1. I have to number things. And I used to be successful as a runner on my high school track team.  When I ran, I counted trash cans and lampposts on the sides of the streets. I counted mailboxes, doors, and even the houses themselves. I couldn’t stop at odd numbers. If I was finished with my mileage for the day, and ended on an odd number of whatever I was counting, I had to continue. If after reaching an even number of my counted object and my mileage was not a round number, I had to continue.
  2. There are 2 main phases of motion in running[1]: the stance phase and the swing phase. The stance phase is when the foot is in contact with the ground, and the swing phase is when the foot is not. Early on, I wasn’t any good at running. Every step was painful due to shin splints, growing pains, and being alone with my obsessive thoughts – the same thoughts that were the source of my compulsive behaviors. In my experience, the stance phase of running coincides with the compulsive behaviors associated with OCD—counting, locking my car a certain number of times, picking at the skin around my nails until it starts to bleed. These behaviors occur because I obsess over them in the swing phase. If I don’t count, I won’t do well in my next cross country or track race, even if I run as hard as I can. If I don’t lock my car more than once, my car will get stolen, even if it’s in the garage when I’m home. If I don’t pick at my skin, my anxiety won’t go away. The stance phase of my behaviors, my foot touching the ground as I run, cannot happen without the swing phase of my thoughts, my legs floating through the air as I go faster and faster, as the thoughts become more and more bothersome.
  3. It’s not a disorder. My obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors are not a disorder. According to the DSM-5[2], “The obsessions or compulsions…cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” They do not cause impairment to my daily life; therefore, they are categorized as tendencies as opposed to a disorder.
  4. I couldn’t run with music. I tried to because I love music and I thought it might make running more enjoyable for me, but I found myself tripping and coughing while running because I was obsessing over my footsteps and my breathing being on beat with the music.
  5. And I remember when I became good at running. I went from running a 5k in 30 minutes to less than 21. Something clicked the summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school. My legs stopped hurting because I stopped growing, and finally got decent running shoes, but the thoughts still found a way in. Running was no longer physically painful, but I still counted. I still had to step on every leaf on the road in the fall just to hear the satisfying crunch they made when my shoe hit them. I still had to run even numbered laps around a track. I couldn’t do 3 laps. Regardless of the fact that it was 1,200 meters, an even number; the number three made me anxious and allowed me to convince myself that if I didn’t run an even number of laps, bad things would happen to me. At track practice, my friends frequently wanted to cut the 4 lap cool down short to 3 laps, but I had to do 2 or 4. When my team ran 400 meter repeats, 1 lap around the track, I had to do an even number of them: 8, 10, 12. Prime numbers have always been the worst. I do not understand them, as they cannot be divided into equal, round numbered halves: 13, 17, 19. I was 6th in the state cross country meet my senior year of high school. My coach wanted me to get 5th; I wanted 4th or 6th.
  6. After my senior track season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was forced to reassess my priorities. I asked myself, “Why do I run? Was I running to make myself or others happy? Was this something I really wanted to continue doing at the next level in college?”
  7. I remember breaking down on the couch in June 2020 with my dad because I was so unhappy. “You have to do what’s best for you,” he said. I choked out the words, “I don’t want to run anymore.” I was terrified to say that out loud. I felt like the only reason I had friends at school was because I was so good at running. I felt like the only reason my family was proud of me was because I was so good at running. I was convinced that the only way for me to have meaningful relationships with my family and classmates was to be good at running. After all, at my high school, it seemed like everyone had something they were really good at. For me, it was running. But running only made my tendencies worse. It almost became a disorder at that point. I quit. In her book, The Philosophical Athlete, Heather L. Reid discusses how runner and philosopher George Sheehan, “…found running to be an activity in which he couldn’t avoid himself.” I too found running to be an activity in which I couldn’t avoid myself. I was alone, even when I ran with other people; I was left with my thoughts. I could not avoid my obsessive thoughts. I could not avoid my compulsive behaviors. Now that I am no longer running, I am a lot happier. I still compulsively lock my car and pick at my skin, but I don’t count as often as I used to.
  8. OCD is commonly used to describe people who are very clean and organized. While these people may actually have OCD, those characteristics are not what OCD truly is.
  9. OCD is not being a neat freak. OCD is messy. It’s checking to see if the door is locked 10 times. It’s washing your hands over and over again until they become chapped and bleed. Much like OCD, other mental disorders, such as bipolar disorder and anorexia, are frequently used as adjectives to describe certain behaviors, appearances, or moods. This is due to the stigma surrounding mental health.
  10. If you get injured in running, you go to the doctor. You don’t tough it out. If you are mentally ill, oftentimes you don’t seek help. You try to tough it out. Sports, including competitive running, place an emphasis not only on physical toughness, but also mental toughness. Athletes with mental illness are often judged for being open about their struggles. As an athlete, I found that running was my coping mechanism for stress and anxiety. However, running was also the very thing that hurt me the most when it came to my mental health. I was trying to run away from my problems, but I couldn’t avoid myself.
  11. I don’t run anymore. Not even for fun. I have frequently been told that exercise will help me cope with mental illness, and while I do feel better after going to the gym and working out on machines, I feel awful after running. When I ride the stationary bike at the gym, I feel like I am in control of myself. Running makes me feel very out of control. It’s like climbing up a mountain, but the more I climb, the taller the mountain gets. I run so hard, but I feel so inadequate. No matter how much my times drop, or how many races I win, the mountain keeps getting taller, and I feel worse about myself. I am convinced bad things will happen if I do not follow the patterns that have dictated my whole life. If I don’t climb the mountain the exact same way as I did last time, if I don’t count the mailboxes on the side of the road, if I don’t breathe on beat with music, I will fall down the mountain and I will get battered and bruised on the way down. I will not be good enough for anyone. And that terrifies me, but it’s not running itself I’m scared of, it’s the threat of falling down the mountain, of slipping back into my old habits. I don’t want to return to the psychological state I was in.
  12. The swing phase: I float through the air. My obsessive thoughts arrive. The stance phase: my foot hits the ground. My compulsive behaviors are carried out.
  13. I will not let it control me.

[1] Phillips, Matt. “Introduction to Running Biomechanics.” Runners Connect.

[2] Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5)