BENEATH THE GNASHING TEETH

 

My OCD has always tried to convince me that the human race is eating itself.  I’ve invariably gone to bed expecting the world to be in flames when I wake up.

“You must be struggling at the moment?” I imagine Uncle Jack asking, while he mops the factory floor around my feet.

“Not really.”  My shoulders hunch and I pull a face.

With all that’s been happening over the last few months, my OCD and depression still haven’t convinced me that this IS the end of the world, just that it might be, which is no different to what they’ve been doing for years.  With all the hatred in the world right now, the coronavirus, riots, terrorist attacks, I thought I’d be in pieces, but actually, I feel quite liberated.   I’ve always feared dying and missing out, selfish I know, but the way it’s all going, and if I did listen to Crow, we’ll all be clocking off around the same time anyway.

“Picture a blinding white light or the world will implode,” says Crow.

“I can’t stop this,” I reply.  “Prefer to hang on for as long as possible, because I don’t want to miss the show.  Why kill myself when there’s enough stuff out there that wants to do it for me?”

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want the world to end.  I’ve got nieces and nephews and I really don’t want Liverpool to be the last ever Premier League champions.  But let’s face it, viruses mutate, hatred hasn’t gone away since cavemen began battering each other’s skulls with stones and tree branches, and people on opposite sides of the fence will always struggle to agree to disagree – violence (physical or psychological) looming over heated debate like Nosferatu’s shadow creeping up the stairs.  Throw in religion, politics, the left fist versus the right, and we’re all screwed anyway.

Gladys and Brian next door seem a nice couple but they’re not the ones who’ll be filling their pockets with spoils from a home invasion.  Although, when the sh*t hits the fan, and the only food in town is a tin of spam under your mattress, Brian may pay an impromptu visit after all.

“You taking up baseball, Bria—-” THWACK!

There are clouds in the sky, regardless of COVID-19.  I feel sad for what has happened, what IS happening, but can’t seem to find the tears these days.  The show has been emotional to say the least, but there comes a time when you have to turn off the TV and go to bed.  I imagine walking around the tooth factory as all my woes and worries spill off the conveyor belt.  Uncle Jack reaches for the broom but I tell him to leave everything where it is.

“Haven’t you learned anything?”  I ask him.  “The more intrusive thoughts I have, the more chance I’ll be able to ignore them!”

I try to explain, tell him to imagine an 80’s action film where the assailants come at our hero one at a time.  The protagonist fights them as they appear in front of his fists.  Now imagine an infinite line of attackers.  One goes down, another takes its place, forever and ever amen.  So what should Chuck Norris do?  If Chuck keeps fighting them one at a time, he’ll be here for a hundred years.  Chuck finally turns his back, and realises that the kung fu extras aren’t real ninjas after all, they can’t hurt him, and maybe he’ll get used to the aggressors cartwheeling over his head.

“It’s just gnashing teeth,” I say.

Uncle Jack stares at me blankly, shakes his head and bursts out laughing.  “You’re a strange one,” he says, but leaves the broom in the corner of the room, kicking an intrusive thought like a football, sending it crashing into a pile of OCD false memories.

Other than a coronavirus-related disappointment that led to a small meltdown last week, and the usual thoughts of hanging myself, these last months have merged with all the others.  And due to my repetitive thinking, I’m used to staring at walls.

ALL MOUTH AND VIOLINS

COVID-19 and mental health don’t integrate well.  Then again, what does get along with a coronavirus?  These are terrible times, and life was hard enough before the pandemic.  Death is all over the news these days and the thought of not being here anymore can be terrifying because it’s impossible for the human brain to perceive the details.  Even the religious can’t comprehend what it means.  As an atheist, accepting not being here is the obvious end but still no easier to imagine.  Not existing forever and ever, until the end of time and beyond, can be a depressing concept, which is not what any of us need right now.

The easiest way for me to visualise death is to imagine the year 1446.  I wasn’t around so I have no recollection.  I didn’t exist – I suppose I was outside of the universe.  I believe death will be like that.  I don’t believe there is a master plan.  No paradise in the sky.  And everyone alive today probably won’t be in a hundred and fifty years time, so what’s the big fuss?  Because the odds of life are so astronomically against us in the first place that I don’t want to throw it all away.  And there’s those I would leave behind of course.  The poor souls that have to pick up the pieces.

For the last seventeen years I’ve either been backpacking or house sitting.  That’s obviously been put on hold for the foreseeable future and it’s started to sink in that I don’t actually know what else I can do.   Continuing forward terrifies me at this moment in time.  And stronger people than me have killed themselves.  I could swallow medicine three times a day and become a husk of a person lying on a couch but that also destroys me, just in a different way.  Medication reaches into my head and turns the lights off.  And even now, as a gruesome image sits heavy in my mind, I discard the option until another day.

“How about the ultimate goodbye?” suggests Crow.  But for me, suicide is a mountain shimmering in a heat haze on the horizon, a hundred miles away in the wrong direction.  I stop and stare at it sometimes, but essentially I try to use it as OCD prevention, a holstered gun on a cop’s hip. 

It’s like when people say, “I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do that.  Next year, when I’m ready, I’m gonna blah blah blah…”

I hope it’s an empty threat.  I suppose it makes me feel a little better, peering into my eyes, searching out the demons, threatening to blow the OCD from my brain.  Uncle Jack might say that actions speak louder than words.  But sometimes I’ve been known to act on a manic idea.  Like when I told people I was going to backpack around the world all those years ago; I don’t think anyone believed me until I emailed them from Toronto.

“You didn’t have another viable option!” says Uncle Jack.  “”The paint factory was killing you, how would getting on a plane be any worse?  It’s not quite so bad today.”

That crazy idea saved my life, and although the OCD and depression came with me, at least I didn’t have to wake up at six thirty and cycle to work with the Devil on my back.

But I’d done what I said I would.  I’d made the break.  Since that flight from Heathrow (or was it Gatwick?) I’ve tried to keep my promises to myself, however impossible OCD tries to make it.  Yesterday, when I found myself staring into the mirror, I compared my OCD battle to how I felt during the first few weeks of that curious adventure.  Trust me, OCD makes catching a bus in Tijuana a walk in the park.

Fear of the unknown still played a massive part in those early days but OCD cast a darker shadow.  I recall a particular shabby hotel in a coastal Mexican town.  “Be careful in there,” said a middle aged American man as a friend and I entered through the battered front doors.

“Why?  What do you mean?”

OCD didn’t give me time to fret, head already full of Crow’s b*llshit, body collapsing onto the uneven mattress as soon as I entered the threadbare room.  The three Mexican men arguing aggressively outside the door lost in a swirl of dust as I pondered a three year old obsession.  My roommate wedged a table against the door, and when we woke up in the early evening, we headed to the nearest tienda to buy ourselves some beer.  He wanted to party, I wanted help to get back to sleep.

That night, thinking of what I’d left behind in the UK made me wistful.  I’d sold my house, left my job, my family and friends, all just to be here, sleeping on a filthy bed among crushed cans of Tecate and cigarette burns on the wall.  I fantasised about pouring burning cooking oil on my arms – that way I’d have an excuse to return home without destroying my pride.  The next time I went to the store, I bought a bottle of sunflower oil.

 “I’ll do it tomorrow when I cook breakfast,” I whispered to a cockroach on the wall.  That night I was stopped by the police for being drunk and disorderly on my way home from a bar.  The policeman searched my wallet for a few pesos but came up short – I’d exchanged them for alcohol with the miserable barman who wasn’t interested in which football team I followed or how England fared in the last world cup.  The policemen took pity on me as I explained in slurred English that I’d only had a few beers, a couple of shots of tequila – or maybe they didn’t want to fill out the paperwork.  Either way, they allowed me to stumble home, falling asleep on the lumpy mattress, dreaming about Tijuana, when two cops had given my friend and I a lift to the nearest bus station in their squad car.  We had wandered lost in that bustling city, and they’d been good enough to give us a ride to where we needed to be.  And to think I’d been warned how corrupt the Mexican police were.  By people who had never been there, of course.

When I woke up I was surprisingly happy, and I vowed to burn my arms the following day.

Thankfully, it was all mouth and violins.  Just something to say to get me through each day.  When I tell Crow I’m going to kill myself, I hope I don’t mean it.  I’m simply highlighting the extreme, like in Mexico, convincing myself that I’ll sort things out tomorrow.  Suicide is the final move, like pushing the red button to start a nuclear strike.  You do it if there’s nothing else you can do, nowhere else to go, but sometimes you have to hover your finger over the button to remind a rogue state what your potential is.

So yes, Crow, I’m going to kill myself tomorrow.

But as we all know, tomorrow never comes…

SEMI-AUTOMATIC

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

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

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

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

But why couldn’t I just be me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where do we go from here?

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

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

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

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

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

UTOPIA ON FIRE

OCD is the great deceiver.  A perverter of truths. When something nice happens, OCD whispers reasons not to believe it – or tells you that events and relationships will turn out bad because of it.  Maybe sticks horrific images into your brain just because you were smiling ten minutes ago. When something unfavourable happens, it exaggerates the fallout, misrepresenting the reasons why it happened in the first place.  Bad things are magnified to awful, end of the world catastrophes – good things, suddenly distorted to not so good after all, overrated at the very least. You could win the lottery in paradise and OCD would kick the jubilation out of your lungs and set fire to all the palm trees.

“I don’t know why I bother sometimes,” I say to an empty field.

“Because the fire consuming the city can still look pretty,” says a crow on a crooked fence post.

I live on the dark side of the moon – I always have.  As a child, if Santa Claus delivered a teddy bear, OCD would tell me it had Leukaemia, and the man in the red hat was probably a rapist.  Since I can remember, positive experiences have been turned upside down and set on fire – every memory punctuated by a question mark, twisted into a dangerous riddle or littered with false memories.  “I’m sure I felt the tip of a sharp object stab into my thigh last night. Could it have been a needle infected with AIDS? Was there a man in the corner of the nightclub wishing I was dead? – Am I on a serial killer’s death-list?”  I either dwell on negative crumbs or search out shadows that were never there. Looking back over my shoulder is risky business, a cerebral minefield – like rolling a dice, where one to five means my day is ruined. Ninety-nine percent of the time I choose not to reminisce, but sometimes, memories jump out from the darkness like somersaulting ninjas.

Yesterday, Ice Cube played on the radio and it took me back several years.  All of a sudden I’m walking with friends to Compton, L.A, cameras and day-packs slung over our shoulders, watching as a car pulls up alongside us, the face of a beautiful woman beaming from the driver side window.

“This isn’t a place for tourists,” was her opening line, and as we turned to walk away, she handed me her number scrawled on a card – “But if you guys want a private dance,” she smiled.  I never did call her. But like falling dominoes, this L.A recollection nudged into another memory from the same city. I’m with the usual friends, but this time I’m talking with a local man outside an adult entertainment shop near Hollywood Boulevard at three in the morning – eagerly awaiting his driver after a promise of dancing girls back at his apartment.

“I’m a music producer, I’ve worked with Janet Jackson,” he told us.  A few hours later and two of us woke up groggy on his sofa, our other friend opening his eyes in an unfamiliar bedroom, his shirt unbuttoned and a porn movie playing on a large screen – luckily before anything too sinister could happen.  Outside I threw up in a bush. Two police cars screeched to a halt in front of us, cops jumping from their vehicles, yelling at us to put our hands on our heads as their fingers rested on the grips of their holstered guns. Our drinks had been spiked.  The cops said the man had done something like this before, but it was us they threatened to arrest because we were the ones threatening to kill the potential rapist – the predator had called the police on his own victims. Back at the dormitory we lamented that it had been like a scene from a movie.  Gunshots rang out later that night, seeming to confirm our analogy.

These recollections failed to pull a trigger, so I continued my journey along the stale corridors of my mind.  I rode a bull in New Mexico (for around ten seconds before it threw me to the ground) and stroked a great white shark as it swam past my steel cage in South Africa.  I wouldn’t do it now, I’m more aware of an animal’s right not to be touched, and although it doesn’t make up for it, in Nicaragua, I did release baby turtles into the sea, so…

People, actions and exotic locations flashed across my mind in glorious technicolor.  From sunrises in Fiji to sunsets in Chile, via coups in Mauritania and skidding off my mountain bike on the world’s most dangerous road in the mountains of Bolivia.  From a local football derby in Buenos Aires to the wrestling world cup in Mexico City. From working with young Mormon missionaries in Estonia to losing motorbike cops in a crazy taxi ride through Bogota’s back roads.  I’ve taught Koreans conversational English, leaving them with a subtle Norfolk accent, and helped Hungarians prepare business proposals in a swish hotel retreat – I wonder if they ever got the contract? OCD was with me every step of the way, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t do it.  It just meant that it hurt like Hell – like lots of things do with the Devil on your back.

“But you only touched the surface,” says Crow.  Yes, I agree, adventures were certainly restrained because the OCD coachman was pulling hard on the reins.  Opportunities cut short or never seeing the light of day as I lay huddled and cursing on a dishevelled bed. Declining an invitation to a ceremonious rock-throwing battle in a Bolivian village resonates in my head.  Cruel, intrusive thoughts had knocked the wind out of my lungs and I made my excuses, but I sometimes wonder what would have happened had I accompanied those young Bolivian men on that primitive skirmish. Probably have lost an eye.

“You’ve got another one!” squawks Crow.

All these memories make me smile, for different reasons, but yes, the recollections are always jaded – Utopia on fire.  There is always another thought poking into my membrane, a darker visual, or potential catastrophe promising to ruin all the fun.  People I’ve met along the way have regretfully become triggers too, natives and fellow travellers with whom I’ve shared great adventure.  My mental health was in particularly bad shape in India and Nepal, and whenever I think of my time there, and the people I met along the way, I twitch and cringe in discomfort.  I was an extra in a Bollywood movie, I trekked across the Himalayan mountains, but every memory pulls a particular trigger and I lose the next few hours like my head’s in a cement mixer.  Tambien in South America. I made a great friend in Colombia but still feel that I somehow let him down. From  Popayán to Cartagena, Cali to Bogota, it’s all just a whir and a sweaty panic attack – even Crow needs to breathe through a paper bag to stop his wings from shaking.

Even our good memories don’t necessarily start out that way – there will be times when we cried in fear and frustration that only now plant a smile on our face if we dare to look back.  Even if a crow was there, we still have the memories of what we’ve seen, what we’ve achieved – the apples on the tree may be bruised but they’re still partially edible, and better than eating soil, even if we prefer bananas.

Besides, somewhere in the world there are people with OCD being water-boarded as I type this, bones snapped in half in torture chambers and depressed child labourers breaking rocks in stone quarries…When you hear me complain, don’t feel too sorry for me, because I’ve had some fun along the way.  It’s just that everything was on fire at the time.

SIX YEARS

Norfolk trundles past the window – a rumbling combine harvester, a tractor pulling a trailer, a car towing a caravan.  East Sussex, just another memory stuffed into a box. I’m back home, trying to lose myself in a cold beer, deciding where I can run away next, but a young couple walking their dog have disturbed a memory deep in my subconscious – a fractured image of another time, another life.  Something inside me snaps…an event I feared would happen but never did, that I tried to bury in a flurry of ritualistic compulsions a very long time ago. I imagine a revolver aimed at the back of my head – the crow’s feathers curl around the trigger and…

BOOM!  My limbs feel heavy, the chemical elements in my bones reconstructing, transformed to base metal, stomach spoiled and tight, curdling like it’s full of milk and sugar.  My skin is hot, perspiration trickling from my scalp, feels like someone’s poured a bag of sand into a hole in my skull. I want to gulp down a glass of cold water but my energy has started to sap, too lethargic to drag myself to the kitchen sink.

“Just don’t think about it.  It’ll go away…” says a hazy figure from my past.  It’s Uncle Jack, my former colleague from the factories.

But it doesn’t go away does it – it hasn’t yet anyway.  I’m still obsessing about it. Still slowly sinking into the sand.

The past is a jigsaw puzzle.  OCD stomps onto the pieces, smashing them into all the wrong places – anything could have happened!  Was it this or was it that instead? I’m confused and shaking, trying to empty my head from six- year-old ruminations.  Whatever the truth was, my mind has already decided that it’s fatal.

A man on TV is bidding on a house at an auction.  I’m feeling queasy as the gavel falls and the property is sold.  I’m in the room but miles away, and prepare my lunch with that familiar tightness in my belly.  Go to bed regurgitating events from all those years ago. Wake up waiting for the horn of the rhinoceros to pierce the horizon – a stampede of OCD and other animals spewing dust in their trail like cartoon juggernauts galloping across a plain.  No escape, just a few seconds before the realisation hits. THWACK! I’m back on the sofa, pondering, contemplating, constantly f**king thinking.

Shopping for groceries now.  Head looking down at the tiled floor, a burning sensation in my stomach like I’ve swallowed a shot of mustard.

Am I going to die tomorrow…?

What if my greatest fears come true…?

What if this happens, or that happens…?

“It’ll ruin your life, that’s what!” screams Crow.

You’ve already ruined it!

I imagine a heavy axe cutting me in half and half again; picture putting my fists through the freezer doors; envision a bullet blowing the back of my head off in aisle three, splattering the oven chips with bits of skull and brain.  The Crimson Knight rears his stead in the corridors of my mind, Crow lands on top of my head and pecks at my scalp. “You’ve got liver disease, dementia, smallpox, and bubonic plague. Little One is leaving you for the milkman or maybe the man who collects trolleys in the supermarket car park.  Everybody you love is going to die next week, BECAUSE YOU’RE GOING TO KILL THEM!” It’s an overdose of fantastic, horrific possibilities.

Over my shoulder, a middle-aged woman asks if she can grab a box of cornflakes.  Moving out of the way my skin prickles like it’s burning under a noon sun. It was six years ago!  I didn’t know what happened then, what chance have I got now?

“I’m sorry,” I say to the woman.  “I was miles away.”

“Just don’t think about it,” repeats Uncle Jack, sipping coffee from a plastic cup.

Easy for him to say.  I fantasise dragging him out from my head, spewing my thoughts into his face like a scene from The Exorcist.  Let’s see how easy YOU deal with it! Imagine if you broke your arm and I said, “Toughen up, just don’t think about it!”  And don’t bother saying that it’s only OCD. Tell that to the girl pulling out her hair, or the boy slicing lines into his skin with a razor blade.

And to think I’m so much better than I was – than I’ve ever been…

A city burns in black flames as I crawl into bed.

Let’s hope tomorrow will be a better day.

Crow smirks on my pillow and tells me that he doubts that very much.

I close my eyes and travel back in time six years…

SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY

Last night my mind was on its knees, crawling in the gutter, looking for trouble under the scree and rubble of my life.  I twisted under the bed sheets, trying to keep it busy with alternative thoughts, but all I got was a line of embarrassing memories queuing for my attention – recollections of school traumas; stupid ten-year-old conversations from when I worked in the factories; a surge of random, shameful, embarrassing actions from the last thirty years of my life.  Squadrons of fighter jets blackened my skies. I shot some down with reason. Others flew around in loops. I should have poured another shot of whiskey, but I can’t rely on drugs and booze to send me to sleep. Not every night.

Those embarrassing memories swiftly turned to darker notions.

Crow, my OCD in stereo, tried to tell me that war with Iran or North Korea was inevitable.  He told me we had a year left at the very most.

Would that be such a bad thing, Crow?

North Korea, huh?  I remembered my time in South Korea, and a trip to the Demilitarised Zone and the Joint Security Area.  At the JSA, a simple concrete strip was all there was of a demarcation line between North and South. We were able to cross it while inside one of the famous blue huts, a building where generals from both armies continue to meet, bickering and picking at each others’ ideologies under the looming threat of radioactive mushroom clouds.

We signed a disclaimer before we were allowed into bullet range – given strict orders of what we could and couldn’t do.  No pointing at the North Korean guard in the big hat, no taking the p*ss, only very specific places to take photographs, and DO NOT cross that line outside of the big blue hut.

“Or you won’t be coming back,” said the American soldier in thick black sunglasses.

Back outside, and standing before the concrete line, Crow suggested that I leap across it, run at the North Korean Guard the U.S soldiers had nicknamed Bob. I imagined being manhandled into the tall grey building opposite, angry North Korean soldiers pointing guns in my face.  Crow turned his attention to Little One.

“Push her across,” he said and, in my mind, I shoved my girlfriend into North Korean territory.  An image of Little One being escorted to a labour camp haunted my thoughts. In fact, the entire tour was interrupted by intrusive thoughts of how I could cause an international incident.

“You could start World War Three!” squawked Crow, snapping at my face.  OCD had taken the potential for a good day and drowned it in a bath of uranium.  Kim Jong-un would kill for that stuff, and does – allegedly…

 

An elbow nudged me gently in the ribs – I’d been making noises in my quest for sleep.  Little One asked if I was OK.

I pushed the thoughts away.  Turned onto my side and tried to think of the latest football results.

“What are the first signs of Cancer…?”

F**k off, Crow.

“Who will be the next person to die that you love?”

I’m not playing this game.

“If it’s you, how will your family take the news?”

They’d cope.  We’re all going to die anyway.

“Who does Little One want to f**k in your bed?”

Really, Crow?

“You’ll soon be leaving East Sussex.  Do you know how many people think you’re a waste of space in your home town?”

They don’t know my situation.

“Doesn’t matter, all that matters is that they think you’re a loser.”

I am a loser.

My home town festival was on last week.  I’m still house-sitting but I could have gone home for the weekend.  Unfortunately, my OCD has been working overtime lately, putting doubts into my head whenever I think of returning to Norfolk.  But deep down do I really care what people think? He changed tack again…

“You could throw boiling coffee in Little One’s face.”

Or I could choose not to.

“Bad things are coming.  Think of that blinding light and I’ll go away and let you sleep.”

I balled my fists and pictured a black space instead, but felt guilty that someone might die because of it.  I flashed white across my mind. Miraculously, it worked first time and Crow flew off to watch me from his perch in Hell.  I turned over with a sigh of relief, but couldn’t help thinking that with all my previous tossing and turning, I’d already lost the battle.

But I woke up this morning, which meant that I must have slept.

“Good morning, world,”  I stretched and yawned. Could have done with an extra hour in bed, and that’s why I have a whiskey nightcap or smoke a joint in the garden before I turn in – it puts me to sleep before the Devil slips between the sheets.

As always, from the moment I woke, negative thoughts spilled into my mind, congregating like safari animals around a watering hole.  I sat and watched the Springboks. They looked harmless enough, but Crow is the hunter in the silly hat, shooting beasts and dragging them back to camp for detailed dissection.

I toyed with rummaging through my old box of medication.  I’ve kept it for a while. The meds are out of date but I was tempted to swallow some anyway.  They lose power over time, so what’s the worst that could happen? They don’t work as they should?  I only need a little bit of respite, full powered tablets would glue me to the sofa all day. On full power, I struggle to operate an electric toothbrush, and I don’t want to go there again.  Muscles wasting to nothing in front of daytime TV – so many recipes, beauty tips and breakfast cereal commercials. Not a great way to go, drowning in a bathtub of uranium is much more rock ‘n roll!

Today, I decided against the out of date medication, although a litre bottle of whiskey sits on the kitchen worktop.

Tonight, I’m going to sleep like a lion.

VAMPIRE MOUTH

Welcome to the fun house.  Don’t get too excited, it’s really more like an abattoir.  Sometimes it can feel like being locked in a hall of mirrors with an axe wielding clown.  If life is a series of theme parks, you may want to skip OCD World. 

So what does having OCD feel like?  For me it’s not about washing my hands a hundred times a day or worrying that the back door is locked whenever I leave the house.  Although, for some sufferers, it might be. There is a lot of stigma towards OCD, I’m forever hearing people misinterpreting the disorder and the issues that walk beside it.  I may be contributing to this stigma myself, but everything here is written from personal experience, and if the truth hurts, well, it’s still the truth. This is my castle, in my world, and the dragons in the sky are my own demons.

I invite you into my home.  And yes, you can leave your shoes on.

 

…I’m sitting in the lounge with friends.  The conversation is free and easy, nothing profound, just lads watching television, talking about football, plans for the weekend, a brief discussion about a U.F.O somebody said they spotted hovering in the night sky almost twenty years ago.  My focus however, is elsewhere, eyes fixed and glaring at the far wall – it’s been decorated with a rich brown paint but I’m desperately trying to imagine that it’s actually a brilliant white. It’s proving to be an almost impossible task. Closing my eyes now, concentrating on not just white but the hottest, purest white imaginable – light from an atomic explosion, the heart of God.  Try it now, it’s not so easy – all I could see was the back of my eyelids. My friends stay for three hours. A weight pulsates in my skull, heavy like a bag of sand – fear swelling in my mind. “Look at the wall and imagine it white, or your family will die,” says a voice I don’t hear but feel in my bones.

…My girlfriend and I are drinking beer with friends watching the sunset over the Karoo, South Africa.  Fantastic colours splash across the sky as the sun sinks slowly into the horizon. We laugh, we talk, celebrating the end of another long day working for our African host.  It sounds hollow to me – other thoughts, less fun, are resonating in my mind. I’m obsessing again, concentrating on a single event from a thousand miles away – shadows from another lifetime.  A smile dominates my face but inside I’m crying, frustrated at the intrusion of such a stupid concept expanding like a mini universe. Holding down a conversation with the German couple next to me but screaming in my head, “F*******k!!!!”

…Knives glisten on the kitchen worktop – I picture myself grabbing the plastic handle and stabbing the blade into my best friend’s neck.  Watch his eyes bulge in disbelief, horror distorting those familiar features, crying as he dies. Just a second away, I’ve literally got the power in my trembling hands.  A swift movement and a gentle push, I can stick it into anything. Need to make the fear dissipate. Luckily, there are things I can do to push it away. I become a cleric burning candles on the floor.  Ritualise and ritualise again. Step away from the knife, Yan.

…Unwrapping Christmas presents now.  People looking at my face for a reaction to the gifts they’ve bought.  Got to put on a show, don’t want to disappoint. What if I throw the box at the wall and tell them how fat they all are?  Odd this one, because not a single person in the room is overweight. “But they’ll think they are if you tell them!” Biting my lip and shaking inside I smile and say thank you.  Get me out of this room!

…Feeling happy.  But not for long. Apparently my girlfriend is f**king everyone in the entire town.  Of course, she isn’t, but OCD doesn’t concern itself with facts – performing mental rituals will make the doubt fade away, but nothing else, certainly not the truth.  Distrust spreads like a virus, sickness in my belly like I’ve swallowed bleach. Maybe I should swallow bleach? There’s a bottle under the sink. How easy it would be to unscrew the cap and chug it down like cola from the fridge.  Maybe run into the lounge and die in front of my partner. That’ll teach her for f**king everyone she looks at. Or, should that be, that’ll teach her for fucking everyone that I look at?

…Glaring at my face in the mirror.  Searching for signs of dying while cursing my reflection.  Something moves in my gut – I feel nauseous again. Could it be Cancer?  Was that abrasion there last week? Last year? Lights flashing, sirens in my mind, a head of snakes hissing over my shoulder.  Meet those flashing red eyes and turn to stone.

…Do I want to go for a drink in town?  Do I Hell. Too busy trying to pick myself up off the couch.  Feeling guilty wasting away in front of the TV – volume down so I can concentrate on all the bulls**t buzzing around my brain like flies feasting on a pig’s corpse.  Promise myself I’ll try harder tomorrow. It’ll be different in the morning – but of course it never is.

“This time it’s the real deal,” whispers Crow, creating bizarre shadows on the wall.

I ball my hands into fists.  “I’m NOT ritualising today. No rumination.  No blinding white light behind my eyes.” My head feels heavy at the prospect, a hot flush prickling through my body.

“Then you’ll carry that weight in your head all day!”

…Got to keep these intrusive thoughts at bay.  Fantasising I have razor teeth, I imagine eating my own legs – gruesome concepts harming myself so that I don’t obsess on what I could potentially do to those around me.  Surrounded by imaginary trees I howl at an illusory moon, hypnotised and drooling, two fangs now, Nosferatu climbing the stairs. Keeping reason in a box I waste my night desperately chewing on intrusive thoughts, an explosion in my head like hydrogen bombs colliding.  No time to read, converse, or even play a round of cards. Just lay on my bed and wait for sleep to whisk me away. Thoughts pounding – upsetting, unrelenting, a continuous river of useless information. Some of it, probably true, the rest, a ball of lies spinning in my brain, collecting more untruths, growing like a snowball rolling down a hill.

Go anywhere, just not here.  Do anything, just not that. Be anyone, just not me.

 

You’ll have to go now, all this reminiscing has given me more things to think about.

And it’s harder to concentrate when you’re around…

BIRD BONES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But should we rent a house or buy a caravan?

No idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pathetic really. But at least it got me out.