About 15 years ago the newspaper where I work sent me to a number-crunching boot camp, where I learned how to analyze data. I became a geek.
As journalism morphed from the old fashioned pen, notebook and musty records at the courthouse to the internet’s ability to gather mountains of data in the blink of an eye, my geekiness blossomed. I attended more bootcamps on advanced statistics and mapping.
I added SQL, shapefiles and string functions to my arsenal of reporting skills. My brain changed, too. I could feel it. A portion of my brain that had been slacking was now firing. I thought differently. It’s hard to explain.
The analytical side of my brain teamed up with the creative side and my thinking became three-dimensional. The skies parted and I realized that 3+2 and 4+1 both equaled 5. There were suddenly many solutions to the same problem. This revelation came fast and hard and not without severe consequences. What many geeks learn over the course of a semester I was cramming into a few weeks. The pressure of perpetual deadlines at the newspaper forced me to acquire these skills fast. Too fast.
This kind of reporting requires exceptional focus. I had never experienced this kind of mental intensity and stress. As as a bipolar alcoholic, I really, really like intensity. I had experienced this kind of intensity before at the gym, where I work out until my lips are flapping like an obsessed racehorse and I collapse on the floor.
Physically, I was an adrenaline junkie. I had become a mental junkie, too.
I would put a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the back of my chair and go to it. Time, sound, other humans and all the bullshit in my life did not exist. It was just me, the data and a problem to solve or question to answer.
I was able to channel my manic energy and racing thoughts into a single stream of intense concentration. I loved it. But like my drinking, it left me with a hangover. Mental exhaustion. My thinking cap had been on too tight for too long. Sometimes I felt as though I couldn’t get it off. I dreamed of queries and pondered datum projections in the shower.
Over the years, as other reporters acquired these skills, I was called upon less and less to go to the dark, data side. But every now and then I get an assignment that requires these skills. My superiors, who do not have these skills, have no comprehension of the mental gymnastics that are required to complete these assignments. Sometimes I don’t either, until I am in the thick of it.
The stress of meeting a deadline – pressure that I once relished – now produces anxiety. The more anxiety, the more weary I become. My mental health suffers. I am not taking care of myself. The mental equivalent of collapsing on the floor at the gym is depression.
It is an insidious depression that starts in weak fits and jerks and then builds into a debilitating, consuming and overwhelming shit-pile of despondency. And then it’s game over.
Numbers image available from Shutterstock.