Staying safe with counting: fun with OCD.

It occurred to me that some people might consider my title disrespectful – oh well. I thought about changing it, but decided not to. I also couldn’t decide if I should include a trigger warning, but since my “about” page mentions mental illness early on, I think we’ll consider it said.  

I count. I’ve mentioned this before. I suspect I do it for quite some time before I notice. The counting is part of my obsessive-compulsive disorder, a mental illness that can manifest in various ways. The list of compulsions I’ve undertaken is long: add the rest of the world, and the list of compulsive coping behaviours becomes extensive in the extreme.

After bulimia and cutting, counting is my most consistent OCD behaviour. The purpose the counting (or any compulsive tic) serves is two-fold: it helps me feel “right” while it simultaneously helps me not feel “wrong.” At least, that’s what the experts tell me. [i]

These days, when I become aware of what I’m doing, I can figure out what set me off. That’s a new development. Decades back, I didn’t know my emerging compulsions were an illness wrapped in an attempt to cope. I just figured the behaviours were further proof that I was flawed.

The counting itself is automatic though the behaviour gets worse when I’m stressed or in distress. All I can say about not noticing is that I’m there, but not really. I can count for some time before I realize that I’m doing it. I don’t even get the satisfaction of reaching interestingly high numbers. I count to whatever number currently seems right (presently, it’s number eight), but most of the time, it stays low.

I generally count even numbers, except when I don’t. Eight is the number that my brain is currently focusing on. It doubled things from the previous four the other day for no reason I could tell. It was four for some time, and I liked it: four has a pleasing symmetry: it lines up with directions and seasons. It made me feel connected with my crazy.

The counting is rhythmic. It matches itself to whatever I’m doing. Step-two-three, mix-four-five, swallow-seven-eight, repeat. I often wonder how long I’ve been counting for when I come to an awareness of my behaviour. Has it been minutes or more? I rarely notice at number one. I’m usually in the middle – five, six, seven, eight! – when I come to.

The count isn’t the obsession. That’s what trendy sufferers make the mistake of assuming. I liked it better when they were focused on gluten. The obsession isn’t the behaviour. The obsession is what lies beneath. The counting (or whatever) is about keeping the obsession away. [ii] It’s about keeping me safe by turning the mundane into “magic.” It’s not conscious – I don’t think “safe space” as I cycle through the numbers over and over again: it’s an automatic response with the weight of years.

The counting doesn’t always exist in isolation. Sometimes I count real things. Streetlights I pass, pedestrians marching in the morning sun, tiles in the ceiling. I still adhere to the rules; I count only to the magic number before beginning again. Sometimes, the counting doesn’t calm, and the situation escalates. For instance, sometimes, the walking and counting grow to include a need to avoid pavement cracks. Escalation is one of the things that pops me back into my head. I haul on the reins as soon as I realize my OCD has been given her head.  [iii]

Often the obsessive counting is fear-based. Sufferers unconsciously believe that their tic will stop a specific bad thing from coming to pass. Do X, stop Y. My obsessive counting is less precise.  My counting is more akin to ensuring things happen the “right” way. Count your way to a guarantee. I don’t count to make sure the airplane lands okay, and I’m grateful.

It’s interesting to me that so much of my dysfunction hinges on the “one true way.” To do things wrong, to be imperfect, is to fail. My dysfunction has always focused on perfection or bust. Not everyone connects to their neuroses that way. I used to wonder about the cause: was it the highly-sensitive person, the early trauma, the oldest-child birth order – but the whys seem distant and irrelevant now. Many of my compulsions are habitual, though some remain hot. I don’t need the habits to keep me safe anymore: I’ve let much of the past go. Unfortunately, my compulsions haven’t realized that.

My counting behaviour isn’t fixed in stone. My current number is eight, but I’ve had three, four, and twelve as numbers in the past. Each time, the number became the new one true way. Counting was the way to stay calm and safe. Safe from what is always a little vague. [iv] I’d even count when I was bingeing. If the counting was trying to contain the bulimia, it was wildly outclassed.

That my numbers change is pretty typical for counting OCD. The requirements are fluid beyond needing numbers. You might count to a specific number or a number that “feels” right (though “right” is subject to change – mental illness doesn’t play fair). It could be only even numbers, or only odd, or only multiples of thirteen. If you’re thirsty, it doesn’t matter what’s in the glass, only that you’re drinking.

OCD responds quite well to treatment, both pharmacological and other. One isn’t destined to count until the end of time. For me, permanently addressing my counting tic isn’t a huge priority. It bothers me a little when I notice, but dealing with it in any kind of “eliminate it” way is far down on my priority list. It’s neurotic, but as long as I avoid escalation, relatively harmless. My other issues – the eating disorder, the cutting, the depression – need more consistent work. It’s important to pay attention to your spoons.

The good thing about being me and having years of mental illness under my belt is that I can decide which neuroticism needs attention and at what level. Not all of them do, at least not all of the time, though my tendency to “please, perform, and perfect” is apparent even in recovery. [v]

I chose the talk therapy/CBT/support-big-pharma treatment route for myself; other choices are available. I engaged in one popular therapy, ERP (exposure and response), without knowing the name: it helped quite a bit. With ERP, you interact with your stressor while learning to respond differently. You start to realize that uncomfortable feelings aren’t fatal and don’t require mitigation. You’ll want to do this with a therapist, at least at first: the response can be intense.

My exposure to ERP happened at my last inpatient for my eating disorders. Overcoming my feelings about food in my stomach was a killer. Though, if we’re honest, eating disorders are too. Part of my recovery is learning to sit and wait post-eating as the feelings and fears swirl about, and the food starts to digest. Learning to sit and wait works well with OCD too.

graphic credit: Gary VanDalfsen


[i]Counting OCD: Why do I always count?”  https://www.treatmyocd.com/blog/counting-numbers-ocd

[ii] Obsessive thoughts can be about other people, especially about keeping them safe. I’m grateful that’s not my pathology.

[iii] I very rarely end mid-count. I finish the cycle: I’m not a heathen.

[iv] When you push on the fears and feelings, you often find that they rest on sand.

[v] Brené Brown. https://www.forbes.com/sites/danschawbel/2013/04/21/brene-brown-how-vulnerability-can-make-our-lives-better/?sh=3262126936c7

By Em

I like writing. Words help me unpack my thoughts so things can start to make sense. Once I have both myself and the universe figured out, I plan to take up macrame. "Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing, and learn as you go." E. L. Doctorow

5 comments

  1. This was a fascinating post for me. I’m always curious about various disorders.

    Coincidentally, I am reading a book in which the main character has OCD and one of her compulsions involves knowing on doors… eight times. Seeing that you mentioned eight as well made me wonder if it is truly random or if there are certain numbers that are just more appealing to people.

    It surprised me to hear that you’re not always conscious about your counting until you are already in the midst of it.

    ERP… I’ve never heard of that particular name, though I am familiar with the concept. That’s also how some people learn to defeat their phobias. However, I believe it’s somewhat controversial (so many people deem it not sensitive enough, etc.). I’m not surprised it works for you as you seem to be very reasonable and like figuring things out. Or so I think.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There are certainly cultural number preferences and quirks. 😌

      It’s a weird thing. The easiest way to explain it is that noticing is like the volume increases.

      I’d never heard it referred to that way either and I can see why it would be controversial. My first attempt was almost traumatic. But yes, I think you’re right in that it’d likely work best if you skew towards reason and logic. Which I do, except in a dark basement. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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