SCALDING CAULDRON: THE WITCH’S POT

 

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

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

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

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

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

And my thoughts go back several years…

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

The problem was that crow was being a devil that morning.  Dark stuff, claws in bone deep, a heavy duty spike driven into my eyeball like a stake through a vampires heart.  It killed me on the spot.

We were packed onto the rooftop, nowhere to hide, and a group of Irish girls sipped from plastic bottles in their day packs.  They sat around me, and we joked while they knocked back vodka and whiskey and aguardiente.  It was early, crow was swearing in my head, and I was looking down the barrel of a five hour journey with my new friends.  One of the girls offered me her canteen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, Ecuador was fine,” I say.

But don’t look back in anger.

In fact, just don’t look back.

For me, looking back is like peering into a witch’s cauldron.  An old bony hand stirring the bubbling broth; disturbing the liquid until the memories and old thoughts, the rats’ tails and sheep’s eyes, bobble and turn on the surface – a renewed lease of life to haunt me all over again, a dead hand rising from the grave.

I was watching the TV and an actor reminded me of my old factory supervisor.  I hear the rubbing of leather as a black gloved finger gently squeezes on a trigger – Crow the assassin on a grassy knoll.  I try to forget those bad days; it’s like tap dancing in a minefield, limbs and shattered bones scattered on the grass as the Crimson Knight watches astride his braying horse, smoking a fat cigar and shouting, “‘tis but a flesh wound!”  I leap sideways, stuffing my supervisor into a cupboard and wedging a chair in front of the door.  But my thoughts are active…I’m a young Yan Baskets and Oasis are on the radio and I remember all the time I spent in bed, scratching the wall paper, trying to squeeze giant crow-shaped thoughts into tiny square boxes, sweating beneath the bedsheets in the clothes that I was too lethargic to take off the previous night.  An old chicken burger festered in its greasy box, balanced on a chair stacked to the ceiling with dirty jeans and t-shirts.  Whenever I heard my brother’s key in the front door, I’d jump out of bed, shuffle downstairs and pretend everything was normal, no problem, I haven’t been curled up in the foetus position all day.  I wasted days like this and now I’m angry at myself and that stupid crow.

I look deeper in the cauldron…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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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.

F*cking clouds.

In my worst days I feel like I’m constantly falling through them.  A conversation is lost as  I tumble towards gravity’s mouth – that gaping maw, sucking me down, shouts fading to whispers a thousand feet above me; thoughts too drop out of my pockets and flap about in the turbulent flurry.  I get tired.  I could sleep for a century.  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 bi-polar.  It either fires me high into the sky, or leaves me 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 really 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; fumbling on google translate for the simplest of words; pretending not to be afraid of the drunken group of Georgian lads behind me; eyeball to eyeball with a raging motorist on the streets in Malawi; 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 has fled on a horse, bolting for the woods, leaving a trail of yellow swirling smoke in its wake, it takes with it its smells, its taste – 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 rabies.  The Crow was his usual charming self, pecking and scratching and cawing in my face.  But he wasn’t any worse than he had been.  My confidence simply decided to run off and have a holiday, take the next train or bus out of town, stranding me at the station.

For these weeks I was a knight without a sword or 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 – helpless, occasionally struggling against the old woman’s strong, 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 been easily snapped by an old woman in a blue dress on a 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 good will, but always and forever..

 

Georgia On My Mind..

Georgians are an interesting bunch.  They’re either plying you with homemade vodka or glaring at you on the local bus like they want to tear your arms off.  We’re either being shoved aside on the Tbilisi metro or gifted free wine and food until our stomachs threaten to explode at a ramshackle hostel that’s barely standing up; knocking back shots of chacha with staff at military museums like we’re old school friends, or being totally ignored by 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 only had five days in its tough, ample bosom, but we’re going back in a week or two, after we’ve sampled the colourful delights of Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea.

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

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

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

 

A THOUSAND PLANETS

We’re back in the UK.  London was the cheapest city to fly to from Greece.  It was a direct flight from the neighbouring island, and considerably cheaper than a forty minute flight to Athens.  We couldn’t decide where to head next, and I can say it now because everything is OK, but we also had to make an important hospital appointment.  Fucking crow was ten feet tall these last few days; the bastard had me imagining enough blinding white explosions to light up the furthest corner in the darkest room.

He became a black beetle scurrying on the wall, then two, then four, multiplied and multiplied again.  The beetles, buzzing and humming, became a black stain and then a ball of flapping wings and gnashing pincers, forming a living cloud that hung over my head like a witches curse.  I spent a long time in concealed places, but everything turned out fine.  The Results came in, and damning the good news, crow flew over the mountain.

We surprised our families on their doorsteps, and are currently re-evaluating our plans from home.  I want to head to Antarctica via Argentina but it’s not cheap, so I’ve placed that dream on a shelf.  Little One wants to go to the Galápagos Islands, not cheap either but certainly not as cold.  I’m happy here at the moment, because the crow is high in the sky, a tiny pin prick in England’s gun-metal grey clouds.  Backpacking South America is another option.  I have hazy memories of travelling the continent several years ago.  It was a solo trip and I spent far too long wading waist-deep in the local vices – I tried to kill the crow but only stoked his fire.

Travelling with OCD, or mental health issues in any form is an uphill trek.  Mental illness and backpacking don’t fit together well, they’re from a different jigsaw puzzle entirely.  You have to stamp on the pieces to make them fit, and these last two or three weeks have been tough for me, but especially for Little One, whose appointment at the hospital it was.  The Crow has been bloodying his talons, and I’ve done all I could to stop myself from throwing up black beetles.  I’ve neutralised a hundred and one intrusive thoughts, and when they swelled like a black sea, I regressed to the bad old days, wrestling for every ounce of control.

These days, with all that I have learned, (and if I am lucky,) I imagine Crow pecking on my shoulder and that is sometimes enough – I move on, my brain able to accept that it is the OCD.  It has taken many years of practice but the night before the hospital appointment I managed to shoo him away every time he made an appearance.  I handled it well and the good news we received took me over the rainbow.

I was crow free for a day or two, and when the crow is away my priorities quickly change to avoiding the triggers that often bring him back.  I have to keep my thoughts on something else – don’t stray from the path, stay in the light, avoid certain memories, travel at light speed or as fast as a thought can take me across the universe.  If I’m crow free, I visit a place a million miles away, a land that time never knew, let alone forgot.  I have a thousand planets that I often visit this way, and sometimes when the crow is dangerously close to snapping me in half, I enter this safe haven to catch my breath, to hide under the bedcovers in a secret place where the real world is dead or never existed at all.   Over the past few days, worrying over something so desperately, I visited these worlds to save me from imploding.

I have a space opera in my mind that I began twenty years ago, fantasy football teams from across Europe that compete for the champions league in my head, an imaginary planet of warring continents, dreamed up boxers with fight records that I used to write down on paper – I still have them in a box in my parents garage.  I imagine tens of thousands of soldiers charging across sweeping plains, or spacecraft zigzagging across the universe in galactic dogfights – clashing in furious battles, swords hacking off limbs, titanium hulls cut in half by laser beams.  When the Crow is high in the sky, the last thing I need is to start remembering triggers and spikes from the past.  So I beam aboard an interstellar star-ship or sit ringside at Caesar’s palace or climb into the saddle of a Knight’s armoured charger.  Here I am Emperor Yan the Unscathed, civilising the barbarian horde, while in the real world I am staring at a wall, or a blank television screen in the corner of the room, or lying in a bed of course.

I’m lucky to have a pretty good imagination.  Sometimes, when the spikes are nailing me to the floor, or depression is smothering me with a wet blanket, although I struggle to function with a task as simple as walking to the shops, or leaving my dorm bed, or merely visiting friends, as long as I am lying down, eyes closed and still, I find it possible to gain breathing space with a jaunt to one of my far-away places.  An hour imagining invasions of distant solar systems creates the space to move away from the scattered minefields of Pure O.  It’s an O.C.Detour, if you like, or another weapon in the arsenal in my fight against the Crow, a tactic in my crusade for the Holy Grail – to find the chalice of reason and drink until the crow chokes on the sweet nectar and drowns in my stomach.

‘Every little helps,’ says the giant supermarket chain.  Begrudgingly, and especially in my fight against OCD, I have to agree with them…and I also like their sandwiches.