Strength in Numbers

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with numbers.

Math has always been a strength of mine. Growing up, my dad was an accountant, and it just made sense that I had inherited his knack for working with numbers. I never really questioned this ability. It was just something I was good at naturally, and I never gave much thought to its role, significance, or purpose in my life.

When I was 5 years old I would spend time reading from a World Atlas, focusing specifically on the numbers. The population of a particular city. The area of a country in square miles. The order of all 50 states based on its population density, from largest to smallest.

When I was 7 years old I became interested in sports. After attending my first baseball game my dad began to share his baseball card collection with me. I would spend hours upon hours studying the backs of the cards, absorbing their career statistics season by season, column by column. I was completely hooked.

By age 10 I was but keeping score during my sister’s community league basketball games, and spent four years as the JV and varsity basketball team’s statistician between middle and high school. I took a statistics class as a high school senior and a Statistics in Baseball course as a sophomore in college, which inspired me to begin creating my own metrics. I’ve since worked for ESPN, and have created a number of different formulas for baseball over the past 10 years.

In grad school, even as my focus expanded beyond sports, I continued analyzing numbers, this time relating to health (some of you may be familiar with my health perceptions survey). I have been and still am involved in several research projects to this day. I’ve worked on more spreadsheets than I can remember, and despite some jokes, I’ve truly loved it all.

So what’s the point in me telling you all of this?

In one of my earlier articles, I referred to my OCD as a disembodied voice that would tell me what to do. Whether it was retracing my steps, tapping my feet in patterns, or repeating a sentence, I would give in to whatever it was that my OCD wanted me to do.

“I must admit that for years, I genuinely felt that my OCD was a separate being.”
-From my article Stuck (12/25/17)

It didn’t matter how irrational the action my OCD was telling me to do might have been. I was so restricted by anxiety that I almost always felt I had to give in. Aside from being exhausting, one of the most frustrating things about it was that while I couldn’t resist the impulses, doing them didn’t really make any rational sense.

For many people, latching onto something logical is comforting. For me, many of my episodes of anxiety come when I can’t make sense of a situation. I simply need to understand things and when I cannot, it’s disorienting.

The thing about numbers is that they’re reliable. They tell you exactly what’s going on; the temperature in the room, the number of people attending an event, the distance between two points, or the amount of an ingredient to add to a recipe. Numbers give certainty to so many things.

As a 5-year-old kid, I was stigmatized as “weird” for reading a World Atlas.

As a 7-year-old kid, I was stigmatized as “weird” for studying the backs of baseball cards.

As a 10-year-old kid, I was stigmatized as “weird” for keeping score at my sister’s basketball games.

As a high school kid, I was stigmatized as “weird” for managing the basketball team and not playing for it.

As a college kid I was stigmatized as “weird” for not only voluntarily taking stats class, but creating baseball formulas that had nothing to do with our final grade.

As a grad student I was stigmatized as “weird” for wanting to use a health research assignment beyond the classroom and continuing with it long after the semester was over.

And even now as an adult, I’m stigmatized as “weird” for my fascination with numbers, whether they pertain to fantasy baseball, health research, or anything in between.

OCD is a disorder of irrational, intrusive, repetitive thoughts and fears about things that are largely intangible- most of them not real. Yet the feelings they conjure up are so real that they can be paralyzing. OCD doesn’t make sense.

Having this mental health condition, one that has made absolutely no sense but was there in spite of rational thought, has made me at many times an outsider who at the very least was the guy who went slightly “against the grain.” In all of those moments growing up when things made the least sense to me, the anxiety, the medication, the therapy and keeping it all to myself, I leaned on numbers.

Numbers make sense to me. More sense than almost anything else I can imagine. They soothe me and give me something to focus on when the mental noise from my OCD is too loud.

There is, as they say, strength in numbers. For some, strength in numbers means being with a group of people. For others, that strength is the numbers on their paychecks. For me, numbers are my mental strength.

I’ve worn the stigma of being “weird” my entire life, and I know that I’m not alone. I used to hate it. I used to fight it. Now, I’ve come to embrace it. Because while it may be “weird” that I can be so fixated on numbers, the fact of the matter is that these “quirks” were at many times my best defense against the waves of overwhelmingly irrational anxiety.

However it is that you deal with your anxiety, whether it’s with numbers or words, art or music, exercise or meditation, just know that there’s nothing “weird” about trying to make sense of your world and doing whatever it takes to find some peace. If they call you different it’s because they don’t understand you, and frankly, how could they? They're not you.

Only you know what it’s like to be you, and that is something that everyone has in common. We are no better or worse than anyone else around us. You are no better or worse for simply being you, and doing what makes you comfortable living in your own skin.


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© Copyright Whatismyhealth, February 19th, 2017