SEMI-AUTOMATIC

Judging by some of the other motorist’s expressions, the best place to break down in a car is not on a busy round-about.  You’d have thought we did it on purpose. Luckily, not everyone was red in the face, and a drunk passenger from a passing car helped me push our stagnant vehicle up onto the grass verge – our little semi-automatic was stuck in first gear so this took a lot of heavy grinding.

It was a little bit embarrassing, mildly frustrating and annoying, but we got over it.  What could we do about it? I’m no mechanic and things like this happen all the time. Just gotta put your head down and wait for road recovery.  It’s a wise old proverb but let’s face it – sh*t happens…

Sh*t happens and counting backward as I walk through doors isn’t going to prevent world war three, or eradicate the Ebola virus, or delay ice-caps melting into the sea.  Easy to say, harder to execute, because OCD convinces us we have supernatural powers. That if we perform certain rituals, mental or physical, wars will end, cancer won’t spread, the laws of the universe won’t apply to us.  OCD makes us feel special, but not in a good way. Mental illness convinces us that what we’re experiencing is the process of a fair system – I feel bad, so I must deserve it.

Today I conversed with family, friends and strangers.  At home, appreciating the quiet, a familiar thought struck me as I stirred sugar into my coffee.  I’d been three different people again, adapting my personality with each group – hiding behind three very different masks.  It was instinctive, a practised craft, at the time I didn’t give it a second thought – too busy grinding through the day on semi-automatic.

But why couldn’t I just be me?

“Ah, but who are you exactly?” asked an inner voice.

I’m someone who wants an easy life.  I want to protect my family from worry when they ask how I am.  With my friends, I’m all silly jokes and busy hand gestures while intrusive thoughts churn liquid in my stomach.  When it comes to people I don’t know, it depends on my mood, but today, I answered their questions with what I thought they’d want to hear.  Rule 32 section b: Smile, be friendly and try not to invite them into the house.

We all hide behind masks.  That feeling when you really don’t want to go out and socialise but you’re already out – and socialising – so you’ve just got to get on with it.  Someone asks you how you are, and you smile and tell them that you’re good. That’s a mask. You’re pretending to be happy when you really want to cry, or jump at the wall and knock yourself unconscious.  Of course, you shouldn’t be embarrassed by how you’re feeling. But do you really have to tell everyone at the party that you’re a bit f**ked up today? Of course not. So you slip the mask over your face, open another beer and ask them how they are.

“I’m great!” they reply.  But you doubt that very much.

The party has become a Venician masquerade – elongated beaks and jewelled eye masks.  We all do it from time to time. It’s become instinctive in our society, even if it may be the wrong thing to do.  When suffering from bad mental health, the mask sometimes feels that it is permanently stuck to our face – stapled and bound in duct tape, only removed with magic, or when you turn the lights out and collapse onto the bed.

Wearing masks may not be the perfect answer in a perfect world, but the world isn’t perfect and so there are no perfect answers.  Some days we’ve just got to put our heads down and get through it as best we can. That doesn’t mean we can’t ask for help. On the contrary.  We should help each other whenever we can, and never be ashamed to ask for it. Never be ashamed of talking about mental health issues, never be ashamed of discussing what we fear.  But sometimes, you’ll get away from your old school friend in the high street a lot quicker if you just smile and say you’re feeling OK.

I could have broken down and screamed when the car stopped on the roundabout, but I pulled a mask over my face and pretended that I didn’t care.  And good things did come of it – the relief I felt when we’d pushed the car safely onto the grass verge was overpowering. I think I may have been singing.

It’s late afternoon as I write this, and it feels like I’m waiting for the end of the world.  I look inwards and tell myself that it doesn’t matter, everything comes to an end, why would the world be any different?  No use performing rituals to save loved ones from the unavoidable fact that one day, none of us are going to be here. Sound depressing?  Well, it is. But that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. If an atom bomb fell from the skies, I’d watch the mushroom cloud spill into the heavens, ruining the sky like oil poured into bathwater – no use turning my back and missing the show, and better than dying, staring at my feet.

“I’m going to fill your head with funeral pyres!” squawks Crow.

I don’t fear death, only the journey getting there – it’s Crow who wants to know the finer details, experience the final breath so he can mock and pull faces.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Little One and I are waiting for our next house-sitting assignment.  We’ve just returned from Hull, where we fed a cat, made sure all the doors were locked and watered the tomato plants.  It was only for two weeks and OCD loitered on the periphery, making a terrible nuisance out of itself, but failed to wreck the experience – it could have been a Hell of a lot worse.

So where do we go from here?

We’re booked in to a house-sit at the end of November.  It’s for three months. We have another cat to fuss over.  Have we planned beyond that? Not a chance. We’ve bought a cheap second hand car but it’s already in the garage.  You can’t rely on plans even when you do make them.

As I’ve stated before, the urge to travel has shrivelled up and died.  But the realisation that I don’t want to sleep on train-station floors any more presents me with a dilemma.  What do I do instead? I’m certainly not going back to the factories, not that there’s anything wrong with them, but I know they would kill me this time around.  When Crow is shrieking in my ear, it helps that I’m not filling paint bottles on a production line. At the moment, if it’s too loud to think, I just walk into the next room. There’s not a supervisor in the world who could excuse that – and I don’t blame them.

There’s no rush, freelance writing has put some money in the bank, I’m not going to starve, I should really look at the next chapter of my life as a new adventure.  And I’m certainly not saying I’ll never travel again, just next time do it in a little more comfort.

I wonder what Crow would be like on like a cruise ship?

“The same as I am on a sun bleached beach or in a Las Vegas casino,” I imagine would be his reply.  “F**king relentless.”