Having had the wildly successful trip to my rental property, where I’d left my home overnight for the first time in 5 years, it was now time for a bigger challenge to my OCD. I was going to go away, not just round the corner, but outside London for the weekend. My new sponsor in Shagger and Lurve Addicts Anonymous, Ellie, had said she would travel with me on all these OCD busting trips. We had developed a very close relationship since I met her at the Slaa convention in November 2014. I decided on Oxford as, having lived there for 3 years, it was incredibly familiar and safe for me. After spending a week phoning up all the hotels to find one where the bedrooms were like Fort Knox, and crucially where there was a lock on the inside of the door and neither the staff nor aliens could get in at night, I finally found a hotel. We booked in advance and I then had to get my house ready for the trip. After scanning and emailing all 20,000 documents in my house (in case an armed robber partial to eating paper broke in) and photographing everything that was worth more than £5, I sorted out all my receipts and paperwork.
The crucial thing about this trip was that, unlike the visit to my rental property, I was not going to spend over three hours checking the house. For a start I wasn’t going to unplug anything, and I was aiming to do the checking in 10 minutes. With sessions from my trauma therapist Raquel Correia and the support of Ellie I managed to do this. I was so unconcerned about the house I didn’t even phone my neighbour Diane once in the three days we were away. We had a wonderful trip, shown around Oxford by my new friend Alasdair Clayre. I fell in love with the town again and resolved to be back. When I got back to my house everything was fine and I thought yes I can do it.
I became even closer to Ellie, telling her all my deepest, darkest, secrets in preparation for doing Step 8. This was writing a list of people you had harmed but the person I had harmed most was myself. I was terribly ashamed of some of the things I’d done to myself and hadn’t even told them to Sarah, my close friend from “Divorced from my Drug Dealer Anonymous”. Ellie seemed like the perfect sponsor. Not only did she love the fact that I’d been to Oxford and worked for the BBC but she offered to do things no sponsor I had had would ever do. Thus when I wanted to go into family therapy with my father she said that, if he wasn’t willing to come to London, she would drive me to his house in Sussex for the therapy. And she said she’d come with me to Jamaica to confront my family about the unpaid loans. She also wanted to pay for everything, fuelling my mummy complex. I thought she was amazing and that I had finally found my perfect replacement mother in the fellowship.
As I had dealt with the PTSD through the trauma therapy, I was no longer terrified to watch the news or thinking terrorist groups were coming to get me. I immersed myself in the news, desperate to catch up with all I’d missed. I found out that the world’s newest country South Sudan, whose first president had been my guerrilla “boyfriend” John Garang, had been immersed in civil war since the end of 2013. The fragile alliance of rebel groups had exploded along ethnic lines. The rebel groups in Southern Sudan had always had more splinters than a logging factory.
Nearer to home, the next big event was the UK General election of May 2015 which was widely predicted to be a hung parliament. I was extremely concerned about Labour getting in, as they were proposing rent controls on private landlords and a raft of other unfriendly measures. Before the elections, I noticed a certain scaliness developing on my stomach and saw the beginnings of a tail. I went to my doctor to find out what on earth was going on. The diagnosis was alarming: I was turning into a Tory. The prognosis was grim, many of those who contracted the disease never recovered for the rest of their lives. It tended to attack the Middle aged, like early onset Alzheimer’s. The only treatment was extensive reading of the lefty Guardian newspaper, but Tories, like others with serious mental health problems, didn’t want to take their medication and preferred to read the Daily Telegraph. When the Conservatives got in with a majority, I spent five minutes in silence clapping. What on earth had happened to my socialist views when I was young? The answer was that my house in Notting Hill was now worth too much.
After the election, I sent the novel to an agent in Oxford who called me seconds after reading the first 30 pages saying I was “very talented” and wanting to meet me straight away. I sent him the rest of the novel, which he didn’t like as much. But after I emailed him the blog which he said had “enormous potential” we met at BAFTA in May.
I had only just put the first post online and had got amazing feedback. He said he would be interested in representing me if I’d written substantially more.
I was desperate to do family therapy with my father, thinking that if he apologised for all the hurtful things he’d said, it would bring healing and reconciliation. He agreed to do the therapy straight away, which filled me with hope. But when it actually came to booking the appointment It was as hard to pin my father down as a particularly slippery eel that knew it was going to be made into a pie. We had the first session in which I confronted him with all the horrible things he’d said. Although he cried and apologized this was somewhat diminuished by the fact that he couldn’t remember saying any of them. These comments that had almost wrecked my life were just throwaway remarks to him. Still the fact that he’d agreed to the family therapy at all had gone some way to improving our relationship.
I was touched by the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States in July 2015. I watched the moving ceremony as the US embassy in Havana, closed in 1961 during the Cold War, was re-opened with the same four marines who had taken down the flag putting it back up. The US trade embargo on Cuba remained although Barak Obama was trying to lift it. I hoped for the sake of the struggling Cubans that he would succeed.
As my connection with Ellie deepened, we decided we would go one step further in my battle with OCD. She would accompany me abroad on my first trip out of England for 6 years. We decided on a writing retreat in Greece. She said she was very keen to go on a comedy writing workshop on the island of Skyros. I phoned to find out details about the accommodation but found they were totally unsympathetic to the OCD. I thought I would just about be able to manage the holiday if I went with Ellie.
But at the last minute she pulled out, saying she was “busy” and the “timing didn’t suit” her. I was terribly upset, as I had thought she would be my perfect travelling companion accompanying me on all my trips. I then asked her if she could at least take me to the airport, to show me a bit of support. She said “no I’ve got other plans.” After treating me like a daughter, I expected her to behave like a mother and put my interests in front of her own. But her reaction to my questioning why she couldn’t come was devastating. She refused to speak to me on the phone, instead sending me an email that she was dumping me as a sponsee. When I emailed her back, saying I was distraught as she was one of the most important people in my life, she refused to respond to my email or telephone me. I had been dumped by my perfect mother again. I was so upset I could hardly speak.
My friends rallied round, saying I could not let her rejection stop me from going to Greece. I couldn’t go alone to the writers’ retreat on Skyros as there was no mobile phone signal so I wouldn’t be able to call anyone. I messaged a Greek man, Toli, who I knew from “Divorced from my Drug Dealer Anonymous” and asked him if there were English speaking meetings in Athens. The Greek elections were coming up, I could do my first piece of journalism in 10 years of recovery by covering the elections and the refugee crisis. I’d been shocked by the pictures of almost a million refugees and migrants arriving in the European Union and wanted to find out more. Not only did Toli say there were meetings, but gave me the numbers of many people in the fellowship to call, as well as recommending a hotel, the Hotel Carolina. I decided the name was felicitous and determined that I would stay there.
The afternoon receptionist at the Hotel Carolina, Maria, was incredibly understanding about the OCD. So when I kept checking with her that the lock on the inside of the doors meant the staff couldn’t get in she kept reassuring me that I would be fine. I also couldn’t have a room with a balcony, as agile serial killers could, obviously, put a ladder up to the tenth floor. So I had to have the worst room in the hotel, a “blind” room that had no balcony or view. She kept assuring me on the phone that no one could get into the room.
The preparation for the trip was extensive. Firstly I had to get someone to take me to the airport as I needed some support for the trip. Sarah, who I was now becoming very close to again, said she would take me. As she had accompanied me on my last trip abroad in 2009, I thought her presence would calm me down. Then I had to catch up with my scanning, scanning and emailing everything I had accumulated since the Oxford trip.
My friend Susanna had given me the idea of taking portable locks with me, in case the lock on the inside of the hotel bedroom door wasn’t like a bank vault. I ordered 100 portable locks on Amazon at vast expense, some of which claimed they would even work on igloos. When this was all done I booked the hotel and the flight.
The morning I was supposed to go I had a horrible thought – how would I get out of the “blind” room in the event of fire. My OCD fear of marauding serial killers getting in was conflicting with my (equally strong) OCD fear of fire. I phoned the hotel and was told that no I couldn’t get out in the event of a fire. I panicked, wanting to pull out of the trip, phoning Susanna and my therapist, who finally calmed me down and persuaded me to go.
Sarah drove me to the airport and took umpteen pictures of me to put on Facebook when I came back. I then went through to Security. As I had not travelled for 6 years, I had missed all the earth shattering developments in airport security, such as the fact that you could only take lotions and creams of 100ml. My cosmetics, at 125ml, were clearly a terrorist threat. Quite how the extra 25ml could have blown up a plane is still a mystery. The security staff took childish glee in removing almost all of my cosmetics from my bag. If the Security Staff had nothing to confiscate their lives would be exceedingly boring. They then announced that the suitcase had tested positive, not for cocaine as I’d feared, but surprisingly for explosives. Although I’d had a lot of imaginary terrorists in my house, I wasn’t aware of any real ones unless my Polish cleaner had been moonlighting for Al-Queda. After a painfully long pause, a high up security bod came over to test my suitcase to confirm it wasn’t made of semtex. I looked at my watch: I had two minutes to clear security or I would be thrown off the flight. These unknown terrorist connections were very inconvenient. Eventually they let me go. I hurled myself at the departure gate. Luckily I made it.
I was terrified on the plane and was practically sick as, apart from my fear of leaving the country, I was also, as always, worried that the plane would crash. I was much more frightened than I had been when I went into a war zone in Sudan in 1996, when I had no regard for my life. But I had three magic weapons in my hand luggage that calmed me down: Bunny, my falling apart toy that I’d had since I was born, the Bible and all my 100 portable locks. It was obvious that I might need them on the plane.
As the plane took off I thought, this is one of the biggest things I have ever done in my life. Not only was I going abroad for the first time in 6 years but travelling alone for the first time in my entire 10 year recovery. After years of therapy, I had finally grown up.
Next week: loft conversions on the Acropolis and hunting bananas in Athens as I do my first piece of journalism for my entire 10 years of recovery.