My dyscalculia turns counting a difficult task. So, to get to know them, I turned numbers into people.
French numbers are particularly hard to learn. Eighty is literally translated into “four-twenty” while Ninety is “four-twenties-ten.” Ninety-nine is the worst: “four-twenty-nineteen.” Numbers are already a challenge when learning French, along with gendered words and all the different articles. Very soon, though, it became clear that I wasn’t learning French numbers while I was becoming more fluent with pronouns, adverbs, nouns, and adjectives.
When I turned twenty-one, my host mother had bought birthday candles for a twentieth birthday, because I had told her the wrong number when she asked the week before. As I blew out my candles, I knew something wasn’t right about numbers in any language. I knew something was abnormally off in my brain.
Two is kind, peaceful, and reliable. When Two is in the room, everyone suddenly gets along. If you swore in front of Two, you’d slap your hand right over your mouth, although Two would only smile and make no comment. Two has read every Shakespeare play. Two always sorts his recycling. All numbers that interact with Two come out the other side as with a 2, 4, 6, 8, or 0 on the end. Two is predictable like that.
I paid more than $500 to confirm my problems with math were caused by a learning disability. My insurance covered testing for some learning disabilities like dyslexia, but not dyscalculia, which has much less social awareness even though the two occur proportionally. Some estimate that nearly 20% of the population are dyscalculics.
I expected my parents to pay for the testing since our agreement was they would cover any medical expenses while I was a student. Asking for the money made me feel like the diagnosis was a luxury.
My parents had to cut corners to come up with the money, and they wanted to know why it was suddenly now, in my last year of college, that I needed a formal diagnosis, when I was already sure I knew what was happening. What would an expensive piece of paper signing by a doctor change?
I wanted confirmation of what was going on, to know for sure if my brain was flawed. But voicing this aloud, even to my parents, was too difficult. I was acknowledging that something was wrong with me. It felt like failure.
I was acknowledging that something was wrong with me. It felt like failure.
I didn’t want to talk about it anymore, so I fronted the money with the expectation that I would be the only one paying for it. Since I had paid my tuition bill the week before, it emptied my bank account, leaving me with $30 to my name.
I was tested alone. My friends and my boyfriend didn’t remember that I was being tested, and I was annoyed at not receiving supportive text messages, as if I had expected everyone to set reminders months in advance. When the neurologist asked me if I felt supported by my friends and family, I lied and said yes.
In the end, my parents did pay for the test a few months later. They had realized how badly I needed it confirmed after I had gone ahead and paid for it myself. I emailed them my test scores and my neurologist’s assessment of my math difficulties. I don’t think they knew how bad my problems with math here until they saw it spelled out.
Three doesn’t shave her armpits, has attended many political protests, and once punched someone in the face in a bar. Although she has good intentions and righteous reasons, Three stirs up a lot of angst amongst the numbers. Everyone has been cross with Three, but Three is the life of the party and always worth asking to come by. Three’s factors are very hard to remember.
The neurologist interviewed me about my history with math in addition to my general life and education, and then I performed forty-three tests as well as a general IQ test. I recited several numbers in a row backward, remembered sets of numbers, arranged blocks to make shapes, and completed arithmetic problems, including the dreaded long division.
I knew that I was getting all the math wrong, therefore confirming that I had a disability. I had fought with my parents about paying $500 to take a math test, and I was failing spectacularly.
All of my test scores were far above average, putting me into the “superior” bracket, which was a step below the highest range, “very superior.” Except of course, in math, where I scored in the lowest percentile: “borderline.”
Because of my math scores, I averaged a normal score across the board, even though most of the IQ tests proved I had above-average intelligence. The hardest part of my eight-page assessment was the following line: “The disparity between her ability and information processing suggested she was prone to be inefficient at demonstrating her full potential.”
My real capacity was pulled down from where it could have been by a defect in my brain. It’s likely that my high scores in other areas allowed me to cope with my math deficiencies, hiding them from detection through most of my education.
Four is an anxiety-ridden perfectionist. Two respects and is often amused by Four, but not in love with her. Four believes they are halves of the same whole. And they are, because Four’s factors are always so close to Two’s. They really are soulmates, even with the age difference between them. Two is waiting for Four to mature more, to have more factors under her belt.
When I went to college just outside of New York, I would ride the train into the city twice a week for an internship at a literary agency. Some Tuesday in chilly October, I was up late the night before, and I got to the station just as the train was pulling onto the platform.
I was in a rush to buy the ticket and entered the wrong PIN for my debit card. I tried twice more and realized that I had entirely forgotten the number. My card locked. A schoolmate bought me a round-trip ticket, and we agreed I’d pay her back later. I had five dollars to buy lunch. It was enough for a slice of pizza and a can of root beer on Fifth Avenue.
After my internship, I called the bank. They told me there was nothing they could do after a card was locked and it would remain that way for another twelve hours. I explained that I had accidentally locked it myself because of my dyscalculia. The woman on the phone said she’d never heard of it. Her suggestion was to use a register and get cash back after buying something.
I tried this and my card was again declined at the drugstore. I immediately started crying and explained that I just needed a subway swipe. The cashier took pity on me and gave me his Metrocard. A week later, I brought him a Metrocard with ten dollars loaded on it and a thank you note, which I left with his manager.
When I got back to my dorm room, I collapsed on my bed and sobbed. I was starving after only a piece of pizza to eat at lunch. I had been left destitute in New York City, had to rely on strangers because I couldn’t remember numbers.
My day had been ruined because my brain functioned abnormally or was missing a section or was simply a bad brain. And there was nothing that could be done about it, nothing to resolve it, no one to blame. I simply had a brain that could do some things and not others.
Five is so full of himself. At any single moment, several numbers are irritated with Five. He wears a suit everywhere, but is always late. Like most of the numbers, Five is obsessed with himself and moves through life with the need to stamp himself everywhere, to leave his mark. Half the time, his factors end in Five—his life’s work. He’s obsessive in his need to have things be all about him, reflections of himself. As annoying as he is, you know what you’re going to get with Five and you can’t complain.
My mother can rattle off the phone number, birthdate, and social security number for everyone in our family. She’s good at math. More specifically, she’s superhuman at what has always felt like an impossibility to me. I don’t know if she knows what it’s like to constantly forget numbers, to have to give them personalities just to solve a multiplication problem.
As a child, I believed my mother’s skill at math was a sign that I wasn’t bad at math simply because I was a girl. Even though I knew this, the possibility that my math troubles all had to do with my gender always felt present. No one seemed to question a little girl struggling at math. Girls were supposed to like pink and purple, while boys liked blue and green. Girls were good at singing and art, but boys were preferred to build things. Boys were good at math, and girls weren’t.
I was a girl who liked writing and reading, and no one seemed to think it was strange that, at eleven years old, I couldn’t remember the phone number or zip code of the house I’d lived in my whole life. Because dyscalculia is less well-known, no one in my family was on the lookout or knew the signs. I only discovered the disability existed when I googled “bad at remembering numbers” in my twenties.
As a child, I was horrified at the possibility that something was very wrong with my brain, that I was not as smart as people told me I was. To blame my gender was to relieve me of faults. If the problems were because I was a girl, then my brain wasn’t imperfect after all.
Six is cool. He uses a walking cane and he has a mustache. Six has a pug named Aurora who sits in the sidecar of his motorcycle. Six is in many ways what Five aspires to be, but cannot become, to which Six has responded with a lifelong campaign of rivalry. He’s always disrupting Five’s work. When Five ends a factor in a perfect 0, Six just hops along and suddenly transforms it so that the factor ends in Six’s name. He loves that this gets under Five’s skin. Secretly, it’s all an attempt to attract Four.
I’m so good at compensating for my number troubles that, if you watch me closely, you might not realize how many little tricks I’m using.
The calculator app is always on my recently used page. I never carry cash and always pay in card, to avoid the embarrassing hazard of giving the cashier way too much or too little money. I log every time I spend money in an app, which then recalculates and redistributes my paycheck amount over the rest of the month, so I don’t overspend. I used to calculate my timesheet in the bathroom to avoid doing it at my desk, so no one at work could know how difficult it was for me.
If I take too long to calculate the tip, the person I’m eating with might realize I’m bad at math. But if I go too fast, I could make the wrong estimate and leave a tip too small. This anxiety builds the second my food is set down in front of me.
Seven is into herself. But don’t be mistaken, she isn’t self-obsessed like Five, or interested in morals or love like the other numbers. Seven is just an introvert. Seven speaks five languages, does oil painting, and can solve a Rubik’s cube in ten minutes flat. Seven is so unpredictable that you can’t guess any of her factors. All you can do is remember them—and even then there is no trick, no rhyme or reason. Seven is mysterious and no one knows her true hair color.
As I got older, the more I relied on the numbers. Their personalities only got bigger, maturing and evolving with me. When I started having sex, all of them started their little love affairs. The traits they had when I was eight years old, they evolved with me, into how I see them now.
Like everyone who lives in the world, I use math every day, which means I have to call on my numbers constantly. They’re always with me, my odd assortment of personalities. As frustrating as it is, they feel like friends.
I have to call on my numbers constantly. They’re always with me, my odd assortment of personalities.
Like a few other numbers, Eight is in love with Four. His factors are inconsistent but can line up with Two’s factors in an attempt to attract Four. Eight is a little overweight and loves the occasional donut. Eight also is sweet, thoughtful, devoted, and Four does feel herself drawn to him because Eight feels like a real partner, as opposed to the perfect Two or the slippery Six.
Sometimes I imagine there is a whole world I’m missing out on. Math whizzing past me, predicting the weather, computer code lighting up my cell phone, algorithms which push my data to the top. All of it is impenetrable to me, something with which I cannot see or touch or interact.
Because of difficulties with math and numbers, some dyscalculics shoplift to avoid making change at the till, max out their credit cards by accident, or use the same PINs for everything—making them perfect targets for hackers and identity fraud. Dyscalculia may cause its sufferers to perpetually arrive late, misaddress their mail, do their taxes wrong, or write the wrong number in frosting on their kid’s birthday cake.
In the most extreme cases, some can’t hold jobs, can’t manage money, and need to rely on others for help on a daily basis. For some dyscalculics, the following occupations may be impossibilities: mathematician, physicist, scientist, chemist, doctor, nurse, teacher.
I’m not sure if I write because I like it, or if my inclination towards writing is because dyscalculia eliminates other possibilities.
Nine is a genius. Like Five, she’s obsessed with having her name on all of her factors, but she’s more clever. All of her multiplication factors spell out her name when the numbers in the answer are added together. Nine may be a mathematical genius, but she’s also a poet. She went to college to study film and changed her major three times before settling on medieval literature. Nine has dabbled in Kabbalah and polyamory with Three.
When I do want to tell someone about my dyscalculia, I have to start at the beginning. It can never be so simple as saying, I have dyscalculia, and someone nodding and getting it. It’s an unknown, and describing it can be harder than compensating for it.
Other times, though, it’s exactly the same, like my friend Emily, who also has a bad-at-numbers brain like me. When we have dinner together, figuring out the tip takes both phone calculators and several attempts. We take as long as we need to decide how much to leave for the tip. Emily is the only person I don’t feel anxious eating out with. We’re like Two and Four when it comes to putting our heads together and figuring out the tip.
Ten is the ideal. The aspiration. The perfection. The crowning moment of a number’s life is to come in contact with Ten. Ten is the king, the president, the god of numbers. Ten makes possible what all the numbers want—to move from single digit to double-digit and yet retain their integrity. Ten remains truly unattainable, something untouchable. Ten and One are lovers.
Sarah McEachern is a reader and writer in Brooklyn, NY. Her recent work has been published in Catapult, Pigeon Pages, Entropy, Pacifica Literary Review, and The Spectacle. Her reviews, criticism, and interviews have been published or are forthcoming in Rain Taxi, Pen America, Split Lip, The Believer, The Ploughshares Blog, and Gulf Coast.