Manic Metro, Morbid Mountain

Two weeks ago I was standing with Little One and fifty strangers in a hot underground metro station in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city. A greasy Wind lashed through the tunnel, cooling me down as it streaked across my face, and a sound like heavy, rumbling thunder signaled the trains imminent arrival; thirty seconds beforehand I was contemplating what I wanted for dinner, but all I could think of now was leaping onto the track, straight into the path of a thousand ton metal dragon. I leaned against the wall, trying my hardest to think of something less gruesome.
The day before I took the metro, niggling doubts were already knocking on my window. Rap rap rap, cold fingers drumming on the glass, words forming in my mind.  “Tomorrow, when the train approaches, you’re going to push yourself through the crowd and hurtle into its deadly jaws; there’s nothing and no one to stop you.” A constant thumping in my chest, my stomach heavy, like I’d swallowed ten raw potatoes. I went through the motions, from suicidal leap to bone-crushing contact, ruminating until I was free of the fake urge; the potatoes finally digested and I could put the fear away until I was physically inside the metro station the following day; where I would unwrap the horror like a dead rabbit in a parcel.
Flash forward to last week, and I suffered a similar fear, to jump off a mountain and tumble to my death on the rocks beneath.  I was hiking to an ancient Armenian fortress and church, two beautiful structures on the back of a giant rock golem punching into the crisp blue sky; a fantasy scene from a Hollywood blockbuster if ever I have seen one. We stopped for bread and cheese, near a drop that seemed a mile deep, and a familiar inner voice disguised as not an urge, but a fear, told me that I could jump to my death.
“But I don’t want to,” I replied.
“Doesn’t matter,” remarked the voice. “I just said that you could, whether you want to or not.”
Not a voice like the shop assistant asking if you want help packing your grocery bag, but a voice like a poking finger; a crisp packet blowing in the breeze.
I agree with Crow, there is actually nothing stopping me; no chain fence, no beefy security guy with a black jacket, no barrier at all.
I’m sure we all hear this terrible whisper during our daily lives, and many take several minutes to silence it with confidant dismissals like, ‘no thanks, that would be incredibly stupid.’  But Crow doesn’t listen to sense, so I tell him to f**k off instead, and he just cackles throatily, like a thirty cigarette-a-day witch.
“Go on and jump, and while you’re falling to your death, think of Little One’s face as you shatter your spine on the rocks at the bottom, or your parents dismay as the consulate tells them over the telephone how you tumbled down such a beautiful mountain, and split your skull in half and snapped your bones into a thousand pieces, like a hammer to a bread-stick.”  I was burning up at the notion of running over the abyss, digging my fingers into my stomach, trying to massage the sickness away.  “F**k off, Crow!” I said, teeth grinding, eyes searching for anything other than that throbbing, pulsating, (was I tempted?) rocky abyss.  He hopped onto my shoulder, “I’m going to flash these thoughts into the back of your eyes until you think of every single possible bone-splintering detail…or, you jump off this mountain and it’s over, and you take me with you!”
I thought I had got better with heights, and confronted with a dizzying vista, after several minutes contemplating leaping to my doom, the crow seemed happy to turn his attention to my camera, or maybe my wallet. Once I dangled my camera over the Chain Bridge in Budapest.
“Drop it, Yan, its easy. Just open your hand and watch it splash into the Danube.”
Now the fear is back to its nightmare worst, and hiking in Armenia, stopping for lunch on a rocky overhang, all I could think about was diving off, plummeting towards the stream a hundred deadly feet beneath me – at least his previous ramblings, from alarm-call to this lunchtime picnic, were silenced.
A day earlier we had arrived in Yerevan, Armenia, and covered much of the city on foot, including the educational Armenian genocide museum – The effects of OCD cause me depression at the best of times, and two hours in this informative museum and I loathed humanity more than I ever have. I wanted mankind to blow its head off with a shotgun loaded with a f*cking hydrogen bomb! So to cheer me up we decided that the following day we would take a hike in the mountains…
…And there I was, crawling closer in my mind to the edge because Crow had said that I could.
I coughed up a black feather. “Nothing could be easier,” he said.
We moved our picnic away from the tempting leap of death and ate away from that dreadful fear.
“It’s just another metro stop,” I whispered into the air – remembering the vivid thoughts of jumping into an oncoming train on the Tbilisi underground.
Another shift in time and I’m here, back in Georgia, today.  I’ve just hiked up probably my last mountain. We’re in Stepantsminda, in the shadow of the glorious mount Kazbek, and taking a shortcut through the recent snow, scrambling across a sweeping mountainside, four hundred meters from our destination, while slipping and sliding in the white powder, I glanced over my shoulder and suddenly realised how high we actually were. If we lost our footing, although probably not instant death, a broken bone or two was not off the menu. Crow seized the day, filling my head with countless terrifying possibilities; I had a minor panic attack, (if there can be such a thing) and I froze and struggled for breath and Little One had to talk me back to earth.
At the monastery at the top of our climb, I vowed never to put us in that situation again.
There’s no escaping these violent intrusive thoughts, so I tiptoe around them when I can, ignore them when I’m lucky, or entertain them when I’m at my lowest. After all, paragliding being the exception, I’ve not jumped off a mountain yet… and certainly not jumped into the path of an oncoming train.  Its been a tough two weeks but I’m still here, a little shaken but still walking forward.

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Georgia On My Mind..

Georgians are an interesting bunch. They’re either plying you with homemade vodka or glaring at you on the local bus like they want to tear your arms off. We’re either being shoved aside on the Tbilisi metro or gifted free wine and food at a ramshackle hostel that’s barely standing up; knocking back shots of Chacha with staff at military museums like we’re old school friends, or being totally ignored by ice-cream street vendors as they look right through me into Wednesday next week. It can be as rough as sandpaper, a face still scarred by the soviet sickle, or a cushion of cool mountain air, a beautiful face smiling across a crowded room . It’s been interesting…we only had five days in its tough, ample bosom, but we’re going back in a week or two, after we’ve sampled the colourful delights of Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea.

We’re on the overnight train now as I pound this into my smartphone notes. I can’t sleep because I pushed the crow into a hole today and he’s not yet flown back. (Basically I’ve ruminated all day on the inane, then fought free of the useless fear and now I’m pumped and awake and want to be standing in broad daylight gazing at the Flame Towers on the Baku skyline.) Little One sleeps on the bed across the carriage, I’m going to be tired in the morning but I have a feeling she’s going to want to run around the asphalt of the Baku Formula One street circuit!

Georgia is on my mind – but in a good way, not stuck on loop on the ruminating highway. Georgia has a thousand adventures to offer, and if I’m well, I hope to sample a healthy farmer’s fist of them. We meet our friend from France back in Tbilisi early in October and he’ll want to hike, so I’ll need the clearest of minds I can muster. The war on OCD is never over, but I  think I won the battle today – and that’s a good start.

See you soon Georgia, I don’t think I love you yet but I like you a lot. Lets see what happens…

That B*stard Crow

   We’re off to Georgia (the country in Eastern Europe, not the US state), although I hear that’s lovely too. I’m interested in soviet history, and on my travels I’ve lost control of my mind from Russia to Kazakhstan, from Estonia to Latvia, Lithuania to Ukraine. I’ve ruminated on the ridiculous before Statues of Vladimir Lenin; touched my forehead for luck like my fingers were manipulating a typewriter deep inside defunct nuclear bomb shelters; imagined blinding white lights and chanted a thousand and one mantras while learning the horrors of a former Gulag or KGB headquarters. A visit to Georgia was only a matter of time, and I was fading to nothing at home so pushed myself to get back on the road. This trip I want to visit Azerbaijan and Armenia too, and a return to Ukraine. Belarus if I’m lucky…

“Why not a beach in Thailand?” I’ve been asked. Well, I went to a beach in Thailand, where I was asked “Why not go somewhere more off of the backpacker trail?” And so it goes…

It just means that the scenery is going to change around me, not the everyday struggle. I’ll still glare at myself in the mirror, threatening my reflection with violence when frustration sets my mind on fire. It’ll just be a mirror hanging on a wall in Georgia.

If I stayed at home I’d go through the same trials, I’d just feel worse about it, because I’d see it as wasting time, squandering my one life on this planet.  I’ve done plenty of that already; laying in my bed, forehead banging against the wall, hiding from the world and everyone in it, sentencing myself to solitary confinement as life passes overhead in the wind.  However ill I get, however deep the Crow’s claws scratch, I must always push forward.

OCD is like an extra layer of skin, itching beneath the other nine; or a third arm, a useless one that grabs onto anything that will slow you down; another eye that looks in on itself, searching for terrible fabricated secrets. OCD is a part of me, and that bastard crow is the first of us to pack his toothbrush.  He tries to ruin a trip to the local shop so of course he’ll try and ruin our time in Georgia.  I’m off and he’s coming with me, his shadow swishing around my throat like a black cloak, so get over it, Yan. This way I’m giving it a go, easing those knots in my stomach, making me feel a little better about myself.  Today, I still have no idea what we’re going to do when we get there, and that’s the adventure I guess… something I don’t want the crow to ever take away from me.

If I surrendered to the crow I’d never have met some of the great people that I have, from all over the world, from seventy-two year old adventurers to gap year students who share the same slightly twisted sense of humour; I’d never have disappeared down a pot-hole mid conversation in Kampala; never bathed naked with the local village greengrocer in the onsens of Japan; I’d never have embarrassed myself dancing salsa in a Havanan bar or booed the villains at the Lucha Libre in Mexico City. You’ve stopped me from doing a lot, bastard crow, but not everything.

‘Yeah yeah yeah, you’ll eat my eyes out, you’ll shove me down the stairs, you’ll set my hair on fire, you’ll bite my fingers off, you’ll smash my face into the wall. All these things and more if you had the chance. Do whatever you have to do, bastard crow, just don’t forget your toothbrush…’

BRANDO and the BLACK SPONGE

The crow is Godzilla and I am Tokyo. Yet another monster movie, but have you seen the performance from the lead protagonist? Blood surges in my ears, sounding like a drum roll, and on stage an old but legendary movie star fumbles open an envelope. “…And the award for best Actor goes to…”
…Yan Baskets, and Julia Brown, and Johnny Lester and Fernando Cortez and the millions of other sufferers hiding their mental illness from the world.

Years ago, struggling to hold down my job, every morning I would be greeted by the same friendly workmate. “Morning, Yan,” he would say, and I would smile and ask if he’d had a good evening, nodding and joking on the outside, but inside throwing up splinters.
The work floor would be noisy, an ugly rumination around every hissing corner – vampires on panpipes, and as the Crow attacked, the continuous whirring of the machines, the clanking and the banging, made my workplace feel like a state at war. There be injuns inside, and gun-toting Cowboys, Mexican bandits shooting pistols into the sky. Gun fight at the Not-so-Ok Coral. The fear I had in the morning always multiplied into a thirty foot monster by clocking out time. So yes, the Crow is Godzilla and I am Tokyo – but most of the time the city falls in silence, like a scene from an old black and white movie from the twenties.

“You’re a cheerful chap, Yan,” my colleague once said as, unbeknownst to him, Tokyo tower crumbled into my lap. I don’t regret not telling him. He had his own problems, everyone does. Tokyo would still fall. I’d cycle home after my shift, appreciating the quiet, making sense of those malicious thoughts on the battlefield, distorted shapes dancing through the gun smoke – becoming clear but still a mile away.
“Good day at work?” The voice of my mum, dad, girlfriend or brother. It wouldn’t matter, my answer was always a lie.
“Yeah, not bad thanks/I’m just gonna take a shower/Dinner smells good/We still going out tonight?” Fear bubbling in my stomach but my face stretched into a rictus grin – Marlon Brando on the outside, but inside, absorbing all the fears of the world like a black sponge.

I regret not telling certain friends and family. In the early days it wasn’t an option because I feared I was a lunatic, but when my OCD was diagnosed, I think I should have let another handful through the gates into my secret world. Certainly explained in more detail to those that I did tell. I guess I was unjustly embarrassed; it was easier to play a part in a mainstream movie than stand out in an avant-garde feature.
In this sense I believe I’m a good actor, because so many of my friends and acquaintances would have bet a month’s wages that I was the furthest someone could be from suffering a mental illness. And it goes the other way – I wonder how many of my friends are writhing in silence in the shadows of their own demons, whether its depression, or addiction, fear and loathing. How good an actor are they? And its not just on an epic-movie scale, once in a while its a twenty second scene as a walk on part in a play, a simple smile and nod to the shop assistant, or a thank-you to the bar-tender when inside, the world is falling apart.
Yan Baskets isn’t my real name, so I’m still doing it.

Ironic that on my trip to India, I was approached on the streets of Mumbai and offered to work as an extra in a Bollywood film. I also did an advert and a trailer for a tv show with the same agency. I loved the experience, but in those days the Crow was a sledgehammer, it had taken all my effort just to get on the plane out there, and on the film set, when they asked me to come back the next day, I’d been under such ferocious attacks, was so tired and battle scarred, that I declined and went to Goa to stick my head in the sand instead. I travelled down to the western state with a young Dutch couple, and pretended to be OK as the crow ate me from the inside. I should have stayed on the film set and at least got paid to be someone else.

So polish that Oscar, I’ve already written my speech. I’d like to thank my mum and dad, and of course the Crow, whose absence would mean I wouldn’t have had to take up acting in the fucking first place.

DRAGON versus HYDRA

I’ve said to people in the past that suffering from a mental illness is worse than breaking a bone. And then I broke a bone and realised that’s no fun either. They’re both painful; it doesn’t have to be a competition.

I once took a week off work, festering in bed grappling one particular intrusive thought, and couldn’t concentrate on anything else for longer than a minute – I tried but there was a sickness in my stomach like I’d swallowed a glass of worms. ‘I can’t feel worse than this,’ I thought. But then I caught malaria in Uganda, and along with shaking chills and a burning fever, the throbbing, thumping headaches I endured silenced the crow as quick as a shotgun blast to his head.

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

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

I sat incredulous between white sheets, but smiled anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hate mental anguish – anxiety and fear.

I hate physical pain – high fever and broken bones.

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

Incineration by flames or suffocation by madness?

Dragon or Hydra?

No contest.

Neither.

TOO MANY TEETH IN THE TOOTH FACTORY

I live in the shadow of a colossal factory, its thirteen chimneys spewing black smoke into the ozone. Wherever I go in the world, I smell its toxins polluting the space around me, the thirteen brick towers casting their gloom over my sagging shoulders. A long conveyor belt loops around the foundry floor, and whenever my head is clear, or I am happy, a spike falls into a box and is delivered, wherever I am in the world (via ‘Crow Express Delivery Service’,) to my doorstep.
To help me cope, to visualise what is happening, I have used many metaphors over the years. Often I think of these spikes, these intrusive thoughts, as teeth. Each fear is a fang, and sometimes I am bitten by one tooth, sometimes by an entire row. I usually obsess over one intrusive thought until I can bury it, often in a shallow grave in the woods, but occasionally somewhere more permanent, like deep in the foundations of a city new-build, or maybe mafioso style and thrown into the sea with concrete boots. However, when there are several spikes, or teeth, the day can generally spiral into an inescapable black pit.
A while ago now, at the end of one particularly cruel day, I counted that thirteen intrusive thoughts had spiked me – thirteen yellow teeth biting into my bones, puncturing thirteen holes direct into my marrow.  It was mid March, seventy-seven days into the year. I calculated that another two and a half months like today would mean being mauled, potentially, by one thousand and one teeth. It was a mortifying prospect. So far that year I’d done absolutely nothing, not a plan made or a dream realised since January the first. No memories but a thousand terrible maybes, and not a single one of them had come true. But still I worried.
As panic incapacited me two considerable things happened. Firstly, I realised that I had to do something, anything, before I died with a spike in my throat, choking on splinters; but more importantly, it was the start of my resignation period. As my condition worsened over the years, my multiple attacks began to have a bizarre calming affect. The more teeth that punctured me meant more rituals, more time touching wood or imagining blinding bolts of lightning, sweating on my bed, howling at the wall and wishing I was in a coma – but something else was occurring too. My brain felt like it was vibrating , stressed under the flashing red lights and plumes of smoke from the overworked cogs and dials. One especially bleak day of ruminating ridiculous events, pinned to my bed and pulling out my hair, strand by strand, I experienced a type of shut-down. The factory had produced excess items and the conveyor belt was jammed as it meandered through the various machinery, or there were too many teeth in the attack dog’s mouth and it was unable to gain a proper purchase, or the Crow’s beak was blunted with the excess pecking, like a reused nail hammered into one piece of wood too many. It didn’t matter what metaphor I chose, the important thing was I felt a wave of euphoric relief that lasted for a considerable amount of time.
Its strange, but I learned that the more the Crow flexes his wings, or the dog bares his teeth, or when extra spikes roll off the production line, the more peace I feel because of my resignation to the cold fact that I simply cannot handle the ferocity of the attacks. I forget the lies the Crow has whispered in my ear because on such formidable days he talks too much, or the pain from the wounds on my leg eclipse the throb from the one on my arm, or the factory warehouse loses stock in its jungle of boxes.
Of course the Crow still flies, and the beast still bites and the factory continues to produce, but there’s much less ruffle to the feathers, strength in the jaws and far less pollution in the river.
And I nearly forgot, this is a travel blog too.
I’m currently still in Greece waiting to be relieved of house sitting duties. The cat is still alive and I’ve not stabbed myself to death or died of a brain tumor or been burnt alive by angry villagers in a giant wicker-man. Since I’ve been here the factory has produced these exact fears, and lots more besides. Or, depending on my metaphor, the Crow has whispered them in my ear, or gnashing teeth have gnawed them into my skin. But the factory is rusting and the Crow is getting old, bless him, because his feathers are starting to fall out and his peck can sometimes feel no more than a tickle.
At this moment, peeling a lemon with my free hand, I have no idea where the next destination will be. I do know there’ll be a factory close by, and a crow, turning slightly grey, circling in the sky.
Any Ideas are welcome.

Chewing Feathers

By far, the most enjoyable part of my travelling has not been what I’ve seen along the way but who I’ve met. If I had stayed in my hometown in England I’d never have smoked a spliff with inmates in their cell during a prison visit in Ecuador, or had a conversation with a Freight-hopping Brooklyn vagabond in the alleyways of New York City, or played a thousand hands of cards with a loco Panamanian who drank Las Vegas dry and escaped the US owing thousands in medical bills. (I’m not condoning any of this, they are merely examples of some of the more interesting characters I’ve met along the way.) From drinks with a ’60s Slovenian pop star to a night in Thailand with a Hawaiian pot dealer, for me, it’s all about the people.
It’s just a shame that I’ve either had to cut the meetings short, (I should have gone to the golf club in Slovenia), or missed the bones of a conversation (what was the homeless mans ethos again?) If I hadn’t had the Crow flapping in my ears, maybe I’d have learned and experienced more than I have. But then again, if it wasn’t for that feathered demon from the Abyss, I probably wouldn’t have sold my home in England – I wouldn’t be here, house-sitting in Greece, watching the distant fishing boats idle on the calm blue sea.
I often lament those split conversations, the times when you find yourself talking to someone in the outside world, but you’re also busy trying to talk sense to yourself somewhere in that chaotic world inside your head. Dissecting a thought you take too long answering a question, there’s an awkward silence, maybe you didn’t quite catch what was said. You ask them to repeat their question, just as another spiked ball bounces into the equation. You’ve missed the real world conversation AGAIN! You’re standing there, literally face to face with a man you met on a train, and you’re listening but struggling to hear a single word he’s spoken all morning. A third time, and yes, you hear what’s being said but it makes no sense because you missed the critical three minutes of dialogue before this query.  You smile apologetically, “Sorry mate, I was miles away.”  You blame a late night, say you’re a prolific daydreamer, or, “that joint has really hit me, man.” You certainly can’t mention the screeching bird in your cerebrum . “Sorry mate, I was talking to the Crow,” is not an option.
The problem is not only missing the key words but also, when you know precisely what’s being said, your stomach can feel so full of lead that you don’t have the mental strength to join in, or expand the question, or debate it, or anything at all because you’ve got the black feathered Prince of Doubt pecking holes on your head. Chances are I’ve missed out on more than a fistful of profound revelations because of this. Seriously, I could have had the answer to life explained to me in glorious detail but was too busy thinking about killing myself in front of my Nan to heed the words.
If it worked the other way around it would be the perfect solution to my problems. “Sorry Crow, I was talking to my friend, you’ll have to wait. Stand in line, come back tomorrow.”
The greatest problem with OCD, for me, is that big fat O. Obsessional thoughts that take over my entire world. Everyone, at least a continent’s worth of people, have dark thoughts, perhaps everyday. But with the crow, and the millions of other crows, and imps, and demon monkeys out there perched on peoples’ shoulders, it’s not just every day, but every second of every minute of every hour of every day.
It’s not surprising that we miss things. We just have to make the most of the conversations we do have, and as the Crow circles me a little higher these days, a plea for all OCDemons the world over to ignore: “I know you devils suffer from a warped social reality, but give your hosts a break, let them have a spike free conversation with whoever is sharing their table, whether it’s in a bar in Southeast Asia or in the lounge of their grandmother’s house, back the fuck off for an hour or so.”