As I watch my two-year-old niece count the Cheerios she threw on the floor, I can only imagine that I’ve been counting since I was her age. Twenty-six years of counting, of trying to understand the ways in which numbers affect my life, my work, and my bank account. Numbers have never made sense to me, especially in comparison to words. I never found comfort in cracking their codes or satisfaction in learning multiplication or division.

Lately, counting has become the only thing that can both soothe my nerves and cause panic in my heart.

I’ve lived with (not suffered from) anxiety for as long as I can remember. It heightened during university – special thanks to my History of Modern Greece class – then ebbed and flowed through the next few years of adulthood. There were moments when I forgot I was ever anxious at all. Years filled with comfort, consistency, and stability flew by and my anxiety was but a whisper.

About two and a half years ago the whisper turned into a horror-film batch of screams. In a span of six months I started a new job and got engaged. Then I witnessed my sister nearly bleed to death in my childhood bedroom only weeks after giving birth to my niece. A month later I sat for hours in the waiting room of a hospital while my fiancé was in surgery. He donated 70% of his liver to his mother and the recovery was long and painful for all of us. Only two weeks after his surgery my dad went in for an emergency quintuple bypass and would spend the next two weeks in the hospital as well. 

I don’t remember taking a breath from September to November of that year. I let out a sigh of relief when my sister finally came home from the hospital and got to hold her newborn for the first time in weeks. And when the surgeon walked into the waiting room in a crisp white smock and said, “Your fiancé is out of surgery, everything went well.” And finally when I met my mom at the hospital and held her as she crumpled in my arms saying, “Dad’s okay.” That was it.

During those months, tensions were high and I wasn’t able to take as much time off work as I wanted to. I witnessed every member of my family reach their breaking point and the only way I could cope was by putting my head down and getting to work. In that time I developed an emotionally charged case of OCD.

At work I’d make lists that were colour-coded, highlighted, and written with precision. If I made a mistake, I’d rewrite it. I wrapped orders slowly, rereading the product names and comparing them with the sales order in hand. After meticulously wrapping, packing and taping a box closed, I’d grab an X-Acto knife and carefully cut along the line of tape, open the box, unwrap everything and check once more that I hadn’t made a mistake.

I’d print out an invoice and hold the canary yellow paper in both hands reading the lines over and over again. Customer Name. Check. Correct Products. Check. Correct Price. Check. Total. Check. Customer Name. Check. Correct Products. Check. Correct Price. Check. Total. Check.

Before leaving at night I’d walk to the back door and turn the lock to the left. More often than not it was already locked, but the motion was necessary. I’d push on the door – the cool metal beneath my palms was both startling and comforting. I’d push on the fridge door in the kitchen with the same fervour. Push. One. Push. Two. Push. Three. Next, I’d go back to my office and pull on the handle of every single drawer. The tugging motion soothed me. Some days I’d pull with such force I feared I’d break the drawers.

I’d repeat these evening checks until my heart didn’t beat so wildly, my chest didn’t feel so tight, and my mind settled into stark numbness. I’d repeat until I felt it was okay to leave – like I didn’t forget something.

Some days this ritual went on longer than I care to admit. I’d count out loud the number of times I pulled on the drawer or how many times I checked the back door. I’d self-talk and get completely frustrated that I couldn’t just leave. I would say, “You already checked that. Come on Vanessa, let’s go!” But my feet wouldn’t budge. Not until I checked the door one more time.

I wish I could say that once all of my family members regained their strength and health that my OCD evaporated, but that wouldn’t be the truth. When work is particularly busy or I feel I’m being treated unfairly, my anxiety and OCD take over. When I get into a fight with a friend or feel overwhelmed or I don’t think I’ll make a deadline (mostly set out by myself), the anxiety flourishes. Whenever I feel out of control, the counting keeps me grounded.

When my anxiety burns inside my chest and won’t let me sleep, I allow myself to feel it. I allow myself to feel every ounce of anger, pain, sadness and fear. I try to remember how far I’ve come and all that I’ve accomplished in spite of the OCD. I try to think in words instead of numbers.

I still count, double check that my orders are correct, triple check that the front and back doors of the office are locked. I’ll be the first to admit that I waste a lot of time and energy with these rituals and routines, but I also take little steps every day to break them. I’ll be more thoughtful when I do things, I’ll stop myself from counting, and even when it makes me want to cry in frustration, I will force myself to walk out of the office without checking the back door for the fifth time.

On days when I leave the office without any numbers in my head, I realize that these little steps fill me with the kind of hope I can count on.