There Is a Bully in My Head

Elisha Oluyemi

On Most Nights (1)

  1. I twist the key inside the keyhole, and the click in the mortise confirms that I’ve locked myself in. Then, I pull out the key and toss it on the bed. This act looks simple, but it is laborious—since I don’t do it once. 
  2. I gaze at the locked door. My stomach churns. For a moment, I feel like I’ve just imprisoned myself. 
  3. I stagger towards the bed and crash down on it the way actors in action movies fall when shot in the head.
  4. By now, the time is midnight or 1 or sometime around 4am. I’m about to sleep this late because my day is typically riddled with activity. When I’m not editing a client’s novel, I’m designing their book cover. Otherwise, I’m beta-reading for a writer, advising another who believes I’m immune to rejections, or brainstorming how to promote my online magazine and freelancing services. Hehe, every moment has me busy and worrying. After all, I am a boy who wants has to make an impact.
  5. I yawn—I should sleep now because although my night has just started, it will end soon. 

On Some Nights (1)

  1. Heaving a slow, deep sigh, I pull the blanket over my head and fall silent with the night. I always sleep on my side. I feel comfortable in that posture, and sleep comes fast. 
  2. In this serenity, my mind is blank and my eyes are shut. Yet, in my head, I am levitating, but without wings. I am a trunk barrelling over hills and deserts, places I’ve never really set my eyes on; this might seem normal like, after all, it’s a dream; it happens to everyone—except I’m the one who induces it. I like that all nights be filled with adventures and strangeness, so I always imagine myself in a strange adventure.
  3. Now as I fly, a rumble rises from behind me. I look back. Winged creatures are flapping their wings as they dart toward me. Game on! Adventure’s started. A real dream that I’ll soon lose myself to. 

On Most Nights (2)

  1. Unlike on some other nights, my artificial dream this time doesn’t connect with my subconscious. It fails, and sleep pulls farther away. 
  2. I open my eyes and let them rest on the lamp sitting by my bed.
    —Not again, Gawd, I mutter as I perceive the footsteps of a bully. I shut my eyes, puff out air. Please. Be kind. 
  3. Go check the door.
    —Is it really locked?
    —Fuck! Fuck! my voice rises.
    —What if it’s not?
    —It doesn’t matter!
    —It’s risky. Check it!
    I clench my teeth as I hear the final order. I clench my teeth because there is no voice. There’s only a wild spell in the air bidding me to be a slave again. Yet as if I do not know it, I sit up, yank off my blanket, and crawl off the bed, my jaws throbbing. My fingers reach for the light switch, press it on. I walk back to the bed and retrieve the key I’d put away. I also pick up my phone and click on the flashlight, channelling the rays into the narrow space between the door and the door jamb. I see the deadbolt already fastened within the mortise. Yet, I twist the key in the keyhole. It doesn’t budge. Of course, it won’t. The door has been locked all along.
  4. Silently, I walk back to my bed and lie down, hoping there’ll be no more of this.
  5. However, before I fall asleep, there is a repeat. And another. And another. 

On Some Other Nights

    1. As I hope for an early sleep onset, my scalp prickles. But as my index finger slips into my hair to scratch, something else beckons.
      —Lisha, comb your hair.
      —You have to.
      —Geez, it’s not like I’m going out.
      —Something may happen to you.
      —I’ve had a busy day. My voice rises. I should at least rest in peace!
    2. I roll over to my other side and look at the small table that bears my combs, perfume bottles, and cream tubes. Well, my comb is beckoning. And woe betide me if I fail to pick it up.
      —Fuck you, I mutter.
    3. I reluctantly crawl off the bed and walk to the table. Pick up my comb and rake it through my high fade afro. Once it feels groomed enough, I drop the comb.
    4. As I turn away, the toothed thing calls me back. —Pick up the comb and lay it down quietly. Remove the trapped hairs too.
    5. God, I want to cry. I can just go back to bed without obeying. But I swear I won’t be able to sleep.
    6. Hissing, I pick up the comb, remove the hairs, and lay it back quietly on the table.
    7. I’m lying on the bed again, my facial muscles contracting with apprehension. Sleep, finally, is coming.

One Night in 2012 

When I’m roughly 12…

  1. Mum has just finished preparing supper. I’m in the kitchen with her—I always am. I have to be on standby so I can not only help her but also learn how she prepares food.
    —Ṣe on wo mi? Hope you’re watching me. I want my sons to be able to cook for themselves. You won’t need to rely on your wife to cook for you. 
  2. I nod. I understand. My dad cooks for us at times and he does it well. I envy that. If I can learn how to cook like Mum and Dad, in the future I’ll also cook for my wife and children.
    Mo n wo bẹ ṣe n se. I’m watching you, ma, I reply.
  3. —Bring me plates, Mum says.
  4. I go to the dish rack and pick five ceramic plates. Mum takes one and dishes the meal. She takes another, and another.
  5. While she’s serving the dish, my fingers itch. I look at the plate in my hand and I hear the order: Place your index finger in the middle of the plate and count to ten. 
  6. I frown, because that is weird. But I feel uneasy, gawd, a nagging feeling threatening that something bad might happen to whoever eats from that plate if I don’t obey. 
  7. Do it. 
  8. And I do. I stick out my index finger and fix it in the middle of the plate. I feel like I’m performing a ritual. Mum probably also thinks the same way, because while I’m still counting, she turns to see my weird little act, and she frowns and puts away the serving spoon.
    Kini ìtumò yanmayanma yen? What’s the meaning of that rubbish?
  9. Nervous, I shake my head. I couldn’t tell her I felt compelled to do that, that I’ve been feeling compulsive lately. But I sigh when she collects the plate from me and still dishes food into it. I sigh. Maybe she doesn’t think much of it. I wasn’t performing a ritual, after all, was I?
  10. As I sit at the table, eating quietly, I curse the cause of my compulsive behavior. And I know: tomorrow, the bully in my head will ask me to point again in the middle of the plate; then it will become a ritual, and I’ll have to do it so fast Mum won’t be able to catch me in the act. 

On Specific Days 

  1. I’ve just withdrawn some cash with a mobile money operator and I’ve been given a receipt. The receipt follows me home and stays somewhere in one of my books. Another receipt comes. Then another. And another. Till I have a lot of them. I’m hoarding them because one day a policeman may come and demand to see if the physical cash I have really belongs to me.
    I know it’s a dumb thing to do. But what if a policeman really comes?
  2. I’ve just exhausted my perfume and antiperspirant roll-on, so I visit a nearby store to restock. When I return home, I don’t dispose of the empty containers; I instead arrange them alongside the new ones. The table now bears too many unnecessary objects.
    —It doesn’t matter, Lisha. You might need the empty containers later.
    —For what use exactly?
    —Lisha, the future is for those who prepare.
    —No, I’m disposing of them now!
    —Try it, then.
    Of course, I don’t dare. I/someone might really need them later.
  3. My used drug packs, as well. I can’t part with them. A doctor might one day ask for the history of my drug use.
  4. And my old clothes, my old books, my answer sheets from secondary school, I store them all.
  5. I’m walking to my apartment. There are bulrushes on one side of the street. If I pass by the bulrushes without pulling at one of its blade-like stems to latch onto it like a gem, I may lose my mind.
    Don’t lose that stem, the bully is telling me. Take it to your room. Store it. You may need it someday.
    It’s unreasonable, I know, storing a goddamn plant stem in my room. But what if someone is about to die and it’s only this bulrush stem that can save them? It still doesn’t make sense!
    But, I tell you again, to disobey is to lose my mind.

On Days I Feel My Life Might Become Disorderly

  1. My books are often arranged in neat blocks.
    2018-2022 — Undergraduate years:
    I share a hostel with my older brother. I pick small fights with him whenever he takes a book from my stack and fails to rearrange the books neatly. If I don’t challenge him, the stack will always look rough, and I’ll never be comfortable. My eyes will keep drifting in the direction of the books, my hands itching to do a rearrangement.
    — “Can’t you leave things arranged? Do you have to scatter them?” I snap at my brother. I’m irritated because there’s a terrible anxiety I must bow to. And, bowing, for my life, is a medication.
  2. The curtain isn’t covering the closed door well. I climb off the bed to adjust it so that it covers the tiny space between the door and the doorjamb—because the thing in my head is saying: That curtain is like a sturdy wall sealing off third parties. Dress it properly.
    What fucking third party? I snap.
    You never know. But it’s better to be safe after all.
    At least once I’ve dressed the curtain, you’ll leave me be, right?
    —It’s for your good.
  3. I often itch to call this thing the voice of the deity. But can God be so persistent he’d drive me mad night and day? 

In Times of Prayer, In Times of Reading. 

  1. This compulsion… It steals even into my prayers.
    On a day when I must pray and then get back to my neverending work, I’m reading a chapter of the scripture. And the voice comes: Read Verse 23 15 times. Make a mistake and you restart it.
    Once I try to shake it off, the condemnation comes: Your prayer won’t be answered.
    I feel terrible. The threat feels fake. But does it hurt to yield? I ask myself. Of course, it hurts. It’s wasting my time. I’m drifting away from sanity. I’m losing control of my own mind. God is not the one manipulating/threatening me; it’s my mind playing me. I know this, but I still carefully read the verse 15 times like a slave doing a task with sickening apprehension because right behind him stands a cruel taskmaster cracking a whip.

On the Craziest Days

  1. The entrance to the flat where I live has three unrailed steps. I must climb on the pointed edges of the steps to enter the flat instead of stepping on the flat slabs as normal people do. There’s no reason for that. There’s just this good feeling I believe comes with it—something that assures me it will bring me good luck.
    And if I do otherwise?
    —Bad luck.
    —But what if people see me this way?
    —Don’t fret. Not everything is normal for everyone.
  2. Walls and pillars magnetise me especially if they are a few metres away. My fingers itch. I must touch the wall, or else there will be consequences.
    And woe betide me if, that day, I have to negotiate a deal with a client or do a presentation or speak in a live class or take a risk or lead the choir. Yes, woe betide me if I have such important tasks and I fail to obey my compulsion. I’d feel negative and grossly pessimistic. On such days, I turn desperate just to touch that wall, that pillar, and tame my unease. I have high hopes for those activities so I can’t help but become crazy to secure my good luck. After all, bowing is a medication.

On Days of Rebellion

  1. Frustrated and sick, I browse the internet for a possible solution to what might be Obsessive-compulsive Disorder, this demon that has been stealing my peace for the past 11 years. And I saw this on
    Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a disorder in which people have recurring, unwanted thoughts, ideas, or sensations (obsessions). To get rid of the thoughts, they feel driven to do something repetitively (compulsions).
  2. I’m currently unable to book a consultation with a therapist and get on medications. But the past few months have seen me going radical. The best way to get rid of an obsession is to starve it.
  3. And I’m starving it. I say to my disorder these days: Do your worst, you jerk! Your fucking worst! I’m alone in my room; no one will hear me as I cuss at an unseen-yet-omnipresent bully. No one will see me as I ball my fingers, almost drawing blood. No one will see me when I scream and growl and curse, heaving hard, just to repress these compulsions and disobey. No one. And when I’m in public, I can only clench my teeth and squirm so that no one will have to see me get away from people just to touch a goddamn wall. It affects my daily life, even my relationship with people—it’s hard to say further how badly this thing, like the bony hands of a facehugger, has grabbed the head of my mind. Its tail is wrapped around my neck, and its proboscis is down my throat, sucking out my sanity, my life. 
  4. Nevertheless, I’ll be damned if I don’t fight. I’m fighting, really. I’m learning to keep the aggression on the tip of my tongue. I’m learning to cry and scream in rebellion: Do your worst, you jerk! Your fucking worst!

Elisha Oluyemi is a Yorùbá writer and the editor-in-chief of Fiery Scribe Review. Winner of the Brigitte Poirson Literature Prize for Short Story (2023), the Ikenga Short Story Prize (2023), and the Lagos-HCAF Short Story Award (2023), he was shortlisted for the 2022 YWC Award (Short Story Category). Elisha is a mentor under the SprinNG Literary Movement. His writing is (forthcoming) in Strange Horizons, Mystery Tribune, Broken Antler, Mukana, Isele, The Bitchin’ Kitcsh, Sledgehammer, and elsewhere. For fun and relaxation, Elisha learns Korean, listens to classical music, and studies criminal minds. Website: 


*Image by jurien huggins on Unsplash

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