The Counting Thing

I was a middle schooler at the time, running errands one afternoon with my mom. She pulled the car to a stop to wait for traffic, and through a sudden burst of tears I blurted out what I’d been afraid to say aloud for a while, all the while glaring furiously at the stop sign in front of the car.

“There’s something wrong with my brain!”

I was known as the serious first-born, the one who worried about things all the time. When this began, I started dwelling on it, worrying about it, figuring I’d be labeled again if I were to tell anyone about my nasty little habit.

At school I was the “smart kid”. I learned to act disinterested so that when I earned straight As the other kids wouldn’t have such an easy time calling me the teacher’s pet. (That didn’t work, by the way.)  My parents always told me that my worrying and serious nature were a result of my intelligence. During my entrance interview for college my parents were invited into the room, and the conversation was dominated by one of my father’s favorite tales from my early childhood. As the story goes, I’d just left my dinosaur phase and had become obsessed with airplanes and helicopters. I asked him how planes fly, and he told me they use their wings. He says I became insistent, begging him to tell me specifically how wings make the planes stay up in the air. He grinned from ear to ear as he spoke to my recruiter, wholeheartedly believing that I was the smartest high school graduate on the face of the planet, and that any college recruiter would be a fool not to accept me.

I was also already a bit of a hypochondriac, too. I felt singled out as a child, first because of my hypoglycemia and later because of my asthma (which was triggered by the tree outside my 4th grade classroom, so my teacher had to close the windows all because of me). My first aura-producing migraine attack occurred in the sixth grade, and I convinced myself I was going blind. When the headaches became regular, the exasperated (and tactless) school nurse stood in front of me and told my mother I needed to have my brain scanned for a tumor. After a while, every time some new strange symptom popped up, I was sure it was an indicator of something more serious.

So when I finally confessed my habit to my mother that day in the car, she laughed and told me I was simply “too smart” and that I worried too much about things. Then she made me promise to remember her one day when I became famous for inventing something great or curing cancer. (Oh, the high hopes our parents have for us…) Knowing me as she did, she quickly followed her exasperating remark with a suggestion to mention it to my doctor at my next check-up. If I’m not scarred for life by what happened next, at the very least I’ll always attach a bulls-eye to Dr. P’s face every time I see it in my mind.

“Dr. P, can I ask you about something kinda…weird?”

“Sure. What have you got for me this time?” He said it with the smirk he always wore when he knew I was about to ask him about something middle-schoolers shouldn’t be concerned by, like skin cancer or brain tumors.

“I do this… this counting thing in my head. It’s really starting to bug me, and I can’t turn it off. Some days it makes me want to scream.”

“What’s that?”

So I told him. I explained the numeric value assigned to different letters of the alphabet and punctuation, my obsession with making things even, and the (often 3-digit, and always correct) running totals I formed in my mind as people talked to me. I stressed to him how aggravating the habit had become since I lacked the ability to turn it off, and how in some cases it was interfering with my ability to have normal, uninterrupted conversations.

Without even a pause, Dr. P started laughing. He pulled his chair closer (yes, I remember this vividly), sat down, and put his hand on my knee. Even then, I had a good idea that the look he gave me was the same one he used on his children when they were asking him ridiculous questions.

“C, have you ever seen the movie The Rainman?”

OK, seriously?!?, I thought. I just divulged my big secret about my screwed-up brain, and all he can do is laugh and ask me about a movie?!? I wanted to cry, or at least rewind the last few seconds of my life.

Since I hadn’t seen the movie, he briefly explained the story. He told me that my brain was bored, and it had to find ways to stay busy because I was so smart. He said that some people express minor savant characteristics when their brains don’t get enough stimulation, and that I just needed to stop worrying about it.

First, I watched the film. You can imagine my horror when I realized my on-screen counterpart (of sorts) was a man with autism and strange compulsions. I didn’t want to be compared to that!

Next, I started researching my new key word: savant. Specifically, Dr. P had said I “exhibited savant characteristics“, which means I wasn’t qualified to go around replaying piano pieces after hearing them only once or figuring out in a heartbeat what day of the week March 14, 1432 was. It just meant that I had a savant behavior tendency with speech and numbers. I was fascinated by what I read on the subject, but I couldn’t help shaking the nagging thought that I suffered from a great hidden impairment which I had yet to discover, since most of the people with savant syndrome I read about also suffered from developmental disorders. (I later discovered that not all people with savant syndrome or characteristics have other abnormalities, which also helped to put my mind at ease.)

Armed with (and still quite frightened by) my new knowledge, I developed what will probably turn out to be a life-long interest in autism spectrum disorders and savant syndrome (which, though they often co-exist, do not always go hand-in-hand).  In high school, the counting issue slowly fell to the back of my mind. But I don’t think the fear of being different finally truly fell away until my first visit to my future university.

By the time I was enrolled in college, living on a campus full of other counters and delightfully perfect weirdos (including some who really did exhibit savant characteristics), I’d stopped worrying about the counting issue altogether. In fact, when one of my first friends at the school confessed that she did something similar since having her brain operation a few years before, I was able to laugh with her about it. My happiness at finding someone who had the same nagging problem overrode my inclination to wonder “Did they cut something extra in her brain? Does that mean we’re both wired the wrong way, and that’s why we count?” Don’t burst my bubble if that’s really what happened. I don’t want to know.

I noticed a growing correlation, whereby the more people I told about what used to be my “dark” secret, the less of a problem it became. Perhaps this was encouraged by the fact that I was being challenged more mentally than I’d ever been in the past, or perhaps just because I was growing older and more comfortable with the quirks that so easily turn into oppressive labels when we’re kids. So when my dear friends asked if I would mention my counting to their son, I readily agreed. At the time, he was older than I’d been when Dr. P asked me about the Rainman. So when he told me about his counting habit he was able to laugh as he casually told me about how he “knocked” numbers into and out of one another in his head. While I was happy for him for being so well-adjusted and comfortable with his habit, I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of jealousy. Why had I been such a freakin’ neurotic child?

As a requirement for graduation, I had to complete a research project to summarize what I’d learned in my major. For me, this took the form of a collaborative year-long analysis of the influence of motivational accommodations on task performance in children with autism. When my professor approached me with an invitation to join another student in her research, I jumped at the opportunity. By this time, I’d stopped trying to fit myself into the cast of Rainman, and though the counting persisted, now I was more able to push it to the background of my thoughts and conversations. I’d become fascinated with autism spectrum disorders and savant behaviors, and had finally come to the conclusion that while I exhibited a strange behavior, that didn’t mean I had a problem or necessarily needed a label.

By the time I met B, I was comfortable enough to tell him about the habit. Now, the subject really doesn’t enter our conversations except for rare instances such as when this happened recently:

He walked into the kitchen seconds after I’d spilled a box of toothpicks while reaching for the vanilla, and then we both stood there laughing at our knowledge of what the other was thinking. Still laughing, he said, “This is going to go in your blog, isn’t it?”

“But of course!” I replied as I ran off to find our camera, “Because this girl no longer cries over things like spilled toothpicks!”


8 thoughts on “The Counting Thing

  1. Oh my gosh, I do a VERY similar thing!!! I count things a lot, trace things a lot (while counting) and can’t stop until I end on a “good” number. It’s so nice to hear someone does the same thing! People don’t get it unless they do it do. I particularly notice I do it when I’m stressed and I had a friend who is a therapist tell me that it’s a coping method to create order. But I also do it a lot when I’m just bored. 🙂 Loved this post!


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  6. Carl D'Agostino

    This tooth pick thing was no accident. Sticks are a form of I Ching or whatever and your subconscious directed your hand to mis judge and make the spill. I hope you see it in the positioning of the sticks. A little practice, you’ll get it, laser focusing your unique brain waves. I can read your future in the toothpicks very clearly: You will continue to write delightful, wholesome and entertaining things for a very very long time.

    Now if your subconscious makes you spill a box of matches, well this opens plethora of distasteful possibilities(profound understatement) . If that happens don’t rent that movie about the little fire hurling girl or better yet don’t keep wooden matches in the house and you should be Ok. It is so lucky for you that I chanced upon your blog. We can now avert cataclysmic catastrophe like the oil leak heading to Miami where I live. Perhaps you can harness your super human powers to make it all go away.

    And the brain thing. You will be fine if you run it and don’t let it run you.


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