But My Brain Had Other Ideas by Deb Brandon

Call me a stickybeak (I call it curious / deeply interested) but I love memoirs. I want to understand the emotional context of situations that would otherwise be completely foreign to me.

Medical memoirs occupy a bit of a tricky spot in the memoir market because they usually appeal predominantly to people who are experiencing a similar thing – it makes sense to read about other people’s experience to make sense of your own. While you’ll usually find me in the ‘misery memoirs’ section, I do occasionally stray and Deb Brandon’s But My Brain Had Other Ideas is such an example.

When Deb Brandon – mathematician, dragon-boater, weaver – discovered she had cavernous angiomas, tangles of blood vessels in her brain that are also described as ‘distant cousins of aneurysms’, she underwent multiple brain surgeries and years of rehabilitation. Her memoir documents her diagnosis, her surgeries and the challenges of living with an acquired brain injury (ABI).

Brandon’s story begins with a series of terrifying symptoms –

Without warning, the universe explodes. I cannot see. I cannot hear. My entire world has become pain. The pain has no orientation – it has no location, it has no direction, it has no measure. I am pain.

Her diagnosis triggered an existential crisis. More than once at the beginning of her rehabilitation, Brandon wished she was dead. Frustrated by her limitations and constant fatigue, and still managing chronic pain, she felt that she couldn’t go on. Although she doesn’t identify a particular turning point, she does go into detail about how understanding sensory overload (and the fact that she wasn’t going crazy, it was just her brain circuitry ‘jamming’) made the difference –

All the sounds, sights, and smells blend together, forming a pulsating mass in constant motion, continually deforming, buckling, bulging. Random bits and pieces strike at you forcefully… Your brain cannot keep up; you cannot focus on anything long enough to make sense of it.

But hypersensitivity has a flip side –

…those damaged sensory input filters also let the world into my life in a rainbow of bright colours. They enable me to immerse myself in my surroundings and to absorb details I used to gloss over.

The thing that constantly fascinates me is that memories, emotions and knowledge – all this stuff that has no ‘physical’ form – is bound up in brain tissue in such a mysterious way (which is why I never get tired of reading about neuroplasticity). Brandon writes about how her behaviour changed after the surgeries, noting that the effectiveness of the system of filters we construct over our life determines our behaviour in a variety of situations –

The bloody brain damaged my filtration system… It seems as if the surgeries tore gaping holes… through these holes, strong emotions, impassioned speeches, or crude language pour into the world.

My main quibble with this book is my usual one for memoirs – it’s what’s left out that I want more of. In this case, Brandon’s marriage broke down during her rehabilitation but is only mentioned briefly. I wonder how her ‘strong emotions filter’ managed during that emotionally challenging time? Likewise, she mentions having her children genetically tested for cavernous angiomas (it can be genetic) but not the outcome of those tests – her children have a right to privacy but again, genetic testing is an enormously emotionally taxing process and understanding how Brandon negotiated that would have been interesting.

3/5 Interesting for interested readers.

I received my copy of But My Brain Had Other Ideas from the publisher, She Writes Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

No particular food references stood out in this book but when I think bout time in hospital and hospital food, I think jelly. When searching for a fancy jelly recipe I came across strawberry daiquiri jelly shots and they seemed like such a good idea, I called off the search.


5 responses

  1. That connection between the physical brain and how and what we think is fascinating. Or terrifying. We’re nowhere near as much in charge as we think and yet we must accept responsibility for all our actions. Don’t read memoirs much, do all my learning about people from novels (and lectures from my family).

  2. I’m not one for medial memoirs but one that popped into my head that did impress me is Anna Lyndsey’s Girl in the Dark written by a woman whose skin can’t tolerate light. Have you come across it? Beautifully written although not miserable at all!

  3. I love memoirs too, and particularly medical memoirs. I think I can date my interest to when my late brother-in-law fell ill eight years ago, but we also have a genetic disease running through my family. I find the medical details fascinating, but also enjoy learning how people coped (or didn’t). It’s interesting that this author chose not to discuss the breakdown of her marriage. I would want to know the story behind that too. She Writes have been publishing some really great memoirs recently. I always look out for their stuff on NetGalley.

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