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.

 

 

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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.

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 rather 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 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 eleven 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 sun-bleached tarmac road was immediately overcast with black crow-shaped clouds.  At first I couldn’t even remember what the spike had been made of 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 over 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 my name in your ear until you remember, and I’ll make sure it ruins your NEXT eleven 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 and his black book of lies.

But what was it that had ruined those eleven 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 tumour.  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 fell 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 – it means 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.

 

Swatting Flies

Yesterday the crow tried his best to ruin me.  I won’t say the nature of the spikes but they came from all angles.  They would have wedged themselves deep a year or so back but yesterday I knocked them aside like swatting flies.  It wasn’t pleasant.  Every time I took control of one, or shook it off, another was circling not too far away.  These ruminations took between two and thirty minutes to either disperse or ignore.  Not the longest fights I’ve had.  Spikes used to last for days, weeks, months in the bad old days.  Some of those old bastards still stir in the deeper canyons even now – if a familiar trigger is pulled, or the Crow rustles his feathers a certain way.

I have a lot of time on my hands right now: yesterday was spent on the porch overlooking lush green islands in a gently rolling sea – nothing to distract me from that pecking black beak on my shoulder.  It was inevitable the Crow would attack, I was simply taken aback from the various memories and images he used – I guess he showed imagination and creativity, (top of the class stuff.)  Yet it is when I am looking forward to something that he caws the loudest, proving what a devotedly spiteful devil he is.  Whether it’s death related, or violence threatening, or little one running off with the milkman, or something someone said last month or a million years ago, it usually manifests in my mind a day before an anticipated event and spirals so rapidly out of control that the next day that spike is in so deep it’s practically nailing me to the ground.  No fucking good to anyone.

But yesterday was a good day.  Not because the crow came, but because I sent him so curtly on his way again.

 

God, the Bible and All That Jazz.

I walked to the village shop today.  I passed a quaint church and as always, when I pass a pretty building, I had a peek inside.  Religious buildings interest me; churches, mosques, stone circles.  They are usually aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but even the ugly ones have a history, either through the architecture or its religious foundations.  Many of the people here in the village are practicing Christians; they seem a nice bunch – no-one has preached to us, or been judgmentally smug, basking in spiritual light.  But I don’t put this down to believing in their God, I just happen to think that they are pleasant people, and would still be pleasant people if they believed in Zeus, or Ra, or Apollo, or no God at all.

The church I visited today was quite austere, but the feeling I got as I first passed through the doors was a familiar one.

Incredulity; I couldn’t believe I’d once been hooked by this nonsensical propaganda.

I used to believe in God.  It is my strong opinion that this is a disaster for a sufferer of OCD.  In my opinion, believing that a divine power exists outside the realms of the natural laws of the universe only fuels the OCD engine.  Science says I can’t help find a cure for AIDS by walking through the doorway thirty-seven times every time I leave the kitchen, but I’ve still tried it, because hey, if the laws of nature and physics were suspended in biblical times, then who knows, maybe I do have a direct influence on a medical laboratory in California!  Maybe there’s only a 0.01 per cent chance but it’s still a chance, (there really isn’t) so I’ll do it anyway, just in case.

“You’ll save a million lives,” says the Crow.  “Or look at it another way, if you don’t walk through that door until it feels ‘right,’ then you’ll be responsible for a million deaths.”

It sounds ridiculous I know, and I knew it sounded ridiculous at the time, but I felt compelled to do it, lest I spend the rest of the week incapacitated with guilt.

When I was young and thought I had control over a particular rumination, I would either tap the Bible (if I was in my bedroom,) and think of the word ‘goodness’, or tap my forehead (this came from the superstition of tapping wood,) or, more and more as my compulsions became less physical, (or if I was in a room with other people,) I sealed the thought with imagining a pure white light, which I called ‘The Blinding.’  These compulsions could take over a hundred attempts until they felt ‘right,’ and were severely time consuming.  Lessons in life, future ambitions, homework, everything could be discarded except these brain-melting compulsions.

It is obvious to me that the bible tapping and white light (the Blinding,) derived from my belief, however twisted, in the roots of the Christian religion – God, the Bible and all that jazz.  It was like a blessed full stop.  If I was born in India I am convinced I would have drummed my fingers on my forehead to a Ganesh mantra.  Yet long after I became an atheist I still associated finishing a mental compulsion with this searing brightness.  People flash me a condescending smile if I tell them I had to imagine a blinding white light while counting to five hundred to stop war in central Africa.  But many of those people will nod their heads in approval if a person tells them they put their hands together each night and beg an invisible being who lives in an invisible Utopia, who had apparently but with no evidence created the universe and everything in it with a click of his omnipotent fingers, to stop the war in Syria.  How could I honestly say my counting to five hundred was any less powerful than my mumbling words under my breath to God?  There’s no proof for either, but one is accepted by society, the other is ridiculed.  Just because an old man with a strange hat in a billionaires palace in a tiny independent state in Rome says the Bible is the word of God doesn’t a; prove the existence of God, and b; that it is his word, even if it did.  Yet I was convinced that if billions of Christians thought it true, then obviously it must be.  What I neglected to acknowledge were the billions of Muslims, and Hindus and sharp suited Scientologists hiding behind dark glasses and flashy smiles, who all believed in something else.  I ignored the word of the Imams and the Rabbis and the Druids at Stonehenge, and I certainly never brought into the equation those soul-devoid, sin-wallowing atheists.

I could envisage Crow’s response – a raging ball of black feathers screeching in my face.  “How dare you imagine such wickedness?  Your family will be flogged in Hell!”  I’d have to tap my fingers on my forehead reciting Jesus’ name a hundred times if I’d dared to contemplate such a blasphemous idea.  I did this head tapping for over a decade.  It kept me awake long hours into the night, shuffling to school the next day with shadows under my eyes like purple bruises.

You won’t be struck down by lightning if like me you no longer believe in the God propaganda.  Well, you might be, but if you are, it’s because of an electrostatic discharge in a cloud, and not a supernatural being munching on a bunch of sour grapes.  I’m sure he’s too busy figuring out how to explain quantum mechanics and dinosaur bones than worry about someone who hasn’t washed their hands twenty-nine times before leaving the bathroom.

I believe it is totally up to the individual if he or she believes in an all-powerful supernatural being, but for me, it was fucking disastrous.  I wasted blood, sweat and YEARS on religion, and I am convinced it made my condition worse.  It didn’t make it any better, that’s for sure.

So I left the church with a bewildering shake of my head, but closed the door quietly in case anyone was praying inside.

I may not have God but I do have the Crow.  He is a metaphor for my OCD, not a real demon or supernatural being – purely a symbol I can sink my teeth into, and direct a few swear words at now and again.

The little fucker.

Amen.

Mzungu in The Mist

I’ve been fortunate enough to see a healthy slice of the world, zig-zagging up, down and all around, and for the first few years, aside from the stowaway in my backpack (The Crow), I did it on my own.  These days I’m fortunate to travel with the person I love most in this world: my girlfriend, aka, Little One.  We’re currently house-sitting and keeping a cat alive on a beautiful Greek island, having begun this trip in Israel and the Palestinian Territories in early December.  From there our rambling, improvised travel itinerary has seen us hit Rome, across the Adriatic to Albania, up through Montenegro, Serbia, slipping into Hungary and finally a cheap flight here, to Greece, residing in a rustic house halfway up a hill.  We’ve been here for three weeks.

The village is small and half of its populous seem to have fled to the mainland for the winter months – so it is quiet, our average day consisting of cooking, baking bread, and hiking to the small shop at the top of the hill to buy a bottle or two of cheap local wine.  In the evening we play cards, watch movies and drink those bottles of cheap white wine.  And feed the cat of course.  There’s not much life in the streets, day or night – it’s like a town on horse tranquilisers.  I like it a lot.  Today on the steep stone steps on our way to the grocery store we passed an old man leading a donkey loaded with firewood, and a mangy looking cat eyeballing me from a trash can. This was a busy day. Yesterday the most exciting event was a lemon falling off a tree.

I am experienced enough to appreciate these times, a handful of years ago my OCD would have filled these tranquil hours with graphic scenes of horror.  This afternoon, sipping cold juice in a garden overlooking a glorious blue sea, and grateful of the peace, I regressed to less placid days…

…I was in Uganda, scratching swollen red insect bites on my arms, watching a creeping mist curl across the forest canopy like an army of ghosts swallowing the world.  My memory took me inside its white belly, wet foliage scrapping across my face, and I remembered the thoughts that accompanied me on my trek through that drizzling rain-forest – anxiety dragging me down with moist hands, a bag of iron ball-bearings slung over my shoulders.

Those horrible, persistent images swarmed like mosquitoes.  I had told myself that I was getting better, all I had to do was throw these intrusive thoughts away and stop thinking about them – they were supposed to get weaker and fade to nothing.  I tried to ignore them, but Crow was picking at my membrane, and they flashed back, bloodier than before.

I wasn’t counting but it must have been over twenty times.

Twenty bullets exploding into her face.

Twenty pools of blood.

Twenty pieces of brain sliding down the wall.

I tried to think of where I was; the mountains, the rain forest, the village with the children I’d be playing football with later in the day.  I couldn’t get excited – the image of my girlfriend getting shot point blank in the face by a Ugandan soldier was contaminating everything.

It was this damn gorilla trek that had triggered it, the march through the Ugandan rain-forest with the trackers and the two soldiers with AK47s.  The unwanted image had flashed into my mind the moment my eyes had lingered on the battered magazine clip.  I’d fired one of those guns – twice.  Once in Vietnam, once in Cambodia.  It was the time in Cambodia that had damaged me the most.  In Vietnam the gun had been fixed to a bracket; in Cambodia, once I’d paid for the clip, the soldier had simply dropped the gun into my hands and pointed to the target against the wall. “You could turn around and shoot everyone in the room,” squawked the crow.

My girlfriend had been there too; that was the first time I’d pictured her getting blown apart by an assault rifle.

Back to Uganda, and when we’d finally come face to face with a gorilla troop in its natural habitat (literally five feet in front of our party of eight), I’d been mesmerised for a whole minute, but then I remembered the gun, and what it could do, and what that would look like.  Another thought had briefly interrupted this …”If I pushed the man standing next to me into the silverback, what would that look like?”

The trek to find the gorillas had been through the forest at sunrise. Standing on a hilltop, watching that ghostly mist float across the rich canopy beneath me, and knowing what I was soon to witness, I felt like I was an extra in a David Attenborough documentary.  Here I was in the Bwindi impregnable forest, on the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and all I could think about was one of the soldiers, there to protect us against border-hopping FDLR rebels, unloading his clip into the handful of tourists unlucky enough to be there on the day he lost his mind.  If I didn’t think about it, it was like a heavy weight was dragging at my shoulders, and a wriggling sickness in my stomach like I’d swallowed live snakes – it was making the trek through the lush forest a ruthless uphill grind.  So I thought about it, because if I managed to think it out of my head, to get that ‘right’ feeling, then I could enjoy what should be a highlight of my African adventure.

“Go on,” teased the crow.  “Think about it one more time, and I promise I’ll fly away.”  Of course, every-time I pictured the scene, it wasn’t quite what the crow had in mind.  “Try a little more realism,” he smirked.

The trek had been blighted by an horrendous spike (intrusive thought); the silverback glancing at me over his shoulder, the baby gorilla waddling out of the bushes and hugging my leg, all those experiences were events I would remember forever, but the crow had been cawing in my ear all day, and he’d done his best to defile it.  If it was five years prior he’d have succeeded, but that day I’d managed to squeeze half a glass of goodness out of that bitter lemon.  The memory of the Gorilla trek stays with me, tainted by the imagined sounds of gunfire, but not ruined.

…My thoughts are back in Greece now, ruing the Crows influence, frustrated that the OCD had tarnished my adventure, but appreciating the donkey I passed on the stone steps earlier in the day – because he wasn’t surrounded by dead people.

It is the evening as I finish this post, and a headache looms over my left eye.  I blame the cheap local wine, but reliving my Ugandan gorilla trek has probably played its part.  Beneath the dull pain I am appreciative that the assault rifle that once promised to kill my girlfriend sits on a soldiers lap over two and a half thousand miles away.

Crow and The Bowl of Cereal

Before I begin I must say a big thank you to my Nan for buying me a Child’s Atlas when I was nine years old.  I remember clearly the picture of the boy picking fruit in Botswana and the list of international flags at the back of the book.  I slowly became obsessed…but in a good way.

This blog is purely and selfishly written to help me.  If it can help at least one other person, then I will be the happiest OCD sufferer ever to walk through the lounge door thirty-seven times before leaving the house.  I suppose this is my disclaimer; that if what I have done to battle the Crow doesn’t work for you, then I apologise but I’m neither a doctor nor a packet of Clomipramine.  If it can help, then great, but if it doesn’t, please continue with your medication.  This is an account of my own personal demon, and my attempts to drown it in the bathtub.  If anything, this is a blog dedicated to my teenage self, telling that terrified awkward shell that it was worth sticking around after all.

I’m sitting on a pebbled beach on a beautiful Greek Island as I write this.  There’s a dull thud in the back of my mind, as if the Crow is stirring, trapped beneath floorboards.  He is present, but at the moment contained.  I would have chopped off my hand for peace like this ten years ago.  Arguably the Crow attacks me as frequently as he ever did, but now he has those floorboards to get through before he can hurt me, or his beak is tied with duck-tape, or I manage to bat him away before his claws sink too deep into my skin.  He is an old enemy and we know each other well.  I can usually predict his tactics, smashing him with a pre-emptive strike, and some days he’s just a pathetic cawing black smudge on the horizon.  (Although on bad days he’s a pterodactyl with talons dipped in anthrax.)

I watch the gentle waves breaking on the stones, thinking back to an earlier time in my life, not the Crow’s first visit but certainly one I remember quite clearly…

…When I was ten years old, while eating breakfast in the kitchen, a sudden thought emerged in my head that I had the option, the possibility, to pour the milk and cereal over my dad’s head.  I could just do it, I thought.  It wouldn’t be a nice thing to do, I’d be in a lot of trouble, but if I went into the lounge I could quite easily empty the entire bowl over his head.  It wasn’t an urge but a fear.  And what is actually stopping me? I wondered.  So I stood up from the table and walked through the hallway to the lounge door, where I paused, aware that my insides were tied up in knots.  My body was hot and clammy.  I pictured the milk and cereal oozing through my father’s hair, dripping down his face in a series of zigzagging white rivers.  I imagined his shock that would quickly turn to fury, the scolding that would inevitably follow, but worse than that, I imagined his disappointment, upset that his son had done such a thing…I felt like I was being punched in the stomach?  The horror of this consequence was strong in my head, I focused all my attention on the sadness that would come of this act, and after fifteen minutes of concentrated effort outside the lounge door, it felt that I had actually followed through with my urge.  Had I imagined it so clearly that I’d actually tricked myself into thinking I’d witnessed first-hand the worst of what could happen?  The fear of doing it finally subsided, my intestines untying, my heart no longer pumping blood around my body quite so fast.  I felt odd that I should have had such a thought, but I was barely ten, and so finished my breakfast and moved on with my day.

I didn’t realise at the time but pouring milk over my Father’s head would be by far the tamest of acts I would have the urge to perform.

The crow got a lot darker.

My thoughts shuffle back to the present, to this beautiful beach in Greece, and I notice I am turning a smooth pebble over in my hand.

“F*ck you, Crow,” I mumble, picturing him drowned in a shallow rock-pool.  He floats motionless, face down in the salty water.  I take advantage of his silence, punching the first draft of my first ever blog-post into my phone.