Discover more from Spoook - the Substack of James McMahon
Let me tell you a story
It's a pretty long story. Go make a cup of tea. Bring biscuits
When I was younger I was on a bus that hit and killed a child.
I’m sat somewhere towards the front. The bus is taking me from my village into my town; all narrow streets, grey terraced houses, many of them built close to a hundred years ago, when the village pit, Markham Main, was sunk. It’s a distance of around five miles. Years later I’d sometimes walk said distance in the early hours of the morning, sometimes a bit drunk, preferring a bag of chips to spending the money on a taxi. Sometimes I’d stop at the hospital half-way, the place I was born, to get a coffee and break-up the journey. I remember once having a conversation in the early hours of a Sunday morning at the doors of A&E with a woman whose husband had fallen out of a window and had broken his neck.
But this isn’t a story about any of that.
The day of the crash, I’m going to buy a computer game. Not a videogame. For my Commodore Amiga. I am excited. I am happy that the bus is going fast. How fast? It would be irresponsible of me to recount. All this happened too long ago for me to be sure. Too many years have passed for recriminations. Everyone in this story has been punished, to varying degrees. But as the bus passes an ice-cream van parked on the left side of the street, a boy runs into the road. The bus misses him, and yet ice-cream is strewn across the vehicles window. There is silence. Such a short moment of silence I can’t think of any verb that would fill the space. Then the screaming starts. The bus has hit the boy’s younger brother, a toddler, who was following in his wake.
But this isn’t a story about that either, not really.
And yet I will never forget the sound his mother made that day, coming out of a house across the road from the accident, screaming, “you’ve killed my baby”, over and over again, those words punctuated with not just sobs, but a sound among the most frightening I’ve ever heard. Years later, in my career as a journalist, I will write a piece about the meat trade. I will observe lorries of sentient animals, writhing around atop of each other, shrieking. This is the closest I’ve come to hearing the sound I heard that day. It’s not a sound I hear often, but I remember it.
That’s the problem with OCD. It won’t ever let you forget.
And so I remember the sounds of that day. I remember the driver, a mountain of a man, sat on a curb, convulsing. But more than anything, I remember having the strangest thought, one I’ve revisited all my life. It is a terrible thought. I think it is anyway. That’s the problem with thoughts. You’re nearly always left to your own devices to decide whether a thought is terrible or not. You can’t always trust your therapist - I’ve learned - they’ve got money in the game. You might think about murdering someone. That’s a pretty terrible thought. And yet, as I’ve learned in recent years, it doesn’t necessarily make you a terrible person. We are what we do, not what we think. One of the kindest, best people I’ve ever met often thinks about picking her baby up and punting it up in the air nearly every time they’re left alone with them.
Park that. I’m not quite ready to tell you all about OCD - despite being absolutely aware that OCD, or at least the world viewed through the filter of this wretched disorder, is in nearly everything I write.
The thought I had after the accident was this; I started thinking about what the driver thought as he saw the ice-cream van. Maybe he was thinking about what he was having for tea? Maybe about how he’d quite like an ice-cream himself? I think about food a lot, can you tell? And yet the moment the bus hits that child, that thought is irrelevant. Seconds ago, but a million miles away. That thought - the last good thought of your life, depending on how strong you are, how good the treatment and support you will receive - is gone. There will always be before your bus hit a child. There will always be after your bus hit a child. The thought in-transition is dead territory. It’s Yugoslavia. Prussia. The Soviet Union.
(Did you spot the OCD in that last paragraph by the way? Don’t worry if you didn’t, we’re just warming up. I’ll explain it to you. I’m obviously writing something a bit perverse. Quite dark. I put some jokes in so that you don’t think I’m a terrible person. The obsession is that you think I’m a terrible person. The compulsion is a wonky attempt to protect myself from that. The disorder is that thinking in that sort of detail, all the time, is no fucking way to live).
I’ve thought some strange things over the years. When, a year later, I was involved in another bus crash - bus into the back of a small car, glass strewn across the backseat, passengers thankfully more shocked than they were hurt - I thought I was cursed. If I wasn’t so lazy, I’m not sure I would have ever got on a bus again. But I’ve also thought that I couldn’t pass my exams if I didn’t put three dots of equal distance in the margin of my essays. I’ve thought that my dad might die unless I touched the floor with the tip of my nose three times. Quirky shit. It all fit my teenage personality. My peers had sports. Or good hair. Or popularity. But I was a quirky dude.
The number three has long played a significant role in all this, by the way. In my most lost moments I have genuinely believed it had some kind of cosmic significance; I lived at house number three on my street, my birthday was the third of the month, I had three brothers. In fact, a hip-hop group I liked as a teenager told me it was ‘the magic number’. I would lay very little blame at the funky feet of De La Soul for anything bad in this world, but that song certainly helped legitimise the strange habits I was formulating in my brain. And again, I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m telling you this because I’m a good thousand words in now, and I’m writing to a rhythm. ¾. A waltz. Or Nothing Else Matters by Metallica.
Quirk disguised what I now know was the gestation of an illness that has long ruled my life. The thoughts did get darker; death, or more specifically the inevitable nothingness and perceived pointlessness of everything prior to that, started to consume more and more of my thinking. Fears of the violence present in the town I ventured into after dark started to become more and more irrational. New obsessions bore new compulsions. I couldn’t go into a public toilet without an unseen urge insisting I stick my fingers into the wiring of the hand drier. I couldn’t continue with a sketch pad if I messed up a page. There was a thing about not walking under things for a long time. But, hey hey, I’m quirky! This is how I explained my oddness. And my overwhelming fear? I became friends with the people I was scared of. I stopped doing anything for myself and everything for self-preservation. It took me a long time to work out which bits of me were real, and which was the protective crust. I’m still working it out now I think.
Then I went to university.
Wait up. That last bit? About the uncertainty between what’s real and what isn’t? I just read that back and it is insufferably emo. I feel the need to apologise when I find myself thinking and saying things like that. That stuff would get you hurt where I grew up. There’s a memory I have of the field round the back of my house where the kids in the neighbourhood would play. There’s this kid who comes out to play sometimes and he scares the shit out of me. He’s got a box in his garage that’s full of bits of dead animals. He’s got the foot of a duck. A rabbit’s tail. A couple of never-determined-species’ beaks. I have a lot of questions about that box that never got answered. One day this kid has been watching wrestling. He’s pumped up. He picks another kid up, puts his head between his legs, finds the biggest pile of dogshit on the field and Tombstones’ the kid’s face into the dog dirt. I’m appalled. Scared.
I say nothing. Say what you like about ‘Toxic Masculinity’, but round my way we called it self-preservation.
In telling you the story I want to tell you, I can’t not think about the bus driver shaking on the curb all those years ago. Like that tragic incident, there is a before. There is an after. But the bit in the middle of those two junctures is a memory that can’t be accessed. I’ve tried. I’ve spent hours trying to work out what it was that bridged before to after. I’ve looked at photos of myself in that time and been so adrift from sanity in those moments, that I’ve audibly asked my younger self in the image if he knew what was about to happen. If he was aware of what was about to be lost. I swear I didn’t have a fucking clue. Just some kid, hundreds of miles away from home, walking blindly forwards. There is a before it all happened. There is an after. But the story proper begins over twenty-years ago, when the seasons change.
It is the summer of 1999. My second year of University. Last night I went to see The Blair Witch Project. It was absolutely brilliant. This is before.
Let me tell you about the after.
The next morning I wake up early. My leg hurts. A couple of months before I’ve got a tattoo on my ankle. It’s long healed. It shouldn’t be hurting anymore, not from that anyway. I walk to the university. There’s a room there where we can access the internet out of hours. Normally I use it to mess about on messageboards of indie bands I like. Not today. They sign me in. I find a computer. And then I do something I’ve spent hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours wishing I’d never done.
I ask a virtual butler ‘why does my leg hurt?’
I’ve just Googled leg pain for what I reckon is the first time in twenty years. There’s hundreds of explanations for what might have caused it. Sciatica. Arthritis. Shin splints. But somewhere at the bottom of the list, just like it did twenty years ago, it offered the suggestion of HIV. Please remember, do not as I do, these words are a cautionary tale. At this point, I have had penetrative sex no more than ten times. Always protected. It’s worth noting that before any of this, I have frequently obsessed I have made someone pregnant. I have stood in the offices of doctors pleading with them, “but a condom is only 98% effective…” I’m not sure at this point I could dismiss what was happening as ‘quirky’, but I still hadn’t twigged that what was wrong wasn’t in my epididymis but in my brain.
I have decided that I have contracted HIV from getting a tattoo done. A few months after the night after the Blair Witch, when I’m on the phone to NHS Direct for the fourth time in the same evening, the exhausted voice on the other end of the call asks me when I was born. I tell them ‘1980’. They pause. They laugh. They say, “ah, the iceberg!” I shudder. Turns out that loads of people my age think about the iceberg when they think about AIDS. It’s from an old public information film, from 1987, made and distributed in the wake of the AIDS epidemic. It’s preposterously bleak. ‘There is now a deadly virus’ reads the ledger, the words strapped atop a frozen wasteland. ‘Anyone can catch it from sex with an infected person’. A pause. ‘Man or woman’. There is a sound-effect layered over the footage. It’s supposed to sound like the howl of cold air. It sounds more like a banshee. ‘So far it’s been confined to small groups… but it’s spreading.’ The camera begins to pan down. ‘And unless we act now, it’s going to get much worse’. Deeper the camera goes. It’s beneath the water now. The word ‘AIDS’ is carved into the bottom of the glacier.
Hey, I’m not a parent. I’m not a teacher. I don’t know best practice for sex education. But I don’t think learning about ‘fear’ should take precedence to ‘love’ and ‘fun’.
I’ve since learned that OCD has very little to do with content and everything to do with faulty cognition. It doesn’t matter where fears and obsessions come from. What matters is how they’re processed. Think of it like this; the telly isn’t broken, the cable to the plug is. Oooh, that’s quite good! I don’t know everything about the illness. Nobody does. Nobody can completely agree on why some people have it and most people don’t, so it’s good that’s of little consequence to anything other than curiosity. Right now I’m trying to hold the thoughts at a distance. To acknowledge them as the folly they are. I’m holding them away from me, letting the skin fall away, until they’re just dust and bone. I’ve kept reanimating many of my core obsessions for years now so it’s some task. I’m Viktor Frankenstein, bitches.
I didn’t know I had OCD back then. That wouldn’t come for another nine years. Then, even when a doctor sat me down and explained what I had and what I could do about it, I wouldn’t accept it for close to another nine. I never considered the problem might be cognitive. Sitting in the waiting room of an STI clinic I was convinced my blood was diseased. Six times I went to that clinic. Five times I waited for the results. I didn’t bother the sixth time, I was gone, I didn’t care one way or the other anymore. What I’ve learned about OCD now is that it thirsts for perfection. For order. It can’t stand uncertainty. Sure, an AIDS test is an extremely effective method of deducing whether you’ve caught HIV or not. But maybe someone mixed up the blood? Maybe the label got smudged? These days I try to embrace uncertainty.
What I now know is OCD was my secret for years. I never told anyone. I just did weird shit that I explained away by being quirky. I think someone has been into my room while I’ve been out and they’re coming back to kill me. Heh. You’re so quirky! I think my boss can hear me moaning about them, despite them not even being in the country at the time. Heh. You’ve got such a good imagination! I’m not blaming anyone for not spotting it, for not getting it. What would you say? Genuinely, what would you? Post-diagnosis, post-acceptance, I’ve got friends with OCD. They’ll tell me about their fears of contamination, their inappropriately lovely sounding ‘magical thinking’ (the frankly bananas idea that thoughts can influence the physicality of surrounding areas), their worries people think they’re a rapist, that they’re a paedophile. And I hear them and all I can think is, “well, you’re not so snap out of it”.
I think that, and yet my life exists within a maze of illogical thoughts. What hope do you have?
I shared my secret years ago. Not out of bravery. Not to empower others. Not because I felt sorry for myself. But because there was no space left. I couldn’t hold it in any longer. Not only that, but the best way to irradiate shame is to take the heat out of it. To own it. You’re mental McMahon! Yeah, I know, but I’m strong too. And I’m durable. And resilient. I’m Viktor Frankenstein. And I’m Liza Minnelli.
My brain is ten different televisions playing at once. Sometimes some of them are louder than the others.
I kicked the AIDS thing, eventually. I realised one day that there was something wrong with my thinking and not my blood. I was given some pills. Seroxat, a drug that within a year - and a host of mass reported violent incidents blamed upon it - would have a reputation worse than Jack The Ripper. I don’t know what to say. It worked for me. It allowed me to think about something else other than AIDS. For a while, my most illogical irrational thought was that the five library books I’d had on loan for six months would result in me being sent to prison. Quaint really. And quirky. Horror would ensue, but for a while there I was fine with my batshit thoughts.
I can’t stop thinking about chopping my arm off at the moment. I’m thinking about it now. I know it’d be a terrible idea, but it doesn’t feel right attached to my arm. I have to tell myself it’s just a thought. It’s just a stupid, illogical thought. Like all the times I’ve read someone’s face - a raised eyebrow, too much blinking, a crooked smile - decided upon what a person was thinking, then subsequently got it wrong. Or the times that I’ve thought people can ‘hear’ my thoughts. Like the time I thought I was cursed and I was making bus crashes happen.
But this isn’t really a story about any of that.
This is a story about the worst thing that ever happened to me, and my fight to stop it from taking my life away from me.
You should know that I repurposed these words from something I wrote a few years ago. Why? Because I’m feeling full of purpose. I feel like I have a goal for the first time in years. We’re all looking for purpose from our lives. It’s been hard existing without one. I used to think my purpose was writing about indie bands. Or writing songs about girls I was too scared to talk to. Or making magazines. No, my purpose is to be what a scared kid of nineteen - hundreds of miles away from home, not knowing what the fuck was happening to him - needed all those years ago.
I will not rest until I’ve done this.
Hey. This Substack is how I make a living. Thousands of you subscribe. Hundreds of you pay for your subscriptions. Think about that when you go to sleep tonight. Lol.