Math Trauma

This semester I enrolled in a mathematics class, Geometry and The Imagination. It's interesting, the reading is interesting, the work in class and at home is interesting, but... every time I attend class I am hit with unstoppable emotion and begin crying. I've had to leave class a number of times to cry it out in the restroom.  There is something about the way the professor talks to me that crushes me to the core and I can't protect myself from the blows.  It is devastating. I've never had this kind of experience in mathematics classes before now. What the hell? This isn't a matter of "you too can learn to enjoy mathematics with some effort and a good tutor" kind of thing this is post traumatic stress disorder associated with math instruction. 

When I began college I started with a math class, pre-algebra. I had class every day Monday through Friday, had daily homework and weekly quizzes. I'd stay at school to do my homework, then go home and do it again to check my work then when I got up in the morning I would drill myself on the multiplication tables and do my homework a third time before going to class. I was doing well on my homework because I gave myself so much time to do it, but I failed every quiz and test. I was not alone in my failure, I had some help. My boyfriend at the time was demanding undivided attention from me, telling me that if I had that much time to study I should be putting that kind of time into him and bettering our relationship. Often he would keep me awake late talking about things that were very important to him and with some regularity would wake me up from sleep to engage discussions. Immediacy! These discussions fucked with my already delicate sleep cycle as well as prevented me from being rested to support my studies and with great frequency happened to coincide with quiz and test schedules. I felt sabotaged. One of these discussions became a marathoner, frustrating for both of us (let me say, he got sleep, I was worn down by lack of sleep), in this discussion he declared that he dictated when I went to school. That was the moment I ended our relationship. I removed myself the very next day. Not surprisingly, despite my hard work I failed that class, consequently I lost my financial aid (which I appealed and won). Have I internalized the failure as a metaphor for other failures as well? The lesson being that regardless of how hard I work to just pass I still can't and don't succeed.  Maybe the Math Trauma is a product of the consequences. Losing my financial aid is dire. That's really stressful for me.  If I fail again I'll be forced to drop out of school. I can't fail. That I have no room to fail scares the crap out of me. 

After my first devastating class this semester I stayed at school for a group art therapy session that I had been looking forward to, but I cried through it too. I mean really cried. I got up and left that session so that I could go cry in the restroom some more.  After the session I talked with the student services director (who'd set up the sessions) about having a learning disability evaluation done so that we could get the formalities in order, so that I may receive services available from the school to support people with learning disabilities. For starters I needed to contact the schools psychologist for an evaluation - I already see him, I planned to talk to him about it the next time we met. When we did meet we talked about how I have never ever not even once passed a math class. I've never had a tutor, never had help from my parents or the schools that I went to; I was left to fend for myself and clearly failed.  He told me that my history with math is on par with torture. TORTURE. No person should be subjected to that kind of treatment. He offered some suggestions for the next class (which I tried and didn't manage well), as well we established an appointment for a learning disability evaluation.  

My therapist and I will be working on replacing the negative associations I have with math with positive ones with positive reinforcement (work on math, do something enjoyable, go back to working on math, repeat), learn calming techniques and I'm not sure what else yet. I'd like xanax personally. Monkey has been awesomely supportive, offering to help me with my math homework - I warned him that I would likely be a brat about it and throw tantrums and sharp things - it was tough to admit to someone I'm interested in keeping around that I will be an annoying pain in the ass in this one area. He assured me he was up for it and by golly he has been great. Positive reinforcement with him is good times =)  

The evaluation made me feel like I am really good at faking being a smart person, but really should be wearing a helmet. The entire remainder of the day I was in a very dark and uncomfortable headspace. The stuff I drew that day was weird and crunchy and a little cryptic, and then while finishing one I accidently wrecked the other so both drawings are unsalvageable. Kind of reinforcing the theme.  (Thankfully I got to unwind and sleepover with Monkey which helped me feel a lot better.)   

The student services advisor and I talked the next day about getting a tutor, a note taker, allowing me to have a voice recorder, longer test times and discussions with the professor to gain some respect and understanding in this matter. I requested kitties too but I don't think that'll happen. By the advice of my therapist, the student services advisor and, my academic advisor I have withdrawn from my mathematics class to defer until I have worked through my Math Trauma and shored myself up with good tools. Next semester I'll try this class again - without the waterworks. Part of me feels like a quitter, part of me knows I'm taking care of my mental health and making tremendous progress.

All of this was completely unexpected - as I said, I've never had deep emotional reactions to attending a mathematics class before - to be broadsided by a well spring of frustration with sincere anxiety has been incredibly challenging. Sitting in classes crying about math has been humiliating. I have some hard work ahead of me. Solving the mystery of where the trauma originates and how it has been perpetuated; learning the tools I need to cope with it; as well as actually getting through the required mathematics courses successfully.  I'll chug through it.  

I wish I could get better scans out of my sketchbooks.


  1. Q, I am really at a loss for words. My wife was phobic about math and I used to do her homework and take home exams for her (I was not a good tutor). It was shortly thereafter that she tossed me out. The only thing that got me thru math was that I knew it was important for what I wanted to do (I was an economist). I don't know what your problem with math is. It isn't that you are stupid, you are good at figuring things out and solving problems (how to make a ukelele with a torn up thumb for example). Anybody that is a biker gets a lot of practice in figuring things out. And I don't need to point out that a whole lot of people can't fix a car or figure out how to use a camera as well as you do. Please keep in mind that you are NOT Broken and don't need to be fixed.


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