What If Nothing Is Real?: Existential OCD

Part 2: A first-person account of existential obsessions.

Posted Aug 19, 2020

P C/Pexels
Source: P C/Pexels

The Lily Show is a short non-fiction story about Lily Bailey's experiences with existential OCD, a form of OCD where obsessions may relate to the nature of existence, and the meaning of life. The Lily Show is a short story featured in What Doesn't Kill You: 15 Stories of Survival.

You can read Part 1 of this post here.

Still though, it didn’t make any sense—time didn’t work like that. It was unnatural, it was just wrong, it was fundamentally unscientific. On the one hand: my father, in faded Calvin Klein boxers with a hole over the right butt cheek, kneeling on the kitchen flagstones in February, dustpan and brush in hand, going at the floor at 100 miles an hour. The hair on his head and Saturday stubble was, let me be emphatic about this, salt-and-pepper colored.

On the other hand: the dark black hairs all over the tiles.

Next to him, a leather-bound trunk studded with brassy circles down all the sides that he’d brought up from the cellar, initials IB stamped on it in black ink. See, he said, this was my school box, it contained everything I needed, from sweets and stationary to gym kit and oh ...

Also it contained my razor. It had slipped out of a discoloured cloth bag and split open with a crack when it landed on the floor. Big black thing, kinda resembled a microphone, but the top had three silver circles on it so it looked like a flying saucers for ants or something—that was the bit that had popped off—and out of it had spilled literally hundreds of short dark hairs.

That’s my 15-odd-year-old stubble, he said; he was laughing, he sighed. He told me to get the dustpan and brush.

Old hair goes grey, which is why when dad shaves now he speckles the sink silver with little hairs that look like iron filings. There’s no way that hair can be 15 years old, I should say, because it looks like it was shaved this morning off the face of a man a lot younger than you.

I don’t say that, just hand him the dustpan and brush from under the sink and then sit twisting my fingers under the chair and filling with this not nice feeling, and then more than filling: I am overflowing, and I have to leave the room.

Because ever sat in a café and become aware that the radio is playing down low and you wonder if it was on all along or if someone at the counter only just switched it on and now you’re tuned in to it you can’t ignore it and you wonder how you ever did before?

That is the feeling. 

Like duh something’s obviously majorly wrong with the world and how can I have lived for 10 whole years and not have noticed it before?

Because dad wouldn’t lie so if he says the stubble is 15 years old then it is but also how can it be when 15 years later the hair on his face is grey and then the hair that doesn’t even have the advantage of being connected to a replenishing life source is black black black?

When things exist that can’t exist, then that means that the bigger thing they are in is not real, for instance when you watch a TV show with magic in, it can feel real but really everyone is just pretending, and it’s still here 19 years later, it’s in the knickers I haven’t been able to throw away for two years because I got my period in them and put them in the laundry basket and when I came to wash them the next day, there they were scrunched in with the dirty clothes I wore yesterday, entirely clean.

It is excruciating to ask everyone in your home—even the men!!!—if they washed your bloodstained knickers and put them back with your dirty clothes to trick you, but these are the things I must do in the name of research.

Anyway everyone said no, I did not touch your knickers Lily, so the problem remains that something happened that could not happen in a world that follows physical laws and makes any kind of sense. I call these things glitches. I hold them up to the light and squint through them, trying to discredit them, so I can believe that things are really real. For instance, of course now I am grown up I know that my dad having black hairs in an old razor and grey hairs on his chin is not incompatible with the sensible order of things.

But months after that, my dad and I were driving along the M25 in summer and I saw a Ford Fiesta with snow on its roof, and I said dad did you see that car with snow on its roof, and he said no, of course, there isn’t a car with snow on the roof, it’s 30 degrees out here and I know you won’t believe me, you’ll believe him, or you’ll think that I imagined it or made a mistake because really it was just a white roof box or something. And that incenses me, that you think I’m lying or confused, because there was snow on that car’s roof, there absolutely was.

Also, when I was at school my English teacher showed us The Truman Show. She wheeled the TV in on a plastic table right up to the front of the class and everyone was fist-pumping under the desks and whispering ‘yeeeesaaah!’ because this meant that we wouldn’t have to do any actual work in the lesson. Probably I was pleased too. But I was definitely not pleased when the film started, because the film is all about a guy going about his business in his day to day life until one day he realises that all the people always react to him in exactly the same way. So then he tries to do stuff they won’t expect to get different reactions from them, and he discovers that they are all actors and actually he has lived his entire life on a film set and his life is just an entertaining experiment that gets broadcast as an evening show on all TVs across America.

So then I started to wonder if I was in my own Truman Show. The Lily Show. And I started acting like Truman Burbank and trying to surprise people by doing things they wouldn’t expect, like spraying aerosol into the smoke detector at school for 30 seconds to see if all the actor students and teachers would be on set to come out when the fire alarm went off if they weren’t expecting it. Because it was an unplanned event so maybe they would be on their breaks somewhere through a door in the sky I couldn’t see, and they’d all have to come tumbling back through, their half-drunk coffees in one hand and scripts in the other, to get in line for the fire register.

But all that happened was that I made myself quite unpopular for a while. I urgently needed to pull my socks up and get my head on straight, or my life was going to go down the pan.

What Doesn't Kill You: 15 Stories of Survival is published by Unbound and edited by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska.