Black Beetles, Black Beetles, Black Beetles; A Time in Azerbaijan

A genuine smile split open my face the other day – like an axe through a watermelon.  I was in the passenger seat of a Lada as it sped through the streets of Sheki, Azerbaijan. The driver, a cousin of our home-stay host, was obviously auditioning for the fast and the furious 17, and I think I offended him by grabbing the passenger seat-belt.

“No worries, Azerbaijan is fine, no need for belt,” he said, as we swerved past a packed mini bus and nearly collided with another Lada driving just as manically on the opposite of the road.  I clicked in anyway, and took the cigarette he offered me. I don’t smoke so much these days, but my heart was trying to escape through my mouth, and I thought a few drags wouldn’t hurt on the grand scale of things.

So I smiled. Because regardless of my relentless OCD, here I was, in a town in Azerbaijan, in a Lada hurtling through the streets in the pouring rain – I was winning.

OCD ruined my education, lost me countless opportunities in life, crushed my hope, and it has left a bitter taste in the back of my throat. When Crow reminds me of what he’s taken away from me, I choke a little, fury rising inside me like a charging wave, and all sorts of negative emotions wrestle for control. Sometimes it takes a while to stop feeling so bitter, so sick in the stomach; I feel naked, helpless to a horde of black beetles scurrying over my face, into my mouth, swimming into my bloodstream.

Warp speed to yesterday evening, in Sheki, Azerbaijan – and I’m brushing off those beetles like dust from my jeans. Our host invited us for drinks with his family, and we talked, and smoked, and drank vodka and beer around the table. Crow nibbled at the back of my head, the intrusive thoughts knocking at the door, black beetles scuttling beneath the floorboards, but I held them off,  (the alcohol probably helped,) and again I smiled healthily, like a chimpanzee with a bag of bananas.  Yesterday we’d seen the local market; our host had driven us to a beautiful viewpoint over the city; we’d been fed tasty dishes and joked and laughed in broken English about subjects none of us fully understood, warmly accepted into their family as new friends, toasting life with the flowing vodka as Crow bit into my shoulder like a bitter, toothless, B-movie zombie.

“You are always smiling,” said Antigua, the wife of our host.

I told her that inside I was always crying. She took it as another vodka fueled quip. I wanted her to. It reminded me of my times at work in the noisy factories as I wore my clown mask in front of my work colleagues. I want to be remembered as the happy joker, not the manic juggler, or the sad shadow in the corner – laughing even as the Crows talons grind my insides to shreds.  I’d had a day and an evening to remember – a slice of life in Sheki Azerbaijan.  OCD had not taken this away from me, and the crow, although circling in the smokey room, banged into furniture like a clumsy slapstick villain, almost comical as I fought his army of gnashing beetles.

We ate, we smoked, we tipped vodka down our necks like it was a necessity to life.  We put the world to rights, agreed and disagreed, forgot that the world can be a terrible, frightening place, and I crawled into bed with a grin like a quartered watermelon.

My last coherent thoughts, regardless of Crows ferocious advances, were simple, ‘Today was a good day.’

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Lumley, Palin and Crow

I love traveling but I dislike researching where to go.  I can’t get excited until I step off the plane and put my feet on actual foreign soil. I don’t watch travel shows because they bore me; I’ve got nothing against Joanna Lumley but I really have no urge to watch her eating a bowl of mashed fava beans while she drifts lazily down the Nile on a Victorian tugboat. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to do it myself, but I wouldn’t expect people I don’t know to watch a video of me doing it – my serotonin gets released from breathing the Sahara winds, not watching it blow through Michael Palin’s hair. I switch the channel over when the title music begins to tinkle in my ear.  ‘Trekking through the Amazon on a shoestring’ is probably a wonderful programme, but it reminds me of when I was there, and didn’t I have quite a few attacks in that jungle? Crow pulls the trigger and my day is dead.

I don’t really discuss much where I’m going even when I have the ticket in my hand – I’m going to be wrestling with crow wherever I go; I simply prefer to box him on foreign soil and glimpse a beautiful mountain or two between rounds.

Travelling with OCD has its issues.  The reason I continue to push myself to leave the country, even when I am at my lowest ebb, is because if at any point Crow had ruined this, I’d have done nothing with my life – a colossal negative of mental illness is what it stops you from achieving – the younger me, cooped up in my bedroom, had struggled hourly, and the last thing on my mind was studying, or choosing a career, or figuring out how to better myself when I’d spent all day trying to drag a crow out of my eye socket.

However, these last few days, Crow has been a black spider.  Not monstrously loud like a pneumatic drill, but clickety clack, like a tap dancer with hot shoes, heel-stepping across my thoughts. Nothing to make me want to tear my eyes out, but enough to remind me that he’s still there, lurking, loitering with intent.  Catastrophes like the horrific terrorist attacks in Manchester and London put him into perspective for a few minutes, but then he uses the fear and carnage for his own twisted intentions and suddenly I’m imagining my loved ones torn asunder in those very streets.  I thank fuck it’s in my mind and I’m not experiencing what those poor victims had to go through.  The Crow is an annoying fly next to a nail bomb attack, so i fought him with added vigor this week, and who am I to complain?  It’s not ideal – Crow makes me want to puke most days, but compared to yesteryear this torture is less waterboarding, more distant tap dripping in the next room. So I take it, and avoid triggers, quick to either neutralise my fears or pull myself away from them altogether. Like a sober friend pulling away a drunk colleague from a fight outside a kebab shop on a Friday night, there’s a lot of shouting but eventually you get them into the taxi.

It’s the best year I’ve had since I can remember, so I take it, and casually flick through my atlas to decide, at the very least, the direction of my next trip – as long as that heinous parasite remains a shadow of his former self, I’ll be content to go anywhere that will have me. It’s taken years to get me thinking like this, many therapists, packets of medicine, hours of reading, relentless trial and error. I’ve been naughty, and nice, and extremely lucky. I’ve been convinced I have all kinds of illnesses, neutralised negative thoughts with a million flashes of blinding light; I’ve imagined the death of everyone I know, horrifically murdered with gruesome tools, but we’re all still here, breathing, living our lives and contemplating our next moves.

Crow is white noise. Crow is the dripping tap. Crow is the host of desert islands discs with only Marilyn Manson albums to choose from, or a single picture on my bedroom wall, painted by a psychopath – Crow the Composer, splashing the canvas of my life with blacks and reds, forty years in fifty shades of violence.  Yes, Crow is a howling storm, but he used to be a fucking machine gun, so how can I complain when children are getting blown up all over the world?

The Crow will have me headbutting the wall again, but I’m not headbutting it now and have to take that as a positive.  I can blow this spider off my shoulder all day long, so I’m content waiting here for inspiration.  Compared to sweating on a bed as imaginary worms eat my stomach, crushing spiders underfoot is relatively….ok.

So it could be the Galapagos islands, or it could be Turkey.  Iceland or Uzbekistan.  I may struggle wherever I go, but I don’t want to give up and lay down just yet. I will pack my bag, treat myself to a new toothbrush and continue to battle that malicious, squawking bird.

“I’m with you forever, Yan,” says the Crow.

I hope you like travelling, my black feathered friend.

And don’t forget your toothbrush.