This I Believe essays

Twelve Is The Best Number

By: Alana Lackner

I don’t know how old I was when I developed obsessive-compulsive disorder. It had to be pretty young, because I remember being upset about turning seven. I cried because it was a “bad number” and it would take five years for me to turn 12, which was the best number. It was my number. I wouldn’t get out of bed until the numbers on the clock added up to 12.

The truth is that OCD is hard to explain. It’s so layered and it influences every part of my life.

Looking back, it always has. OCD isn’t just my fixation on 12, or my inability to do certain tasks without the things around me being “right.” They’re part of it, but they are to OCD what coughing is to a bad cold.

The number fixation is the cough. My overwhelming fear of failure that causes me to restart my assignments over and over is the fever. The way my pet hedgehog’s sneeze sends me into a full-blown panic resulting in a call to the vet is the sore throat. The painful awareness of how far I am from every exit in a crowded room is the runny nose.

OCD is scary, especially as a kid, when all your information comes from crime dramas. I stood in the hall of my high school as I opened and shut my locker over and over. I silently begged myself to stop but I couldn’t.

I spent years learning to hide it. Instead of counting out loud, I would fill notebooks with pages of the numbers one through 12 over and over again, with a page of notes to flip back to if anyone looked at me.

At this point I knew I had depression and anxiety, but those didn’t cause me the same level of shame and distress. I knew people who experienced that. It was “normal.” OCD was different. It made me feel crazy.

I started going to therapy as a college freshman at a friend’s request. At the time, my brain’s favorite obsession was climbing to high places and thinking about jumping off. I was terrified that eventually OCD would win and I would jump.

I was reluctant to tell my therapist everything. I was open about my depression and anxiety, but OCD was scarier to talk about. Speaking about it made it real. I was terrified that if I admitted what I was thinking about, I would be institutionalized — another obsession.

It took me a few months to work up the nerve to confess. I burst into tears before I managed to tell him. I hung my head in shame as I said it, but when I looked up he just nodded.

“Yeah, I know.”

I could’ve laughed. I was so afraid of what would happen if he found out and he already knew.

He knew and the world didn’t end.

That was a turning point for me. I’ve learned that one of the best ways to manage my OCD is to talk about it. It changes it from being this horrible monster to just a thing I have.

It’s just a thing I have, and a thing that I can manage. I still have bad days. There are mornings where I sit in bed and wait for the numbers on the clock to add up to 12, but those are rare and getting rarer. I’ve learned to forgive myself for struggling and to accept myself for who I am.

It’s funny, but that seems to make all the difference.

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