Brain Child

by | May 4, 2017 | Creative Nonfiction

Brain Child by Paisley Green

Family Tree

A short, brain-centric family history:
– Paternal grandfather: died at his fourth stroke.
– Maternal great-grandmother: institutionalized: schizophrenia.
– Maternal grandmother: treated for anxiety and depression.
– Young cousin: antisocial personality disorder, diagnosed but untreated.
– Various aunts and uncles: anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, narcissistic personality disorder.



Just like a fingerprint or iris, each human’s pattern of brain folding is unique.

For over 20 years, the University of Texas at Austin held an unusual collection of brains, their glass jars quietly gathering dust in some forgotten storage room. The brains initially all hailed from the State Mental Hospital in Austin, some finding their formaldehyde homes when Eisenhower was elected (the first time). All of these brains are preserved because of some aberration: unusually small, unusually large, or malformed in some way. One particular brain has no gyri or sulci; it sits in its jar like an enormous, white, ball of thumb-smoothed putty.

The 1880 Census lists just seven recognized categories of mental illness; the DSM-V, published in 2013, lists around 300 disorders and conditions. As time goes on, the brain becomes more fragmented and diversified.

The deinstitutionalization of mental hospitals started in the 1970s, releasing thousands of people with mental illnesses to poorly-equipped communities and ill-conceived stigmas. Now, when they can’t get treatment, where do they go? Hospitals or prisons. Like the brains of UT Austin, people with severe mental illnesses reside in the country’s dusty, ignored shelves; unlike those brains, these people are considered to be dangerous.

A preserved brain is almost nothing like the real thing; it’s paler, for one, and the proteins are denatured by formaldehyde. If you dropped it, it’d bounce, or at least keep its shape. Real, fresh brains are extremely pink, soft, and squishy; it will retain your fingers’ indentations as you hold all three pounds of it. The hemispheres almost fall apart without your hands holding them together. Only your skull and cerebrospinal fluid retain the essence of who you are, literally hold you together, suspend your Self in cushiony fluid. When you hold a fresh brain, there’s no telepathic connection, no transference, no significance beyond what your own mind assigns. We can only try to understand.


Y Chromosome

When I was younger, my dad and I had a series of weird wordplay or memory games that we’d use to pass the time in line or in cars. Usually, there’d be no preamble; he’d look at me and say:
“You’re and your.” [That’s the homophone game.]
“Their, there, and there.”
“Dessert and desert (and desert).”

“A rolling stone gathers no moss.” [The aphorism game.]
“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”
“A stitch in time saves nine.”
“If you see a fork in the road, take it.”
He really liked Yogi Berra.



According to their website, the Aurora Behavioral Health System in Glendale, Arizona was started in 2000 and is now the largest free-standing psychiatric hospital in the state. According to their website, Aurora provides inpatient services for both adults and adolescents, aged 13-17. According to their website, the adolescent inpatient care is designed for those “dealing with depression, substance abuse, aggression, rebellion, self-injury, and suicidal behaviors.” According to their website, their “highly-trained professionals” teach and empower adolescents to take responsibility for and consider the consequences of their behavior. According to their website, a typical stay for a teenager—excuse me, adolescent—ranges from seven to nine days. According to their website, Aurora takes all major insurance plans. According to Google Maps, the Aurora Behavioral Health System is 41.2 miles away from my mother’s house in Chandler, Arizona, or roughly an hour drive in 10pm traffic.


Field Notes

I used to want to be a neuroscientist, you know. Feeling the thrill of balancing chemistry equations, of reading every chapter of my unused neuroscience textbook, hoping that the senior-level cadaver class would let me hold a brain—even a preserved one—in my own hands. I wanted to do research, surgery. Two things, though: one, graduating early from high school makes you rush your higher-ed decisions, and two, residency for neurosurgery takes roughly seven to ten years, after four years of undergrad and four years of med school. To a sixteen-year-old senior, the thought of doubling my life span before even starting a career was a little daunting.

So, I entered the humanities. Close enough. And now I’m writing about the brain. It’s funny how things come back around.


Fun Fact:

the brain named itself.



Of the dreams that I remember, I might categorize them thusly: anxiety dreams, in which I am late for school, work, or plane flights; betrayal dreams, in which either my mother or father commit something unspeakable; self-betrayal dreams, in which I get back with my abusive first boyfriend; reunited dreams, in which I speak to my dead grandparents and touch their papery arms; horror dreams, in which I am chased, murdered, or falling from tall heights; and sex dreams, because I’m human.

Scientists and psychologists have long theorized about why we dream. Freud thought they were manifestations of subconscious desire: dream about all of your hair falling out, and your femininity is in crisis. Dream your house burned down? Could be a loss of security, or freedom from worrying about external appearances. It’s all in the interpretation. Cognitive psychologists posit that dreams are a way for the brain to process all of the stimuli and information taken in on a given day—REM sleep is necessary for optimal processing. Others think the brain does more emotional processing than cognitive processing. More boring neuroscientists, like J Allan Hobson, have hypothesized that the randomness of dreams is purely a reaction to neurochemical firings during sleep. Despite the millions of sleep trials conducted every year, there have been no definitive answers, and that third of our lives remains shrouded in mystery and bizarre dreams.

I don’t believe in bullshit Freudian interpretations. I don’t even believe in his theories about parents and their children or about psychosexual stages or anything like that. Why even write about dreams?



In kindergarten, my dad ran a battery of IQ tests on me, full of spatial tests and word associations and “What comes next?” questions. The results let me skip kindergarten, which isn’t really an accomplishment but which my dad, in his own quiet way, was ecstatic about.

He bought me novels and puzzles and books of crosswords, logic puzzles, and word games. When I competed in my fifth- and sixth-grade spelling bees, he fed me study words like “verisimilitude,” “opulence,” and “machismo”—all new and unusual words for ten-year-old me. I memorized them faithfully. On the one occasion when I won the sixth-grade school district spelling competition, he’d written down all the words I spelled correctly. It’s still in my book of life keepsakes, alongside my birth certificate and reading medals and even a certificate commemorating my first communion.

His happiest moments were when I accomplished something intellectual: straight As, spelling bees, grad school, MENSA membership. I liked to feel smart, to have potential.

Dad left to work a job out of state when I was 10.

“It’s temporary,” he said. “I’ll be back for holidays and birthdays.”

[He never moved back in.]


Fun Fact

About me: When I am drunk (or otherwise inebriated), I do Sudoku, crosswords, and logic puzzles to prevent the scientifically-hypothesized decay of brain function that comes with substance use.

I’d like to think that my dad would approve.

No word yet as to its efficacy.



I was 11 when I developed depression. 
(Or it took hold of me, depending on your choice of metaphor and how much agency you want to give a chemical imbalance.)

I hid it for years.

“She’s a Scorpio,” my mom would say. “They’re always so intense.”

It’s not really important to the narrative, but when I was 13, I had my first boyfriend. We drank and fucked and got high, in varying orders. His mom bought us beer and ignored the rest. My mom didn’t know.

Until she did. And she separated me from my boyfriend. (Banned, really.)

Okay, so maybe he informs the plot.

Upon being threatened with said ban, my dramatic teen brain thought the following would make a compelling argument: “If I can’t see him, I’ll kill myself!”

A poor move.

A few days later, I told my mom, “I want to get antidepressants.” A few days after that, I snuck out at midnight and biked the ten miles to my boyfriend’s house.



The next week, as I was doing homework, my mom said, “I made a call, and there’s a doctor who can get you in and write you a scrip for antidepressants. He’s available now, so lets’ go.”

It was 9 PM. What the fuck did I know about doctors then? My uncle, an ER doctor, always patched us up. For all I knew, the situation was normal.

A 45 minute drive. Mom driving, my oldest sister in the front seat, me in the back.

We pulled into a parking lot with a nondescript tan-and-grey stucco building, one of a million like it in Arizona. We walked in, and my mom began to fill out paperwork. I thumbed through a National Geographic.

A nurse came up to me. “Paisley? We’re going to get you settled. But you might want to leave your phone with your sister.”
“Well, you’re going to be with us for a while, and you won’t have your phone.”


After a struggle, I left the waiting room with two nurses who gave me a pair of scrubs and slippers before entering the Aurora Behavioral Center system.


Things I had to give up:
– cell phone
– shoes with laces
– jewelry
– underwire bra
– ability to be believed
– dignity



What I don’t like to mention is that in the two years before being tricked into my stay at Aurora, I’d been cutting my upper thigh with a razor blade every day and had attempted suicide twice. What I hate is that my dramatic comment wasn’t so dramatic. What I hate is that my mom claims that she never knew I was going through a “hard time,” never knew about the depression.



In 1973, Stanford psychologist David Rosenhan conducted an experiment to test mental facilities’ admissions processes. He sent eight healthy people—“pseudo patients”—to five different US mental hospitals and asked them to fake auditory hallucinations. All were admitted for schizophrenia, forced to come to terms with their disease, and treated with anti-psychotics. They stayed, on average, 19 days.

My diagnosis: bipolar disorder. My duration: 11 days.
I’m not saying I wasn’t having issues, but I sure as hell didn’t think I was hospital crazy.

After Rosenhan published the results of his study, a hospital administrator, angry at the “slander” of medical professionals, challenged Rosenhan to test his facility’s admissions process. Rosenhan would send an unspecified number of fake patients, and the challenge was to filter them out. In the next three months, 193 people came to the hospital, with 41 identified as pseudo patients and turned away.

Rosenhan hadn’t sent anyone.


Daily Life in the Strangest Bubble

When you’re in a psych ward, you expect a lot of things that come with that brand of rock bottom:
having blood drawn at 5 AM
showing your tongue after taking medication
being supervised when you pee and shower
meeting caricatures of Ned Vizzini and Stephen Chbosky books
getting extra time for calling your visiting mother a cunt
You know, standard stuff.



I wasn’t prepared for the person I met my first day there, in between crying into my scrubs and sulking in the corner.

I’ve never been a good artist—my earliest avian doodles were dubbed “Evil Bird” by my family—and one day in art therapy, I tried and failed to paint a simple underwater scene. Emphasis on failed. The water met the sky with a choppy U formation despite the absence of a sea storm, and the seashells on the bottom inexplicably grew to resemble little vaginas. (I guess that’s what I get for attempting conch shells.) As my green seaweed squiggles spiraled hopelessly out of control, I heard, “Hey, you wanna see something?” I saw a tall, light-skinned black boy in my peripheral vision. Michael, I think he was. No idea why he was in there.

“What is it?”

His eyes brightened with an unholy light, and he whispered, “My body’s the gate to hell, and I can release the whole underworld if I want.”

That sentence told me everything I needed to know about Michael. Still, I was intrigued. Not believing in demons comes with the atheist territory, naturally, but it was such a strange opening volley that I had to see where it went. I replied, “After I finish this seaweed?”


Pons pt. 2

When I was a child and had unbearable nightmares (notable mentions include being eaten alive by rats, killed by the Abominable Snowman from the claymation Rudolph, and being killed by a leopard that I’d thought I had an understanding with), I’d sneak into my mom’s bed and wake her up. The dreams lingered with me; I couldn’t close my eyes, or my traitor neurons would fire, and I’d be back in whatever childhood fear my subconscious decided to dredge up that night. So, at three in the morning, I’d wake up my mother and make her play a game: recite only good things, back and forth, until I was distracted enough to try to sleep again. As I’d wait for sleep to grab me again, I’d try to match her sleepy, deep breaths, wondering what kinds of things filled her mind.


An incomplete list of good things (then and now)

  1. Horses, zebras, and unicorns
  2. Waking up on Valentine’s Day as a child to find cards and chocolate from Mom
  3. Laughing so hard you can’t breathe or make noise
  4. My mother’s ginger-scented lotion from Origins
  5. The smell, feel, and effect of dryer sheets
  6. Human touch: hugs, cuddles, back rubs, kisses, etc.
  7. Laying in a car, listening to silence and the Arizona monsoon rain outside
  8. Planting tomatoes, poppies, and marigolds in the California summertime with Grandpa
  9. The extreme radiance of Arizona sunsets
  10. Solving a crossword without any help
  11. Summer afternoons doing cannonballs in grandma’s pool
  12. Being punctual to meetings, classes, and flights
  13. Playing the homonym/homophone game with Dad



Scientists have long been stuck on how to classify the brain through metaphor.
Is it purely visual, fragmented, miasmic, nonlinear?
Is it orderly, organizational, pattern-seeking, associative?
Or is it stream-of-consciousness, leaping, disruptive, illogical?



During art therapy in Aurora, we’d listen to the radio while we worked. The only problem was that one of the biggest hits of that summer was Sean Kingston’s “Beautiful Girls,” a catchy song about—well, you can read the title. The chorus: “They’ll have you suicidal, suicidal when they say it’s over.”

We’d hum along as we worked, our supervising nurse meandering around. To us, it was just a song. But to the orderlies, it was a threat. Their overreactions were absurd and hilarious; we’d laugh at them running to the radio to change the station from Top 40 to Country (where we could hear about men lamenting the lovers who’d moved on) or NPR (where we could hear about uplifting events, like earthquakes and plane crashes). Still, we’d hum the hook under our breath as we made major therapeutic breakthroughs, like drawing a circle or gluing dried macaroni to construction paper.


Legion, pt. 2

After art therapy, in the common room, I sat on the threadbare couch opposite Michael, who was clearly very excited to show me how thousands of demons could course through his body. After so much buildup, I expected serious satanic payoff. He prepared himself by inhaling deeply, and then—he just held his breath. His face turned the color of a Red Delicious, his body shook, and every vein and capillary stood out, sure, but no flickering lights or deep voice or malevolent spirits. When I mentioned this setback to Michael, of course, I was the philistine.

“You don’t see them because I shut down the portal before all of hell could get through!” I marveled at this 16-year-old boy’s use of the word portal. “But don’t worry,” he continued, “We are Legion, and we are many.”


Upon Getting Out:

Legion: left behind, along with the other sick kids.
Medicine: Abilify. Depakote. Zoloft.
Boyfriend: Inaccessible. (Mom took out a restraining order.)
School: Started 9th grade three days later.


Continued Timeline

When I was 14, I broke up with my boyfriend.
When I was 15, my depression went away, so suddenly that it left almost no trace.
When I was 16, I graduated high school with a 3.7 and entered college.
It was almost like it never happened, except that it did.


A Conversation in My Twenties

“I just didn’t know what to do with you; you were out of control,” she said, years later.

“I was just a kid,” I replied.



The blood-brain barrier protects the brain from harmful pathogens and substances in the blood by virtue of tightly-packed brain endothelial cells in the capillaries.

Think of the BBB, as it’s affectionately nicknamed, as the extremely selective bouncer in an exclusive Manhattan club. Very little passes through: water, gases, and lipids can osmotically diffuse through, and glucose, amino acids, and some other molecules are actively transported through. For any substance to affect the brain, it must pass the barrier: alcohol, nicotine, THC, opioids, and most prescription drugs all pass, affecting the brain as well as the body.

When she was 16, my mom, then in Cupertino, was sent to a rehab center in Florida. Then, she was left to live with her aunt in Orlando for a year. She’s only brought it up twice: once when she used it as a justification to send me to Aurora, and once, eight years later, when my uncle was almost disbarred for prescription fraud. “It just fucked me up so much; I never forgave my parents for it.”

I didn’t respond.

For years, my mom filled prescriptions for my uncle and split the payload with him. Growing up, I’d see him every other weekend; he’d drink a Budweiser, ask about school, and take a few pills that my mom transferred neatly from her orange prescription bottles to little snack-sized bags.

When my uncle was caught writing these prescriptions for hard drugs—pain meds, amphetamines, and various other downers—he called me to ask for a letter.
“You just need to tell them that I wouldn’t do something like that,” he said.
“But you did. Mom’s been filling your prescriptions for years.”
“Can you just do this for me, Pais? We’re family. You always take care of family.”

From the Arizona Medical Board website:

Is it against Arizona statute for a physician to write prescriptions for his/her family?
Yes, it is considered “unprofessional conduct” to prescribe or dispense controlled substances to members of one’s immediate family.

In college, biking along the main road, I got a call: “This is an automated service call from Walgreens. Your prescription is ready. Please pick it up at your earliest convenience.” I went to the local Walgreens, asking if there was a mistake. “No,” they said, and told me the prescription was in a different city. “Oh, that’s my hometown. I must have forgotten to transfer a prescription or something. Sorry about that.”
Calling mom later: “Isn’t that weird? What prescription is down there?”

“Oh, it’s something for me. Don’t worry about it.”


It’s Okay to Revise Old Adages Sometimes

Growing up, my mom always said, “You don’t turn your back on family.”

I wonder about this often, or when a new crisis arises, or when I drop a friendship for far more forgivable offenses.

Where’s the line?
Where’s the line?
Where’s the line?

So far, I’ve found myself able to move on from different offenses (or betrayals, depending on how dramatic I feel at the telling). I turn away, sure, but so far, I’ve turned back.

But what if, one day, I don’t?


“Pardonable Offenses”

– Giving my uncle our social security numbers for prescription fraud.
– Filling said prescriptions.
– Lying about her role. (Of course, it was all his fault.)
– At 20, finding $400 missing from my bank account, worrying about fraud, and mom telling me, “Oh, no, I just went shopping and had to borrow your card.”
– The above scenario happening several more times.
– Un-prescribed Adderall in her purse, stolen from my 14-year-old cousin.
– At 22, finding out that she’d opened dozens of credit cards in my dead grandparents’ names. She cried and said, “I promise to be open and honest with you from now on. No more secrets from you girls.”
– A month later, finding that she’d had a card in my name for months, never making a minimum payment.


Aurora Averted

My uncle wanted to send her away for the credit card thing, but I know a thing or two about being sent away. I took that option off the table, threatened to blow the secrecy if he tried the false-concern “intervention” route.


Space-time Separation

Now that I live in a different state, I don’t have to worry about my credit card going missing, even though I do have to scan my social security number for new activity every now and again. I still call her every few weeks, and we talk as if nothing ever happened: we talk about the dog, about my sisters, about school, about the weather, and on and on and on.

Shakespeare said, “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” but I’m finding it pretty enjoyable.


Fun Fact

According to a newer, broad study, people are statistically much more likely to inherit certain kinds of mental disorders from their parents: depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and schizophrenia. But I already knew that.


Night Driving

Q: Is that a person about to run into the street?
A: No, it’s a tree.

Q: Oh shit, is that a dog crouched on the side of the road?
A: Nope. Fire hydrant.

Q: Schizophrenia manifests in the early 20s. Am I hallucinating?
A: No, you just need glasses.



I’m apart from her, but I’ll never be fully free.
Permanently in another state, yes.
Living on my own, yes.
Financially independent, sure.
Emotionally stable, mostly.

For now.


Still, Those Dreams Persist

in which my mom hurts me.

As a late teenager, if we argued, I’d dream afterward about her asking to take me to lunch. As we drove, we’d talk–her bouncy ex-California voice, my dad-like deadpan–about school, about my sisters’ boyfriends, about anything else but our past hurtful words. But then she’d pull into another tan stucco lot, and the ruse would be up: I’d be back in inpatient care, just from one careless word.

Now, I dream of more adult things: checking my bank account, with its pitiful grad-school savings, only to find everything gone. There’s nothing I can do, despite my incoherent screaming and crying. It’s too realistic.

I always wake up from these dreams shaking, crying, and headache-y, like some pitiful kid. I recite facts to myself to confirm reality:
You’re not there anymore.
That didn’t really happen.
You’re an adult.
You can’t be put somewhere without your consent.
Stop having these dreams.
Now, let’s take care of that headache.


A Quote

To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream. . . How did I know that someday—at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere—the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?
– Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar


A Confession
I am afraid of going back to that place.


Photo used under CC.

About The Author


Paisley Green is a writer and editor currently pursuing her MA in Literature at Oregon State University. Her past projects are eclectic, including curating a chapbook to accompany an art exhibit on microbiomes; editing for an undergraduate academic journal; and co-creating a traveling educational exhibit about the Holocaust in Bedzin, Poland. Her current literary interests include speculative and science fiction, fantasy, and essays.