Math Is Magic

You don’t always have to understand math to see its beauty.

symbols of math and magic
Ben Denzer

In second grade, I stopped being able to do math. One night I went to do my long-division homework and I couldn’t figure it out. My mom demanded that I sit with my math teacher because my sudden inability made no sense. Two weeks later, I was sent home with a disciplinary note for turning in only empty or incorrect homework and was accused of not paying attention in class.

Up until then I had been a “good” student, a “smart” girl. I remember the secret bliss I felt when I knew before my peers how to count fractions without the help of manipulatives, and how to subtract negatives. This can be only partially explained by the teaching I got in school. My mom, who was then studying computer science and psychology in her master’s program, was determined to instill a love of learning in my life. Over the course of a year, she built me a computer out of parts and installed all kinds of educational games on it. When I arrived home every day, I attended my mother’s academy, where I spent most of my afternoons watching the sun fall on the walls of my bedroom as I finger-punched my way through the programs.

I loved Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? and You Can Be a Woman Engineer, but Math Blaster was my favorite. I remember the illustration of the game as vividly as any beloved book: an astronaut, tethered to a spaceship, floating their way through the starry landscape of space with simple mathematical expressions on their chest, and on each planet, a foreign landscape with different levels of math problems to solve. That image in my head of the astronaut working diligently in the vast expanse of space, the stars an infinite backdrop to a mathematical cosmos, is exactly how I see math in my head now—fantastical, endless, and enchanting. But I had to lose that relationship with math to be able to find math again.

My mom would later connect the dots between the rapid deterioration of my learning abilities and another, correlative timeline. After getting in trouble one day for saying something so inappropriate in class that it boggled even me, I went home and told my mom what my older cousin had been doing to me while she was at work and my grandma wasn’t home. Immediately, the evidence began to click: the inexplicable spotting in my underwear, the change in my emotional regularity, my 68 score on a math test I’d have more than passed two summers before.

Learning of the violent trauma I’d been experiencing caused a radical 180 in both our lives. Lawyers, doctors, judges—I watched my mom attempt to be strong every day as she worked to manage the worst crisis she could ever have imagined happening to her. Math classes were getting harder as my brain attempted to process the initial trauma and what followed the trauma’s reveal. I went to school, and most mornings, the board seemed too far away. Greater-than and less-than symbols were like commas to me, nearly indistinguishable in function and in form. I was tested for vision impairments twice that month, though the eye doctor recorded 20/20 vision. Division amplified the inadequacy I felt. I would come home, blank, my mom imploring me to think: “You must have remembered something, Camonghne.” But I didn’t remember anything.

Some part of my brain stopped working the way it was supposed to once the assaults started happening. But I was the only one who could see the size of the injury and just how it was affecting me physically. I was tired, uninspired, easily triggered, and quick to fire, always ready to fight. I knew I needed extra help, maybe to go to school somewhere else where they’d rehabilitate me. I spent countless school nights researching boarding schools for troubled kids. But when my mom asked me if she should tell my teachers the full story about what was going on, I refused. I didn’t want eight hours of sympathy; I just wanted to be able to get through my math homework. She told them anyway. It was worthless, as their incapacity to understand how living in my head felt at that time only highlighted the significance of my needs.

Years later, while researching bipolar disorder and executive-function disorders, I found one scientific explanation for all of my mathematical confusion. In 2018, psychologists published a study on the association between adverse childhood experiences and traumatic brain injury in adulthood. Both can affect developmental skills, mood, regulation, the ability to process and synthesize new information. Both affect some of the same parts of the brain. I began to think of the experience of childhood trauma, especially related to abandonment, neglect, and sexual abuse, as similar to a concussion. Imagine a child’s ability to cope with that, particularly when the injury remains invisible to the people she spends eight hours a day with.

Doctors and scientists have only just begun to develop a more complete understanding of how trauma works and how it affects individuals psychologically throughout their lifetime. But what we’re starting to understand confirms much of what people who’ve struggled with trauma and PTSD have long been trying to articulate: Emotional trauma is an injury. Trauma hits you, and your brain absorbs the shock.

In high school, my inability to point to where the wound was earned me the label of underperformer, troublemaker, someone who didn’t want to learn. I wished I could project myself onto the whiteboard and, with a bright-red cursor, point to the front lobe of my brain, and then to my heart, to show the teachers how badly it all ached. But that hungry and inquisitive child who devoured mathematical challenges was so afraid that those labels were true that she decided it was less disappointing to just give up—on math, on school, on life.

High school continued to go on despite the fact that I felt incapable of going on with it. I spent more time locked up in mental-health facilities than I did in classes. I shuttled from one high school to the next, kicked out, failed out, behind. I knew that I wanted to go to college; I knew that I wanted to study literature and language. I couldn’t focus in most classes, but I hid novels in my textbooks and wrote fan fiction in the evenings, losing myself in imaginary lands and complex world building, skills that would later revolutionize what I thought I was capable of. By junior year, when my transcript indicated a 1.4 GPA (NYC schools evaluate on a 0.0–4.0 scale), the high-school counselor responsible for helping me get into college told me it was too late, that I would have had to have at least gotten an A in one of my math classes to be anywhere near qualified for admission to any of the schools I was interested in. I was confronted with a series of closed doors as I watched my adolescence spiral out of my control.

I was eventually transferred to an alternative high school (also known as a last-chance school), where a Cornell-educated and Bronx-raised scientist who’d returned home to teach saw something in me and promised she wouldn’t let me fall through the cracks. She spent every lunch period tutoring me, showing me how to calculate momentum, teaching me that nutrition started with an understanding of how the body quantifies energy, offering me tangible, material ways to understand math. Another math teacher across the hall attempted to teach me calculus. I still couldn’t do the arithmetic I’d need to be able to grasp it at its most complex form, but there was something about calculus as a study in continuous change that made sense to me.

Noticing my curiosity, my lunchtime tutor gave me a copy of Einstein’s Dreams, a novel that reintroduced me to the magical qualities of mathematics, reminding me of the sense of wonder that the illustrations in Math Blaster had made me feel as a kid. It turned numbers back into metaphors and images and poetry instead of scores on the exams I’d failed. I graduated from high school a year later than I should have, but with an A in calculus. For the first time since I was 9 years old, I no longer felt inadequate in the face of something my body knew it had once loved.

But it would be almost a decade before math and I would begin to have a conversation about what had happened to us, and why it had left me behind.

After graduating from high school, I managed to build a career, to become a writer and poet and to put the trauma of my childhood in a corner of my mind where it couldn’t disturb me. But years later, after a destabilizing breakup and a subsequent suicide attempt forced me back into psychiatric treatment, I decided that someone had to be in charge of figuring out where this wound was, and what the hell was still wrong with me. In almost no time, I was diagnosed with severe ADHD, and then later with bipolar 2 disorder.

Bipolar disorder, characterized by periods of depression and mania or hypomania, works kind of like a blowtorch. When an individual is having an episode, it causes stress to the brain, which can affect cognitive skills and executive function. It can be degenerative, meaning that as one gets older, and with each episode, the brain’s ability to do what it needs to do deteriorates.

After my diagnosis, I spent months researching a connection between math and bipolar disorder. I learned about dyscalculia, a kind of math dyslexia, and called the doctor who’d tested me for ADHD. “Do I have this?” I asked him. He told me, “I’d say it’s extremely likely based on the severity of your results.”

Immediately, I let out a sigh I’d been holding for decades. All at once, I felt betrayed, grateful, and relieved. After some months of treatment for my bipolar diagnosis, I couldn’t believe the clarity with which I began to see and feel. As my treatment adjusted (I tried a couple of mood stabilizers before ending up on lithium last year), I felt my ability to compute improve too.

I’m still no mathematician; I probably couldn’t even pass a sophomore-level college course. But I don’t have to be able to solve every equation for math to mean something to me. Math, after all, is infinite; no human can best it. I try to challenge myself to approach mathematics from a place of wonder and admiration instead of anxiety. And as I study basic techniques such as estimation, and continue to refamiliarize myself with division, I feel the slow death of that earlier block that kept these basics away from me. I feel the excitement I felt when I played Math Blaster, or when I first read Einstein’s Dreams. Losing my ability to learn and understand math represented the frailty of the human mind, but my ability to relearn it represents the mind’s innate resiliency.

Recently, I was out at dinner when, over steaming bowls of rice and half-eaten platters of bulgogi, my friend slid the bill across the table, a gesture with only one meaning. “Why me?” I asked her. “You’re the one who went to Johns Hopkins!” She waved me off. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, but you do mental math better than I do.” For a moment, I stared down at the check and I swore it was staring back at me.

This scene with my friend has become pretty typical. She hands me the bill and I calculate the tip. And every time feels like the first time. I hover over that bill with the focus of worship, willing my brain to do what the numbers ask of it, nothing less and nothing more. My respect for math is born from a deep desire to understand it. I’m always nervous when it’s my turn to split the bill, but I don’t wish for those nerves to go away. The chance to correct the narrative of the past feels transcendent.

This essay was adapted from the memoir Dyscalculia: A Love Story of Epic Miscalculation.