Manic Metro, Morbid Mountain

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

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Black Beetles, Black Beetles, Black Beetles; A Time in Azerbaijan

A genuine smile split open my face the other day – like an axe through a watermelon.  I was in the passenger seat of a Lada as it sped through the streets of Sheki, Azerbaijan. The driver, a cousin of our home-stay host, was obviously auditioning for the fast and the furious 17, and I think I offended him by grabbing the passenger seat-belt.

“No worries, Azerbaijan is fine, no need for belt,” he said, as we swerved past a packed mini bus and nearly collided with another Lada driving just as manically on the opposite of the road.  I clicked in anyway, and took the cigarette he offered me. I don’t smoke so much these days, but my heart was trying to escape through my mouth, and I thought a few drags wouldn’t hurt on the grand scale of things.

So I smiled. Because regardless of my relentless OCD, here I was, in a town in Azerbaijan, in a Lada hurtling through the streets in the pouring rain – I was winning.

OCD ruined my education, lost me countless opportunities in life, crushed my hope, and it has left a bitter taste in the back of my throat. When Crow reminds me of what he’s taken away from me, I choke a little, fury rising inside me like a charging wave, and all sorts of negative emotions wrestle for control. Sometimes it takes a while to stop feeling so bitter, so sick in the stomach; I feel naked, helpless to a horde of black beetles scurrying over my face, into my mouth, swimming into my bloodstream.

Warp speed to yesterday evening, in Sheki, Azerbaijan – and I’m brushing off those beetles like dust from my jeans. Our host invited us for drinks with his family, and we talked, and smoked, and drank vodka and beer around the table. Crow nibbled at the back of my head, the intrusive thoughts knocking at the door, black beetles scuttling beneath the floorboards, but I held them off,  (the alcohol probably helped,) and again I smiled healthily, like a chimpanzee with a bag of bananas.  Yesterday we’d seen the local market; our host had driven us to a beautiful viewpoint over the city; we’d been fed tasty dishes and joked and laughed in broken English about subjects none of us fully understood, warmly accepted into their family as new friends, toasting life with the flowing vodka as Crow bit into my shoulder like a bitter, toothless, B-movie zombie.

“You are always smiling,” said Antigua, the wife of our host.

I told her that inside I was always crying. She took it as another vodka fueled quip. I wanted her to. It reminded me of my times at work in the noisy factories as I wore my clown mask in front of my work colleagues. I want to be remembered as the happy joker, not the manic juggler, or the sad shadow in the corner – laughing even as the Crows talons grind my insides to shreds.  I’d had a day and an evening to remember – a slice of life in Sheki Azerbaijan.  OCD had not taken this away from me, and the crow, although circling in the smokey room, banged into furniture like a clumsy slapstick villain, almost comical as I fought his army of gnashing beetles.

We ate, we smoked, we tipped vodka down our necks like it was a necessity to life.  We put the world to rights, agreed and disagreed, forgot that the world can be a terrible, frightening place, and I crawled into bed with a grin like a quartered watermelon.

My last coherent thoughts, regardless of Crows ferocious advances, were simple, ‘Today was a good day.’

Lumley, Palin and Crow

I love traveling but I dislike researching where to go.  I can’t get excited until I step off the plane and put my feet on actual foreign soil. I don’t watch travel shows because they bore me; I’ve got nothing against Joanna Lumley but I really have no urge to watch her eating a bowl of mashed fava beans while she drifts lazily down the Nile on a Victorian tugboat. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to do it myself, but I wouldn’t expect people I don’t know to watch a video of me doing it – my serotonin gets released from breathing the Sahara winds, not watching it blow through Michael Palin’s hair. I switch the channel over when the title music begins to tinkle in my ear.  ‘Trekking through the Amazon on a shoestring’ is probably a wonderful programme, but it reminds me of when I was there, and didn’t I have quite a few attacks in that jungle? Crow pulls the trigger and my day is dead.

I don’t really discuss much where I’m going even when I have the ticket in my hand – I’m going to be wrestling with crow wherever I go; I simply prefer to box him on foreign soil and glimpse a beautiful mountain or two between rounds.

Travelling with OCD has its issues.  The reason I continue to push myself to leave the country, even when I am at my lowest ebb, is because if at any point Crow had ruined this, I’d have done nothing with my life – a colossal negative of mental illness is what it stops you from achieving – the younger me, cooped up in my bedroom, had struggled hourly, and the last thing on my mind was studying, or choosing a career, or figuring out how to better myself when I’d spent all day trying to drag a crow out of my eye socket.

However, these last few days, Crow has been a black spider.  Not monstrously loud like a pneumatic drill, but clickety clack, like a tap dancer with hot shoes, heel-stepping across my thoughts. Nothing to make me want to tear my eyes out, but enough to remind me that he’s still there, lurking, loitering with intent.  Catastrophes like the horrific terrorist attacks in Manchester and London put him into perspective for a few minutes, but then he uses the fear and carnage for his own twisted intentions and suddenly I’m imagining my loved ones torn asunder in those very streets.  I thank fuck it’s in my mind and I’m not experiencing what those poor victims had to go through.  The Crow is an annoying fly next to a nail bomb attack, so i fought him with added vigor this week, and who am I to complain?  It’s not ideal – Crow makes me want to puke most days, but compared to yesteryear this torture is less waterboarding, more distant tap dripping in the next room. So I take it, and avoid triggers, quick to either neutralise my fears or pull myself away from them altogether. Like a sober friend pulling away a drunk colleague from a fight outside a kebab shop on a Friday night, there’s a lot of shouting but eventually you get them into the taxi.

It’s the best year I’ve had since I can remember, so I take it, and casually flick through my atlas to decide, at the very least, the direction of my next trip – as long as that heinous parasite remains a shadow of his former self, I’ll be content to go anywhere that will have me. It’s taken years to get me thinking like this, many therapists, packets of medicine, hours of reading, relentless trial and error. I’ve been naughty, and nice, and extremely lucky. I’ve been convinced I have all kinds of illnesses, neutralised negative thoughts with a million flashes of blinding light; I’ve imagined the death of everyone I know, horrifically murdered with gruesome tools, but we’re all still here, breathing, living our lives and contemplating our next moves.

Crow is white noise. Crow is the dripping tap. Crow is the host of desert islands discs with only Marilyn Manson albums to choose from, or a single picture on my bedroom wall, painted by a psychopath – Crow the Composer, splashing the canvas of my life with blacks and reds, forty years in fifty shades of violence.  Yes, Crow is a howling storm, but he used to be a fucking machine gun, so how can I complain when children are getting blown up all over the world?

The Crow will have me headbutting the wall again, but I’m not headbutting it now and have to take that as a positive.  I can blow this spider off my shoulder all day long, so I’m content waiting here for inspiration.  Compared to sweating on a bed as imaginary worms eat my stomach, crushing spiders underfoot is relatively….ok.

So it could be the Galapagos islands, or it could be Turkey.  Iceland or Uzbekistan.  I may struggle wherever I go, but I don’t want to give up and lay down just yet. I will pack my bag, treat myself to a new toothbrush and continue to battle that malicious, squawking bird.

“I’m with you forever, Yan,” says the Crow.

I hope you like travelling, my black feathered friend.

And don’t forget your toothbrush.

 

 

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 white lights to light up the darkest hour.

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 limbs and wings and pincers, forming a living cloud that hung over my head like a curse. I spent a long time in dark 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 for the moment.

Little One wants to go to the Galápagos Islands, not cheap either but much warmer. I’m just happy here at the moment, because the crow is high in the sky, a tiny pin prick in England’s gunmetal grey clouds.

Backpacking South America is certainly an option. I have hazy memories of travelling the continent several years ago.  It was a solo trip and I spent far too long waist deep in the local vices – I tried to kill the crow but only stoked his fire.

Travelling with OCD, or anxiety in any form is an uphill trek.  Mental illness and backpacking don’t fit well together, they are 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 busy 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 is 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 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 swells to monstrous proportions, if the mood is right, I am also able to enter this safe haven – where the real world is dead or never existed at all.  No more than these past days, worrying over something so much that I had to vacate the ‘here and now’ to stop 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 records that I used to write down on paper – I still have them in a box in a shed.  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 horse. In reality I am staring at a wall, or a blank television screen in the corner of the room, or laying in a bed of course.

I’m lucky to have a pretty good imagination. Sometimes when the spikes are nailing me to the floor, although I struggle to function with a task as simple as walking to the shops, or leaving my dorm bed, as long as I am lying down, eyes closed and still, I find it possible to gain breathing space with a visit to one of my far away places. An hour imagining explosions on distant planets can create vital distance from the scattered minefields of Pure O.  It’s another weapon in my arsenal in my fight against the Crow. Another tiny tactic in my crusade for the Holy Grail – a permanent off-switch to overcome OCD.

‘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.