the world I have a lot of regrets.

Regrets come in differing shapes and sizes.  There’s regretting things that you’ve done, and there’s regretting things that you didn’t do, but also, and sometimes worse, there’s regretting things that you think you did, but you didn’t actually do at all.  Punishing yourself for an action or conversation that you’ve convinced yourself happened but never did. The more you think, did I? The louder the crow, or the monkey, or the goblin shouts back. “Yes, of course, you did this. Remember, it was so fucking bad but you did it and now people are suffering.”

Or did Little One do this? Or say that? Or….

“Yes, Yan. Yes, she did, and much worse.”  The more I try to remember if these memories are legitimate, the more, over time, I am convinced that they are.  Could I have done something so spiteful? Did that person really say those awful words?

“Yes, yes, yes!” squawks Crow, spitting breakfast in my face.

A memory of something hurtful, or nasty, will introduce itself to me like a salesman at the door.  Some are familiar faces selling the genuine article – I remember their patter, and eventually, after a lot of pushing and shoving, I send them on their way.  Some, however, are ‘new’ memories from long ago that I have never thought worthy to dwell upon, or ever recalled before. At first I am dubious of their authenticity, and laugh them off, slamming the door in their smirking faces.

A little later the doorbell will ring again, and standing before me will be the same man in the same cheap suit, flashing those perfect ‘dazzling white’ teeth – the smile cutting his face in half.

The salesman dangles the fake Rolex before my eyes.  This time my ninety-nine percent certainty that this is a forgery has slipped to below seventy-five.  I push the door closed.

‘Ding dong!’  I’ll ignore him until he goes away.

‘Ding dong!’  He’s a persistent little fucker.

‘Ding dong!  Ding dong! Ding dong!’ the doorbell chiming like a church bell striking a hundred o’clock.

I know I have OCD, I know that this is how the OCDemon attacks.  But still, I can’t walk away.

I throw open the door…”Listen, friend.  I’m not interested, I…”

He opens a suitcase of gold watches…Is that a Rolex?

It took me a long time to realise that one way to combat the rep at the door is to just buy everything that he is selling.  “Here’s my credit card, I’ll have it all, and more if you’ve got it – I agree with you, Crow. I did do it; Little One did say that, and yes, probably much worse.  “Yes,” I say, “and what the fuck are you going to do about it?”

It doesn’t always work but it’s better than hiding under the bedcovers, a quivering mess, hands covering my ears waiting for the doorbell battery to run out, or the salesman’s finger to fall off.

In a year or two, I wonder if the Crow will try and make me think something bad happened here in Greece.  I already have a backpack full of false memories to suggest that he will. He will tell me something horrific occurred here, or something terrible was said, maybe only hinted at, but it will be enough to stir doubt into the pot, creating a spark in the dry bush that Crow will gently blow upon, feeding it fuel until a mighty inferno lashes at my door.

I cannot say what memories I will rely upon to be true in the future.  That is why it is good for me to keep notes on this blog. So Yan, if you’re reading this for confirmation, its OK, Greece was good for you, and you didn’t kill the cat.