What the Number 3 Means to Me As Someone Living With OCD

At 5 years old I was so good with numbers, I knew how to count by multiples of three before I even learned how to multiply. In fact, I would count objects in threes and always in threes – hotdogs on the table, consonants in my alphabet soup, cute girls on the street, “One, two, three, one, two, three, one, two, three…”

I became so good at it I was able to guess correctly – in one glance – when a group of objects was divisible by three.

I was also a pretty organized kid. I always kept everything, be it my toys or my stash of pencils and Crayolas, arranged in a special order logical only to me. You messed with that order, you messed with me. For the most part, though, everything seemed harmless (and in some cases, such as schoolwork, advantageous) and, despite my penchant for counting everything in sight, I looked as perfectly normal as the next kid.

But I didn’t know my harmless counting game and habits were an early manifestation of my obsessive compulsive disorder.

Around the same time my parents split up, it started getting really bed. I started counting out loud, “One, two, three, one, two, three, one, two, three…” – well, not really out loud, but more like in whispers – barely audible but visible enough to make my eagled-eyed mother think I was under some kind of demonic possession. At 9 years old, it wasn’t cute anymore. 

The thing about OCD is that it thrives on two factors that seem meant for each other: stress and routine. School life is built precisely around these two things. Soon, my disorder was controlling my eating habits (counting nuts during recess only to find out, to my horror, a pack of Growers had 49 nuts on average) or how I positioned myself inside the school bus (third from the door). Throughout everything, I kept it all to myself. I spent the next few years of my adolescent life finding ways to “go under the radar.”

One of my coping strategies was to do the opposite of my natural tendency: To counter stress, I adopted a carefree, happy-go-lucky attitude. To defy order, I developed a talent for chaos and turning things upside down, whether stuff in my room or thoughts in my head. My affinity for numbers (and with it my incessant counting) vanished into thin air and in its place I developed a knack for words.

In my early teens I would still indulge my impulses every now and then, especially when nobody was looking. The impulses ranged from the silly, such as avoiding cracks on the sidewalk, to the practical, such as doing late-night checks to make sure all the doors in our house were locked and the LPG tank in the kitchen was safely secured, before muttering a stutter of a prayer on my way back to my room. I had to do everything the exact same way every day and in the exact same order, or I would do everything all over again, lest some imagined misfortune befell me.

In high school, I was known as the class bottle collector because my locker was always filled with empty bottles of Coke. Classmates who needed a quick buck just went up to my locker to exchange the bottles for deposit at the cafeteria. While the whole class thought I was demonstrating an entrepreneurial streak, I was actually just satisfying an irrational urge to hoard and collect.

I learned not only to hide but also embrace my obsessive compulsive behaviors so long as they didn’t severely disrupt my normal routines. If they did, I would make a conscious effort to overcome the behaviors by following a tried and tested formula: break the routine, start a new one, and then break it again before it got better or worse – steps as simple as one, two, three.

The stigma of living with OCD further diminished throughout my early adulthood, as pop culture brought it to relevance: Jack Nicholson’s obsessive-compulsive Melvin in “As Good as it Gets,” Tony Shalhoub’s “Monk” character, Leonardo Dicaprio’s Howard Hughes in “The Aviator” (and Dicaprio himself). 

As the stigma lessened, so did the symptoms. When I started acknowledging the proverbial “elephant in the room,” through open dialogue with people who were aware and genuinely cared, I also gained better control over my obsessions and compulsions rather than the other way around.

Now, except for the rare occasion I’m late for work (on my way to the office, where I suddenly ask the driver to turn the cab around and drive me all the way back home because I missed reading the roadside billboards in the exact same order I’ve gotten used to every morning), I no longer do most of the habits I used to. Charismatic as I seem on the outside, sometimes I still can’t help but feel like the odd man out on the inside. The good news is, with family and close friends embracing my OCD as a part of me, I do not feel less different – but it has definitely made me less alone.

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