Using Hip-Hop and Numbers to Combat Mental Health

Sydney native Ben Carter, the man behind Twitter account @HipHopNumbers, is using his love for hip-hop and statistics to combat a lifelong battle with mental health. Ten hours per day, seven days per week.
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Thirty-year-old Ben Carter wakes up at 5 a.m. every morning. He works in his room for eight to 10 hours a day, seven days a week. Carter is one person—the only person—running a social media account that averages 15 to 20 million views a month. He doesn’t have the luxury of taking breaks.

The account, Hip Hop by the Numbers, churns out daily statistics about hip-hop songs, albums, and artists. In less than 18 months, Carter, born and raised in Sydney, Australia, has organically built a following of over 76,000 followers. Depending on the context, Carter’s statistical tweets either spark conversation or contention. Quickly.

Despite the rapid-fire nature of a content platform like Twitter, Carter regularly spends hours poring through entire discographies to consolidate the data into a maximum of 280 characters at a time. Hip Hop by the Numbers asks of Carter to be obsessive—a dedication rooted in something considerably deeper than proliferating hip-hop statistics or even brand development.

This compulsive aspect of Carter’s personality has manifested in horrific ways throughout his life. Hip Hop by the Numbers allows Carter to channel this energy into something productive, something he truly believes in. But before finding a sliver of solace in his fascination with numbers, he first had to deal with crippling mental health issues.

Carter’s descent into madness began 13 years ago. During his final year at Hurlstone Agricultural High School, he discovered what he thought was “a cheat code to life.” His 18th birthday was the night before an English exam—one of several end-of-year exams that would determine where he’d pursue his higher education. His girlfriend at the time brought over a six-pack of Carlton Cold to celebrate. By his third beer, an unfamiliar warmth ultimately displaced years of pent-up anxiety.

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Carter finished the rest of his university entry exams over the following weeks, which meant his sole purpose for the previous 18 months was now replaced with a gaping void. Carter filled this void with alcohol until it was overflowing at the brim. By the time he started attending the University of New South Wales in 2007, that six-pack of Carlton Cold had escalated into 30 to 40 drinks a night.

Carter made a promise to himself that he would only drink after 5 p.m.—a shaky rationalization that allowed him to stumble through his collegiate responsibilities as a “functional alcoholic.” His drink of choice was a cheap brand of boxed wine: Golden Oak Fruity Alexia. It cost him eight dollars for four liters—the equivalent of 40 drinks—and he guzzled one down nearly every single night, allocating just one day a week for recovery.

One afternoon in 2008, while shoveling dirt with his father, Carter became short of breath. He was no stranger to dehydration from severe hangovers—he had been drinking the evening before—but this felt different. Carter started to pant heavily. He felt as if there was no air left in his lungs. Quickly, a tingling sensation gave way to numbness in his limbs. As his vision became blurred, Carter fell over, unable to walk or stand upright.

When Carter arrived at the hospital, doctors ran tests and referred him to a psychologist, who diagnosed Carter with panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. He transitioned into proper psychological work, but he was wary of taking medication and continued to rely on alcohol as a crutch. Two years later, Carter was drinking just enough to alleviate his mental health issues. He was, according to him, in a good place. 

Later that year, Carter, along with three of his friends, drove up a mountain in Wanaka, a little village resort on the South Island of New Zealand, for a ski trip. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the scenic route they had hoped for when they first planned the trip: overcast skies, high winds, extremely low visibility, and temperatures well below zero. There were no barriers along the steep, icy roads.

When they turned around a particular corner, the car’s back tires lost traction for a moment. Carter lost his nerves and began to panic, running through every disastrous contingency in his head for the rest of the drive. Although the subsequent skiing went smoothly, exhaustion had taken its toll by nightfall. Carter, lugging his equipment along the side of the road en route to the car, began to experience suicidal thoughts for the first time in his life. He chalked up these feelings to being sleep-deprived, but as he would later learn, he never truly recovered from this trip.

“That was the beginning of the downfall for me,” Carter says over the phone. “A lot of my anxiety and my obsessive-compulsive disorder, I can trace back to that drive and trip.” It wasn’t a particularly traumatic event. Still, all the underlying issues that exposed themselves on those winding roads up the mountain—even on the walk back to the car—became further entrenched in his psyche. “I was ruminating on everything, falling into panic constantly. There was no release. I was just a prisoner in my mind.”

The following two weeks were intolerable. A pervasive, overwhelming sense of dread loomed overhead as Carter descended into deeper and darker places. Only a little white pill called AROPAX—an SSRI antidepressant—brought him stability. His “merry-go-round of prescription drugs,” he says, had officially been set into motion.

By the end of that 2011, Carter quit drinking. His psychologist recommended exercise as a new coping mechanism, and so he gave it a shot. The more he exercised, the more mental clarity and freedom he felt—it became his buffer against the world and tapped deeply into his compulsive desire for control. The physical benefits were just a bonus. There was, it seemed, no downside to his new obsession. The rush of endorphins was the most intoxicating thing he’d ever felt.

The following year, a second drug was introduced to Carter’s regiment: an antipsychotic called Seroquel. He developed a voracious appetite that soon became a full-blown binge eating disorder. Carter would run through three or four liters of yogurt and ice cream in one sitting after a full day of regular meals, but he was still exercising religiously, running at least eight miles a day and spending another four hours lifting weights at the gym. When he severely injured his iliotibial band, he continued running until he could no longer walk. And once he couldn’t exercise, he couldn’t eat. He lost 73 pounds in 18 months.

Carter, standing at 6’4” and weighing 115 pounds, was hospitalized and diagnosed with anorexia. “If you continue at this rate,” the doctors told him, “you’ll die in a week or two.” Carter refused to check into an inpatient treatment facility, and later that same day, he had his first meal that wasn’t strictly salad or vegetables in over a year.

By mid-2013, Carter finally found a combination of pills that worked in his favor. Coincidentally, it was at this time he also found his love for numbers. While immersing himself in the Genius community, Carter noted statistical patterns while annotating lyrical content. He started tracking these patterns to see if he could tell a story using data. Thus, his first article for a major publication was published: a 30-year statistical retrospective on how the nature of drug references had changed in hip-hop.

“After about four years, I left [Genius] because I wasn’t happy with the direction they were moving in, but I left with this same idea: using lyrics to create statistics,” he says. “I wanted to answer those questions that people spoke of subjectively—how often Lil Wayne says ‘pussy,’ how often The Game name-drops, stuff like that. No one had sat down to work this stuff out, and I had a lot of time on my hands.”

Carter spent the next few years confined to his room: analyzing lyrics, crunching numbers, and writing long-form articles. He’d occasionally wander around the city with his headphones on, walking for six to eight hours at a time, channeling the hustle and bustle of pedestrians into some semblance of human connection.

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Over the past seven years, Carter has tried 19 prescription drugs in almost 60 different combinations. He’s seen four psychiatrists and 13 psychologists, many of whom echoed the same sentiments: Your mental issues are too complex. There’s virtually no chance of full recovery. You should come to terms with your psychological state.

Rather than live his life on auto-pilot, Carter decided to ax nearly his entire daily pill regimen. He made it four months without a single pill to numb his mental state.

“I haven’t felt that alive in so long,” Carter exclaims. “I can’t even explain that stretch. The only reason that I’m not really fucked up, the only reason I’m still with my family, the only reason I still have relationships, the only reason Hip Hop by the Numbers still exists, is because of that stretch. I was a human again.”

Carter eventually crashed and burned, a sobering reminder of why he was on such a high dose of medication in the first place. But this past May, his proudest moment as a statistician arrived as a much-needed moment of affirmation. When Tyler, the Creator’s album Igor went No. 1 on the Billboard 200, Carter went through data sets of every No. 1 album in hip-hop history. 

It took him a week to quadruple check all the numbers, but there it was:

Tyler reposted the above on his Twitter and Instagram, and the tweet went nuclear—nearly eight million views over 72 hours. At the end of that week, Carter found himself at a friend’s birthday party at a bar in Surry Hills. He was apprehensive about mingling, but as soon as he walked in, people began congratulating him.

“They were like, ‘Ben, I heard about the Tyler shit, that’s so epic!’ People in the group were shaking my hand, patting me on the back, asking millions of questions,” he tells me. “I was so thankful for that moment because Tyler is the one who achieved something. I just got to bask in that reflective glow for a bit.”

For one night, Carter felt like a celebrity. Being acknowledged beyond retweets, likes, and comments was a surreal change of pace. 

Carter still battles daily with his mental health. But Hip Hop by the Numbers has given him a reason to get out of bed and engage with the world. He still wakes up at 5:00 am every single morning.

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