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.

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The Lip of the Void

I think I’ve started to enjoy being awake more than being asleep for the first time in my life.  I’m not one hundred percent sure but I’ll take this ambiguity over the certainty that I’d prefer to spend my time unconscious under a duvet – although I’m still fiercely bitter that intrusive thoughts and the knock-on effects destroyed my lust for life, and crushed all my experiences in it.  I remind myself how OCD is misrepresented in the media and shake a fist to the sky. Depression and anxiety too. No doubt every aspect of mental health. I wish certain people could have seen me standing at the edge of that black void.

It’s still there, with three stooped figures sitting on the verge of that empty pit, inviting me to join them with ill-fated, twitching gestures.  These days I smile at their pathetic attempts to draw me in – like three bloated sirens tempting sailors into the swirling currents with nothing but their toothy grins.  My waking hours are still difficult. But manageable.

A few days ago, driving down the narrow country lane that connects the house to the main road, Little One had to hit the brakes to avoid a herd of deer that emerged from the bushes.  They bounded across the road, scrambling up the opposite embankment – all except one, who struggled to climb the wooded slope. The toiling deer panicked, opting instead for the easier route up the winding road.  She retreated around the corner. As we crawled down the lane, Little One came to another abrupt stop as the deer reappeared, hurtling towards the front of our car. A dog – husky looking and fierce – was giving chase.  There ensued a wild waltz of scampering hooves and twisting bodies. We observed the macabre ballet from the car, and when the impromptu hunt took the animals back up the country lane, we continued our journey to town. As we rounded the bend we saw that the dance was reaching its bloody climax.

Again, we drew the car to a halt, watching the dog pin the deer to the ground by its throat.  It was a savage moment, and if I ever needed reminding of the brutality of life, this would do it.  Little One blasted the car horn, the startled dog ceasing it’s assault long enough for the apologetic owner to catch up, puffing and panting, and drag the canine, jaws salivating, from the doomed animal.  I went away thinking about how lucky I was that I wasn’t that deer. The blessing soon replaced with a profound sadness that an animal had been mauled close to death in front of me.

At that moment, somewhere in the world, someone fell awkwardly and broke their neck.  I didn’t see it, but averages tell me that it happened. That people fall and break their necks every day.  I know I shouldn’t have dwelled on it – but I did. My head was full of images of a dead deer and a dying man at the foot of the stairs.  Why can’t I think of rainbows over rolling meadows? I mused. Another question spawned in my mind.

Is life worth this misery?

Life is certainly tough, and I can leave at any moment, but it would be my final full stop, so why go now?

To kill a crow?

He can wait.

To stop the bad thoughts shredding my mind?

As I’ve just said, it can be the time of my choosing – and I don’t want to miss anything while I’m still able to function.

I turned up the car stereo.

Onto brighter skies, and we spent an afternoon at the local pub.  We arrived at happy hour and the local ale calmed my nerves – we had a great time.  Yes, OCD knocked, but I didn’t let it in. In the bathroom mirror, I noticed the gorgon wiggling her hips and leering, tempting me to look at her head of writhing snakes.

“What are those shadows on your face?” she hissed.  “Is it cancer or an omen of approaching trouble, apocalyptic horses on the horizon?”

I turned away and washed my hands in the sink.  Nice try, but no cigar. I shut the door and ordered another drink – you’ve got to make the most of a happy hour in this part of the world.  That evening, The Crimson Knight, my violent trumpeter of self-harm, made one of his regular appearances, but I knocked him off his horse with a blank refusal to entertain him for any more than that first fleeting second.  He writhed on the ground, cursing.

I fell asleep quickly, with good thoughts on my mind.

Crow continues to know everything I think, counting my entire hand, every card that I draw from the pack.  But I can fight back, and today, when he blew a cloud of black smoke into my face, I looked over the surrounding hills, inhaled the cloud and blew it back out.  I’m still not jumping into the black void.

Three figures turned their heads in disgust while I fought to appreciate the things that I have.  The cloud didn’t disperse but I was able to waft it away. Crow flew into a tree and knocked himself out.

I’ve been busying myself too, working hard in the garden and also quite a lot of freelance writing.  The remaining hours are spent sipping a cold can of beer while relaxing in the lush countryside. Another reason I’m never going to choose to enter that void – there are no rolling hills inside that black pit. Just a whole lot of nothing.

Today we’re off for a walk through the woods, revisiting the local pub.  A few more pints of the local ale perhaps – chemical warfare against the thundering divisions of OCD tanks.  There is often a bottle of vodka in the fridge too. It probably isn’t ideal but what is? A glass of wine, a drag of a joint, psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, yoga, cutting myself with razor blades, headbutting walls, CBT, EMDR, ERP?  The list is long and flaps about in the wind like a flag at half-mast. Take your pick, choose your weapon but please don’t judge one another on what we sleep with under our pillows.

The fact that I’m going for a walk through the woods today is a testament to the battle I’m surviving.  Because even that would have been a struggle a few years ago. Flashback to a room in Rajasthan, India, keeled over my bed and sweating as the world rolled by my window, hunger pains gnawing at my stomach, intrusive thoughts battering the inside of my head.  Finally forcing myself outside for some street food, head looking down, eyes stinging with sweat that poured down my face. I can’t go on, I thought, stumbling past a scrawny cow, children playing cricket with crushed up plastic bags. But I did go on, and I’m glad that I never gave up because I’m sweating a little less these days.

It can get better ladies and gentlemen.  I don’t know how but it just can. Maybe one day it will disappear altogether.  The whole gang exploding in a puff of pink smoke: Crow, the Gorgon and that f**king Crimson Knight – anxiety and depression gaining mass (the yellow river, and the black gas,) spinning in a circle and getting sucked into that void.  Or is that just wishful thinking?

I vow to never again think of that blackness until old age dangles me over its wispy lip. But it’s a promise that I know I can’t keep. The idea will continue to haunt me, but I think it’s worth sticking around for a chance to see my demons buried six feet in the ground – before they bury me themselves.

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…

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…

BRANDO and the BLACK SPONGE

The crow is Godzilla and I am Tokyo.

Another monster movie, another red carpet premiere.  But wait a minute, have you seen the performance from the lead protagonist?  A burst of light and I’m sitting at a table at the Academy Awards.  Hollywood claps and cheers around me.  Blood surges in my ears, sounding like a drum roll, and on stage, an old but legendary movie star fumbles open an envelope. “…And the award for Best Actor goes to…”

…Yan Baskets, and Seth Harper, and Delia Hastings and Fernando Ramirez, and the millions of others struggling to conceal their mental illness from the world.

Years ago, battling to hold down my job at a paint factory, I was greeted every morning by the same friendly work colleague.  “Morning, Yan,” he would say, and I would smile and ask if he’d had a good evening. There would be plenty of nodding and laughing on the outside, but inside I was throwing up splinters.  The work-floor would be noisy, an ugly rumination around every hissing corner – vampires on panpipes, and as the crow attacked, the continuous whir of the machines, clanking and banging, made the factory floor feel like a state at war.  There be injuns inside, and gun-toting cowboys, Mexican bandits shooting pistols into the sky. Gunfight at the Not-so-OK Corral. The fear I had in the morning would multiply into a thirty-foot monster by the time I clocked out. So yes, the crow is Godzilla and I am Tokyo – but most of the time the city falls in silence, maybe the soft tinkling of a piano in the background, like from a scene in a black and white movie from the twenties.

“You’re a cheerful chap, Yan,” my colleague once said as, unbeknownst to him, Tokyo tower crumbled into my lap.  I don’t regret not telling him. He had his own problems – everyone does. Tokyo would still fall. I’d cycle home after my shift, appreciating the quiet, struggling to make sense of all those malicious thoughts on the battlefield, distorted shapes dancing through the gun smoke.

“Good day at work?”  The voice of my mum, dad, girlfriend or brother.  It wouldn’t matter, my answer was always a lie.

“Yeah, not bad thanks/I’m just gonna take a shower/Dinner smells good/We still going out tonight?”  Fear bubbling in my stomach but my face stretched into a rictus grin – Marlon Brando on the outside, but inside, my mind absorbing the fears of the world like a black sponge.

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

Yan Baskets isn’t my real name, so I’m doing it now too.

Ironic that on my trip to India, I was approached on the streets of Mumbai and offered to work as an extra in a Bollywood film.  I also did a commercial warning about sex tourism and a trailer for a TV show.  I loved the experience, but in those days the Crow was a sledgehammer – it had taken all my effort just to get on the plane over there, and on the film set, when they asked me to come back the next day, I’d been under such ferocious attacks, was so tired and battle-scarred, that I declined and went to Goa to stick my head in the sand.  I clearly remember the sickness in my belly as the busy world of Bollywood moved in a blur around me. I spoke with the director and actors but Crow banged on a drum in my head, ruining the experience like stirring a glass of good wine with a liquorice stick.  Physically I was in the Bollywood studios in Mumbai; mentally I was shivering on the wet floor of a concrete cell. Crow battered me with a cricket bat during those three days, and I regrettably walked away, travelling down to the western state with a young Dutch couple, and pretended to be OK as the crow ate me from the inside out. I should have stayed on the film set and at least continued getting paid to pretend to be someone else.

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

Medusa in the Mirror

Our house-sitting assignment in Greece is coming to an end.  The cat is still alive. We have two more weeks on the island but it’s time to decide where to head next, and there are plenty of options, a million corners of the world I haven’t seen.  A part of me wants a country I’ve not set foot in, to see alternative things, experience different ways, and hopefully drink cold beers with new friends – the usual bombastic traveller remarks.  But a big part feels I should go back somewhere I’ve already visited, a place where the crow ruined my experience the first time around – and there are plenty of those.

Although the majority of my compulsions are invisible to others, either fighting or appeasing them in my head, away from prying eyes, I did at one time suffer from an absurd relationship with shadows, particularly in a reflection.  Today, although niggled and prodded when I stare into a mirror or pane of glass, I can generally ignore it, but in the bad old days, when the feathered one was a much stronger force, I spent hours standing in front of bathroom mirrors or lounge windows, glaring into my own face and battling to get that perfect ‘safe’ feeling.  I dread to think of the accumulated time I’ve wasted imagining a blinding white light every time I noticed a shadow in a mirror. I stamped this particular fire out as I got older, but when I first went travelling, for no other reason than Crow is a sociopath, I began to suffer a resurgence of these nonsensical attacks. I continued to obsess over a thousand other fears, but this particular compulsion saw me miss countless buses in Thailand, insane sunrises in New Zealand, and endless days of adventure in the heart of South America.

It would go a little like this…

I would walk past a mirror, head looking down or over my shoulder because I wouldn’t want to trigger the spike.  Maybe I’d glance up, or simply catch a reflection in the corner of my eye, either way, I would notice the dark shade of my eye sockets, or possibly the shadow of a lamp-lit shelf cast along a wall.  The crow would hop onto my shoulder.

“Looks like a shadow on a lung,” he would say, propelling me into an evening of peculiar compulsions.

I’d become transfixed, stomach churning like a vat of old milk, legs as heavy as stone, searching the reflected world for unnecessary shadows.  The darkly shaded hollows in my cheeks symbolised cancer, so concentrate on that blinding fake white light and what? The cure?

“Yes,” whispers the crow.  “The cure for the cancer in your bones.”

Will this be the last time?

“Of course,” says Crow, sniggering no doubt, with rusty scissors on his mind.

I stand in front of the mirror, eyes fixed upon my reflection, imagining a blinding flash of pure white light.  Crow blows smoke into my eyes. “That’s not white enough! Do it again! Again!” God’s light burning bright, except it’s not there, just like the cancer and the liver disease and the AIDS virus I imagine swimming in my veins – but the crow has promised me this will be the last time, and although he’s lied a million times before, maybe this promise is genuine.

But never trust your OCDemon.

I would eventually capture that evasive white light and yes, he would let me walk away.  However, as I passed a mirror in the next room, he would reappear as another shadow, another snake on Medusa’s head hissing threats of terrible disease and random ways to die.  I’d turn to stone again. A family member will die of AIDS, unless…

“Concentrate Yan, the blinding light will prevent this tragedy, and vanquish me for good, no doubt.”

Let me guess, this will be the very last time?

“Of course,” says the crow, a razor smile and the devil in his eye.  “One for the road.”

So I missed the bus to Pattani, remained in bed as the amazing sunset burst across the rolling hills of New Zealand, sat alone in the ramshackle room in Ecuador, glaring at my reflection in the window as my day pack sat useless on the bed.  I spent a lot of time in foreign lands frozen in front of a mirror, apparently saving my own life and the lives of relatives as I pictured dazzling blasts of light erupting across the imitated world behind me, bright like atomic explosions.

It’s ironic that I travelled halfway across the world to stare at myself in an empty room.  Yet I smiled as I wrote that last sentence, proving to myself that I’m leaps and bounds from where I was before.  A few years ago the bitter frustration at the missed opportunities would have seen me launch a mug of coffee at the wall – or slam my own head against it.

I’m not sure where I’ll be next month but I know that someday I must return to a hundred and one places and look through the window instead of at it.  Maybe this time catch that bus to Pattani.

TOO MANY TEETH IN THE TOOTH FACTORY

I live in the shadow of a colossal factory, its thirteen chimneys spewing black smoke into the ozone. Wherever I go in the world, I smell its toxins polluting the space around me, the thirteen brick towers casting their gloom over my sagging shoulders.  Inside the great construction, a lengthy conveyor belt loops around the foundry floor, and whenever my head is clear, or I am happy, a spike falls into a box and is delivered, (via ‘Crow Express Delivery Service’,) to wherever I am in the world.

To help me cope, to understand what is happening in my mind, I have used many metaphors over the years.  Often I think of these spikes, these intrusive thoughts, as teeth. Each fear is a fang, and sometimes I am bitten by one tooth, sometimes by an entire row.  I usually obsess over one intrusive thought until I can bury it, often in a shallow grave in the woods, but occasionally somewhere more permanent, like deep in the foundations of a new-build in the city, or maybe Mafioso style and thrown into the sea with concrete boots.

A while ago now, at the end of one particularly cruel day, I counted that I had struggled with thirteen intrusive thoughts – thirteen yellow teeth biting into my bones, puncturing thirteen holes in my marrow.  It was mid-March, seventy-seven days into the year. I calculated that another two and a half months like today would mean being mauled, potentially, by a thousand teeth in less than six months. It was a mortifying prospect.  So far that year I’d done absolutely nothing, not a plan made or a dream realised since January the first. No memories but a list of terrible maybes, and not a single one of them had come true. But still, I worried.

As panic incapacitated me two considerable things happened.  First, I realised that I had to do something, anything, before I died choking on splinters, having achieved nothing in my life.  And second, but more importantly, a new thinking process began to kick its feet. As my condition worsened over the years, those multiple attacks began to have a bizarre calming effect.  The more teeth that punctured me meant more rituals, more time touching wood or imagining blinding sheets of lightning, sweating on my bed, howling at the wall and wishing I was in a coma – but something else was occurring too.  My brain felt like it was vibrating, stressed under the flashing red lights and plumes of smoke from the overworked cogs and dials. One especially bleak day of ruminating ridiculous events, pinned to my bed and pulling out my hair strand by strand, I experienced a type of shut-down.  The factory had produced excess items and the conveyor belt was jammed as it meandered through the various machinery, or there were too many teeth in the attack dog’s mouth and it was unable to gain a proper purchase, or Crow’s beak was blunted with the excess pecking, like a reused nail hammered into a piece of wood one too many times.  It didn’t matter what metaphor I chose, the important thing was that I rode a wave of euphoria that lasted two or three days.

It’s strange, but I learned the more Crow flexes his wings, or the dog bares his teeth, or when extra spikes roll off the production line, the greater peace I feel because of my resignation to the cold fact that I simply cannot handle the ferocity of the attacks.  For a moment I forget the lies the Crow has whispered in my ear because on such formidable days he has talked too much; the factory warehouse misplaces its stock in the towering jungle of boxes; the pain from the bite wound on my leg eclipses the pounding from the chomp on my arm, which dulls the throb from the lacerations on my ribs.  The irony is laughable, the more spikes that puncture my mind, the more I can heal.

“Too many cooks spoil the broth,” sneers Crow.

Of course, the crow remains in the sky, the dog still bites and the factory continues to produce spikes, but when that invisible line is crossed, there becomes much less ruffle to the feathers, strength in the jaws and far less pollution in the river.  More is less or something like that.

 

I nearly forgot this is a travel blog too.

 

I’m still in Greece waiting to be relieved of house-sitting duties.  The cat is still alive and I’ve not stabbed myself to death or died of a brain tumour or been burnt alive by angry villagers in a giant wicker man. Since I’ve been here the factory has produced these exact fears, and lots more besides.  Or, depending on my metaphor, the Crow has whispered them in my ear, or gnashing teeth have gnawed them into my skin. But the factory is rusting and the Crow is getting old because his feathers are starting to fall out and his peck (on good days) feels no more than an annoying tickle.

At this moment, peeling a lemon with my free hand, I have no idea where my next destination will be.  However, I do know there’ll be a factory close by, and a crow, turning slightly grey, circling in the sky.

CHEWING FEATHERS

By far, the most enjoyable part of my travelling has not been what I’ve seen but who I’ve met along the way.  If I had stayed in my hometown in England I’d never have shared a joint and a few cheeky lines with inmates in a cell during a prison visit in Ecuador, or had a conversation with a freight-hopping Brooklyn vagabond in the alleyways of New York City, or played a thousand hands of cards with an eccentric Panamanian hostel manager who’d drank Las Vegas dry and escaped the US owing thousands of dollars in medical bills.  From drinks with a ’60s Slovenian pop star to a night in Thailand with a Hawaiian pot dealer, for sure, it’s all about the people.

It’s just a shame that I’ve either had to cut the meetings short, (I should have gone to the golf club in Ljubljana), or missed the bones of an interesting conversation (what was the moral of the homeless man’s tale again?)  If I hadn’t had the Crow flapping in my ears, maybe I’d have learned and experienced more than I have. But then again, if it wasn’t for OCD, I probably wouldn’t have sold my home in England – I wouldn’t be here, house-sitting in Greece, watching the distant fishing boats idle on the calm blue sea.

I often lament those split conversations, the times when you find yourself talking to someone in the real world, but you’re also busy trying to talk sense to yourself somewhere in the chaotic disco in your head.  Dissecting a thought, you realise you’ve taken too long answering a question, there’s an awkward silence, maybe you didn’t quite catch what was said. You ask the person to repeat their query, just as another spiked cannonball roars from the Howitzer.  You’ve missed the real-world conversation AGAIN! You’re standing face to face with a man you met yesterday on the train, and you’re listening but struggling to hear a single word he’s spoken all morning. A third time, and yes, you hear what’s being said but it makes no sense because you missed the previous three minutes of dialogue.

You smile apologetically, “Sorry Lorenzo, I was miles away.”  You blame a late night, say you’re a prolific daydreamer, or, “that joint has really hit me hard.”  You certainly can’t mention the screeching bird in your cerebrum. “Sorry mate, I was talking to a crow,” is not an option.

The problem is not only missing keywords but also, when you know precisely what’s being said, your stomach can feel so full of lead that you don’t have the mental strength to join in, or expand the question, or debate it, or anything at all because you’ve got the black feathered Prince of Doubt pecking holes in the side of your head.  You can spill words from your mouth but it’s more of a ramble than a discussion. I’ve missed a million punchlines this way. Maybe I’ve had the answer to life explained to me in glorious detail but was too busy thinking about killing myself in front of my gran to heed the advice. (Did he say forty-two or forty-three?)

How I would love it to work the other way around.  “Sorry Crow, I was talking to my friend, you’ll have to wait.  Stand in line or come back tomorrow.”

The greatest problem with OCD, for me, is that big fat O – Obsessional thoughts that fight for my absolute attention the moment I’m semi-conscious.  The alarm sounds and I open my eyes, and there’s my breakfast on the bedside table, six-inch nails on toast. Of course, most people experience dark thoughts every day, but for me, with Crow for company, and for the millions of other sufferers with imps, monkeys, and demons perched on their shoulders, it’s not just every day, but every second of every minute of every hour of every day.  It’s not surprising that we miss things. We just have to make the most of the conversations we do have control over. Crow circles me a little higher these days and I’m able to reflect on all the discussions that I’ve had to cut short.

But believe me, I can talk.  At school I tried to fill every silence with noise.  I didn’t absorb crucial information, was only interested in things that made me laugh.  I messed around and talked nonsense and tried to laugh loudly because it was the only way to keep the crow out of my personal space.  My mouth was the farmer’s gun but indiscriminate like an AK47 – my sense of humour, a twisted scarecrow in a field. My classmates must have thought I was an idiot.

I took these tactics into adulthood.  I was quite loud when I was with friends because it was the only way not to dwell on the questions buzzing around my head.  It was at home that I was quiet, lying upstairs ruminating for hours, pretending to be on my computer. One evening in my late teens, my parents came with me to the local pub.  “I can’t believe how loud you are,” said Mum. She hadn’t witnessed my coping methods while out socialising before. “You’re the loudest person in here,” she noted. And it was a busy night.

I still talk a great deal but it’s less to silence the crow, more because I want to.  Another difference is I also listen these days – at least sometimes.

The Art of Stopping

I really need to learn how to stop.  I must learn to put things on hold and not just the things I don’t like doing.  Too much of anything is a bad thing.  I should probably walk away from my PlayStation when I’m at home, and maybe not smoke so much weed.  But stopping something can be difficult, it can take years to grind to a halt on certain roads.

I’m not talking about cutting things out for good, just pausing enough for reflection, interrupting a negative flow – like switching off the television when you’ve got a headache; closing the fridge door when you know you’ve already eaten too much.

I wish I could stop thinking – like in my younger years pretending to be upstairs on my computer when I was actually lying on my bed, facing the wall, worrying, ruminating, obsessing over AIDS, paranoid that a boy at school wanted to stab me to death – are those heart murmurs in my chest?  I should have stopped watching those television shows about modern medicine because by the time the credits were rolling, I had diagnosed myself with Leukaemia and Parkinson’s disease and three types of lung infection.

I’d like to stop drinking so much – like waking up in a homestay in Havana, Cuba, mottled in vomit.  Apologising to the old woman whose room we were renting, taking the sheets to the launderette, humiliated when they refused to wash them.  “Too dirty to clean,” they said. Oh, the irony. Our new Cuban friend, Alex, had shown us the particulars of local life, cheap bars, and hole-in-the-wall eateries, and nicknamed me ‘El Dragón’ the previous night, because of the noises I was making, the roars and facial tics, as he and his friend helped me home along the Malecón.  It had been a hard few days, spikes-a-plenty me hearties, and I was trying to drown a crow in a barrel of rum. I was drunk, ecstatic that the crow was silenced, but I didn’t know when to stop, the cheerful haze mutating to a red mist the more I drank, angry at myself that I didn’t feel like this all of the time. That fucking crow!  And then the roars and facial churns as the two Cuban men helped me to my homestay through the dawn-lit Havana streets.

I should stop joking so much too – at school I tried to keep the OCDemon at bay by laughing loudly, the class fool, taking the jokes too far, forcing them out when inside I was afraid of everything in the world.  Silent moments between antics spent analysing various ways I could die, how unless I thought things through to their conclusion, I was going to have my house set on fire by school bullies, with my parents still inside, or worse, maybe I would lose control, pouring the petrol and striking the match myself.  F**k silence, my education, a chance to be someone. Be silly instead, force out those crappy jokes because when the class is laughing, Crow is sobbing in a bucket. God, how I wish I’d stopped and learned something useful. But struggling in that classroom all those years ago it was impossible to absorb any information other than how I could draw blood, or ruin lives, or shock old people to death by screaming in their ears.  I must not be too hard on myself, and I’m not – I don’t cut myself anymore for being plagued by these insidious thoughts.

The list goes on.  Stop worrying, stop whining, stop taking those tablets that turn me into the walking dead, shuffling around the room searching for my lost libido.  Stop watching adult movies when I’m not taking those tablets, stop fooling around like life is a f**king TV show, STOP WRITING – when I’ve said enough for the day because thinking of Crow is making me sad, know when to close the laptop.

Crow the Impaler

The sun was throbbing in the sky, I had sore feet, and every step seemed to be uphill, even on the way back down – today’s little jaunt had all the usual discomforts of a hot mid-afternoon hike.  Yet the scenery was so stunning that I did the unthinkable for someone who would prefer to catch a bus to Shangri-La rather than walk there, and on the return leg, back on the narrow roadway, I declined a lift from the only vehicle that had passed us all day.  The instant the car pulled away, struggling and spluttering on its ascent up the steep hill, I regretted my decision, because it hadn’t been genuine. It reminded me of when someone offers you a slice of pizza – I was always told to decline the first offer, and only accept if it’s offered again.  My memory doesn’t recall who taught me this nugget of wisdom, but over the years I have missed out on numerous slivers of Hawaiian deep crust. However, several amazing views later and I was glad I had turned down the man in the silver Sudan. I got some fabulous shots on my camera – yes, I was hot and bothered, tired and hungry, but here I was rambling in Greece and it reminded me of trekking in Nepal several years ago …and then it hit me.  Didn’t I struggle with a particularly nasty spike during those thirteen days…?

…A flap of black feathers and there he was, perched on the shoulder-straps of my rucksack.

“Yes, you did,” said Crow.

Little One and I had another hour or so before we made it back home, it was going well but all of a sudden the light had changed, and for me, the sun-bleached tarmac road was immediately overcast with black crow-shaped clouds.  At first, I couldn’t even remember what the spike had been made of all those years ago, but I knew it was a sharp one, mood controlling even now as the great doubter, Crow the Impaler, contaminated my day with his constant pecking.  My God, it was over eleven years ago, I had less of a grip on my problems back then. But the Crow doesn’t make sense of these things, for him it’s quite the opposite. Crow loves a riddle. For him, it’s all about the chaos.

He continued to bait me.  “Was it a cancer scare? A pseudo impulse to jump off the mountain?  Did you think you had AIDS again? Was it the psychopath obsession – did you worry you were going to kill your family when you returned home?”  He hopped onto my other shoulder. “Whatever it was, Yan, it’s still here, with me, and I’m gonna whisper my name in your ear until you remember, and I’ll make sure it ruins your NEXT thirteen days.”

But I can take a step back now.  I can give myself time to breathe.  I can rationalise – a little, anyway.  Whatever the issue was, I had previously overcome it, because when I’d completed the trek, I remember returning to my guest house in the town of Pokhara, and having a cold beer away from the crow and his little black book of lies.

But what was it that had ruined those thirteen days?

I know I should ignore these challenges but today I gave it my full attention, concentrating until I was back in the shadow of those great Himalayan mountains.  My stomach was hot and my bones were heavy and my head was scrambling, and I remember a problem with my leg, and that’s it, it was a cancer scare! I’d felt a lump behind my knee on the first day of hiking, and Crow said it was a tumour.  He ruined my Himalayan trek because he convinced me I was going to die within the next six months. While I hiked among mighty snow-capped mountains, he made me not care about my beautiful surroundings, convincing a tiny part of me (and that was enough) that thinking of certain things certain ways, punctuated by that blinding white light, would prevent the disease from spreading.  The entire trek I was either sick with worry or walking through a thousand doors in my mind.

But it wasn’t cancer, was it, Crow?  The lump went away and never came back.

 

Returning to Greece and the iron ingot fell out of my day-pack.  I was lighter by thirty kilos. The sky was blue again, the crow circling above me but a mile away and harmless.  I was happy but also slightly annoyed with myself, frustrated I’d spent time ruminating on something so long ago. But I will only take positives from it.  Today, I punched him from my shoulder, but tomorrow, when he comes, maybe a gentle push is all it will take.