As featured in Issue 15 of Oh Comely, Apr/May 2013. This is my first piece of writing about what it is like to suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Fear is a magic number
I know my fear inside out: it’s the number three and it has been since I was nine. I have been counting ever since.
Back then it used to be things a child could do: touching a door handle an amount of times before being dragged away, closing my eyes a number of times whilst cycling near a busy junction, poking a scab and gritting my teeth. I knew checking fitted with behaviour described as an obsessive-compulsive disorder, and I remember being told if I could shake it off by the time I was eleven, then there would be nothing to worry about. If I couldn’t, I needed to learn how to control it. I learnt to count. Whatever counting I could get away with, I would indulge in it. I tempted fate, I kept it secret, and more than anything, I believed I was alone in doing this.
Now that I’m older, my counting is simpler: I count in fours to get away from three. Four times to check the door is locked, four times to check my laptop is hidden away from burglars. Touching my head with one foot off the floor four times if I think a bad thought such as missing my train, or touching my neck four times if I think I am in danger as I turn down my street in the dark.
You see three might hold some type of trinity for some, but it is not my magic number. Three cannot be split in half, is hard to share, hard to sort, hard to multiply. Three is ugly and uneven, a spare wheel, surplus supplies, or something missing. Three pops up when it doesn’t need to. The primary colours together appear as an omen, a flag of bad luck. The last thing I want to own is three of the same things.
What I didn’t know until last year is that the checking is only half of it. The thoughts I thought were mine alone fitted in too, like the dark side to the light-hearted, easy-to-mimic counting. Thoughts that seep in from the back of my mind, crimson and splodges of black, refusing to be absorbed, determined to be noticed, as I try with all my might not to think of the worst possible thought happening to me.
So I count on counting. On the good days, finding fours means good luck; it’s insurance. Things might go wrong but they could go so much worse. On bad days I can’t leave my flat, I cannot stop the checks; everything from my breathing pattern to footsteps to boiling a kettle or looking in the mirror must be counted and regimented. On these days I believe the worst will not only happen but is written in the tea I drink, how I put on the clothes I wear and the way I brush my teeth.
Some checks come and go, and over the years they have vanished as quickly as they arrived. But no matter what, I check the front door latch sixteen times before going to sleep. Four times four plus a few extras to be extra safe. My boyfriend laughs as he turns over in bed. I guess those are the parts the people around you see, the surface of the OCD. When people spot colour-coded book cases and teapot spouts arranged in the same 45 degree angle I can understand how it is easy to trivialise. But those outer habits are just the tip of the iceberg for the rest. The bookcases, the teapots, the counting: all simply what has manifested in daylight from a catalogue of habits steadily building on the inside. Because it will have context; the fear has reason. I do not see it as irrational; I am merely trying to control the variables. If I do enough right, I can limit how much goes wrong.