INFINITE ROOMS

Life’s default position is not set on ‘fair.’  People struggle, and if there was a master designer, which I doubt, then he, or she, has made it this difficult on purpose.

“It’s supposed to be hard,” says the omniscient being, sharpening thunder-bolts on a cloud.

The injustice is not singularly mine, or ours, it belongs to billions of people around the world.  We share the pain, and there’s a lot of it to go around.

“Never feel alone in your agony,” sneers the Devil, lighting a cigarette and blowing the smoke into a puppy’s eyes.

I’ve been in a stupor for the last two days, ruminating over unhealthy fears, trying to figure out if certain events actually happened, or if Crow has thrown a handful of false memories into the pot.  I was fighting him at one point, had him trapped in the corner, unleashing my punches, focusing on the body, but then I got caught with a sucker-punch, and suddenly I was down on one knee, gloves on the canvas, crushed lungs gasping for air.  Clambering to my feet, I lifted my guard, changing tactics in the hope I would make it to the end of the round.

In other words, I followed Crow into the woods, or rather, decided to let the Horror Movie’ play out in my head, didn’t interact or turn away, watched it through to the end with heavy eyes.  I saw terrible things, but left my seat only as the credits rolled, kicking the exit door open, sending it crashing against the wall with such force that it came back at me in a painful flash, colliding with the bridge of my nose, knocking me back into the empty cinema.  More thoughts flooded my mind as I fell onto a heap of warm bodies, rolling off onto the carpeted floor which was wet and sticky.  I didn’t have to look, it was blood and I knew it.  I needed to get out of there before the next feature-film began, and this time I eased the door open, walking out into the hot summer’s day, across the empty car park and into the desert beyond.  White light poured through a crack in the sky, soon everything was doused in the brilliant light, my own hands disappearing into the ‘blinding’ in front of my face, and then I was back home, sitting on the couch in the lounge, glaring at an empty space on the wall.

I left bodies in that rancid cinema.  I did terrible things, and had terrible things done to me.  It sickened me but I went through the motions in my head anyway.  ‘But it was the OCD, Yan,’ and no one was hurt other than a little bit of me, mentally, emotionally, a paper cut would leave more of a physical scar.  I abandoned the Crimson Knight flicking popcorn into his helmet somewhere on the back row, and I know that if I hadn’t imagined those tortures, I wouldn’t have left the house.  It’s my OCD, and the next attack sees me going over old enemy lines.  It’s to do with Little One, something irrelevant but I have to make it ‘right’ in my mind.  I know it’s stupid, but it’s not me I have to satisfy, it’s the Crow that needs to be convinced.  I accept it’s a wicked, tricky illness, a magician in a hall of mirrors, but decided today to treat it as it presented itself.  Sometimes it can be easier this way, regurgitating old conversations in a holding cell in my mind.  Some thoughts become animated, and interaction is made easier, others are akin to kicking a dead horse across a ditch.

It used to scare me, but I’ve accepted it now.

I do fight it, I’ve sliced it in half, and half again, but the fears are still there, and I continue to imagine not only terrible things, but ridiculous scenarios too.  And it works both ways, because I’ve beaten Crow with the stupidest of reasoning – laid a pair of jokers and scooped the entire pot while Crow flies off mumbling obscenities, with four aces up his sleeve.

I accepted I had OCD almost the instant I was diagnosed, but I have been taught differing techniques on how to control it, with varying degrees of failure and success.  I suppose the doctors learn new things every day, and what works for Patient One might send Patient Two belly-flopping into a lake of boiling oil – the comfort blanket becomes a death shroud.

A building as high as the sky blinks into my mind.  Snow falls in heavy clumps restricting my vision but I know this place.  The ‘Seven Continents’ hotel is a looming structure of infinite floors.  A placard hangs above the gothic entrance, three faded blue stars on a yellowed background.  To me it was always more of a prison than a hotel, but with room service and cable tv.

“Think of somewhere you can put your intrusive thoughts and lock them away,” said the psychologist, flapping through her notes.

I pictured a coffin six feet under the wet earth.

“Put all of them in there and walk away.  When they poke at you, ignore them. Tell them that you will come back later in the day, or maybe tomorrow, and deal with them then.  Whenever you get another intrusive thought, send it there too.”

‘I’m gonna need a bigger coffin,’ I smiled.

So I thought of an alternative place to send them, and the Seven Continents hotel was constructed in my mind, a behemoth of structures I imagined bursting from the snow, deep within the arctic circle.  A million rooms, corridors that thinned to a pinprick at the end of my eyeline.  Snow lashed at the glass, “No f*cker’s going outside in this,” I said, gazing out over the Arctic Tundra.

And so I stuck Crows ‘guests’ in the rooms of this titanic hotel.

“When you’re ready, you can visit them and work with them, figure them out, and when they’re ready to go, send them home,” said the expert, slurping on her mug of tea.

However, the problems I sent to the Seven Continents Hotel simply festered in their rooms, metamorphosing into things far worse.  It may be a harmless old man knocking at the door in the dead of night, but if you don’t check, it might as well be a serial killer tapping an axehead on the porch.

Oh, I’ve been told to write my fears down. I’ve been told to NEVER write them down.  Tactics change, especially with mental illness.  It’s whatever works for the individual I guess.

The Seven Continents was only in operation for four or five months.  The guests ended up rampaging through the corridors like frenzied devils, trading in their prodding sticks for roaring chainsaws.  Thinking of it now has stirred up a thought or two.  A fist bangs on the inside of a cupboard door, an old lady coughs in one of the locked rooms.

“They’re just ghosts, Yan.  Harmless if you don’t look at them, dangerously mesmerising if you do.”  It’s Uncle Jack, and he takes my hand and leads me through the snow, away from the defunct hotel.

I flick through my big blue folder of notes on my lap, leaflets and spreadsheets, my collection of OCD learnings.  Sometimes I practice the exposure technique, the philosophy that you face your fears, place your own finger on the ‘trigger’ and look into the mirror, call the gorgon out and glare directly into those green eyes and her head of writhing snakes.

Words in black ink and capital letters scream from a sheet of paper in the file.  Horrible fears that I used to believe would happen if i didn’t do this, or say that, or walk under a doorway twenty-nine times.  I read a sentence aloud, and get apprehensive, a ball tightening in my chest.  I close the large folder, but refuse to ritualise, deciding that tonight I will expose myself to current, more relevant fears.  F*ck the Blinding, I’ll imagine a black tide enveloping me in bed.  I’ll sleep in shadows, not shade, (yeah, Crow, I just wrote that!)  The word ‘Shadow’ used to be a trigger word for me, used to send me into a spinning oblivion of physical and mental rituals.  ‘Shadows! Shadows! Shadows! Like cancer on the lung.  Cancer, Aids, burst arteries spraying infected blood all over the wall, death by germs and machetes and rabies and…..’

I’d have struggled to write these words ten years ago.  The world feels heavy around me even now, but I refuse to think of the ‘Blinding’ or touch my forehead or neutralise in any way the weight on my shoulders.

Crow cocks his head, watching from the coffee table, teasing me an inch out of reach.

“You’ll regret this,” he snides.

“I regret you!” I yell in my head.

But the tacks and nails in my belly are melting like marshmallows over a flame.  I’m comfortable again.

I wasn’t going to read through my old notes but I’m glad that I did.  There may be no time for travel plans this week, but maybe enough for a face-off with Crow and his cronies in a disused hotel.  Clutching my blue folder like a book of spells I peer out of the window, as a neighbour walks his dog across the road, a frown on his face signalling his own bag of problems.

“The price of life,” says Uncle Jack, and suddenly I’m a little less bitter.

Life’s default position is set on ‘tough.’  No-one has it easy, and that makes the injustice a pinch more bearable.

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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 fuelled 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 smoky room, banged into furniture like a clumsy slapstick villain, almost comical as I fought his army of gnawing beetles.

We ate, we smoked, we tipped vodka down our necks like it was putting out a fire in our bellies.  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.’

 

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 television show, 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 bloody 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 – another 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 f*ck it’s in my mind and I’m not experiencing what those poor victims actually had to go through.  The Crow is an annoying fly next to a nail bomb attack, so I fought him with added vigour 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 depraved 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 and cartons of medicine, hours of reading, relentless trial and error.  During those laborious years my brain has been subjected to constant OCD attacks, long, cruel spikes thrust through me like javelins in a voodoo doll.  I’ve suffered heavy depression, 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 move.

Crow is white noise.  Crow is the dripping tap.  Crow is the host of desert islands discs offering only Marilyn Manson albums to choose between.  Crow is a single picture on my bedroom wall, painted by a psychopath – 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 f*cking machine gun, so how can I complain when children are getting blown up all over the world?

The Crow will have me head-butting the wall again, but I’m not head-butting it now so take that as a positive.  I can blow the 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 may 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.