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.

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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 inactive sugar beet.  We were supposed to be housesitting in Hungary three weeks ago, but after terrible news we had to cancel and make alternate plans – so here we are, watching the sunset over lurching hills, gossiping with cattle.

I spoke last entry of how Crow, my OCD avatar, went missing after we received that 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 with a blank refusal 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, almost limited, 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.

And then 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 have 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 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 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  

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..

 

UTOPIA UNHINGED

It’s all a matter of perspective.  The glass is either half empty, or half full, or bubbling over with hydrochloric acid, about to topple over into your lap.

The woods are beautiful from a distance, but woe betide those who venture inside its tangled mouth.  There are wolves lurking, and snakes slithering, and Screamin’ Jean, the witch who eats children, dancing naked in the thicket.  I’m travelling the world, Little One by my side, money in our pockets, adventure never further than a bus ride away – we’ve dived with sharks, boarded down active volcanoes, jumped out of aeroplanes, but even on those days, (Jaws’ sister chewing on my heels as I tumbled through clouds,) I was spinning in space, worrying over the ridiculous, unable to do much of anything else.

The ferry to Odessa was cancelled and so we flew instead.  I smiled because Crow had been heckling me over my inadequate swimming abilities.  “You swim like a giraffe.  If the boat goes down, you’ll go down with her, and I’ll meet you at the bottom,” he promised.

“But I can’t fly either,” I said, and chased him away with a flick of my plane ticket.

I’m grateful that I’m here, and I don’t want to sob in front of violins scratching out somber tunes, because I’m not yet flirting at death’s door in a hospital for the terminally ill, and I can saunter at my own pace, hands untied, across the plains quite freely.  I don’t know what my next meal will be but I know that it’s coming, and it’ll probably be Borscht soup.

I sit inside a great theatre, a sparkling chandelier sprinkling its light upon a mesmerised crowd.  On the centre stage a man with flowing white hair works a grand piano, fingers dancing fiercely upon the ivories, humbling the congregation with his melodic skills, making them useless as they fall in love again – all slack-jawed and corkscrew-eyed, squirming like maggots in his hand.  But to some his music becomes the trigger of a gun, and my thoughts spiral downward to the gutter and brown.  I’ve taken a sideways step, a shimmy to my left, and suddenly he becomes a monster with rabies banging piano keys in a crumbling hall.  Water splashes at my feet, and I’m dragged thirteen fathoms beneath the floorboards.  But man, could that guy play.

I was born into a loving family, in a small town in England, and never went without a meal, never got a smack across the back of the legs for messing around with things I shouldn’t, never sent to clean chimneys or break stones in child labour camps.  I had everything a child could ask for, and more.  I was a rabbit gifted a field of carrots – no predator for a hundred acres.

It’s the angle you look at things I guess, and I promise that I try as hard as I can to see the positive in things, it’s just that I see the negative too – and it’s impossible to get the ink out of the water once it’s been tainted.

And sometimes things ARE pretty sh*t.  From a distance a village looks quaint in the cleavage of a green valley.  It isn’t until you get up close and enter a house, open the cupboard door that the handle falls off in your hand.  Or you put your ear to the wall and realise there are insects scuttling behind the plasterboard, maybe the river that runs through the centre of town is riddled with parasites, and squinting your eyes you see the dead man swinging from a noose beneath the bridge that spans it.  I’m well aware there are worse places, more dangerous and far filthier, with bloodier eyes to look through, but I can only describe what I see through mine.

Yet I know that I am lucky, because I’m not scrambling five miles across cracked, sun-bleached earth for drinking-water every day, and although I left school early, without furthering my education, I still learned how to read and write.  I was never molested by a drunk uncle or beaten in a filthy room by secret police.  I couldn’t have been further from poverty or famine or war-torn lands.  I always had shade from the sun, and shelter from the pouring rain, and I grimace in gut-wrenching empathy when I think of those who are in these dire predicaments AND suffering from a mental illness.  It must be the ground floor of hell, the boiler room in the devils basement, and I shudder when I try to imagine it.  What would the crow have left of me if I had been abused and fed such scraps? I’m red with guilt at the ease with which I buy bread and fresh water, and still complain that I’m not f*****g happy.  Because it doesn’t make that manic crow fly any higher, fails to silence his shrieking threats of violence and paranoia.  I still get depressed and have harmful thoughts and worry when I hear certain words, and succumb to false memories and tic and obsess and feel compelled to ritualise and imagine the blinding white light that cures all – and everything else just as ridiculous to write down or say aloud that I know my sense cannot convince my brain is harmless and untrue.  It’s not just my OCD, I get jealous and envious far too easy, I hate to be copied, and although they say it’s a compliment, I grow fangs and become frustrated and pretend to myself I would follow a man to the end of the world to pull his teeth out if it went too far.

But however much I moan and slump and drift in ashes, please don’t ever think I don’t know how lucky I am.  I appreciate the love I’ve been given, the amount of precious time certain people have invested in me, and the helping hands that have pulled me up mountains.

 

OCD in Aisle Three

I’m back from the supermarket, tired but relieved. Throwing the last bag of frozen vegetables into the freezer, closing my eyes, smiling ironically at the amount of effort it took me just to buy these groceries, and wondering if maybe I should stay home a while longer.

Twenty minutes ago I was surrounded by microwave meals and bags of oven chips, people hunched over their trolleys, ambling through the aisles, nagging their partners with half an eye on the bumper pack of bacon with fifty per cent off.  A hundred brains pondering a thousand thoughts, lost in their own worlds, side-tracked on this weekly supermarket binge.  I was here but also a million miles away, kicking at the crow as he attempted to rip my eyes out.  And while stupid, useless memories leapt at my face like alien face-huggers, I clipped an old lady’s heal with my trolley.

“I’m so sorry,” I say, wondering why pleasant memories don’t ever jump at me like this? I’ve never looked back on the good times, I guess there’s no point because if I remembered the beach I’d ignore the breaking waves and focus on the shade of the beach-ball in the sand instead.

Back in aisle three and suddenly I’m clear of the current spike, the weight is lifted and I’m surging forward, rising from the black ocean and I want to dance.  “We’ve got a tap dancer in aisle five, I repeat, a tap dancer in aisle five!”

I have a good five minutes, but I don’t want to trigger anything so I fill my head with song, and find myself singing to the girl on the checkout till.  It’s just a line from a Beatles track but she smiles a little nervously; I don’t need the crow to tell me what she’s thinking, although he does anyway.

I don’t care though, because the lead has gone from my blood, I feel great, I want to book a trip to Vegas and drink a pint of rum and play blackjack and watch a live show and…. a man at the magazine rack looks like the man from last month who said that thing which triggered the fear that knocked me to the floor and ruined my week.  “Shit!” I curse, and slap my forehead so hard it echoes down the sandwich aisle; my mouth twisting and snarling at the lights on the ceiling.  The store manager walks past and I catch his eye.  ‘Help me,’ I scream in my head, but he scuttles into toiletries giving me a wide berth.

I’m analysing something impossible to remember correctly, it’s making me so hot that I’m sweating, thoughts racing the wrong way round the tracks in my brain.  Oh f*ck, there’s my uncle, he’s gonna want to talk and I’m trapped filling plastic bags with tins of beans and cheap fruit.  An ancient fear of doing something terrible bites through my stomach; he sees me and smiles and pushes his trolley over and all of a sudden I’m discussing the football while screeching mandrills spread chaos in my mind.  I stutter, and speak at a thousand miles per hour, images of violence playing out in my head. “Stick your finger in his eye!!” commands that bastard crow.

“That’s eighty-three pounds, sixty-nine pence,” says the checkout girl.

“Sixty-nine! Sixty-nine!” Screeches crow, and I start to wonder if you can get AIDS from oral sex.

“You here for Christmas?” asks my uncle.  I feel sweat drip down my face.  My stomach is in knots.  I hand eighty-five quid to the girl, trying to joke, to get a laugh, to pretend that everything is fine in my mind.

“Throw the milk as hard as you can against the wall,” suggests the crow.  I must admit, I’m actually tempted.

Fear curdles with the acid in my stomach; my Uncle waiting for a reply to his question; the checkout girl holding out my change; the man at the magazine rack busy reminding me of the man who said that thing which triggered the fear that knocked me to the floor and ruined my week…

But I’m home now, rockets still firing in my mind, doubts still niggling in the back of my head, but no one to watch me fumble my words as I slowly shuffle backwards towards the exit.

Simply leaving the house with OCD is tough enough, but navigating supermarkets with OCD is a cocktail mixed in the devils kitchen.

I think I’ll get the shopping delivered next week.

BRANDO and the BLACK SPONGE

The crow is Godzilla and I am Tokyo. Yet another monster movie, but have you seen the performance from the lead protagonist?  Blood surges in my ears, sounding like a drum roll, and on stage an old but legendary movie star fumbles open an envelope. “…And the award for best Actor goes to…”

…Yan Baskets, and Julia Brown, and Johnny Lester and Fernando Cortez, and the millions of others hiding a mental illness from the world.

Years ago, struggling to hold down my job, every morning I would be greeted by the same friendly work colleague.  “Morning, Yan,” he would say, and I would smile and ask if he’d had a good evening, nodding and joking on the outside, but inside throwing up splinters.  The work floor would be noisy, an ugly rumination around every hissing corner – vampires on panpipes, and as the Crow attacked, the continuous whirring of the machines, the clanking and the banging, made my workplace feel like a state at war. There be injuns inside, and gun-toting Cowboys, Mexican bandits shooting pistols into the sky.  Gun fight at the Not-so-Ok Coral.  The fear I had in the morning would multiply into a thirty foot monster by clocking out time.  So yes, the Crow is Godzilla and I am Tokyo – but most of the time the city falls in silence, like a scene from an old black and white movie from the twenties.

“You’re a cheerful chap, Yan,” my colleague once said as, unbeknownst to him, Tokyo tower crumbled into my lap.  I don’t regret not telling him.  He had his own problems, everyone does.  Tokyo would still fall.  I’d cycle home after my shift, appreciating the quiet, struggling to make sense of those malicious thoughts on the battlefield, distorted shapes dancing through the gun smoke.

“Good day at work?”  The voice of my mum, dad, girlfriend or brother.  It wouldn’t matter, my answer was always a lie.

“Yeah, not bad thanks/I’m just gonna take a shower/Dinner smells good/We still going out tonight?”  Fear bubbling in my stomach but my face stretched into a rictus grin – Marlon Brando on the outside, but inside, my mind absorbing all the fears of the world like a black sponge.

I regret not telling certain friends and family.  In the early days it wasn’t an option because I feared I was a lunatic, but when my OCD was diagnosed, I think I should have led a handful more through the gates into my secret world.  Certainly explained in more detail to those that I did tell.  I guess I was unjustly embarrassed; it was easier to play a part in a mainstream movie than stand out in an avant-garde independent feature.  In this sense I believe that I’m a good actor, because so many of my friends and acquaintances would have bet a month’s wages that I was the furthest someone could be from suffering from a mental illness. And it goes the other way – I wonder how many of my friends are writhing in silence in the shadows of their own demons, whether its depression, or addiction, or caught in a loop of fear and loathing.  How good an actor are they? And it’s not just on an epic-movie scale, once in a while it’s a twenty second scene as a walk-on extra in a play – a simple smile and nod to the shop assistant, or a thank-you to the bar-tender when inside, the world is falling apart.

Yan Baskets isn’t my real name, so I’m still doing it.

Ironic that on my trip to India, I was approached on the streets of Mumbai and offered to work as an extra in a Bollywood film.  I also did an advert and a trailer for a TV show with the same agency.  I loved the experience, but in those days the Crow was a sledgehammer, it had taken all my effort just to get on the plane out there, and on the film set, when they asked me to come back the next day, I’d been under such ferocious attacks, was so tired and battle scarred, that I declined and went to Goa to stick my head in the sand instead.  I clearly remember the sickness in my belly as the busy world of Bollywood moved in a blur around me.  I spoke with the director, the actors and actresses, but Crow banged on a drum in my head, ruining the experience like stirring a glass of wine with a liquorice stick.  Physically I was in the Bollywood studios in Mumbai; mentally I was shivering on the wet floor of a concrete cell.  Crow battered me with a cricket bat during those three days, and I regrettably walked away, travelling down to the western state with a young Dutch couple, and pretended to be OK as the crow ate me from the inside. I should have stayed on the film set and at least continued getting paid to be someone else.

So polish that Oscar, I’ve already written my speech. I’d like to thank my mum and dad, and of course the Crow, whose absence would mean I wouldn’t have had to take up acting in the f**king first place.

 

 

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.

TOO MANY TEETH IN THE TOOTH FACTORY

I live in the shadow of a colossal factory, its thirteen chimneys spewing black smoke into the ozone. Wherever I go in the world, I smell its toxins polluting the space around me, the thirteen brick towers casting their gloom over my sagging shoulders.  A long conveyor belt loops around the foundry floor, and whenever my head is clear, or I am happy, a spike falls into a box and is delivered, wherever I am in the world (via ‘Crow Express Delivery Service’,) to my doorstep.

To help me cope, to understand what is happening in my mind, I have used many metaphors over the years.  Often I think of these spikes, these intrusive thoughts, as teeth.  Each fear is a fang, and sometimes I am bitten by one tooth, sometimes by an entire row.  I usually obsess over one intrusive thought until I can bury it, often in a shallow grave in the woods, but occasionally somewhere more permanent, like deep in the foundations of a city new-build, or maybe Mafioso style and thrown into the sea with concrete boots.  However, when there are several spikes, or teeth, the day generally spirals into an inescapable black pit.

A while ago now, at the end of one particularly cruel day, I counted that thirteen intrusive thoughts had spiked me – thirteen yellow teeth biting into my bones, puncturing thirteen holes direct into my marrow.  It was mid-March, seventy-seven days into the year.  I calculated that another two and a half months like today would mean being mauled, potentially, by one thousand and one teeth. It was a mortifying prospect. So far that year I’d done absolutely nothing, not a plan made or a dream realised since January the first. No memories but a thousand terrible maybes, and not a single one of them had come true. But still I worried.

As panic incapacitated me two considerable things happened. First, I realised that I had to do something, anything, before I died with a spike in my throat, choking on splinters, having achieved nothing in my life; but more importantly, it was the start of my resignation period. As my condition worsened over the years, my multiple attacks began to have a bizarre calming effect. The more teeth that punctured me meant more rituals, more time touching wood or imagining blinding sheets of lightning, sweating on my bed, howling at the wall and wishing I was in a coma – but something else was occurring too.  My brain felt like it was vibrating, stressed under the flashing red lights and plumes of smoke from the overworked cogs and dials. One especially bleak day of ruminating ridiculous events, pinned to my bed and pulling out my hair strand by strand, I experienced a type of shut-down. The factory had produced excess items and the conveyor belt was jammed as it meandered through the various machinery, or there were too many teeth in the attack dog’s mouth and it was unable to gain a proper purchase, or the Crow’s beak was blunted with the excess pecking, like a reused nail hammered into one piece of wood too many. It didn’t matter what metaphor I chose, the important thing was that I rode a wave of euphoria that lasted a considerable amount of time.

It’s strange, but I learned that the more the Crow flexes his wings, or the dog bares his teeth, or when extra spikes roll off the production line, the more peace I feel because of my resignation to the cold fact that I simply cannot handle the ferocity of the attacks.  I forget the lies the Crow has whispered in my ear because on such formidable days he talks too much, or the pain from the bite wound on my leg eclipses the throb from the one on my arm, or the factory warehouse loses stock in its jungle of boxes.  The irony is laughable, the more spikes that puncture my mind, the more I can heal.

“Too many cooks spoil the broth,” sneers Crow.

Of course the Crow still flies, and the dog still bites and the factory continues to produce, but when that invisible line is crossed, there becomes much less ruffle to the feathers, strength in the jaws and far less pollution in the river.  More is less, or something like that.

I nearly forgot this is a travel blog too.

I’m currently still in Greece waiting to be relieved of house sitting duties.  The cat is still alive and I’ve not stabbed myself to death or died of a brain tumour or been burnt alive by angry villagers in a giant wicker-man. Since I’ve been here the factory has produced these exact fears, and lots more besides.  Or, depending on my metaphor, the Crow has whispered them in my ear, or gnashing teeth have gnawed them into my skin.  But the factory is rusting and the Crow is getting old, because his feathers are starting to fall out and his peck (on good days) feels no more than a tickle.

At this moment, peeling a lemon with my free hand, I have no idea where my next destination will be.  I do know there’ll be a factory close by, and a crow, turning slightly grey, circling in the sky.

 

Chewing Feathers

By far, the most enjoyable part of my travelling has not been what I’ve seen along the way but who I’ve met.  If I had stayed in my hometown in England I’d never have shared a smoke and a few lines with inmates in their cell during a prison visit in Ecuador, or had a conversation with a freight-hopping Brooklyn vagabond in the alleyways of New York City, or played a thousand hands of cards with an eccentric Panamanian who drank Las Vegas dry and escaped the US owing thousands in medical bills.  From drinks with a ’60s Slovenian pop star to a night in Thailand with a Hawaiian pot dealer, for me, it’s all about the people.

It’s just a shame that I’ve either had to cut the meetings short, (I should have gone to the golf club in Ljubljana), or missed the bones of a conversation (what was the moral of the homeless man’s tale again?) If I hadn’t had the Crow flapping in my ears, maybe I’d have learned and experienced more than I have.  But then again, if it wasn’t for that feathered demon from the abyss, I probably wouldn’t have sold my home in England – I wouldn’t be here, house-sitting in Greece, watching the distant fishing boats idle on the calm blue sea.

I often lament those split conversations, the times when you find yourself talking to someone in the outside world, but you’re also busy trying to talk sense to yourself somewhere on those chaotic plains in your head.  Dissecting a thought you take too long answering a question, there’s an awkward silence, maybe you didn’t quite catch what was said.  You ask them to repeat their question, just as another spiked cannonball roars from the Howitzer, hurtling in your direction.  You’ve missed the real world conversation AGAIN! You’re standing there, literally face to face with a man you met on a train, and you’re listening but struggling to hear a single word he’s spoken all morning.  A third time, and yes, you hear what’s being said but it makes no sense because you missed the critical three minutes of dialogue before this current query.  You smile apologetically, “Sorry mate, I was miles away.”  You blame a late night, say you’re a prolific daydreamer, or, “that joint has really hit me, man.”  You certainly can’t mention the screeching bird in your cerebrum.  “Sorry mate, I was talking to the Crow,” is not an option.

The problem is not only missing the key words but also, when you know precisely what’s being said, your stomach can feel so full of lead that you don’t have the mental strength to join in, or expand the question, or debate it, or anything at all because you’ve got the black feathered Prince of Doubt pecking holes on your head.  Chances are I’ve missed out on more than a fistful of profound revelations because of this.  I could have had the answer to life explained to me in glorious detail but was too busy thinking about killing myself in front of my Nan to heed the advice.

If it worked the other way around it would be the perfect solution to my problems.  “Sorry Crow, I was talking to my friend, you’ll have to wait.  Stand in line, or come back tomorrow.”

The greatest problem with OCD, for me, is that big fat O – Obsessional thoughts that fight for my absolute attention the moment I’m conscious.  My alarm sounds and I open my eyes, and there’s my breakfast on the bedside table, six inch nails on toast.  Of course, most people experience dark thoughts every day, but with the crow, and the millions of other crows, imps, and demon monkeys out there perched on peoples’ shoulders, it’s not just every day, but every second of every minute of every hour of every day.

It’s not surprising that we miss things.  We just have to make the most of the conversations we do have, and as the Crow circles me a little higher these days, here is a plea to all OCDemons the world over to ignore:  “Give your hosts a break, let them have a spike-free conversation with whoever is sharing their table, whether it’s in a bar in Southeast Asia or in the lounge of their grandmother’s house, back the f*ck off for an hour or so.”

 

The Art of Stopping

Too much of anything is a bad thing.  I have to learn to stop, (like stop spending all my spare time on the Playstation.)  But things I enjoy are easy to stop.  It’s the things I don’t like doing that I struggle halting.

Stop thinking – like in my younger years pretending to be upstairs on my computer when I was actually laying on my bed, facing the wall, worrying, ruminating, obsessing over AIDS, paranoid that a boy at school wanted to stab me to death – are those heart murmurs in my chest?  I shouldn’t have watched those television shows about modern medicine because by the time the credits were rolling I’d diagnosed myself with Leukaemia and Parkinson’s and three types of lung disease.

Stop drinking – like waking up in a homestay in Havana, Cuba, mottled in vomit.  Apologising to the old woman whose house it was, taking the sheets to the launderette, humiliated when they refused to wash them.  “Too dirty to clean,” they said.  Oh the irony!  Our new Cuban friend, Alex, had showed us the particulars of local life, cheap bars and hole-in-the wall eateries, and nicknamed me ‘El Dragón’ the previous night, because of the noises I was making, the roars and facial tics, as he and his friend helped me home along the Malecón.  It had been a hard few days, spikes-a-plenty me hearties, and I was trying to drown the crow in a barrel of rum.  I was drunk, ecstatic that the crow was silenced, but I didn’t know when to stop, the cheerful haze mutating to a red mist, angry at myself that I didn’t feel like this all the time.  That fucking crow! And then the facial churns and the roars as the two Cuban men helped me to my homestay through the dawn-lit Havana streets.

Stop joking – know when to be serious.  At school I tried to keep the OCDemon at bay by laughing loudly, the class fool, taking the jokes too far, forcing them out when inside I was terrified of everything in the world.  The silent moments between antics magnifying the ways I could die, how unless I thought things through to their conclusion, I was going to have my house set on fire by school bullies, with my parents still inside, or worse, maybe I would lose control, pouring the petrol and striking the match myself.  So fuck silence, my education, a chance to be someone.  Be silly instead, force out those crappy jokes because when the class is laughing, the crow is crying.  God, how I wish now I’d stopped and learned something useful.  But I know, struggling in that classroom all those years ago, it was impossible to absorb any information other than how I could draw blood, or ruin lives, or shock old people to death by screaming in their ears.  I must not be too hard on myself, and I’m not – I don’t cut myself anymore for being plagued by these thoughts.

Stop ruminating, stop worrying, stop whinging, stop taking those tablets that turn me into the walking dead – shuffling around the room searching for my lost libido.

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