Beauty and disease in autumn

autumn

When I woke up this morning, I felt happy. Happy because I could see straight out of the window and the world outside was just spectacular. The sun, like a gloating puppeteer, was in her place at the sky’s throne, watching over the scene below, flooding the earth with light. The sky was the kind of blue that you will only ever see in autumn – deep, electric and laced with gold. The few clouds I could see were cheerfully bobbing across the sky; fluffy, bouncy and creamy white. The trees outside my window were ablaze with light, heavy branches bouncing majestically on a hearty October breeze. It was one of those perfect, crisp and heavenly autumn days that make you glad to be here to see it.

I spent yesterday evening with one of my closest friends, watching a film (very good – The Pentagon Papers), eating Chinese takeaway and sipping fizz. We chatted, we giggled, we had fun. When I got up this morning we drank tea, chatted some more and had a good chuckle about her eccentric new German teacher. It was brilliant. Normal. When I left at lunchtime, I strolled into town to catch the bus back to my house. I walked through her neighbourhood (incidentally, one of the most beautiful in the city) and felt so happy, so lifted and so grateful to be able to stroll into town of a Sunday, passing all of this wonderful autumn-ness that surrounds me. Yellow, orange, copper, brown, terracotta, red, bronze, maroon, green – all of the colours that make up the most perfect of autumnal palettes. I was so happy that I even stopped to take pictures on my phone. I contemplate a Facebook post in celebration of this most wonderful autumn (proposed status: ‘I may be biased, but an English autumn day is surely among the most perfect and most beautiful things imaginable….’).

In the midst of my happy autumn haze, I decide to take a coffee-shop pit-stop before catching the bus home – just me, my coffee and my new book. But then, of course, the universe shat on the dream. As I stroll across the main square, scanning the floor for HIV, I notice a few small patches of a brownish-red substance that screams at me from the pavement. I try to manoeuvre my way around the mess but am stopped in my tracks by a huge explosion of RED that is about 3 feet wide. It’s blood, I am sure of it. It looks to me like someone has split their face open on this pavement. I take a few steps back to have another look at the patches. I take a photo on my phone. That’s right, a photo. The reason I do this is because, in the midst of an OCD freakout, I cannot trust my own eyes. A photo is as objective as I can get in this situation so, perhaps, when I review the photo from a safe distance, I will see that it is not blood. But no, when I look at the photo again, I am fairly sure, this is blood. I would post a picture of it, but I don’t want to prompt feelings of anxiety in anyone that has similar blood contamination fears*. That it has ruined my day is enough, let it not ruin someone else’s. (*I decided to post one of my Perfect Autumn pictures instead….)

As I walk away, I check the hem of my trousers – is it touching the floor? Yes. Fuck. I can’t stay in town any more; I go and get the bus back to my end of the city. I know in my mind that I am going to have to throw my shoes and trousers away when I get home so, when I get off the bus, I dive into a coffee shop to sit for a while, just to put it off a bit longer. I order a croissant and coffee but, by the time it arrives, I am crying and I can’t even taste the croissant as I wolf it down. I find myself resenting the woman in the corner who is in the process of analysing her relationship to her companion. Everything about her is pissing me off – and that’s not because she’s done anything wrong. It’s because she’s enjoying the normality of going to a coffee shop and just hanging out. She’s got her feet casually resting on a chair, then she’s got them tucked under her – she is not in the least bit concerned that she has HIV on her shoes (or, maybe she is? After all, there are no better masters of disguise than those who live with anxiety….). I hate that I can’t be her. I wonder if the photo I took could somehow contaminate my phone. This fucking disease. My mind disease.

I cannot stop crying and it’s embarrassing. I walk home. I plan ahead to go in via the back door: if I have to take off my shoes and trousers before I get in the house, it’s better that I do it at the back door, and not in full view of the street. As it turns out, it’s not much better going in via the back door as my garden faces a row of houses on the adjacent street. It’s pretty humiliating to think that some unfortunate observer may look out of their bedroom window just in time to see a 31 year old woman undressing herself on the doorstep. I take off my shoes, my trousers and my pop-socks, leaving them in a pile outside my backdoor, I’ll deal with them later. I walk into the house, grateful for the sanctity of a relatively clean floor.

I lock the cat-flap behind me – I can’t risk the cats coming in at this point. The reason for this is the Trail of Contamination: the cats would have walked on the same pavement that I have just walked on with my blood shoes, which means that they will have blood on their paws, which they will tread all over the carpet and all over the furniture. Blood everywhere. They are such sweet cats, and have been my little companions these past few months while I have been signed off work. They sometimes like to climb on my lap and sit, their little paws just draped over my knees – it’s a welcome comfort. But there will be no sitting on my lap, no blood paws today. I have to keep this space as clean as possible for as long as possible. I will let the cats in soon – I have to – because it’s not their fault I’m crazy. But, for now, I just need a few moments in a clean space, before it all becomes contaminated.

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Mind Fever

Eyes-on-Fire

I asked myself today which word I would use to describe OCD. For me, I think the word “fire” sums it up pretty nicely.

 Why fire? I don’t actually know.

 Perhaps it’s because fire is red and red is danger and red is blood and blood is HIV?

 Or, perhaps because water destroys fire and I seem to spend much of my life seeking water to douse myself in? I generally associate water with an impending calm that will happen for a few moments once I’ve scrubbed my skin clean. Maybe that is why I find the ocean to be so peaceful. There is something about being able to float on water, being able to say, ‘Here you go, sea, take me! Hold me for a while as I snooze under sunshine! Relax my body and cool down my brain a little minute, I want to float away from the shore and hear nothing but the swishing salt….’ I have mentioned in a previous post about default traffic light settings of OCD – during the more positive periods, my own OCD is usually at amber (more or less). When it’s burning hot, it’s at a constant red. There are the weeks where it can drift between the two, but it nearly always settles itself back to red….. Why am I telling you this when I’m supposed to be talking about the sea? Well, unfortunately, the sea can only be my respite when my default OCD setting is amber or, if I’m really lucky, green-amber (oh how I miss sweet green-amber!). But when the default setting is red, the sea is actually a big bath of germs. Bodies upon bodies bounding into the sea, complete with all of the bodily fluids that go with them – it’s all in there, in my mind. Which is such a shame because, as I say, there is something so peaceful about water.

 So back to the fire. Why fire? Perhaps because, at times of intense OCD freakouts (as I call them), it truly does feel as though my mind is on fire. In those moments I would swear blind that, if you were to stick a thermometer in my brain, it would tell you that my brain is, in fact, a livid volcano. That’s right, a volcano. And when it’s bubbling and brewing away, swelling with the panic, it almost feels as though my mind is too big for my head. There is just so much going on, so much activity, so much electricity fizzing away at my skull. Behind my eyes it’s a 70s disco ball of crazy – although minus the awesome flares and funky music (anyone for a song called Mind Fever….?).

As it turns out, perhaps I am not that far off the mark – in his book Brain Lock: Free Yourself From Obsessive Compulsive Behaviours, Dr Jeffrey M. Schwartz describes a research study wherein he compared the brain activity of someone with OCD with that of someone without OCD. Without going into too much detail (mainly because I am not a scientist and it took some effort for me to fully understand it myself), Schwartz explains that there is evidence to suggest that one of the differences between a non-OCD and an OCD brain is that the OCD brain demonstrates a kind of  chemical ‘overheating’:

“To help patients understand this chemical imbalance, we showed them pictures of their brains at work. During a study of brain energy activity in people with OCD, my colleague, Dr. Lew Baxter, and I took some high-tech pictures using positron emission tomography, or PET scanning…. The resulting pictures clearly indicated that in people with OCD, the use of energy is consistently higher than is normal in the orbital cortex— the underside of the front of the brain. Thus, the orbital cortex is, in essence, working overtime, literally heating up.”

Yep, apparently I’m just walking around with a burning brain – no wonder my mood seems to swing from being super excited and enthusiastic to lethargic and sleepy. No autumnally cosy glowing embers purring softly in the corner for me, oh no! I’ve got big fucking burning oak logs, and if you can occasionally throw some petrol in for good measure, all the better. And that’s just my brain.

 Just as soon as my brain is all ablaze, then it’s only a matter of time before my body follows suit. First of all, I will feel it in the centre of my torso, a whirlpool of lava that gets progressively louder until it is the only physical sensation that I can register at all. But, before long, the fire will throb through my belly, creeping up to my neck, dripping down to my thighs. This fire is cruel – your chest cavity no longer contains a set of carefully compacted organs; it contains a hot smoothie of mess, and it is beginning to shut down. I imagine blood cells running around screaming at one another: it’s just so fucking hot!! My lungs are screaming at my heart to slow down, my stomach is smacking the shit out of my lungs, telling them to shut the fuck up and start breathing, my mouth is so dry it is struggling to produce saliva at all, my face is flushed, my eyes are burning. My ribs feel like they are no longer made of chalky bone, but of piping hot iron, I am sure they will bend and twist if I should fall. My body is attacking me.

 Then my skin starts to itch. It’s like there is a substance, something, on my skin, spreading like ferocious little ants. The longer I wait, the larger the area covered by the ants. They get everywhere, behind my knees, into my belly button, onto my scalp, dancing their sadistic happy dance around my hair. And their little feet are hot – so fucking hot – that everything is itchy and burning. I scratch my hands, my arms, and I scratch my scalp. I want to jump into water, or bleach my skin, anything to stop the stampede of disease and itch and scratching that is happening all over my skin. I want to scratch my skin off, sand away the top layer to reveal the untouched, untainted, wonderfully sterile layer underneath. But, as luck would have it, I’m not a snake, and so I am stuck with the skin I have got. I wonder if my skin will ever get clean again – is there a substance on earth strong enough to stop this? I am just so fucking hot. If you could see how my skin feels, it would look red raw, lumpy and live – I swear it is live with the kind of heat that distorts light. I need to cool down, slow down, calm down. I want to throw myself head first into a tank of clean ice and fall asleep right there until it’s all over.

 When I was little, if I burned myself, my mother would put calamine lotion on my skin. That powdery milky substance was the most sacred of super remedies; a cool layer of creamy retro lotion that provided a brief but welcome distraction from the pain of a heat that was now out of control, a respite from the suffocating temperature of my skin. Ah, sweet calamine! – Wait, isn’t that a song? – How I loved you and your cold embrace! Passport to sleep and temporary peace, I salute you! In this the enlightened and modern age we have managed to split the atom, send human beings into space and develop a weapon so powerful that it can literally wipe out cities at a time: so tell me, why have they yet to discover a calamine lotion for the brain? Why is there no remedy for this shit? And why do so few people give a crap about finding one? Who gives a fuck about the universe when there is a universe in my own head that I can’t understand.