Monday, November 21, 2011

Counting: one, two, three

I think counting was my first manifestation of OCD. I practiced it mostly as a child. It was only as an adult that I recognized it as OCD. As a child, I thought I was being quite creative at keeping my mind busy while I waited somewhere.
I did a lot of waiting when I was a little girl. One of my brothers was sick a lot, and I spent a lot of time in hospital waiting rooms and doctors’ offices.
I must have been around seven or eight years old when I became obsessed with the number three, especially when it related to counting letters on signs, billboards, breakfast cereal boxes, anything.
Silently, never aloud, I counted every letter of a sign or whatever, hoping to make it turn out right. It was right if the letters ended up on the count of three with the last letter. In other words, the total number of letters was divisible by three.
Without thinking, I began to automatically break down sentences, phrases, or just words into threes, any time, anywhere.
I didn’t tell anyone about this game I played. I didn’t know that I was obsessively thinking of the number three and compulsively counting letters and punctuation marks. I didn’t know that I was compulsively counting to relieve the anxiety and fear I felt.
And it seems to be a practice that I still sometimes fall back on without thinking. Some months ago, I had an upsetting call on my cell phone while my husband and I were having lunch in a restaurant. After I got off the phone, I looked out the window and started counting the windows in a building across the street. It took me a minute to realize what I was doing.
It’s difficult to stop the racing thoughts, whether it’s numbers or something else. Meditation is hard for me, but I’m working on it.
I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing or in between—the way we sometimes develop compulsions to relieve our anxiety. We are trying to comfort ourselves. That seems to be a good thing. But the process goes haywire. What are you thoughts on this?

As an example, my counting ritual went something like this:
I am in the waiting room at the hospital. On the wall beside the swinging doors that lead to the real part of the hospital, there is a sign. It says, “No visitors under age 12 allowed past these doors.”
I am under twelve, so I’m sitting on one of the green leather sofas waiting for Mama and Daddy to come down from my brother’s room..
I look around. I don’t feel like reading my book anymore. I look at the sign by the swinging doors. Wonder if I can make it turn out?
I go through all the letters and numbers: N-o-v, i-s-i, t-o-r, s-u-n, d-e-r, a-g-e, 1-2-a, l-l-o, w-e-d, p-a-s, t-t-h, e-s-e, d-o-o, r-s. It doesn’t work. Two left over.
I include the spaces between the words and numbers: n-o-space, v-i-s, i-t-o, r-s-space, u-n-d, e-r-space, a-g-e, space-1-2, space-a-l, l-o-w, e-d-space, p-a-s, t-space-t, h-e-s, e space-d, o-o-o, r-s. One left over.
But, there’s that period at the end. If I add that to the r and s of “doors,” it works out. But the period is not the only dot on the sign. There are the dots over the letters “i” in visitors. Aren’t they part of it all? Do I have to count them?
If I do, how else can I make it turn out right? There aren’t any pictures on the sign. No lines underneath the words. No exclamation marks. No commas. Even if I change “12” to “twelve,” it doesn’t work.
I go over and over the sign, seeing if I made a mistake counting by three’s. No mistake. It will work out only if I count the period and not the dots over “visitors.”
Okay. That’s what I’ll do. I won’t count the dots over “visitors.” I’ll consider them to be part of the letter i. That makes sense. The letter i wouldn’t really be an i if it didn’t have that dot over it, unless it was a capital i.
Now I go over the sign a couple of more times. It works out perfectly. One-two-three, one-two-three. Kind of like a waltz. Perfect. I’m a little proud of myself. If there’s a way to make it work out, I can usually find it.

Can you imagine this kind of thinking in a child?


  1. I've read all your posts and enjoy your writing. It's obvious that a lot of what you are saying has already resonated with other OCD sufferers.
    I'm such an advocate for OCD awareness that I just can't control myself :) and have to ask if you have ever tried Exposure Response Prevention Therapy??
    I look forward to following your blog....and my condolences on the loss of your beloved pet.

  2. ocdtalk, Thank you for your kind comments! No, I've never tried Exposure therapy. Through the years, I've worked with therapists on changing the way I think about things. And I've been on medication since I was diagnosed (officially) at age 27. My psychiatrist asked me not too long ago if I was interested in more therapy, and I told him not right now. I am on meds for depression and anxiety, but nothing specific for OCD right now. So I think that's why there's been something of a surge in symptoms. I'm trying to use my thinking to help control symptoms. But I think I will ask my doc when I see him in December about what he thinks. Thank you for asking, though. You are a true advocate, and that's a good thing!

  3. I can imagine that kind of thinking as I was a counter too, although the number three was not a particularly relevant number for me. I also broke down words into individual letters, then include the spaces, the dots on the 'i's and 'j's, other punctuation and even the odd dirty mark to reach that 'perfect' number.

    My safe numbers were/are varied but could never be divided by six and, like you, I still resort to this counting method to feel safe and to passify my intrusive thoughts and obsessions.

    It's quite comforting to know that I am not the only counter in this way but I do find it extraordinary that two people who have never met, probably on separate continents (i'm British), can have almost identical OCD symptoms!

  4. OCD Anonymous: Isn't that amazing? I remember as a child and teenager, I thought I was the only person in the world who did things like this. I could never tell anyone about it, because then they would think I was crazy. I never thought of my number 3 (and 9) as safe, but that's a good way to describe it.

  5. Again, ME TOO! ME TOO!

    I still have a thing about threes. In fact, last week in therapy as we were talking, it came up that I was obsessed with the phrase "Third Time's a Charm" and I was worried that something bad would happen.

    My therpist had to break it down for me that I was having the following OCD symptoms: "magical thinking", counting and my obsession with threes and harm avoidance.

  6. Hi...I had the same thing started when I was 12 . I started my meds named clofranil when I was 22 and stopped when I was 27 . Now m 28. I feel my ocd symptoms are back. My brain is tired all the time. For no reason. looking forward for something natural or cbt. Atleast want to give it a try without meds..from India.

    1. Good luck and I hope you do find something that helps.


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