A Brain in Five Acts

by Tracey Lynn Lloyd

I.
My brain is a marvel.

A team of psychologists at St. John’s University makes an appointment to marvel at my brain. Dr. Curlie, PhD, doesn’t want to test me because Black children don’t score well on IQ tests, meaning that we don’t have high IQs?

Do it anyway,” my mother says through clenched teeth.

We sit in Dr. Curlie’s plush, academic office. Diplomas in burnished frames gleam from the walls, and mechanical toys on the imposing glass-topped desk beg to be touched. I want to play with them, to turn them around and figure out how they work. My mother’s impassioned tones and Dr. Curlie’s condescending retorts fade into the distance as I nearly drool at the books on the walls. I am five years old and have been reading since age two. The books I’ve brought to entertain myself during this interminable battle of wills and racist ideology I finished in the waiting room.

A psychology grad student administers the test and takes notes. She calls in a few colleagues, who whisper among themselves as I solve word problems and complete visual puzzles. I feel like a monkey in a cage, but also happy that I’m getting the answers right. The white-coated, white-faced grad students smile at me widely, looking equal parts intrigued, shocked, and excited.

Dr. Curlie sputters when hosting my mom and me in his office after the test. He apologizes profusely and gives my mother a sheet of paper with the IQ test results. She yanks me from a leather guest chair, and we head to the car.

I find the paper in my late teens. After all the gifted programs. After reading a fuckton of books. After being told by teachers that the math problems I made up in class were too complicated for the other students. The number on the paper is 157.

II.
My brain is a card catalog.

Everything I’ve ever learned is filed away in my head between brain matter and neurons and synapses, which fire almost faster than I can keep up with them. Only my brain can move as fast as itself; my mouth and fingers rarely keep up.

Ask me a question. I imagine millions of cards flipping by at breakneck speed while my brain filters through memories and conclusions to find the right answer. I can almost hear it happen.

Click. Whirr. Bing.

The right word, the right place, the right time. The right joke. The best pun. All at my disposal whenever I want. I work for a blind woman, and she appreciates my speed, my sharpness. We both have minds like steel traps, and she teaches me how to survive in corporate America as a very smart woman.

Sometimes I think it’s weird that other people can’t make the same connections as I can. And sometimes I get frustrated when they don’t.

“You don’t have to let everyone know how smart you are all the time,” says a white male boss later in my career. His office walls match mine, festooned with Ivy League diplomas, MBA credentials, and other signs of people who like to think and are good at it.

“I can’t help it; that’s just the way my brain works,” I say to myself. In reality, I nod, chuckle, and give a semi-dismissive “Okay.”

III.
My brain is a runaway train.

I stare at the faded ceiling in a holding room in the psychiatric ER at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. I’ll get a bed on the unit soon, but I don’t really care. My brain has left the station, and it isn’t coming back.

My thoughts are out of control, and they’re all negative. The speed at which I used to solve problems is equal to the speed at which I now conclude that I am worthless and that my life is pointless and that I would be better off if I just wasn’t living it.

I can’t read, because I can’t focus on the words or retain them after my eyes leave the page. Maybe thirty-five years of books have taken their toll and I’ll never be able to read again. I hate everyone and everything, including myself, because I don’t know who I am if I can’t think straight. If I can’t work. If I can’t get out of bed in the morning because my brain pelts me with unsuspecting negativity at every turn. I sleep to stop the noise.

At another time, in another psych ward, my brain flies. I am invincible! I’ve gotten four hours of sleep in the last week, and I’m not sad.

I HAVE SO MUCH ENERGY!

I tear through complicated spreadsheets, knock out PowerPoint presentations, and tick items off my to-do list so quickly and so accurately that I’m surprised at myself. At night, I troll for sex partners on Craigslist, because I feel so good that I want to share it with other people.

I AM UNSTOPPABLE!

Later, after the crash, there are pills. Antidepressants, mood stabilizers, antipsychotics. There is therapy. There are pamphlets about how to deal with bipolar disorder and how to spot a manic episode. I’m glad for the diagnosis and for the meds that make me able to read again.

When I leave the hospital, I read online about the intersection of genius, creativity, and bipolar disorder. The thing in my brain that makes me smarter than everyone is the same thing that makes me miserable. What am I supposed to do with that?

IV.
My brain is an injured veteran, back from a war that nobody knew we were fighting.

It’s broken, battered, and can’t get around like it used to. I’m often confused, and my brain is often empty, like when I can’t remember a word and have to stop talking, abruptly, in the middle of a sentence. The train of thought disappears into the ether, and my hope with it. The mind that used to be an efficient set of organizational and analytical tools has become so much like a pile of forgotten papers flailing in the wind, looking for a home they may never find.

I’m supposed to rehab my brain. Take more meds that might not work or that my insurance might not cover. Get outside. Try every day to make progress. But it’s so hard. After five years of struggling to work again, to be happy again, to like myself again, I am circumscribed by the radius between my apartment, the corner store, and the grocery store. My brain tires easily, gets frustrated, and needs days to recover.

I look around at the books I haven’t read, the once-proud diplomas collecting dust, the piles of unused business cards I no longer need because I have no job, no title, no life.

Well, this is it. I guess this is how it’s going to be.

Everything is small. Everything is slow. Everything is disappointing. I pray for the exhilaration of mania, the energy and the alacrity that come from a brain high on excess dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. The influx of ideas. The motivation to complete them. The ability to actually do something, anything, productive and finish it. But mania leads to depression, which is worse than the indescribable limbo that defines my life. I’m too depressed to think, but not depressed enough to want to hurt myself. Is this recovery?

V.
My brain is a water lily.

Nymphaeaceae grows in murky water, rooted in black, dense soil. It stays dormant under the muck, undetected. The surface darkness belies what lies beneath the water, waiting for its chance to bloom.

From the dankness comes a beautiful flower that rests on the surface as gently as a mother kisses her newborn. The roots remain grounded in the mud, but the flower’s fragrance entices visitors of all species. The flower’s petals show no signs of their long journey to the water’s surface. They shine brightly in white, pink, purple, and yellow, announcing their presence and standing beautifully in the sun. Then, when the season is over, they return to their dark caves, awaiting another chance to shine.

My own muddy darkness is almost over. The soft, waxy petals of my mind have almost broken through the surface, patiently waiting for their time to flourish. I know that there will be dark times, and growth that remains undetected. But I also know that my brain will blossom. I can see the light through the sludge. I can remember what it was like to bask in the light of clarity, joy, and regular brain function.

I am ready to open and flourish.

Tracey Lynn Lloyd is a storyteller, an innovator, and a master of most. She writes about relationships, mental illness, and all the intersections of her identity. Once upon a time, she went to Yale, and got her MBA at Duke, but she prefers writing to business. Tracey lives in Brooklyn, New York, with a small cat who is very sweet and very loud.