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 other sufferers hiding their mental illness from the world.

Years ago, struggling to hold down my job, every morning I would be greeted by the same friendly workmate. “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 always multiplied 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, making sense of those malicious thoughts on the battlefield, distorted shapes dancing through the gun smoke – becoming clear but still a mile away.
“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, 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 let another handful 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 feature.
In this sense I believe 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 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, fear and loathing. How good an actor are they? And its not just on an epic-movie scale, once in a while its a twenty second scene as a walk on part 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 travelled 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 got 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 fucking 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 once took a week off work, festering in bed grappling one particular intrusive thought, and couldn’t concentrate on anything else for longer than a minute – I tried but there was a sickness in my stomach like I’d swallowed a glass of worms. ‘I can’t feel worse than this,’ I thought. But then I caught malaria in Uganda, and along with shaking chills and a burning fever, the throbbing, thumping headaches I endured silenced the crow as quick as a shotgun blast to his head.

It was an odd relief, and thanks to an incompetent doctor in the Ugandan town of Jinja, who falsely diagnosed a torn shoulder muscle instead of malaria, the parasite had gone undetected. I was suffering. The pain in my head was unbearable at times, but after the crow had told me it was an inoperable tumor, all of a sudden he became useless, obsolete as the illness took a firm hold in my blood. I couldn’t think of a shopping list let alone dissect the meandering cunning of an OCD riddle.

‘If it’s a tumor then I’ll die. The end.’ I could not think past that simple equation, so loud was the banging in my skull, like goblins pounding on steel drums. When the throb became a constant level pain, as if my head was jammed in a vice, the crow fled the battlefield like the yellow devil I always knew he was, white flag flapping in tatters as he disappeared over the smokey horizon. I missed my connecting flight to Mexico, my brother thrusting twenty pounds in my hand and guiding me into a taxi at Kings Cross station. A few hours later at the Hospital of Tropical Diseases, quarantine was finally lifted when they properly diagnosed the infection. There was relief, but the moment the medication took control, the Crow was back hopping on my hospital bed, claws clanking on the metal headrest.

I sat incredulous between white sheets, but smiled anyway.

He jabbed a talon in my eye, I blinked and thought of murder.
“I missed you, crow,” I lied.

And there we were again, biting, scratching, rolling around like two lovers in a barn, like rival drunks wrestling on the sawdust floor of a wild west saloon. I smiled at the injustice of it all.  But his smile is always wider than mine, and a black rainbow slashed across his face. “You could punch that window and cut your wrist in a second, or swallow bleach from the cleaners’ storeroom, imagine their faces while you’re choking to death on your own blood. What’s stopping you, Yan?” He sank his beak into my cheek. “Erase these urges by concentrating on a blast of pure white light. It’s worked before, but remember, you have to do it perfectly.”

Success was a brilliant, obliterating explosion in my mind. No more talk of dying today. But…

…”Did you know that Little One wants to be fucking that doctor, just look at their body language. What else could it all mean, think it through, you know I’m wrong but you know how it works, I need proof. Make it feel right? Come up with an alternative and seal it quickly with another blinding flash.”
For a second I wished I still had malaria.

In 2011, I had ingested a different parasite and contracted Giardiasis from a stream in Belize. By the time I reached Honduras, I was suffering from nausea and extreme diarrhoea. “You’re belching like a swamp monster,” said Little One.  As I lay stinking and rancid, huddled on the bathroom floor, there wasn’t a feather in sight.

As vicious as he may be, it turns out the crow has more than one chink in his black armour, and it’s not a straw-man standing in a field. It’s a broken bone, but only when it snaps; a sickness in the belly, but only during the most nauseating hours; a parasite in the blood, but only when it knocks me to the floor and I cannot move.

Physical or mental, pain hurts by default, if not it wouldn’t be pain. But which is worse? The quick snap of the fibula or the long, drawn out horror of an intrusive spike? I’d probably choose to lose an arm if it meant the crow would follow it into the incinerator, but if I had to cut it off myself with a hacksaw, I might only get to break the skin before I changed my mind. I guess I’ll never know because medical science doesn’t work like that, not since the Middle Ages anyway – and I’d have taken the leeches for sure.

I hate mental anguish – anxiety and fear.

I hate physical pain – high fever and broken bones.

A quick death by fire, or much slower, from venom in my blood?

Incineration by flames or suffocation by madness?

Dragon or Hydra?

No contest.

Neither.

Medusa in the Mirror

Our house-sitting assignment in Greece is coming to an end. The cat is still alive. I think we may have two more weeks but its time to decide where to head next, and there are plenty of options, a million corners of the world I haven’t seen. A part of me wants a country I’ve not set foot in, to see fresh things, experience different ways, and hopefully drink cold beers with new friends. But a big part feels I should go back somewhere I’ve already visited. A place where the crow ruined my experience the first time round, and there are plenty of those.

Although the majority of my compulsions are invisible to others, either fighting or appeasing them in my head, away from prying eyes, I did at one time suffer from an absurd relationship with shadows, particularly in a reflection. Today I can happily stare into a black pit, but in the bad old days, when the feathered one was a much stronger force, I spent hours standing in front of bathroom mirrors or lounge windows, glaring into my own face and battling to get that perfect ‘safe’ feeling. I dread to think of the accumulated time I’ve wasted imagining a blinding white light every-time I noticed a shadow in a mirror. I stamped this particular fire out as I got older, but when I first went travelling, for no other reason than the Crow is a vicious sociopath, I began to suffer a resurgence of these nonsensical attacks. I still continued to obsess over a thousand other fears, but this particular compulsion saw me miss countless buses in Thailand, insane sunsets in New Zealand, and endless days of adventure in the heart of Ecuador.

It would go a little like this…

I would walk past a mirror, head down or looking away because I wouldn’t want to trigger the spike. Maybe I’d glance up, or simply catch a reflection in the corner of my eye, either way I would notice the dark shade of my eye sockets, or possibly the long shadow of a lamp-lit shelf, cast across a wall. The crow would hop onto my shoulder.
“Just like a cancerous shadow on a lung,” he would say.
I’d become transfixed, stomach churning like a vat of old milk, legs as heavy as stone, searching the reflected world for unnessacery shadows. The dark shaded hollows in my cheeks symbolised cancer, so concentrate on that blinding fake white light and what? The cure?
“Yes” whispers the Crow. “The cure for the cancer in your bones.”
Will this be the last time?
“Of course,” says the Crow, sniggering no doubt, with rusty scissors on his mind.
Ok, I’ll wait, standing in front of my thin reflection, eyes fixed into my own eyes, imagining a flash of pure white. God’s light burning bright, except it’s not there, just like the cancer and the liver disease – but the crow has promised me this will be the last time, and although he’s lied a million times before, maybe this promise is genuine.
But never trust your OCDemon.
I would eventually capture that evasive white light and yes, he would let me walk away. However, as i passed a mirror in the next room, he would reappear as another shadow, another snake on Medusa’s head hissing threats of terrible disease and random ways to die. I’d turn to stone again. A family member will die of AIDS, unless…
“Concentrate Yan, the blinding light will prevent this tragedy, and scare me off for good, no doubt.”
Let me guess, this will be the very last time?
“Of course,” says the crow, a razor smile and the devil in his eye. “One for the road.”
So I missed the bus, left the amazing sunsets as they sank into the ground, remained in the ramshackle room, glaring into my reflection as my day pack sat useless on the bed. I spent a lot of time frozen in front of mirrors in foreign lands, apparently saving my own life and the lives of relatives as I pictured dazzling blasts of light, bright like atomic explosions, detonate across the image of the world behind me.

Its ironic that I travelled halfway across the world to stare at myself in an empty room. Yet I smiled as I wrote that last sentence, proving to myself that I’m leaps and bounds from where I was before. A few years ago the bitter frustration at the missed opportunities would have seen me launch a mug of coffee at the wall. Or my head.

I’m not sure where I’ll be next month but I know that someday I must return to a hundred and one places and look OUT of the window. Maybe this time catch that bus to Pattani or Rayong.

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 visualise what is happening, 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 can generally spiral 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 incapacited me two considerable things happened. Firstly, I realised that I had to do something, anything, before I died with a spike in my throat, choking on splinters; 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 affect. The more teeth that punctured me meant more rituals, more time touching wood or imagining blinding bolts 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 I felt a wave of euphoric relief that lasted for a considerable amount of time.
Its 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 wounds on my leg eclipse the throb from the one on my arm, or the factory warehouse loses stock in its jungle of boxes.
Of course the Crow still flies, and the beast still bites and the factory continues to produce, but there’s much less ruffle to the feathers, strength in the jaws and far less pollution in the river.
And 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 tumor 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, bless him, because his feathers are starting to fall out and his peck can sometimes feel no more than a tickle.
At this moment, peeling a lemon with my free hand, I have no idea where the next destination will be. I do know there’ll be a factory close by, and a crow, turning slightly grey, circling in the sky.
Any Ideas are welcome.

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 smoked a spliff 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 a loco Panamanian who drank Las Vegas dry and escaped the US owing thousands in medical bills. (I’m not condoning any of this, they are merely examples of some of the more interesting characters I’ve met along the way.) 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 Slovenia), or missed the bones of a conversation (what was the homeless mans ethos 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 in that chaotic world inside 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 ball bounces into the equation. 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 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. Seriously, 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 words.
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, come back tomorrow.”
The greatest problem with OCD, for me, is that big fat O. Obsessional thoughts that take over my entire world. Everyone, at least a continent’s worth of people, have dark thoughts, perhaps everyday. But with the crow, and the millions of other crows, and 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, a plea for all OCDemons the world over to ignore: “I know you devils suffer from a warped social reality, but 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 fuck off for an hour or so.”

The Art of Stopping

Too much of anything is a bad thing. I have to stop more.
Stop thinking – like in my younger years pretending to be upstairs on my computer when I was actually laying on my bed, facing the wall, worrying, ruminating, obsessing over AIDS, paranoid that a boy at school wanted to stab me to death, and are those heart murmurs in my chest? I shouldn’t have watched those television shows about modern medicine because by the time the credits were rolling I’d diagnosed myself with Leukemia and Parkinson’s and three types of kidney failure.
Stop drinking – like waking up in a homestay in Havana, Cuba, mottled in vomit. Apologising to the old woman whose house it was, taking the sheets to the launderette, humiliated when they refused to wash them. “Too dirty to clean,” they said. Oh the irony! Our new Cuban friend, Alex, had showed us the particulars of local life, cheap bars and hole-in-the wall eateries, and nicknamed me ‘El Dragón’ that night, because of the noises I was making, the roars and facial tics, as he and his friend helped me home along the Malecón. It had been a hard few days, spikes-a-plenty me hearties, and I was trying to drown the crow in a barrel of rum. I was drunk, ecstatic that the crow was silenced, but I didn’t know when to stop, the cheerful haze mutating to a red mist, angry at myself that I didn’t feel like this all the time. That fucking crow! And then the facial churns and the roars as the two Cuban men helped me to my homestay through the dawn lit Havana streets.

Stop joking – know when to be serious. At school I kept the OCDemon at bay by laughing loudly, the class fool, taking the jokes to the next level, forcing them out when inside I was terrified of the world. The silent moments between antics magnifying the ways I would die, how unless I thought things through to their conclusion, I was gonna have my house set on fire by school bullies, with my parents still inside, or worse, maybe I would lose control, pouring the petrol and striking the match myself. So fuck silence, my education, a chance to be someone, be silly instead, force out those crappy jokes because when the class is laughing, the crow is crying. God, how I wish now I’d stopped and learned something useful! But I know this was impossible at the time, so I must not be too hard on myself.

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

Crow the Impaler

The sun was throbbing in the sky, I had sore feet, and every stride seemed to be uphill, even on the way back – today’s little jaunt had all the usual discomforts of a hot, mid-afternoon hike. Yet the scenery was so stunning that I did the unthinkable for someone who would prefer to catch a bus to Shangri-La than walk it, and on the return leg, back on the narrow roadway, I declined a lift from the only vehicle that had passed us all day. The instant the car pulled away, struggling and spluttering on its ascent up the steep hill, I regretted it, because my decision hadn’t been genuine. It reminded me of when someone offers you a slice of pizza – I was always told to decline the first offer, only accept if it’s offered again. I don’t remember who taught me this nugget of wisdom, but I have missed out on several portions of Hawaiian deep-crust, so I hope one day I’ll forget it. However, several amazing views later and I was glad I had turned down the man in the silver Sudan. I got some fabulous shots on my camera – yes I was hot and bothered, tired and hungry, but here I was rambling in Greece and it reminded me a little of the trek I did in Nepal all those years ago …and then it hit me. Didn’t I struggle with a particularly nasty spike during those ten days…?
…A flap of black feathers and there he was, perched on the shoulder-straps of my rucksack. “Yes, you did,” he said.
Little One and I had another hour or so before we reached home, it was going well but all of a sudden the light had changed, and for me the once sun bleached tarmac road was immediately overcast with black crow-shaped clouds. At first I couldn’t even remember what the spike had been all those years ago, but I knew it was a sharp one, mood controlling even now as the great doubter, Crow the Impaler, contaminated my day with his constant pecking. My God, it was eleven years ago, I had less of a grip on my problems then. But the crow doesn’t make sense of these things, for him it’s quite the opposite.  For him it’s all about the chaos.
He continued to bait me.  “Was it a cancer scare? A pseudo impulse to jump off the mountain? Did you think you had AIDS again? Was it the psychopath obsession- did you worry you were going to kill your family when you returned home?”  He maneuvered to my other shoulder.  “Whatever it was Yan, it’s still here, with me, and I’m gonna whisper it’s name in your ear and you’re gonna remember and it’s gonna ruin your NEXT ten days.”
But I can take a step back now. I can give myself time to breathe. I can rationalise – a little, anyway. Whatever the issue was, I had previously overcome it, because when I’d completed the trek I remember returning to my guest house in the town of Pokhara, and having a cold beer away from the crow.
But what was it that had ruined those ten days?
I know I should ignore these challenges but today I gave it my full attention, concentrating until I was back in the shadow of those great Himalayan mountains, and my stomach was hot and my bones were heavy and my head was scrambling, and I remember a problem with my leg, and that’s it, it was cancer! I’d felt a lump behind my knee on the first day hiking, and Crow said it was a tumor. He had ruined my trek across the Himalayas because he convinced me I was going to die in the next six months. While I hiked among beautiful snow-capped mountains, he made me not care, convincing a tiny part of me (and that was enough) that thinking of certain things certain ways, punctuated by that blinding white light, would prevent my cancer from spreading.  The entire trek I was either sick with worry or walking through a thousand doors in my head.
But it wasn’t cancer, was it, Crow?  The lump went away and never came back.
Returning to Greece and the iron ingot had fallen out of my day-pack. I was lighter by thirty kilos. The sky was blue again, the crow circling above me but a mile away and harmless. I was happy but also slightly annoyed with myself, frustrated I’d spent time ruminating on something so long ago.  But I will only take positives from it, all it really means is that I can do better. Today I had punched him from my shoulder, but tomorrow, when he comes, maybe I can gently push him off.