Living with Compulsive Counting and OCD

Originally written before I was diagnosed with autism, I go into detail about an old habit of mine.

Living with Compulsive Counting and OCD
Photo by Adi Goldstein / Unsplash

I'm autistic and have ADHD, Clinical Depression, and OCD. My OCD manifests in different ways. Mostly checking, compulsive counting, but also a need for balance (what's called "Just right" OCD); basically, if I touch something with one hand, I have to do it with the other. It's not something I can really control, as I get anxious if I'm not allowed to complete the ritual.

I learned about arithmomania a few years ago, which involves a compulsive need to count things in your surroundings, and is a form of OCD. It’s something I could never put into words and thought was just a “me problem”. And I thought like this for a decade, as a mix of fear of ridicule, among other reasons. Talking about mental health is just something people don’t do, especially in my community.

I realized I had this counting compulsion—I think it started as a way to pass the time or because it seemed “fun” at the time—over a decade ago. Words and phrases would really stick to me somehow. Or, rather, I’d hyper fixate on them. I would then count the syllables in words or entire sentences, and then try breaking them down into acronyms.

Let’s say, “Atrocious”. That turns into “ATC”. I’d break the word down several times in my head or on my fingers (mostly the latter), then repeat the acronym several times to get a good feel of it. Sometimes it’d be calming.

Other times, I’d feel on the verge of passing out if I missed a beat or struggled to keep up with everything. And that was, as I came to find out, largely due to breaking down sentences. Which... breaking down every word in a sentence is massively overwhelming, y’all.

And then trying to run that back through your head? Without missing a step? I used to wonder how people who are constantly trapped in their minds deal with it. But I’ve dealing with it for over fourteen years.

Let me break it down the only way I know how:

How do people live with all this noise in their brains, I can't take it.


Imagine doing that on a larger scale:


It’s nonsense and harder to repeat because there’s just SO MUCH to process. So many syllables and steps, and it’s easy to lose your footing and the rhythm of your breath. It got really unbearable at one point, so I tried stopping altogether. I just couldn’t take it anymore; in every conversation I had, every song lyric I heard, every book I read... there it was, and I couldn’t do anything to stop it.

What I ended up doing was adapting and adjusting to the lessen the compulsions. Now I only break down words and short phrases in my head instead of counting them out on my fingers. Lately I’ve noticed that I break down sentences into pairs; I try to pair the words off into even numbers and will fixate on that a bit. I rarely feel like I’m going to die or faint as much, either. It’s mostly automatic at this point.

I like the short phrases; they’re small, simple, and don’t make me feel like I’m choking to death. So I focus on words, but sometimes I’ll come across this issue when I’m reading. I see it everywhere: in advertisements, books, visual novels, and subtitles. Anything with text, basically.

But almost always because the words are stacked. Like, you know how paragraphs work? That kind of stacked. So my brain sees and takes the first letter of each “stacked” word and turns them all into an acronym for me. Sometimes I can even spot an actual word when I do that. And I have such a moment of elation when I do.

Which makes me want to point them out, cause it’s just so exciting, ya know? There’s something spotting patterns that can make this neat, all things aside. And then I remember that what I do isn’t really normal, and that most people wouldn’t be able to understand. In fact, I told no one I did this until very recently, and that person is my partner. And now, anyone who reads this post.

My family has no idea, but my mom is aware of my depression. Or as best as she can, anyway; anytime it comes up, she asks, “You still got that depression?” and insists that I call her, no matter the time of day, if I feel suicidal. Which is good, since that poses danger and loss of life, but I don’t know how she’d feel if I told her about the numbers thing. My problem is that I don’t have anyone to talk to about this, and may seek internet groups who can help and understand.

But it feels great to get all of this off of my chest!