SIX YEARS

Norfolk trundles past the window – a combine harvester, a tractor pulling a trailer, a car towing a caravan.  East Sussex, just another memory stuffed into a box. I’m back home, cooling myself with a cold beer, deciding where I can run away next, when a young couple walking their dog prods a memory deep in my subconscious – a fractured image from another time, another life.  Something inside me snaps…An event I feared would happen but never did, that I tried to bury in compulsive thoughts a long long time ago. I imagine a revolver aimed at the back of my head – the crow’s feathers curl around the trigger and…

BOOM!  My limbs feel heavy, the chemical elements in my bones reconstructing, transformed to a base metal, stomach curdling like it’s full of milk and sugar, spoiled and tight.  My skin is hot, perspiration trickling from my scalp, feels like someone’s squeezed a bag of sand into my skull. I want to gulp down a glass of cold water but my energy is sapping and I’m suddenly too lethargic to drag myself to the kitchen sink.

“Just don’t think about it.  It’ll go away…” says a hazy figure from my past.  It’s Uncle Jack, my former colleague from the factories.

But it doesn’t go away does it – it hasn’t yet anyway.  I’m still obsessing about it. Still slowly sinking into the sand.

The past is a jigsaw puzzle.  OCD stomps onto the pieces, smashing them into all the wrong places – anything could have happened!  Was it this or was it that instead? I’m confused and shaking, trying to empty my head from six-year-old ruminations.

I watch TV feeling queasy.  Prepare my lunch with a tightness in my belly.  Go to bed regurgitating events from all those years ago.  Wake up waiting for the horn of the rhinoceros to pierce the horizon – a stampede of OCD and other animals spewing dust in their trail like cartoon juggernauts galloping across a plain.  No escape, just a few seconds before the realisation hits. THWACK! I’m back on the sofa, pondering, contemplating, constantly f**king thinking.

Shopping for groceries now.  Head looking down at the tiled floor, a burning sensation in my stomach like I’ve swallowed a shot of mustard.

So what if I’m going to die tomorrow…

So what if my greatest fears come true…

So what if this happens, or that happens…

So what, so what, so what…

“It’ll ruin your life, that’s what!” screams Crow.

You’ve already ruined it!

I imagine a heavy axe cutting me in half and half again; picture putting my fists through the freezer doors; envision a bullet blowing the back of my head off in aisle three, beside the breakfast cereals and the jars of peanut butter.  The Crimson Knight rears his stead in the corridors of my mind, Crow lands on top of my head and digs his claws into my scalp. “You’ve got liver disease, dementia, smallpox, and bubonic plague. Little One is leaving you for the milkman or maybe the man who collects trolleys in the supermarket car park.  Everybody you love is going to die next week. F**k it, a man who thinks you sh*gged his wife has hired a nazi hitman to skin you alive!!!” It’s an overdose of fantastic, horrific possibilities.

Over my shoulder, a middle-aged woman asks if she can grab a box of cornflakes.  Moving out of the way my skin prickles like it’s burning under a noon sun. It was six years ago!  I didn’t know what happened then, what chance have I got now?

“I’m sorry,” I say to the woman.  “I was miles away.”

“Just don’t think about it,” repeats Uncle Jack, sipping coffee from a plastic cup.

Easy for him to say.  I fantasize dragging him out from my head, spewing my thoughts into his face.  Full-on Linda Blair – The Exorcist in stereo! Let’s see how easy YOU deal with it!  Imagine if you broke your arm and I said, “Toughen up, just don’t think about it!” And don’t bother saying that it’s only OCD.  Tell that to the girl pulling out her hair, or the boy slicing lines into his skin.

The paradox is, I’m so much better than I was – than I’ve ever been…

A city burns in black flames as I crawl into bed.

Let’s hope tomorrow will be a better day.

Crow smirks on my pillow and tells me that he doubts that very much.

I close my eyes and travel back in time six years…

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SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY

I struggled to get to sleep last night.  Nothing too unusual there. My mind was on its knees, crawling in the gutter, looking for trouble.  I tried to keep it busy with other thoughts, but all I got was a line of embarrassing memories queuing for my attention – recollections of school traumas; stupid ten-year-old conversations from when I worked in the factories; a surge of random, shameful, embarrassing actions from the last thirty years of my life.  Squadrons of fighter jets blackened my skies. I shot some down with reason. Others flew around in loops. I should have poured another shot of whiskey, but I can’t rely on drugs and booze to send me to sleep. Not every night.

Those embarrassing memories swiftly turned to darker notions.

Crow, my OCD in stereo, tried to tell me that war with Iran or North Korea was inevitable.  He told me we had a year left at the very most.

Would that be such a bad thing, Crow?

North Korea, huh?  I remembered my time in South Korea, and a trip to the Demilitarised Zone and the Joint Security Area.  At the JSA, a simple concrete strip was all there was of a demarcation line between North and South. We were able to cross it while inside one of the famous blue huts, a building where generals from both armies continue to meet, bickering and picking at each others’ ideologies under the looming threat of radioactive mushroom clouds.

We signed a disclaimer before we were allowed into bullet range – given strict orders of what we could and couldn’t do.  No pointing at the North Korean guard in the big hat, no taking the piss, only very specific places to take photographs, and DO NOT cross that line outside of the big blue hut.

“Or you won’t be coming back,” said the American soldier in thick black sunglasses.

Back outside, and standing before the concrete line, Crow wanted me to leap across, run at the North Korean Guard the U.S soldiers had nicknamed Bob. I imagined being manhandled into the tall grey building opposite, angry North Korean soldiers pointing guns in my face.  Crow turned his attention to Little One.

“Push her across,” he said and, in my mind, I shoved my girlfriend into North Korean territory.  An image of Little One being escorted to a labour camp haunted my thoughts. In fact, the entire tour was interrupted by intrusive thoughts of how I could start an international incident.

“You could start World War Three!!” squawked Crow, snapping at my face.  OCD had taken the potential for a good day and drowned it in a bath of uranium.  Kim Jong-un would kill for that stuff, and does – allegedly…

 

An elbow nudged me gently in the ribs – I’d been making noises in my quest for sleep.  Little One asked if I was OK.

I pushed the thoughts away.  Turned onto my side and tried to think of the latest football results.

“What are the first signs of Cancer…?”

Fuck off, Crow.

“Who will be the next person to die that you love?”

I’m not playing this game.

“If it’s you, how will your family take the news?”

They’d cope.  We’re all going to die, anyway.

“Who does Little One want to f**k in your bed?”

Really, Crow?

“You’ll soon be leaving East Sussex.  Do you know how many people think you’re a waste of space in your hometown?”

They don’t know my situation.

“Doesn’t matter, all that matters is they think you’re a loser.”

I am a loser.

My home town festival was on last week.  I’m still house-sitting but I could have gone home for the weekend.  Unfortunately, my OCD has been working overtime lately, putting doubts into my head whenever I think of returning to Norfolk.  But deep down do I really care what people think? He changed tack again…

“You could throw boiling coffee in Little One’s face.”

Or I could choose not too.

“Bad things are coming.  Think of that blinding light and I’ll go away and let you sleep.”

I balled my fists and pictured a black space instead, but felt guilty that someone might die because of it.  I flashed white across my mind. Miraculously, it worked first time and Crow flew off to watch me from his perch in Hell.  I turned over with a sigh of relief, but couldn’t help thinking that with all my previous tossing and turning, I’d already lost the battle.

But I woke up this morning, which meant that I must have slept.

“Good morning, world,”  I stretched and yawned. Could have done with an extra hour in bed, and that’s why I have a whiskey nightcap or smoke a joint in the garden before I turn in – it puts me to sleep before the Devil slips between the sheets.

As always, from the moment I woke, negative thoughts spilled into my mind, congregating like safari animals around a watering hole.  I sat and watched the Springboks. They looked harmless enough, but Crow is the hunter in the silly hat, shooting beasts and dragging them back to camp for detailed dissection.

I toyed with rummaging through my old box of medication.  I’ve kept it for a while. The meds are out of date but I was tempted to swallow some anyway.  They lose power over time, so what’s the worst that could happen? They don’t work as they should?  I only need a little bit of respite. On full med power, I can’t operate an electric toothbrush, and I don’t want to go there again.  Daytime TV from the sofa – so many recipes, beauty tips and breakfast cereal commercials. Not a great way to go – drowning in a bathtub of uranium is much more rock ‘n roll!

Today, I decided against the out of date medication, although a full litre bottle of whiskey sits on the kitchen worktop.

Tonight, I’m going to sleep like a lion.

BIRD BONES

That was a tough week.  I’ve not stared at walls like that for over ten years.  I thought I’d worn a hole in the brickwork.

“What the hell am I doing?” I asked myself as I twiddled my hair.  But I didn’t panic, because staring at the wall and pulling out my hair is what I do best.  The usual behaviour of a person lost in thought. Yielding to the ridiculous is standard practice.  It would be odd NOT to stare at the paintwork.

I know I’ve asked this question a thousand times, but how much of me has been shaped by OCD? Eighty, ninety percent?  If I stuck a hand down my throat and pulled out Crow, wrung his neck and threw him on the fire, what would be left of me?  Who is Yan Baskets? It would be like separating conjoined twins with a laser beam. The siblings would become ‘other’ people, maybe not better, but certainly different.  Like having a coffee with a version of yourself who’d been living on the other side of the world for the last twenty years. The difference would be more than an exotic accent.  I imagine what it would be like to go to the bathroom without the Gorgon spitting at me in the mirror. To wake up and not roll over onto a horses head. No, definitely not just the accent.

I was talking to Little One yesterday.  My OCD had sent me spiralling into a puddle of despair, obsessing on the ridiculous, ritualising in my head – a thousand convulsing shaman dancing around a fire.  I referred to Crow, said he’d been particularly savage lately. Little One said she wished he’d fly away and die. I agreed but knew that it wouldn’t happen. That it couldn’t happen.  He isn’t a monkey on my back that I can chase off but rather a parasite in my blood. He is part of me – a section of my brain, an extra bone in my body. If I could remove him, I would, but it would be like cutting out a portion of ‘me’.  What would be torn out with him? What would grow in his place?

“He’s not going anywhere,” I conceded.  He’s been with me far too long. We opened our eyes simultaneously at the beginning, only he went back to sleep for eight or nine years.

Crow is part of me, but I am ALL of Crow.  I am the Crimson Knight and the Gorgon snarling in the mirror is my own reflection – it was my hand that held the razor blade, and the snakeskin on the pillow came from my own head.  It’s been easy for me to give them faces, but essentially, they look identical and answer to the same name. Yan Baskets, pleased to meet you.

Bird bones or not, our house-sitting assignment will one day come to an end.  We’ve been discussing what to do next. We talked of leaving the U.K again, but where would we go?  I’m sick of feeling ill in strange places. Sweating in a heap in a corner of a room in Kathmandu or staring at the grass in a park in Moscow.  I’m getting too old for nervous breakdowns on foreign soil. But what else for me is there? I flashback to the breakdown I had in Mauritania, in a tent deep in the Sahara Desert.  It was a camel that was the straw that broke its own back – snapped like vertebrae in a vice. Little One didn’t know what to do with me. She told me later that she’d panicked and was close to a meltdown herself – I felt sick with remorse.  She’s watched me break a million times, and whenever I put myself in her shoes, I feel insects wriggling in my stomach at what she must see.

“But I like the worms,” states Crow.  And he sounds exactly like me. Because he is me.

Forget travelling, for the time being, I owe her some security.

But should we rent a house or buy a caravan?

No idea.

“You’ve got to do something, mate,” someone not long ago said to me.  “You’re not getting any younger.” Would they say that if I had a physical illness?  Something they could see. I very much doubt it. I know I said that I don’t want sympathy – I know people don’t understand all the details of my issues, but it’s frustrating when somebody you’ve known all your life appears to forget that you actually have a chronic illness.  Would they forget my ailments if I were on crutches? Maybe I should wear a black bag on my head, or a bell around my neck.

“Yan loves to travel.  He just left one day and never looked back.”  Are you kidding me? Never looked back? My neck is forever craned over my shoulder, fixating on where I went wrong.  Surely they mean never looked forward?

Somebody else now.  “I bet you can’t wait to get away again, Yan.”

I don’t think about it until I’m on the plane.  I have almost no plan when I board that aircraft.  Never had an itinerary in my life.

It’s taken me sixteen years to admit to myself that I’m not as interested in travelling as I pretended that I was.  It was just a means of escape. It gave me an excuse to be a real person in the real world.

“Look, everyone, I’m not wasting away in a paint factory.  I’m riding a bus through Bolivia!” Pathetic really. But at least it got me out.

A Fear Not An Urge

OCD is not just washing your hands.

OCD is ruminating on all the ways you can die.  All the ways you can kill your family.

OCD is not just protecting yourself from germs.

OCD is doubting your own sanity.  Losing yourself in the darkest corridors of your mind.

OCD is not just arranging the ornaments on the shelf.

OCD is living alongside your greatest fears.  The key to room 101.

 

I am caught in a tangle of loops.  The most recent was envisioning the humiliation of someone I dearly love.  I’m an OCD veteran, and I should have put up a better fight, yet no matter how hard I tried, I just could not leave that terrible circle.  That f*cking abhorrent loop.

I’m back house-sitting in East Sussex and it’s good here, but good things attract the OCD sharks – bad thoughts are insects, good times are a candle in the dark; pleasure is a magnet pulling metal teeth.

I listened to the lies and slander, the cawing of the crow.  I wasted my time ruminating; obsessing; throwing myself against walls.  I was hopelessly distressed, performing countless rituals in my head – I had fallen into the familiar trap and was trying to climb out the usual way.  I had temporarily accepted the twisted reasoning that if I thought about it, I must obviously want to go through with it.  I had forgotten my own mantra – that it’s a fear, not an urge.

My stomach was in knots.  I was spiralling toward catatonia.  Then I got lucky with a mental compulsion, the ‘feeling’ snapping into place, and I managed to pull myself out.  I was thankful for my lucky break, yet disappointed that I had returned to such a gaping abyss. Smaller, bothersome thoughts continued to buzz around my brain – they’re always there – and that night I stared into the mirror, reminding myself that I would never be free of this suffering.  It’s true that I’ve known this for a long time but there is only so much I can do to prepare.

“Indeed, Yan,” says the crow.  “A fireproof jacket won’t save you when you fall into the mouth of the volcano.”

The triggers are out there, landmines on every road, in every possible direction, waiting for my footfall like exploding snakes sleeping in the grass.  Immobilising me for the day, maybe two, longer if the thought resonates – digs deep.  I flashback to the bad old days, cringing at my slumped body on a messy bed, ritualising until I collapsed into a deep sleep.  Those spikes were long, stretching into the sky for a hundred miles. The crow was a Tyrannosaurus Rex with wings, swallowing months of my life with every bite.

It isn’t always violent images or gloomy pessimism, fear of deadly diseases or paranoia with Little One.  Sometimes it can be the power of words, the fear of saying hurtful things to someone close to my heart or a stranger in the street. How easy it would be to open my mouth and utter such hateful comments – poison dripping from my lips like yellow ooze.  We have the power to ruin someone’s day so easily and I find it terrifying that the people we love are undeniably more exposed. I imagine familiar eyes glazed with tears as noxious words fly from my mouth like fighter jets.  “How could you say those things, Yan?”  Like a surprise punch to the stomach from your grandad.

Recently, as one particularly nasty thought subsided, I thought that maybe I should tell the person beside me how close I was to spitting vile words into their face?  Prepare them for future offensives.  If so, should I warn everyone I love about the sickening comments I often think to shout? Tell them that if I ever open up with a barrage of oral abuse, don’t worry, I don’t actually mean it.  Should I Inform them all of the finer details of my OCD?

Maybe I should come clean, hand them the binoculars and point them to the crow in the sky.

I had a meltdown during my last week in Spain.  I was spinning in a loop, tired and frustrated, getting nowhere but back to the beginning.  I lost an evening but thought I’d seized the next morning until something failed to click into place and I broke again.  Little One hadn’t deserved what she’d witnessed the previous evening, and that morning, as we returned from feeding the pig, I lost control again and ended up running from the car into the wilderness, screaming as I fled.  The attack didn’t last long, and I managed to pull myself together, but I was ashamed that I’d entertained Crow like that, inviting him into the kitchen, serving him flesh from my own thigh. My head hung low as I returned to the house.  I was full of apologies and self-hate, a red face glowing like the dawn sun.

I’d been doing so well.

Crippled with anxiety the rolling hills had been nothing but a smear on the window.  If England had won the world cup, or I had won the lottery, if aliens introduced themselves on live TV, it wouldn’t have mattered.  My eyes were looking inward, focused on the insects scuttering inside, laying eggs on my brain. It could have rained diamonds and I wouldn’t have wanted to know.

Every day Crow whispers murder in my ear.  But the day I realised it was fear and not an urge was a giant leap in the right direction.  Crow doesn’t want me to be happy, so focuses on situations that I dread the most. Many people get these thoughts – OCD sufferers struggle to shake them off.  One of my first fears was to bite the ends off the guns of my plastic toy soldiers. Of course, this was never a matter of life or death or any great horror, so I would do it, and spit the bits of plastic into the bin.  When the fears became much darker, I’d say to myself, “No way, Yan, I’m not doing that…it’ll kill me, or him, or her.”

“But you ruined your toy soldiers,” came the voice from within.  “And if you did that, then you’ll do this. Go on, Yan, kick her in the shins.  Imagine the expression on your Grandmother’s face when she realises you’re not going to stop?”

I wouldn’t be able to think of anything else.

The only way to get the image out of my head was to mentally ritualise, to think about every bone-crunching blow.  It could take days, weeks if it was a deep spike, obsessing over the same gruesome action until I thought I could smell the violence in the room.  I use this tactic today, but if the horror is not out of my head after a few minutes, I’ll focus on the consequences. What would happen after the event?

I answer as truthfully as I can.  “He or she would die horribly, and I would go to jail, or kill myself.”  I picture myself plunging off a cliff, and continue with my day. Unfortunately, when I think that I’ve got an incurable illness, or that someone wants to do me harm, or a myriad of similar delusions, I cannot turn my back so easily, and it may take weeks to distance myself from the obsession.  I keep telling myself what it is, an obsessional thought and hope that a relevant part of me listens, or that other tactics reinforce my struggling rationality.

Another way I fight the fear is to try to come to terms with death.  Seeking to accept the fact that I’m going to die, and so is everybody else in the world.  Some peacefully, others more brutally – annihilation is inevitable, there’s nothing anyone can do to prevent it.  Certainly, I still fear death, but not as much as I once did. I recall performing countless rituals attempting to keep my loved ones alive.  But people continued to die, because tapping my forehead while mumbling a mantra doesn’t stall the Reaper, even for a second. My rituals never saved a single soul, but certainly killed many hours.

Routines I performed over the years to stop cancer or AIDS varied from imagining blinding white lights to drumming my fingers on my forehead to walking back and forth through doorways.  But nobody lives forever, and coming to terms with this indisputable fact was beneficial in my fight against OCD. Five hundred years ago, my chances of dying were a lot larger than today.  Smallpox; malnutrition; butchered by a warrior’s axe fighting a barbaric war across Europe. Death by Cholera at thirty-one? Not me. I was drinking rum in Ecuador with new friends from around the world.  I was lucky, I was born in an affluent country in affluent times. But nothing lasts forever.

Admittedly, the fears or spikes seem infinite, falling from above like acid rain, or rising from the ground like hands of the undead.  But, as I’ve said before, acknowledging this can sometimes have a positive impact on my life. Occasionally, the number of intrusive thoughts vibrating in my head becomes so great that the tooth factory spewing out all the negativity shuts down – somebody presses the ‘stop’ button and suddenly I’m in the eye of the storm, three cows and a tractor spiraling about me.

“There are just too many thoughts; this is ridiculous,” says the line manager, and throws his spreadsheets on the floor, hurls his spanner into the guts of the machine.  In a way, I’ve created OCD walls that actually protect me.

I suppose in this blog post I’m trying to reaffirm to people that I’m not dangerous or lazy, incompetent or a waste of space.  Yes, physically I may be staring at the wall, but mentally I’m wrestling a fucking Grizzly Bear. But it’s a fear not an urge – although no easier to negotiate.  Fighting bears is demanding, and although OCD doesn’t define me, it has certainly led me to this field in England.

 

OCD is not just looking for patterns, doing things in threes.

OCD is a constant battering of the senses.  Encouraging you to f*ck everything up.

OCD is not just checking that the front door is locked.

OCD is the worm that burrows deep into your bones.  An unscratched itch in the back of your eye. Ceaseless in its pettiness.  Cruel in its intentions.

OCD is never “JUST” OCD.

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…

The Chicken and the Crow

Moldova, Transnistria, and Belarus have flashed past my window like car headlights, fierce and bright and then nothing as my eyes refocus on where I am today.

I woke up at home this morning with the last three months in Eastern Europe twitching like roadkill in my rear-view mirror.  Before me is an ominous fog. My future, all our futures, are behind that swirling cloud.

In my worst days, I feel like I’m constantly falling.  A conversation is lost as I tumble towards a mouth in the ground – that gaping maw sucks me down as spoken words fade to whispers a thousand feet above me; thoughts dropping out of my pockets and flapping about in the turbulent flurry.  I get tired. I could sleep for a decade. And as I spin head-over-heels, or plummet in a graceless belly-flop, or spiral like a broken rocket ship closer to the ground, another important ingredient tears off of me, tossed into the roaring wind, spinning away into the rushing oblivion.

I lost my confidence in Moldova.

My confidence is a complicated creature.  It can’t make its mind up. It either fires me out of a cannon, high into the sky or leaves me in the middle of the ocean, stranded on a plank of wood, drifting towards the edge of the world.  When it circles around me like a guardian lion, tail swishing against my legs, I think it’s going to keep me company forever – but my confidence is actually a cocky pigeon dressed in dragon scales, and it’s never a permanent feature.  (Like a friend popping round for a cup of tea).

Negotiating foreign lands; pretending not to be afraid of the drunken group of Georgian lads stumbling behind me on the street at midnight; negotiating an escape route out of a South African Shebeen after being attacked with a glass bottle; it all requires confidence, and even when I’m faking it, I remember its scent, what it feels like, and I emulate it until I’m away from compromising predicaments.  But when confidence flees on a horse, bolting for the woods, leaving a trail of yellow smoke swirling in its wake, it takes with it all of its tastes and smells – its essence scattered in horse-shit in the direction of those trees.

I had nothing to give these last two weeks, avoiding all confrontation like the world had herpes.  The crow was his usual charming self, pecking and scratching and cawing in my face but he wasn’t any worse than previous visits.  My confidence simply decided to run off and have a holiday, take the next bus out of town, stranding me at the station.

I’ve been a knight without a sword and shield.  Vulnerable in a field as my horse dragged my banner through the mire – ‘I might as well be naked,’ I remember thinking recently, on more than one occasion.

“Cowardice is a chicken dipped in yellow paint,” is something Uncle Jack might have said.  And I feel like the chicken I watched being sacrificed in a church on the outskirts of San Cristobal, Mexico – helpless, occasionally struggling against the old woman’s bony hands.  She snapped its neck, and I switched my eye-line to the straw-covered stone-floor. It’s what they do there, and I had gone to watch it happen, in that strange church in Mexico. I have been that chicken these last few days, meek in my voice and posture.  I felt my own neck could have easily been snapped by the old woman in a blue dress on that cold church floor.

I’m seeing friends and family now.  I must not complain. There are seeds of dread in my stomach but I could be dying alone at the foot of a mountain.  Or starving in a field. Or freezing in a cardboard box under a bridge in a wet city. It’s all OK. My family and good friends are here – although a crow with red eyes is pecking at the mistletoe…

Merry Christmas one and all, happy holidays, joy and all that stuff, not just in this season of goodwill, but always and forever…

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.

Georgia On My Mind..

Georgia is an interesting place.  On my first day I was glared at by a bus driver like he wanted to tear my arms off, then plied with homemade Chacha by staff at a military museum.  One moment we’re being shoved aside on the Tbilisi metro, the next, gifted free wine and food until our stomachs threaten to explode at a ramshackle hostel that’s barely standing up; knocking back shots of vodka with new friends, or being totally ignored by shawarma street vendors as they look right through me into Wednesday next week.  It can be as rough as sandpaper, its skin still scarred by the Soviet hammer and sickle, or a cushion of cool mountain air – a beautiful face smiling across a crowded room.

It’s been interesting…we’ve only had five days in its 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 that bastard crow into a hole today and he’s not come out of it. (Basically, I’ve ruminated all day on the inane, then fought free of the fear and now I’m pumped and awake and want to be standing in broad daylight gazing at the Flame Towers dominating 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. Lewis Hamilton left behind at the lights.

Georgia is on my mind – but in a good way, not stuck on a loop on the ruminating highway.  Georgia has a thousand adventures to offer, and if I’m mentally able, I hope to sample a few of them when we return from Azerbaijan.  We meet our friend from France back in Tbilisi early in October and he’ll want to hike, so I’ll need the clearest mind 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.