Growing Up With a Weird Brain

I have trouble remaining aware of my surroundings, and as a kid it was worse. When teachers called on me in class, I rarely heard them. Even waving a hand in front of my face and saying, “Earth to Bryn!” wouldn’t always snap me out of a trance.

Trigger warning for talk of suicide.

I wasn’t good at talking to other kids, and I couldn’t remember anything I was supposed to do. One teacher suggested moving me to classes for mentally retarded children, as they were called then, but when we took our first standardized tests I did extremely well.

I began having occasional shoulder or whole-body spasms that lasted a few seconds. My mom took me to our family doctor, who ordered an EEG, a brain scan. I was supposed to remain awake the whole night before. Unfortunately, Prince Charles and Di got married in the middle of the night (on Illinois time) before that, and I watched all the wedding hoopla.

By the morning of the test, I hadn’t slept for a few days. They dotted cold gritty paste all over my scalp and hooked wires to it. I napped. A couple of times they woke me up by flashing a strobe light in my face, and afterwards, they washed the dried stuff out of my hair. My mom drove me to school, exhausted with sopping wet hair, to start my day.

Although he wasn’t a neurologist, our doctor said I had epilepsy and prescribed Dilantin twice daily. It made me very sleepy, so he added Ritalin in the morning to wake me up, which took away my appetite.

High school was better. I made friends with some other freaky kids. I could pay attention in class almost half the time now, enough to get good grades.  My spasms hadn’t stopped, so the doctor added phenobarbital to my prescriptions. Soon after, I had my first experience with serious suicidal fixation. I didn’t feel sad, or feel anything: I just wanted to kill myself. I couldn’t figure out how to do it without making people feel bad.

I suspected the phenobarb amplified my suicidal tendencies. Once at college, I quit all the pills. The occasional spasms remained the same. I was so wary of drugs then I wouldn’t even smoke weed, though many of my professors did. By then I was an excellent student and had attained at least some social competence.

As an adult, I’m reasonably successful, and still flaky. I sometimes forget to attend events that mean a lot to me. When I pass work friends in the hallways, they know I won’t be able to notice them unless they make a point of flagging me down to say hello. Once in a while I still shake, and I have a few other quirks. I have trouble making eye contact, and I grow anxious if I’m in a group of people for too long of a time. I get obsessed with some topic I do not need to know about and research it for days or weeks on end, which isn’t convenient.

Mostly, I get by. I went into a creative field that’s more tolerant of eccentricity, and I have tools that didn’t exist when I was a kid (God bless you, Siri.) More than anything, I think I learned ways to compensate for my weaknesses.

If you have a kid with a brain that’s giving her trouble, it doesn’t mean she’ll never fit in or find her place in the world. I think traditional schools are particularly unforgiving places for kids with learning disabilities or disorders, and the brain can change itself and figure out some workarounds: it might just take a little while.

The cartoon is, of course, property of the wonderful and talented Natalie Dee.

By Bryn Donovan

Romance writer, poet, quilter, and dog cuddler.

13 replies on “Growing Up With a Weird Brain”

I was diagnosed several years ago with Meniere’s Syndrome, which is an inner-ear sort of thing. I tend to have difficulty looking people in the eyes for very long because of it, and it effects me in different ways at different times (dim lights will make my eyes start to feel weird, I have tinnitus all the time but sometimes one ear will get worse for a minute, sometimes background noises come to the foreground and it’s hard to concentrate on foreground noises, no depth perception, etc.). In reading up on it, there’s a similar disease that, in lieu of the vertigo, has ‘brain fog,’ and at the risk of self-diagnosing, I think that’s what I really have. I don’t get really bad vertigo (esp. compared to people I know with Meniere’s), but my brain will just…be fine one minute, and then feel like it’s wading through pudding to get a thought. I’ll frequently stop mid-sentence and have no idea what I was talking about. Ordinarily I am super-observant and not the type to ‘zone out,’ but it’s like I get a random glitch and it’s frustrating. I don’t know if yours is anything like that, but I know how aggravating it is. I have a son who’s high-functioning autistic/Aspergers, and sometimes I think maybe I have an as-yet unspecified spectrum disorder too. I am an introvert (so socializing exhausts me), but I am good at networking and know how to do it, although there are exceptions :) I don’t really get focused like he does, and he does have tics and such sometimes, which I’ve never had. But like you, I am very empathetic (sometimes too much), and have issues explaining things without metaphors more often than not. I am very sarcastic (he rarely ‘gets’ sarcasm unless it’s pointed out to him), and I have to remember to curb my analogies and jokes with him because he’s so literal.

So in a nutshell I can relate :) and maybe it’d be worth checking an ear/nose/throat specialist to see if there’s an inner-ear reason behind some of the issues. I don’t take any meds so I can’t recommend anything that might help, but knowing is half the battle…

Well, that is pretty dang interesting. I have chronic ear problems: lots of infections, can get sick on a normal car ride, and vertigo. I think my clumsiness is that thing where you can’t tell where your body is in space.

Now that I think of it, I remember reading in The Brain That Changes Itself (amazing book) about a lady who had no sense of balance–constantly feeling she was falling–and how devastating that can be to how people function and to their mental state. I read once that creative people are much more prone to motion sickness, and I came up with this theory that maybe both creativity and mental illness can be products of a vestibular disorder. In the former case, creativity becomes a way to re-right/re-write oneself.

But then I forgot all about it. Ha.


Thanks so much for sharing your story, Bryn. My younger brother has dealt with issues all his life and is now ADHD/high-functioning autism/depressed – as diagnosed and medicated for. He talks about suicide sometimes and it can be so frightening (his stems more so, I think, from not having friends b/c of his social awkwardness and being sad from that). I really appreciate hearing about the experience from someone who has personally dealt with it because it gives me insight into my brother – I want to help him but it can be hard sometimes to really empathize because we have different life situations. So, thank you :)

I’ve had a few bouts with suicidal depression, and went into the psych. hospital for it a little over a year ago (the new meds are helping a lot :) ). I think you’re exactly right: the shame of feeling like a weirdo can get under a person’s skin. It took me a while to realise my depression and desire to hurt myself came completely from feelings of worthlessness, which I needed to consciously combat. (Ugh, this all sounds so pathetic when I type it out, but whatever.)

My therapist recommended a self-esteem workbook by Matthew McKay, and I have yet to check it out. I really should! This is going to sound soo ridiculous, but I sometimes I write down what my brain is telling me (i.e. “Brain: ‘Nobody likes you.'”) and write a letter to my brain (“Dear Brain, that is a bunch of crap. Tons of people like me. For instance…”) Hahaha.

I don’t know if any of that’s helpful–probably not–but I hope your brother finds more peace of mind. He’s lucky to have you for a sister. :)

None of my doctors knew what to do with me as a kid. I had a hard time paying attention but I scored insanely high on tests. They thought I might be autistic and I withdrew in social situations. I was in special ed from 1-3rd grade in a small class with other kids who suffered various mental handicaps, emotional and attention issues. I even rode the short bus – didn’t realize how cool that’d be till later. They never really came up for an official reason why (tossed out the autism diagnosis – they’d probably label me with Asperger’s now) and mainstreamed me through fourth grade.

I always had problems in crowds or at the mall I’d just ‘space out’ – completely incapable of focusing on anything. It took me until my late teens to be able to articulate to my mom what it was like to be so overwhelmed by everything around me. To this day when I’m walking through crowds on the street I don’t see people I see shapes to work around like a video game – it’s like that’s the only way my brain can handle all the sensory input. I can’t listen to other peoples conversations in restaurants (no eavesdropping for me!) or watch people in public – it’s too much for me.

I’ve found various means of coping. I’ve tried my share of drugs for the ADHD, recurring depression and anxiety, sleep issues. Mostly I’ve just found a lot of ways to alter my life in ways I don’t even think about now to avoid situations where I’m unable to function ‘normally’. Nobody wants to see me out of my element/comfort zone. The results are severely unpleasant for everyone involved.

Thank you for sharing your story. :)

Geez, it sounds like we have a lot in common. I’ve read up about Asperger’s, and some things do fit me a lot: social weirdness, the eye contact thing, falling down rabbit holes about certain topics, the lack of depth perception, sleep problems, and the extreme clumsiness.

Other traits are pretty much the opposite of me. I have a lot of empathy, a decent sense of humor, and I’m great at figurative language and metaphor (I have an MFA in poetry and publish it now and again). From your writing, it sounds like you’re the same way? (That videogame analogy is perfect, by the way.)

I’ve been on Prozac forever because of depression, but I think it does help with my spaciness too. I take Klonopin for anxiety, which makes me even clumsier–my legs are covered with bruises! Thank God for maxi dresses. :) And I take a sleeping pill.

“Nobody wants to see me out of my element/comfort zone. The results are severely unpleasant for everyone involved”…a while back I got put in a job where I didn’t have any walls around my desk and it was this huge open area full of people talking. Oh, God. I couldn’t even think! I just felt horrible.

It’s nice to connect with someone who’s been through similar experiences. Thanks!


Thank you for this post.

My younger brother is going through this right now & is taking dilantin & phenytoin for seizures & black outs. He has a hard time in school & is contemplating dropping out of college altogether. My mother doesn’t seem to understand why he is the way he is & she isn’t online or knows anyone with this type of neurological condition.

I hope that I can use your example to help her understand & learn that my brother just needs time & better treatment.

I’m sorry you had a rough go of it, but also echoing everyone’s comments of being glad that you were able to sort things out in a manageable way. It sucks that some schools aren’t equipped to handle the “non-regular” (whatever that may mean for that particular kid) and then end up hurting instead of helping.

Wow, I really feel for you. I had the opposite problem growing up — I was very sensitive to my surroundings as a child (and still am). I suffer from Sensory Integration Disorder, which makes it very hard for my senses to filter out stuff that “normal” people would. Also, I think I might have had a minor case of ADHD, which made me very prone to distraction and daydreaming. (It certainly makes keeping up with deadlines a bitch.) I actually spent a lot of time playing alone, because i just couldn’t handle the overstimulation of being around lots of kids. Add to the fact that I had some problems w/depression and suicidal thoughts in high school and — well, there you have me. Now that I know what I have, it’s a bit easier to deal with. So, basically, what I’m saying is that I can understand a little bit what you went through — even though it’s not quite the same or as extreme.

My son gets a bit sensory-overwhelmed too. It’s something I have to pay attention to, otherwise he might completely withdraw OR the opposite, he overcompensates and starts getting really squirrelly (almost like he’s trying to get all the overwhelming feelings OUT). He’s almost 5 now, and will start kindergarten this year, and I’m interested to see how he deals with being in a class with 15-20 other kids. He’s excited to learn and to go, but I’m wondering how tired all that extra activity will make him. We’ll see I guess.

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