But First, Let Me Count to Five

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“GET UP!” I screamed at the top of my lungs at my boyfriend, pulling at him to get off the bed. “I NEED TO FIX IT NOW! MOVE!” He laughed and played with me, pushing me away. I melted on the floor in a fit of tears and defeat, wanting to hit him, wanting to cry, wanting to fix the bed sheets because they weren’t even.

He realized I wasn’t playing, got up immediately and started straightening the sheets and trying to calm me down. “One…two…three…four…five…six…seven…eight…nine…ten. Ten seconds to fix the bed.” That’s what I counted but not out-loud. It’s never out-loud.

Once everything looked even and to my liking, my tears dried up and I felt ready to finish the movie and move on like nothing happened. “What the hell…” he looked at me confused because what just happened wasn’t normal—at least not to him. To him and everyone else, I’m stubborn, weird or spoiled.

I have obsessive-compulsive disorder. Not the “catch all” term to describe certain behaviors—the kind that’s a mental anxiety disorder. I hadn’t told him, or many others for that matter.

“Oh, you’re so organized you must be OCD.”

“I always wash my hands I must have OCD.”

“Everyone’s a little OCD at times.”

But no, you’re not. Not everyone is a little OCD “at times.” Only 1 in 40 adults and 1 in 100 children in the United States actually live with OCD It’s a real life mental disorder, not a joke; it’s not a compliment and not a way to describe “odd” behavior.

When I told him, it clicked. I count everything all the time. In the car, the volume needs to be set to a certain number. My sandwiches need to be made in a specific order with a specific amount of condiments, separated by colors. I need to know where he is at all times because what if he is in an accident? I saw one on the news; it was probably him (even though it wasn’t his car). There was a fire downtown in Houston and a firefighter got injured. It wasn’t my brother’s territory; he didn’t even work today.

But in my mind, he was there working the scene. He got hurt, and I need to call him and ask where he is. I know that sounds irrational, but I can’t do anything else until I know exactly where he is. I’ll pace the floor waiting for him to tell me, so I can count my steps. I know how many tiles lay between my room and the front door. I like the big ones because it’s a smaller number to remember, and in case there’s a fire, the less steps I take the quicker I can get out.

I’ve never been in a fire, but I think about the “what ifs” all the time. What if I forget to unplug my straightener, will my house catch fire? What if, what if, what if?

But what if I count, then it will all go away. If I make this paper even with the table, everything will be fine. Then I can move on and stop thinking and panicking. My anxiety will go away—but first let me rearrange this desktop.

OCD is more common than you think. About two million people are affected by this condition. No cure or exact diagnosis exist; the average age of diagnosis is 19. My OCD is caused by a chemical imbalance, while others are triggered by stressful events in their lives (but it’s not a result of stress). We can’t do anything to “fix it” except learn coping strategies, take medication and if severe enough, both.

I can’t shut it off. I can’t just relax and “get over” the obsession. My childhood wasn’t dysfunctional, and I don’t have poor self-esteem. A complicated disorder, you can’t check off a list of symptoms or reasons. Because of the many misconceptions, people feel embarrassed to seek treatment or reveal themselves. I waited almost three years to tell the most important person in my life, and my close friends and family have no idea.

Stigma is one of the biggest issues people living with OCD face. Unfortunately, some don’t realize that when they say, “I’m so OCD about things,” they trivialize the situation. It makes people who really are “so OCD” feel bad about what they cannot control.

I was diagnosed at 15. I was in therapy for other reasons when my therapist brought up the conversation. OCD often co-exists with other disorders; that’s how my OCD got diagnosed earlier than normal. To live with this, you need an abundance of strategies. I’m still trying to learn and cope. No one will understand the amount of anxiety I experience when the bed sheets aren’t straight or when the volume isn’t set on five or 10. I’m capable of facing my fears and trying to move forward, but some days are harder than others; some days I just want to get through the rituals so I can move on.

I think I’ve done a pretty decent job. It’s been a well kept secret, and when someone points out how I separate my skittles by colors I say, “I like them that way,” when really I can’t focus on anything but seeing them separate. But remember, you don’t have OCD because you just washed your hands. And I’m not weird, stubborn or odd. I can’t just relax and leave it alone, but I can live a normal, healthy life—but first let me count to five.

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