Same Game, Different Rules

The world is too much.  The world is not enough.  I want everything in it. I need to let it all go.  Am I greedy to want it all and nothing at the same time?  Is this bitterness because I let life slip through my fingers?  What would I have become if I hadn’t been tossed and flung and sucked beneath the OCD ocean?

Maybe nothing.

It is certainly possible that I could have settled for much less.  Would I have even known what was out there? Have I seen more of the world BECAUSE of the leash around my neck?  Did I push myself further with the dragon on my back? Were those bitter pills the reason I eventually escaped the smoking industrial estates?  Of course, I’ll never know, only that the multiverse is full of Yan Baskets’ festering in bed, staring at the wall.

I suppose it doesn’t matter.  I’m here, you’re over there, what has already happened is floating further down the river.  We’ve just lost some of our potential, the what-could-have-beens leaking out of our pockets.  In twenty years’ time, I may regret what I didn’t do today, and depending on where I am in twenty years, I guess that’s inevitable.

I don’t believe in a higher supernatural power, in my opinion, life is not a gift from God, but I believe we are lucky to be here nonetheless.  Out of all those millions of sperm cells, the chance for ‘our’ conception is a mixture of a billion lucky breaks, and like great comedy, the perfect timing.  Yet I must never forget this weight in my bones, this cawing crow. Not to wield it as an excuse, but as a valid reason that some things were inevitably made more difficult.  Just because something is invisible doesn’t mean it’s not there. You can’t see the wind, only the leaning trees and tumbling leaves – the path it batters.  Yet a strong wind can knock down a forest, and like the wind, a mental illness breaks and shatters and can easily push us off the edge of the world.  Sometimes I want to stand up and turn to the people looking out of their windows and shout, “I’m over here and bending like this because the wind is blowing me this way.”

A woman beckons me over, inviting me into her house.

“I can’t get there,” I yell.  “The wind is too strong!” But she doesn’t hear me, simply shakes her head, turning to the person beside her, who glances up, puts his arm around her shoulder and leads her further into the room.

“It’s the wind,” I say, but my words are carried away into the sky.

But I know what I’ve suffered.  What I’ve been through. The acid in my belly.  I know the full force of the wind even if others do not.  And that’s all that matters.

Suffering, one way or another, is part of life, and life isn’t fair –  it’s a mentally unhealthy universe. And that’s good to know, but knowing doesn’t change the rules.

I could be living under a bridge, or dead in the ground, or yes, I concede, a multi-billionaire drinking cocktails on a yacht.

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OCD AWAY DAYS – EL CUERVO and OTHER ANIMALS

I’ve been awake for less than an hour and I’m tossing a bucket of corn over a stone wall to feed a ravenous pig.  Three rams peer over a crooked fence, twisted horns like the Devil’s fingers – they’re next in line to receive breakfast.

“Morning, friends,” I holler over the howling wind.  But it should really be ‘Buenos Dias, amigos,’ as I’m actually in Spain – or Catalonia if you want to get political.  We’re house-sitting again, but this time we have four horses, three rams, a pig, and a large German Shepherd to keep alive.

The last three months moved fast.  Seems like I blinked and suddenly I’m here, in Catalan, filling the three amigos’ trough with water.  All going well, we should be returning to the house in East Sussex in February, but first, we have the small task of staying alive in Spain.  Could be tougher than it sounds, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

I reminisce about that house on a hill in such a picturesque part of England.  I remember the walk through the woods to reach the village pub, the savage garden that needed taming, and then the drive back home for Christmas; Crow telling me to jump out of the car as it sped along the motorway – I pictured losing my face on the asphalt over a hundred times.  A handful of Christmas presents later and Little One and I were sleeping on the cold floor at Barcelona airport, waiting for the train ticket office to open – to catch a train to a town near the border with France, and make our way into the Spanish countryside to a converted mill house, with solar panels and a noisy electric generator – just in case.  We really are in the middle of nowhere again.

It’s a clear day if a little cold.  The blue sky above us looks like calm water – like I could turn the world upside down and fall into it forever.  I visualise the serotonin pouring into my brain but my mind is still in East Sussex, and our day trip to Beachy Head where Little One and I saw a poor woman on the edge of the crumbling cliff, behind her a team of psychologists, police officers and coast guards, attempting to talk her out of performing what would be her final act.  Maybe we had passed her in the street last week, or she’d served us a burger meal in a fast food restaurant or jumped ahead of us at the supermarket check-out. So many people with demons on their minds – so many crows perched on hunched shoulders. A policeman tells us we have to detour from the path we’re walking, and we silently wish her well as we turn away.

Hoping that she didn’t jump, my thoughts return to the here and now, as I stride up a slight incline towards a stone barn and the three dishevelled rams.  Of course, Crow tells me that she did take the plunge – then whispers that maybe I should leap off one of the mountains on the horizon.

“Shut your face, Crow.”  I throw a slice of alfalfa over that crooked fence.  The three rams lock horns. Sh*t, I must remember to separate their feed into three equal handfuls.  One of them could lose an eye.

My gaze returns to the blue sky, the surrounding hills, the scattered rocks and the grunting pig feasting on the corn.  I should be more excited than this. To be staying where I am, in this renovated mill house on the side of a Spanish hill. I really feel that I’m starting to get over this traveling bug, although it’s taken a good few years to drip from my system.  Maybe I’m tired of running away. Perhaps I should stay and fight Crow on home soil? My first trip, a year backpacking around the world, seems like a lifetime ago. And it is a lifetime. Sixteen years and counting. Crow promised me I’d be dead by now.

On the one hand, it’s worrying that I’m not excited to be here.  On the other, I see it as a positive that I want to return home. A black cloud begins to crawl across the distant Pyrenees mountain range; dark thoughts and the rumblings of a heavy stomach – depression is Nosferatu’s shadow creeping up the stairs.  Got to keep my mind busy, but not with anything that will trigger an attack. Above all, I want to keep my OCD at a healthy distance – which would be buried in a dry lake bed on Mars if I had my way. Think I’m going to have a lot of time to think out here.

“You’re f****d,” says Crow.

“You’ve been saying that since I was nine,” I reply.

It’s the next day; everything was going so well.  But I must remain vigilant because I’m typing this with a gash on the top of my head and my right temple swabbed and bandaged.  Antibiotics swim in my blood, my left arm aching from a tetanus jab.

The dog we’re looking after bit me last night.  I was stroking him as usual, speaking to him calmly and telling him how lovely he was when all of a sudden I had the jaws of a German Shepherd clamped around my head. I pulled away and he sank back down on his blanket.  Little One was looking at me and I saw the horror in her eyes. The right side of my face became warm. I gently touched my temple, and when I looked at my hand, blood dripped along my fingers.

We drove to the nearest hospital, where the staff was skilled and efficient – pleasant too.  They looked after me, gave me a jab and a prescription for antibiotics, then sent me on my way, back to the house in the Spanish hills.

“He’s going to attack you the moment you open the gate,” said Crow.

He didn’t.  He wanted to be stroked.

Of course, Crow keeps telling me that I have rabies now, or a mutated dog disease that eventually turns its human victims into the walking dead.  I’m mostly ignoring him, but it can be difficult at times, even though I’m used to his macabre, twisted logic. I know it could have been much worse, and somewhere in the Multiverse, my entire face is digesting in a dog’s stomach.

I was worried that the horses would cause me the most stress but, so far, they’ve been trouble-free.  They don’t really do much – which is way better than trying to bite my face off. They walk around the field.  They eat alfalfa and two buckets of horse feed a day. I wonder what it would be like to be a horse and suffer depression and anxiety.  Distressing, I guess, no better than it is for the rest of us.

So that’s it for now.  We’re in Spain and we have to keep nine animals alive, plus ourselves.  It’s only for a month but the dog attack was on the third day.  I hear him scratching at the door as I type.  What does he want? I lean over to let him in. What could possibly go wrong?

Please don’t answer that, Crow…

A BRIDGE, THREE COWS AND A MILLION BUTTERFLIES

Today I conversed with cows – Little One and I making bovine friends over a wire fence.  We’re on the move again. We’ve dusted down our backpacks, locked the front door and put the keys through the letterbox.  It didn’t involve flying halfway around the world this time – in fact, we didn’t have to get on a plane at all. Not even a boat, just got in our car and drove south for four hours.  We’re housesitting in East Sussex, a beautiful part of the world, similar to Norfolk, our home county, only with rolling hills, and fields of roaming cows instead of dormant sugar beet.  We were supposed to be housesitting in Hungary but after our terrible loss, we cancelled and made alternate plans.  And here we are, watching a sunset over verdant hills, gossiping with cattle.

I spoke last entry of how Crow, my OCD avatar, went missing after we received horrific news.  Sadly, he’s been trying to sneak back into my life, and presented himself as a clamouring crackpot yesterday on the M25, when he suggested that I open the passenger door and fling myself onto the busy road.  I beat him back, refusing to listen to his fiendish ramblings. It was tough, and during the battle, I lost myself in a fog of depression, which worked in my favour, as I fell onto the cold blade of sadness rather than the machine gun fire of intrusive thought.  Oh, lucky me, suffocating in a black bin liner instead of walking into the spray of an AK47 set on fully automatic. I remember the old saying, how the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

We crossed the Dartmouth Bridge – such an amazing structure, and a testament to what the human race can achieve.  “You also cut each other’s heads off for conflicting religious beliefs,” smirked Crow. And I had to agree with him.

He’s made other appearances this week, but I fought him off with a returning compulsion of blinking my eyes at set intervals, and other daft rebuffs that for one reason or another give me moments of peace away from those flapping wings.

I’ve met new people, which can be hard for me – approached them with a firm handshake and a nudge in the back of my brain, a careful reminder that no-one lives forever.  F**k feeling awkward at new relationships; who cares if these well-spoken locals think I’m less of a human being, or a gibbering moron – a babbling lunatic even! All three if they choose – although I’ll be the first to concede that they’re probably not thinking these things at all…they actually seem rather nice.

I smile because we’re all going to be gone in a blink of the Universe’s eye anyway.

When I meet new people, they get one of three Yans.  On a good day, they get Yan the Optimist. He is confident, talkative, hopefully quite pleasant, focused on the positive.  Often courageous, sometimes fearless, this fleeting figure is unfortunately scarce, a limited edition, and I feel lucky when I step into his shoes.

On a bad day – a typical day – they get one of the other, not so user-friendly versions.  There’s Yan the Furtive – doubtful, forgetful, stammering, red-faced as he looks for an exit to leave the immediate area.  You will frequently find this Yan laying on his bed, or in the corner of the room pretending to read a book.

Finally, there’s Yan the Berserker, existing only when there are other people in the room, like the sound of a tree falling in the forest.  He is restless, looking to flood the dark alleyways with water from a gushing river. Obliterating awkward silence with any available noise.  Dead inside, but outside splashing his walls with metallic, glowing paint. He is a blazing ball of red light – the worse he feels, the brighter he burns.  He is a hungry wind, a foghorn in the mist, a manic clown juggling sticks of dynamite. “Yan’s a character, isn’t he?” I hear them say. “He mustn’t have a care in the world…”

A few people peer through my mask like it was made of glass.  It’s usually the fellow sufferers of depression, anxiety or blasting intrusive thoughts.  It takes one to know one I suppose, although I think the clever ones, or the ones with great social skills, are able to hide their pain better than others.  They wear louder, more detailed masks because they don’t want to be a burden – which of course they’re not. They know how to apply the camouflage, and can sometimes recognise the mask on other people too.  I’m not one of the clever ones, by the way, I just don’t want people to stress or worry, so I cover up my woes with strips of colourful wallpaper. Time and experience have made me quite the handyman – I have friends who think I’m the happiest person on the planet.

I often wonder what my world would have been like living solely as Yan the Optimist.  Using my time to create a better life, planning for the future instead of years spent dwelling on Crow’s cruel lies.  Today would have been a different day indeed. Although let’s face it, I could also be dead. Sliding doors and all that.  I’d simply be on another path, and maybe I wouldn’t have met Little One, and that would be unthinkable.

There are a thousand forks in every road, each leading to a new destination – another fork.  A man who is killed on his way to the shop would still be alive if he’d had his newspaper delivered to his doorstep.  Tiny things create mighty waves. Butterflies and flapping wings.

Back to the here and now, and those cows have shuffled over to the other side of the field.  Was it something I said?

There are sights to see and adventures to be had, even this close to home.  Things to do in this little corner of the world. A new land. Norfolk with bumps.  I’m watching a crow perched on a telephone wire. I point it out to Little One and we both smile.  That f**ker follows me everywhere.

“He’s part of you,” says Little One.

It’s cooler now, time for a hot drink, followed by a cold beer.  I’m going to close the conservatory door, as well as the laptop lid.

Speak soon,

Yan Baskets.

A HOLE IN THE SKY

I don’t exclusively visualise my OCD as that b*stard crow.  Last month my OCD felt like a wall crawling with ants; recently it’s been a black cloud the size of a continent, drifting over a world in a corner of a cosmos created somewhere within the sparking wires of my mind.

I had been suffering violent intrusive thoughts for a long stretch of time.  But it wasn’t only physical harm that terrorised my world; thoughts about injuring people with abhorrent, hurtful words constantly threatened to spill from my mouth, to wash away those that I love like village huts in the path of a tsunami.  I imagined whispering such dreadful things, blowing hell into a loved one’s ears, remarks that would wound and scar for life.  And then one morning I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the bathroom mirror, and I noticed an abrasion on my skin.

“Here I come!” shrieked the crow, and I lost two days ruminating over what that blemish might mean.  Of course, when the crow smells fear, he becomes a great white shark. Cancer was the word of the week.  Cancer in my stomach, cancer on my skin, cancer in my liver, my brain, my blood. The cloud was above that place in my mind where every time I looked into that cursed mirror, or felt a bruise on my flesh, or suffered a thumping headache, I imagined it was the beginning of the end of my life.

I glared at my sombre reflection on a blank television screen.  I imagined a well-groomed man, a smile on his face like a knife slash in pigskin, pointing to a weather map in a familiar television studio.  The world spun gently on its axis, as a dark shadow crept slowly across the globe like a noxious gas.

“This afternoon the cloud continues to cover most of the north-western continent,” he said through that wicked smile – cracking across his face like a splitting sheet of ice.

My OCD can manifest itself as violent images, false memories, a need for symmetry and fear of contamination.  But for two weeks my OCD cloud had cast a shadow over a patch of land that has been storm free for quite a while.

It became an old man coughing up blood in a hospital waiting room.  In five days I convinced myself I was going to die of three or four different cancers.  I rang health lines and visited the doctors, and ‘Little One’ had to go for blood tests too (for different reasons) and of course, Crow convinced me of the worst possible outcome.  I became a twitching mess at the bottom of a deep black sea, as well as that tired old man in slippers, shuffling down infinite corridors.

Urges to ritualise, to keep those germs away, flashed past the window like cars on a motorway fast-lane.  Would picturing a blinding white light wash away my medical fears? Of course not. But I did it anyway.

I fought against some intrusive thoughts, I capitulated to others – on my knees and following orders over the trench wall like a frontline soldier.

The doctor told me I was ok.

The doctor told ‘Little One’ that she was ok.

I thought that meant that the world was going to be fine, at least for the time being.

And then we got a phone call in the middle of the night.

I’m not going into too much detail but after three days at the hospital, we lost someone very close to us.

Irrational compulsions hadn’t saved the day.  We lost a piece of the world. And I think the crow knew that under such stressful circumstances he wasn’t even on the horizon.

I couldn’t see him. The world was too black.

I couldn’t hear him.  The world was too loud.

I saw people I love break down in tears, and that wrenched me across the floor, crashing me into walls.

One evening, while pacing across the hospital waiting room, a shadow crept across a familiar, well-trodden field in a corner of my mind.  It was a cloud, black like a bucket of coal.

“What are you going to do, cloud?  Rain on me? I’ve just come from the Critical Care Unit.  Your threats are useless!”

A thought rolled across my mind’s eye, a black plastic bag tumbling on a breeze – could compulsive visualisation change this situation?

I thought of Crow.  “Shall I look at a spot on the back of a chair and think of a brilliant white light?”

I glared at a picture on the wall – a village church in a field.  “Should I blink at the image, Crow? Is that fair trade for a miracle?  Or is there anything else I should do? Can I save a life by repeating certain words in my head?  And what is it you can actually do right now?”

Black feathers stirred in the sky.

“You’re the one who can stop the situation,” I imagined him taunting.

I broke once.  I’d almost upheld a policy of zero tolerance, but not quite.  And no, it didn’t help. The news was bad.

I’m home now.  The OCD cloud is floating over other fields, replaced however by a great sadness.  Not a fog but a vast hole in the sky.

“It’s not known when the storm will return,” says the crisply dressed weatherman with the sinister smile.  He points to the video map projected over his shoulder, where the world spins in semi-darkness. “However, anomalies continue to blot out the sun.”

I purposely picture him ravished by raptor dinosaurs.

Crow has been quiet all day.  I imagine him sleeping in a nest of snakes.  I know he’ll be back but today I’m so numb I don’t think there’s an opening for one of those OCD ants crawling up the wall, let alone a mischievous crow with nuisance on his mind.

I thought I was going to die from a horrendous disease.

I ritualised and I lived.

But someone I loved did die.

I only had a couple of OCD attacks, so should I have ritualised more than I did?  Of course not, but somewhere down the line, I’m expecting Crow to tell me that I should have.

Terrible things are going to happen throughout our lives, whether we surrender to our compulsions or not – and it’s hard to convince ourselves that we have no control over such incidents.  OCD says we can change the world, and we can, but not by avoiding odd numbers or imagining shadows doused in blinding white light.

The Crow will be flying my way soon.

I know he’s coming.

And I’ll be waiting.

“LET’S KILL ALL THE FISH!”

For someone suffering from OCD, achieving anything is tough.  The simplest task becomes a sheer concrete wall. Dread curdles in your stomach like spoiled milk – just the thought of leaving the house consumes enough energy to tempt you back to bed.  The same goes for depression; the black dog sinks its fangs into your calf, snarling, head shaking from side to side, dragging you down to the ground like a convict in spotlights. I look at my OCD as a crow, but I’ve heard others describe their own demon as a goblin, a monkey, a salivating dog.  I’ve been scolded by a psychologist for giving OCD a face but, like I told the doctor at the time, it helps me to fight it, and you don’t suffer with it, so thanks for the advice but…

Either way, mental illness is a bag of lead ingots slung across your back.

“Ok,” says Crow, with mischief on his mind.  “Let’s see how far up the wall you can get today!”

So I fight it.

But it’s tough to fight an opponent who knows your every move. Like I’ve said before, it’s like playing poker with yourself and trying to bluff your hand.

“You’re wasting your life, make a decision and do something,” some might say.

“I am doing something,” I tell them. I’m wrestling an electric eel every second of every day. The fact that I’m not banging my head against the concrete wall is a huge achievement for me.

They say they understand, but I don’t think they do.  And I don’t blame them, because I don’t know much about the thousands of illnesses and disorders that I DON’T suffer from. In fact, there are legions of diseases out there, killing people every day, that I don’t even know exist. It doesn’t mean I disrespect those afflicted by them.

I read many tweets, Facebook messages and social media comments jovially describing OCD as an eccentric distraction. “I’m so OCD because I group my clothes by colour,” wrote a former work colleague on his Facebook wall last year.  Huddled under the bed sheets, I yelled my disdain but soon went back to fighting my own irrational thoughts before they killed another day. There was no need to get aggressive for an off-the-cuff comment, to troll and vilify him, to bite and scratch and kick him into a corner; it wouldn’t help my condition one bit. If you want a fight, then take on ISIS, or the bully at work, or the drunk causing aggro at the bar.

I hear people complain, “They don’t understand my condition.”  So educate them, and if they still don’t agree, or lack empathy, then that’s their prerogative.  Bosses at work come under fire for not allowing someone with depression to take six months sick leave every year. I struggled working in factories for years, the last thing I expected was my boss to give me a day off every time I didn’t feel well. I’d never have worked a day in my life.  I know someone who is paralysed from the waist down, and he was the first to admit that he’d never be a fireman. Imagine if he argued that the fire service should invest and create a special ladder that could winch him up a tree to rescue the old ladies cat.

Of course, I agree with sick days, but I think that if you need to take every other day off work, then you need to find a new career.  If a restaurant owner employed six kitchen staff, all suffering from a mental illness, and each employee took half the week off sick, that person wouldn’t be in the restaurant business for long. The bank would send in the bailiffs and come Monday morning, there would be seven depressed people queueing at the unemployment office instead of six.

Cancer isn’t pleasant either, or AIDS, or spina bifida, or schizophrenia, or acne, or war, or racism, or homophobia.  The world isn’t fair, it’s full of life struggling to survive – from dogs to human beings to fish in the sea. A good person will hopefully want to fight injustice, but essentially, no-one owes us anything.  There are over seven billion people on the planet. SEVEN BILLION! And I bet my thumbs that not many of those seven billion live a perfect life. Every one of us has a list of problems, obstacles lined up like gravestones, vultures perched on telephone wires, shadows under our eyes from restless nights worrying about money, injustice, death.  Maybe one in three will get Cancer, and one in four might suffer mental health issues.

I was on a bus last week with three other passengers. One couldn’t walk without a crutch, one struggled with his vision, one sat at the back of the bus looking forlorn, running fingers through greasy hair – I could see the demons dancing in his eyes. We all suffer the consequences of being born.  Every one of us will know grief and pity and envy and will be a victim of someone else’s issues at some point in our lives. Because that’s what life is, a series of problems, of walls to scale, of paths to tread with backpacks full of lead, with black dogs snapping at our heels.

Naturally, even selfishly, I would like everyone to understand my daily plight.  It would certainly make life a little easier for me if everyone were able to empathise with my disorder.  Yes, I roll my eyes when I hear someone say that depression is all in your head! – Oh the irony! I try to educate people when they say, “Isn’t OCD that thing when you can’t stop vacuuming?” But I won’t be angry, because I don’t know much about Alpha 1-Antitrypsin Deficiency. Do you?

It’s another complication in a world of f**king problems. And ideally, everyone should know all there is about everything.  I understand that we have to continually educate ourselves and others, and constantly push forward with mental health awareness, but we shouldn’t be angry with those that don’t quite get it – let’s not vilify them like they’re the next Ted Bundy or Chairman Mao.  It may be ignorance, but there are a lot of things in this world that I’m ignorant of. I wouldn’t have been able to write a paragraph on OCD if I didn’t suffer so badly from it myself. Why would I? I don’t know much about cerebral palsy either, or world trade deficits, or basketball, or athlete’s foot.  If someone makes the comment, “I’m so OCD because I’m always rearranging my shoe closet,” then instead of screaming at them like you’ve stumbled across a dead body in the woods, educate them – politely – and don’t tie them to the railway track. When my own demon is thrashing on drums in my head, I couldn’t care less if a friend thinks he’s OCD because he can’t wear odd socks on weekdays.  He may not have OCD, but for sure, he’ll have other problems in his life. He might have a voice in his head telling him he’s the new messiah. He could be waiting for test results from the hospital, or owe twice his wages to his landlord, or have to visit a terminally ill relative at a hospice later in the day.  Why the hell would he be learning about OCD? If nothing bad is going on in someone’s life right now, be happy for them.

By all means, reveal your issues to people, but know they’ll have issues of their own. Punching and spitting won’t get the monkey off your back. It’s too easy to vent frustration at a soft target rather than the beast itself. If the scourge of the ocean is too cunning and strong, don’t take your frustration out on the sardines. “They don’t understand the trouble the Kraken causes us, I hate those f**king sardines! Let’s kill all the fish!”

Life isn’t easy.  Every person you pass on the street has their own circling crow.  It’s irritating but I refuse to judge those that don’t understand.  You can’t beat ignorance with hate. (Trust me, they’ll just hate you back.)  It’s love we need to load into our guns, or we’ll all suffer the consequences.

SCALDING CAULDRON: THE WITCH’S POT

OCD is like a hungry dog with a bone.  It’s just not letting go. And people telling me to ignore it doesn’t help.  Especially as it’s one of my f*cking bones.

“So what have you learned from all your travels, Yan?” I’ve been asked more than once.

‘That you can’t outrun a mental illness,’ is my instinctive answer.

“The world is getting smaller,” I say instead.  Or something along those lines.

“You’ve been to Ecuador, haven’t you? How was it?”

And my mind’s eye looks back several years…

I was riding on the roof of a train in Ecuador.  Although it sounds like something out of a Hollywood adventure film, it wasn’t.  The locals rode in the carriages, the tourists, me and thirty other backpackers, took the opportunity to sit on top, just because we could.  Besides, it was in the Lonely Planet, so…

The problem was that Crow was being a devil that morning.  Heavy, dark stuff, claws in bone-deep, a rusty spike driven into my eyeball like a stake through a vampire’s heart.  It had killed me on the spot.

We were packed onto the rooftop, nowhere for me to hide, sandwiched between four Irish girls sipping at plastic bottles from their day packs.  We joked while they knocked back vodka and whiskey and aguardiente. It was early, Crow was swearing in my head, and I was looking down the barrel of a five-hour journey with my new friends.  One of the girls offered me her canteen.

I can’t even remember what the intrusive thought was now, but Crow delivered his usual threats into my ear.  I couldn’t face the day like this.  But there was nowhere to run.

A well-used excuse flashed into my mind like an old friend showing up on my doorstep.

‘Long time no see,’ I thought, as a figure in a long black mac slipped past me with a wink and a nod of his head.

“Cheers,” I said, holding up my hand and rejecting the alcohol.  “But I had a late one last night and I’m suffering for it.”

And there went my day, bounding over the horizon with a skip and a leap.  It left behind a stinking present in a black plastic bag. I kicked it off the train roof.

I settled down, spread out on the metal roof, pretending to be hungover, closed my eyes and ruminated over a stupid thought as Ecuador sped past, whistling in my ears.  I glimpsed the Dragon’s Nose, or whatever mountain it was the train was headed for, between heavy eyelids and over the shoulder of giggling Irish girls.

“Yeah, Ecuador was fine,” I say.

But don’t look back in anger.

In fact, just don’t look back at all.

For me, looking back is like peering into a witch’s cauldron.  An old bony hand stirring the bubbling broth; disturbing the liquid until the memories and old thoughts, the rats’ tails and sheep’s eyes, bobble and turn on the surface – a renewed lease of life to haunt me all over again, a dead hand rising from the grave.  A wooden spoon whips the gloop into a swirling mess, like when I’m watching a TV show and one of the actors reminds me of a former factory supervisor.  A faint noise carries through the air, an almost inaudible squeaking of leather as a black-gloved finger applies pressure to a trigger – Crow the assassin on a grassy knoll.

I try to forget those bad days; it’s like tap-dancing in a minefield, limbs and shattered bones scattered on the grass as the Crimson Knight watches astride his braying horse, smoking a fat cigar and shouting, “‘tis but a flesh wound!”  I stuffed my supervisor into a cupboard, wedging a chair in front of the door, but my thoughts are active now…I’m a young Yan Baskets and Oasis are on the radio.  I remember all the time I wasted in bed, scratching the wallpaper, trying to squeeze giant crow-shaped thoughts into tiny square boxes, sweating beneath the bedsheets in the clothes that I was too lethargic to take off the previous night.  An old chicken burger festers in its greasy box, balanced on a chair stacked to the ceiling with dirty jeans and t-shirts. Whenever I heard my brother’s key in the front door, I’d jump out of bed, shuffle downstairs and pretend everything was normal, no problem, I haven’t been curled up in the fetus position all day. I ruined days like this and now I’m angry at myself and that awful crow.

I peer deeper into the cauldron…

Another turn of the spoon and I’m further back in time, memories focusing on those confused school years, dark concepts, like mangy wolves, howling inside my head as the teacher explained photosynthesis, sinister ideas turning over and over like knives in a spin-dryer.  Heart-pounding dilemmas that look silly now; why did I spend those lessons torturing myself over such ridiculous distortions of the truth?

I was told OCD sufferers rarely act on their ‘urges.’  But I remember as a child biting the hands off my toy soldiers, or nibbling on their plastic guns.  I’d hold a tiny figurine between thumb and finger, and Crow (although I didn’t know him as that in those days), would encourage me to chew and mutilate the head, or the rifle, or the trailing leg.  I’d do it too, and as my fears became more gruesome, I worried that I would carry out darker deeds that the crow whispered into my ear. I scribbled on drawings I was proud of, or scrunched up the paper into tiny balls, because my O C Demon said that I could, and when the fear or urges got violent I was terrified that I would act upon them, like I did the drawings, and I would remember biting the hands off my toy soldiers and think “what if I grabbed the knife and…”

Another peek into that stinking broth and a rotting fear resurfaces, hot liquid scalding my face.  I had a month of trouble with this particular spike in the bad ol’ days – paranoia burned a hole and left a scar.  But did I ever get it ‘sorted’ in my thoughts? Or did it slip through the net? Should I be worried again? Is it current in today’s market? I tic it away, and Little One asks me what I just said, quickly realising I was wrestling Crow and turning back to the TV.  She’s good like that.

I rarely look back, even on the good times, because bad things are always lurking nearby.  Writing this blog often nudges old fears to life, but in the long run, it helps.  Or it feels like it does.  It’s one of the only times I dare to reminisce.

Christmas is over and here we all are.  I suppose I’ll be on a plane again soon.  Of all the places I’ve been, because I tend not to look back, it sometimes feels like I’ve never been anywhere at all.  It’s a return to the drawing board I guess, sticking a pin in a map and all the rest of the cliches I regurgitate when people ask me where I’m going next.

I recline on the sofa, ignoring the television, losing myself in the cosmos as I distance myself from the figure on the grassy knoll.

I don’t look back; I don’t look forward, only sideways into space.

WORM-EATERS

When you’ve thrown up in a bucket because a three month long intrusive thought simply WILL NOT go away, advice like, “Just don’t think about it, you’re not trying hard enough,” becomes offensive and provocative, like lashings of a stick across a bare back.

It doesn’t matter what the thought is, violent or silly – (and some are a lot sillier than others), but the one thing they have in common is that they won’t go away.  Like a flickering ghost, it remains until you trick it into the light, or until the next fear squashes it underfoot – I imagine monsters falling off a conveyor belt.

Alcohol distorts it, usually for the worse – yes it can numb it, but it can also poke it in the eye and enrage it.  C*caine gives me false confidence, a cheap weapon to kill it, but it re-animates in the morning, because the sword wasn’t real, and suddenly I’m depressed again and plunging headfirst into a sinkhole, back to being useless.  It can also fuel it, like spraying oil on a fire. My heaviest indulgences in South America often flash back to haunt me – the times I slumped in dark corners, literally pulling my hair out, and once threw up against a wall in a Bogota hotel because my thoughts became twisting spikes in my stomach – dangerously active, like a troubled, twitching child sharpening razor blades.  I ruined friendships on that continent, all because I was embarrassed to tell those I was with why I was acting like a selfish dog. I don’t touch the stuff anymore.

Weed can calm me, certainly more than gin, but probably because it puts me to sleep, (and I’m already good at that).  It also interrupts my line of thinking, and although that can actually help, it likewise confuses me to a shambles. It offers its best advice at the end of the day, collapsed on my bed, transporting me to those other places.

When I first used LSD at sixteen years of age, (my second drug experience after alcohol), the trip hurled my problems into a washing machine, spinning them so fast they became an elongated blur, the buzz popping my perceptions like tinfoil in a microwave oven – I was lost in space, and that suited me just fine.  But the more acid I dropped, the darker my hallucinogenic experiences became. Visions of loved ones’ funerals were so gruesome and felt so real that I gasped for breath in bathrooms, while downstairs my friends skipped over rainbows. It felt like I was suffocating in a plastic bag. Those long misshapen evenings were so full of carnage it took me weeks to recover.  I was a puddle on the ground, a cigarette butt stamped into the floorboards. At nineteen I promised never to touch acid again. I’ve kept that promise.

So the drugs don’t work and there is no cure, and so succeeding with a tolerable life takes time and considerable amounts of effort.  (I’m not advocating drugs nor condemning them.) It’s a constant clash of steel on steel, fighting OCD on one flank and depression on the other. The horde is relentless, its number infinite, but to win a battle has its own particular rewards, and as I’ve mentioned before, sometimes I appreciate the quiet times with nothing more than a smile.  But it feels priceless.

We made it to Moldova; the journey in a crowded marshrutka was on slow roads through flat fields and small scattered villages, the horizon blotted out by a blanket of heavy fog.  Although I couldn’t see my surroundings further than the fence at the side of the road, I felt relatively good, happy to be on the move. But the crow is a worm-eater, and worm-eaters pick at the ground.  I was reminded of sour times, little jabs of false memories that I worried would turn out to be true.  Torn banners on old battlefields rustled on sudden gusts of wind – like a mischievous God was blowing them back to life; shadows of worlds I should have left behind, wars I’ve already lost but must fight again in a mind-wracking loop.  The ground may look dead and worthless, but there are worms rotating beneath that grey soil.  It doesn’t take much to pick them to the surface.

I imagined a great field behind the white fog.  Meek earthworms turning the soil, the vicious birds digging for their fill.  I realised I was the soil AND the sky, the flesh AND the feather – I am the wriggling worm, and I am Crow, the worm-eater.

Another fear rose up like a wave.

‘Oh, F*ck you, Yan, just don’t think about it. You’re not trying hard enough..’

The bus rolled on through squeaking gears, and I clambered off in Chisinau, an austere but interesting capital.

This was a new land, and I thought back to Ukraine with a wry smile.  We had located Little One’s Ukrainian family, and as we drank vodka and ate cake around the table with her Uncle and cousins, Crow pulled on a juicy worm – yet he did not get to eat it because I barked and he scattered like it was a blast from a shotgun.

We’d sat and watched the Opera in Lviv, and sometimes my eyes burned and it felt like I was chewing mud, but with gnashing teeth I managed to keep the crow at a tolerable distance, far enough away to enjoy the show.

I’d lumbered through some of these days with forced smiles, surviving ’til dusk, when the bottle caps flipped to the floor and my liquid intake aided in my recovery – just not an amount to poke the bull in the eye.  I’d also lashed out and fought the worm-eater, and gained both experience and pleasure among the detritus of battle. Like a video game villain, Crow the Usurper is king of the hill, but I’ve knocked him into the ropes for a few of those bloody rounds.  I’ve had interesting times in Eastern Europe; especially true of the land I rode out of today – so cheers to Ukraine and all who sail in her – (I’ll be back soon because I fly out of Lviv to Belarus). Until then, ‘do pobachennya.’

I’m in Moldova now, with Transnistria on the fog-strewn horizon.  Worm-eaters circle in drab skies, one in particular twitching like a starved jackal.  I form the barrel of a pretend gun with two fingers, aiming at those desperate red eyes. Another three minute round, Crow?

“One more for the road,” I think would be his reply.

Lying b*stard.  It’s never just one more…

DEVILS IN GAS MASKS

“Life can be odd,” said the man wiping a gob of yellow paint from his face.  “You can’t get angry, because rules are rules, and the rules state that the world is chaos, bubbling in a glass jar.”  Or something like that.

I had six years in a factory mixing paint and pouring it into plastic bottles.  I looked up to the older man who probably didn’t say this because inside I was a twitching wreck, and Uncle Jack (as I’ll call him) always appeared quite calm, even when the industrial machine puked its guts into his face.  (I later found out that he wore his own mask, and at home, he was a cantankerous old b*stard but…)

Odd that my happiest times this trip have been sandwiched between strangers inside a cramped bus on a rain-swept afternoon in Lviv, a tour through the Chernobyl disaster zone with its ghostly towns and villages, and an afternoon spent in a Ukrainian village cemetery counting headstones.  Previously, when my OCD was a gunship and my depression a black fog that trailed behind it, any reprieve was multiplied to such manic proportions that when it came, I went supernova, from a hobbled, twitching creature lurking in a corner to a soaring rocket man annoying the skies with thundering jet engines.  Imagine a tin of paint dropped from the top floor of a skyscraper. It explodes upon impact with the ground and tendrils stretch across the immediate world; a tree is splattered in orange paint, a shop window, a passing car. I wanted to be everywhere, and know everything and everyone. My parents would never see me like this, but when I was out and Crow free, my confidence conquered a square mile, running on pure adrenaline; a greyhound released on a coiled spring, tail wagging, tongue slapping over my shoulder.  Drink sometimes gave me the same reprieve, only on those occasions the fireworks were louder still, but with a greater price to pay.

These days when I’m free of Crow and his black umbrella, I’m content to celebrate with a deep breath of fresh air, tasting the day and chewing it over.  I’m not past mania, but now I’m a little afraid of where it can take me.

So we took a tour of Chernobyl, and the towns and villages the 1986 nuclear disaster had dragged into oblivion.  It was an interesting but rather bleak day. I was expecting it to be.  Drudging through the evacuated ghost town of Pripyat with the rest of the tour, I found myself lagging, and spent several minutes alone in a ruined room.  Water dripped from the flaking ceiling, a broken chair lay dislocated on the concrete floor beside a single brown shoe, and a gas mask, tactically placed by a tour guide no doubt, dangled eerily from a twisted hook.  Everything, from wet concrete walls to burned plastic dolls, looked dead. So grim and blighted were the surroundings that I anticipated a wave of depression to crush me against the cold floor. But no black tsunami came.

My demons nudged me with their crooked elbows, and breathing in the stale air, I decided to entertain them.  I looked into the smeared glass of a gas mask eye socket and imagined a long table in the reflection, piled high with food.  They were all there, eating pie and cake; the Crimson Knight, the symbol of my violent self-harm, devouring the apple crumble, stuffing it into his metal face-plate; the temptress Gorgon, my figure of fear and loathing, spilling beef broth down her filthy gown; Crow himself, Lord of the entire dance, didn’t even look up from his wooden bowl as he dropped hunks of wet meat into his glistening black beak.  A vast array of squabbling diners pecked and pawed at the food. It reminded me of a phrase I once wrote on a cardboard box, deep in a factory warehouse, many years ago.

‘Watch them, let them feast, but never join them at the table.’  I knew what I meant when I scribbled it in thick black marker pen, but only now did I see who it was slobbering over the juicy platter.  It was me, or at least the ghosts of me.

And so I watched them, I let them gorge on barbecued chicken wings and gigantic hocks of roasted ham, lips smacking, knocking over jeweled goblets of red wine.  But I never sat beside them. Never joined them in their gluttony. And I never will, because to join them is to give up and drop dead on the spot.

It was Chernobyl, I was expecting them here, everyone on the tour must have felt a personal demon poke a finger or two in their ribs.  But my demons were quieter than usual, content to share stories with each other across the cluttered table. Of course, I was dodging OCD spikes every few footsteps, but I could see them breaking through the floor, or protruding through walls like broken traps on an old Indiana Jones film set.  There were grey autumn clouds casting shadows across that ramshackle town, gnarled buildings like bloated behemoths setting the mood as lethargy thumped in my lungs and my nostrils were filled with the stench of things gone wrong.  I saw Devils in gas masks, so bleak and grey and damp to the bones – this should have been a great harvest for that bastard, Crow.

Maybe it’s the beautiful places that pull the trigger because Crow doesn’t want me to be happy, detecting a smile further away than a shark smells a severed artery.  Maybe it’s the colourful markets in Central America that tempt his malice – hiding in wooden crates of those succulent avocados, oranges and ripened bananas like a stowaway tarantula.  Crow likes to suck away the juicy insides until a damp husk is all that remains. When he leaves me a slice of fruit, it’s the most divine morsel of food I’ve ever tasted, or best film I’ve watched in years; the funniest show, the sweetest treat, the happiest hour of the entire month – and when he’s absent, even if I’m in a trench half filled with water, I remember it as a positive occasion.  Every minute I experience without OCD breaking my rationality, or depression suffocating me like a hangman’s hood thrown over my face, blows my mind every which way, just like that tin of paint dropped from the top floor of a skyscraper. 

It is the ruination of a spectacular day that hurts the most, I guess.  The rancid hut looms ominously, you already know not to sleep on the p*ss-stained mattress, the roaches are already on the wall, there is nothing that is going to jump out at you that you don’t already know about.  It is the five-star apartment you must check for bedbugs. Yes, Chernobyl was depressing, but it was meant to be, there were no surprises.

And today, in the cemetery beneath the gun smoke sky, searching for Little One’s Ukrainian family plot, there wasn’t a black feather in sight – but as mourners paid homage with flowers, it wasn’t the place for celebration.

Forget another trip to Asia or South America, I would have stayed in that graveyard forever if it promised infinite peace like this – and I suppose it will one day.

It’s an odd world indeed, Uncle Jack. An odd world indeed.

UTOPIA UNHINGED

It’s all a matter of perspective.  The glass is either half empty, half full, or bubbling over with hydrochloric acid, about to topple over into your lap.

The woods are beautiful from a distance, but woe betides those who venture inside its tangled mouth.  There are wolves lurking, and snakes slithering, and Screamin’ Jean, the witch who eats children, dancing naked in the thicket.  I’m travelling the world, Little One by my side, money in our pockets, adventure never further than a bus ride away – we’ve dived with sharks, boarded down active volcanoes, jumped out of airplanes, but even on those days, I was spinning in space, worrying over the ridiculous, unable to think about anything else.  Strange how I stared into the jaws of a Great White shark, only to be thinking about a five-year-old conversation with a former work colleague.

The ferry to Odessa was cancelled and so we flew instead.  I smiled because Crow had been heckling me over my inadequate swimming abilities.  “You swim like a giraffe. If the boat goes down, you’ll go down with her, and I’ll meet you at the bottom,” he promised.

“But I can’t fly either,” I said and chased him away with a flick of my plane ticket.

I’m grateful that I’m here, and I won’t sob in front of violins scratching out somber tunes, because I’m not yet flirting at death’s door in a hospice for the terminally ill, and I can saunter at my own pace, hands untied, across the plains quite freely.  I don’t know what my next meal will be but I know that it’s coming, and it’ll probably be Borscht soup.

I sit inside a great theatre, a sparkling chandelier sprinkling light upon a mesmerised crowd.  On the centre of the stage, a man with flowing white hair works a grand piano, fingers dancing fiercely upon the ivories, humbling the congregation with his melodic skills, making them useless as they fall in love again, slack-jawed and corkscrew-eyed, squirming like maggots in his hand.  But to some, his music becomes the trigger of a gun, and my thoughts spiral downward to the gutter and brown. I’ve taken a sideways step, a shimmy to my left, and suddenly he becomes a monster with rabies punching piano keys in a crumbling hall. Water splashes at my feet, and I’m dragged thirteen fathoms beneath the floorboards.  But man, could that guy play.

I was born into a loving family, in a small town in England, and never went without a meal, never got a smack across the back of the legs for messing around with things I shouldn’t, never sent to clean chimneys or break stones in child labour camps.  I had everything a young boy could ask for and more. I was a rabbit gifted a field of carrots – no predator for a hundred acres.

It’s the angle you look at things I guess, and I promise that I try as hard as I can to see the positive in things, it’s just that I see the negative too – and it’s impossible to get the ink out of the water once it’s been tainted.

And sometimes things ARE pretty sh*t.  From a distance, a village looks quaint in the cleavage of a green valley.  It isn’t until you get up close and enter a house, that you open the cupboard door and the handle falls off in your hand.  You put your ear to the wall and realise there are insects scuttling behind the plasterboard, maybe the river that runs through the centre of town is riddled with parasites, and squinting your eyes you see a dead man swinging from a noose beneath the bridge that spans it.  I’m well aware there are worse places, far more dangerous and much filthier, with bloodier eyes to look through, but I can only describe what I see through mine.

Yet I know that I am lucky.  I’m not scrambling five miles across cracked, sun-bleached earth for drinking-water, and although I left school early, without furthering my education, I still learned how to read and write.  I was never molested by a drunk uncle or beaten in a filthy room by the secret police. I couldn’t have been further from poverty or famine or war-torn lands. I always had shade from the sun and shelter from the pouring rain, and I grimace when I think of those poor souls unfortunate enough to find themselves in such dire predicaments while at the same time suffering from a mental illness. It must be the ground floor of hell, the boiler room in the devil’s basement – I shudder just trying to imagine it. What would Crow have left of me if I had been abused and fed such scraps? I glow red with guilt at the ease with which I buy bread and consume fresh water, yet complain that I’m not happy. But a basket full of bread doesn’t make that manic crow fly any higher, fails to silence his shrieking threats of violence and paranoia.  I still get depressed and have harmful thoughts and worry when I hear certain words, and succumb to false memories and tic and obsess and feel compelled to ritualise and imagine the blinding white light that cures all – and everything else just as ridiculous that my sense struggles to convince my brain to be harmless and untrue.

But however much I moan and slump and drift in ashes, please don’t ever think I don’t know how lucky I am.  I appreciate the love I’ve been given, the amount of precious time certain people have invested in me, and the helping hands that have pulled me up mountains.

Punch

I didn’t see the punch, I just felt a jolt and then I was inside a cavernous dome, ears ringing, head cut off from the rest of my body.  Or maybe my head was in a fish-tank, water rushing into my ears, eyes blinking, vision blurring; was that a goldfish swimming past me? I distinctly remember swaying, as my body caught up with the power of the right cross, and then I was on the floor, blood spilling down my chin.

That was over fifteen years ago, inebriated after a night out, when the fiend inside had exploded out of my skin – a clenched fist through wet paper.  I’d spent all day ruminating on a single intrusive thought, and then I’d drank the evening into oblivion, gaining brief respite as I drowned the crow in a barrel of beer, topped with vodka chasers and cheap red wine.  In the fresh air, on my way home, like many drunken revellers, I began to contemplate my life story and, feeling melancholy, angry with the direction it was heading, bitterly savage with my OCD, I lost my reason in a sea of red-mist.  Hatred stirred in my belly and my mask slipped. The rotting, self-loathing Yan Baskets kicked the gormless, joking fool I always pretended to be over the railings.

My demons had control, and I was resentful and screaming and deserved that hammer punch, and many more besides.  As the man whose fist had split my bottom lip in two calmly walked away, I remember hauling myself to my feet while complimenting him on such a perfectly delivered right-hand cross.  I knew I’d been an arsehole; my frustrations at wasting another day, ruminating my life away, had broken through the surface of the water and smashed into the hull of an iron battleship.  I relearned the same valuable lesson for the thousandth time, (which I’d forgotten by morning light) – mental illness and copious amounts of alcohol don’t mix; someone’s always going to get hurt, and thankfully it was usually me.

My OCD is not the world’s problem, it’s mine, and I never could fight but I could certainly get hit, and did, and got black eyes and bloody lips and bruised ribs and worse of all, a damaged ego as I faced certain individuals the following day.

I still beat myself up inside, every day, fantasizing crude weapons are smashing into my body parts – like recently, on a bus travelling through Georgia.  I was looking out of the window as we pulled out of Gori, Joseph Stalin’s home town. Without provocation a three-year-old spike pierced my thoughts, terror curling in my stomach like a finger round a trigger; I grew hot, I worried unnecessarily, fear, sorrow, and bitterness splashing inside me like eels in a bucket.

But I smiled at the old woman beside me, I thanked the man in the seat in front when he bought me a cold cola, laughed like a hysterical hyena at a shitty joke when all I wanted to do was scream so loud that it burst my eardrums.  I imagined shattering the bus windows, from the back row to the windshield, as I shrieked like a banshee who’d stubbed her gangrened toe on a rock – I watched in my minds-eye as the passengers were drenched in tiny glass fragments, Luciano Pavarotti singing the Marriage of Figaro as they dived for cover in classic Hollywood style slow motion, and a knight in crimson armour, with a red crow emblazoned on his shield, materialized into existence beside me, clobbering a heavy mace across the back of my head with all his might.  Frustration yelled its name in my face but I waved at the young boy peering over his seat like my only thoughts were flowers blowing in the breeze.

I’ve been told to wear my heart on my sleeve; to be honest and open about my illness but I really don’t think the passengers on that bus wanted to see me cry.  It would have been an awkward experience for us all. So I kept my fears within – drove them to swampland, buried them in the mire as deep as I could, and painted my face with a beaming smile like a f**king LSD rainbow whenever someone looked my way.

No doubt, many on the fringe who think they know me imagine I’m having a great time out here; carefree and effervescent, a million miles from harmful thoughts and bouts of depression.  And of course, I do enjoy myself, even without having to get drunk like when I first went away, staring at the bottom of a shot glass until Crow was blind and staggering and harmless, at least until the music stopped and I began to think of what he was doing to me – then, of course, the fiend inside popped its head over the fence and usually met with a flying fist.  But even now it’s certainly no bunch of roses, and if life IS a box of chocolates, there are a lot of praline truffles in there. And praline truffles make me gag.

Note to mum and dad:  My OCD remains debilitating, but believe me, looking at it relatively, these days it’s not like it was – in comparison, it’s like having a runny nose instead of pneumonia – snot on my sleeve instead of phlegm in my lungs.

More importantly, I’m out of the factories and running, something I’d never have thought possible all those years ago.