I Can't Stop Counting Everything! Is My Anxiety Creeping Back In?

My "Number Thing" is always nibbling at the edge of my brain.
Publish date:
April 23, 2014
mental health, anxiety, counting

You will never find my car radio's volume (when it's working) set to an even number. If you get in my car, and wind the digital numbers to say, 16, I'll automatically roll it up or down a number.

When I pump gas, my "perfect pump" always aims for an ".01", like $20.01 or something like that.

If I'm baking gluten-free cheesy bread rolls I will put five or seven rolls on the pan, never 6, even if the package says that's the optimal number of rolls to bake.

The list goes on and on. From the pillows on my bed (five) to the elephant graveyard of razors in my shower (thee right now), I've been known to count everything. I try hard not to use the word "obsessed" too much, but for much of my life I've been obsessed with numbers -- mostly odd numbers to be exact.

My "Number Thing" is usually in the background now, I think a lot of it is force of habit, and I've even been known to be OK when a friend orders four eggrolls or six cookies instead of insisting that we order a fifth or seventh. I mostly go on my merry way these days, even if the numbers are always somewhere nibbling at the edge of my thoughts.

But lately, even though I've been feeling calmer than I have in quite some time, able to focus and move on if things don't go according my precise plans, my lone symptom to my previous gut-twisting anxiety and obsessive compulsive tendencies -- the counting -- has been coming around again, and I'm a little wary.

My number fixation was one of the first ways I tipped off my therapist that I had some major anxiety and control issues.

I remember going into her office my second week in Los Angeles, an ambulatory blob of raw nerves and self doubt. As our session began I told her about the problems I was having functioning in graduate school.

I was watching the clock like mad, determined to stay on an intensely regimented schedule that included being asleep -- not just in bed -- by 10:35pm. If I wasn't asleep by that time, and usually I wasn't, my anxiety would spike and I would begin to worry about how I was going to function the next day. This anxiety would keep me up through the night, heart pounding, giving myself extensions to the next acceptable hour of sleep: 11:35pm, 12:35pm, 1:35 -- all cycling down to the minimum 8.5, 7.5, 6.5, or "whatever-point-five" hours of sleep I could live with. The "point 5" kept the number odd for me, and kept me in control.

It also didn't help that I kept one of my clocks always set to Central Standard Time -- my last ditch effort at holding onto the happier life I had lived in St. Louis only weeks before. I know it doesn't make any sense at all now, but there is no sense when it comes to negotiating with an anxious and depressed mind. It was my last grip on control and I needed it. I did not want my body to fully adjust to LA life, if I could keep a toe in my former life, maybe that toe would become a foot, and that foot would become a leg and before long I'd be my old self again -- happy, light, and able to cope. Some of my closest friends don't even know this about me.

When my therapist asked me more about the numbers, and counting, I remember breaking down crying and letting it all pour out: there were three chairs in her office (good), there were 14 chairs in her waiting room (bad), she was located on the third floor (good), our appointment was at 12 noon (okay), I hadn't slept at all last night because I had completely botched a rehearsal I was running because I NEEDED to count the stains and cracks in the ceiling of the musty old rehearsal room I'd been working in (bad bad bad).

As we spoke, I remember cracking my knuckles three times, then stopping because a fourth time was "bad".

What began that day with my therapist was a long, twisty, ongoing conversation as to why I dubbed numbers "good" and "bad" and how the assignation of "good" or "bad" to a number was -- SHOCKER -- a reflection on the control or lack thereof I felt within myself. Blah blah blah.

But not blah blah blah. What seems so obvious and elementary in the landscape of mental health to me now, was groundbreaking to me at the time. I didn't have to explain it to her, SHE explained a lot of my fixation to ME. It was such a relief that I wasn't THE ONLY ONE who'd ever been this way.

Years, and countless ups, downs, therapies, and meds later, I mostly feel like I'm on the other side of things. My "calm days" outnumber my frantic days, and I've rediscovered the ability to "roll with the punches," a phrase that used to make me want to just "punch." Sure I have bouts of deep depression that leave me unshowered and searching for hours of escape on Netflix, but I've learned to dig through the anxiety that shrouds those days to get to the functioning participant in society that lives on the other side.

It's ongoing, and I accept that, but I can't help but notice that the "Number Thing" has popped up again with a little more I insistence than usual.

It started simply enough. I was taking my vitamins a couple weeks ago, and realized that on most nights I take six vitamins. I paused, considered if I should add another Omega capsule to the mix, then laughed it off. I'm taking the right amount of vitamins, no need to mess around with that.

But then I caught myself counting sips of water I took from my water bottle after exercising. 1, 2, 3, 4…5. I went for that fifth sip "just in case, can't be too careful." That same day, I was plucking my eyebrows in my car (admit it, it's one of the best places to do it), and I plucked an extra hair from my right brown just so I would make an odd number. I hadn't even realized I was counting, I couldn't tell you the number of hairs I plucked, I just FELT the rhythm of an even number and knew there was one more after that to make it odd.

I felt more than a little kooky after that.

I've noticed numbers more often than not since then, and though I've chosen to ignore them -- empty seats in the movie theater row I'm sitting in, number of dirty dishes in the sink, chips left in the bag -- I find that I have to actively remind myself that nothing bad will happen. Four chips in the bag will not jinx my car trip.

The temptation to count every step I take from my door to my car or fret about how many "x's" and "o's" I end an email with is louder in my ear than it has been for a while.

I'm not afraid, but I am slightly nervous. The relative calm I enjoy now was hard won, and I frankly feel a little betrayed by my own brain. "BUT I THOUGHT YOU AND I WERE GETTING ALONG!" I sometimes want to shout, when I start teetering on the edge of unglued. Could it be that I'm obsessing about my numbers obsession right now, thus causing the "Number Thing" to exacerbate?

I'm tucking all of this away to talk to a professional about. It may be nothing, it may be something. I may be making something out of nothing, but I feel I owe it to myself to acknowledge my concern and not push it away, like I'm so skilled at doing.

What I do know is that when I was, in the midst of my anxiety and depression, talking to or hearing about other people's troubles made me feel less solitary or "weird." This post felt like an admission, both to myself and to you. I'm typically very guarded in my personal life, and the evidence of my anxiety rarely gets this much spotlight. I realize this sounds kind of ridiculous considering I regularly share my embarrassments and experiences on the Internet, but there's always that small percentage I hold back. A lot of what I've shared in this post lives in that small percentage.

And I don't have a solution. I don't even have a whole lot of wisdom to share. I only have experience. I hope that by sharing this part of my life with you, you can feel slightly less solitary and "weird" about parts of yours. Somehow, just writing this, acknowledging my worry, makes me feel a bit more in control.

I'm not even going to look at the word count on this post.

Do you count things? What is your "Number Thing"? What are your red flags? How do you cope?