As a child, I was obsessed by numbers.

No. I was ruled by numbers.

I spent my life trying to make sense of the world by trying to see patterns in it. When walking, not only would I studiously avoid the cracks, but I’d have to tally my steps as well. Counting to nine, over and over, soothed me. The world was scary and confused; I wanted to smooth everything down and make it safe. No cracks, count to nine, no cracks, count to nine.

Words were a challenge. If I saw a poster when I was out—perhaps an ad on the side of a building or a bus—I had to make that add up to nine too.

Let me explain it to you. First, I’d count up the letters in each word. Then, I’d have to find the combination that let them produce a 9.

Let = 3
me = 2
explain = 7
it = 2
to = 2
you = 3

(3 – 2) + (7 + 2 + 2) – 3 = 9. Phew.

There were no exceptions. If a sentence didn’t work first time, I had to jerry-rig a solution.

Let = 3
me = 2
demonstrate = 11

(3 – 2) + 11? No
(3 + 2) + 11? No

Let’s use the spaces in-between words now.


Let = 3
[space = 1]
me = 2
[space = 1]
demonstrate = 11

((-3 + 1) * (2 – 1)) + 11 = 9! Phew!

For one sentence? A bit of a challenge. For every advert I saw? Exhausting.

And so I measured out the world in steps and counts, keeping everything safe by reducing it to the magic number nine. Over and over and over. No exceptions.

There was comfort, for a while, in this endless result, but over time the game expanded. I would bang my foot as I answered my maths homework. I had to produce the answers in time to the beat. It wasn’t enough to count the written words, when people spoke to me, I had to add their sentences up, make everything sum to nine. Objects around me had to be mentally rearranged so that they spoke of nine somehow.

There’s a vase on my mantlepiece. It features a flower with six leaves, a stem, and a two-tone head.

1 vase * (6 leaves + 1 stem + 2 colours) = 9. Phew.

It is a big ask of anyone to keep the universe safe by performing endless calculations. Let alone a child. But I had no choice; I was unable to stop. Walking and counting, walking and counting.

It didn’t even occur to me to tell anyone or seek help; this was simply my job and my comfort.

Now, for something that was so central to my life, it’s strange that I can’t tell you what happened next. I don’t remember when or how the obsession eased, but it did—so gradually that I didn’t notice.

It’s still there though, waiting for me. It occasionally returns—in other forms—when I’m stressed. I was sucked into Sudoku and spent hours boxing the world into grids. Similarly, solving logic puzzles. Latterly, Candy Crush.

The pull is still to ignore the mess in my life, and make neat sense of another chaos. But now, as an adult, I can think fondly of that little girl—frantically counting and counting—and understand now that the world simply can’t be sorted, solved and smoothed. Sometimes we just have to life with its jagged edges.

THE WINNING LINES: Tales from my dating days #3

Another internet date. He emailed me several times beforehand to say how nervous he was. (Fair enough, we’ve all been there.) And then the date rolled around:

Me: “Hi, nice to meet you finally. How are you?”

Him: “Still really nervous. This is the first date I’ve been on in twenty years”.

Me: “Well, no worries, we’ve all got to get back in the dating game at some point. When did you and your wife split up?”

Him: “Last month.”

Me: “Oh. Really? Er, OK, but isn’t that a bit soon to be dating, maybe?”

Him: “Well, why not? You never know when you might meet the love of your life! It could be you!”