If we assume a "normal" brain to be one that has the most common behaviors – what we might call "neurotypical" – I do not have a normal brain.
To be clear, mine is more normal than many. For the most part it does what it is supposed to do. There are just a few things it does a little differently than the average brain.
The things it does differently are mostly described by a couple medical diagnoses. On my official medical record, I have two mental disorders: Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I also suffer from episodic Depression, but that tends to be event driven. The other two are with me all the time.
The way I describe GAD is that I have fight-or-flight reactions at the wrong times. The right time to have a FoF reaction is when a lion is about to eat me. The wrong time to have a FoF reaction is when I'm getting on a bus. I have often had "a lion is about to eat me"-level reactions to "let's take a bus downtown" situations.
Basically, my brain believe that there is danger when there clearly isn't, and tries to protect me by putting me into a defensive state. It is unpleasant to experience when you know quite well there isn't anything to worry about. It is particuarly unpleasant to try to explain it to someone who can't understand why you're breathing fast and sweating and on the verge of crying. Their brain isn't screaming at them to BE AFRAID. Mine is.
The way my brain works is also in part described by the ADHD diagnosis. As I've gotten older, I've mostly fallen into the "Inattentive Type" of ADHD: I forget things easily, even things someone just told me (I almost never remember people's names, or even faces). I also have difficulty staying on tasks. I have days where I have great difficulty focusing on a single task to completion, instead jumping from one thing to another, and accomplishing very little in any area. In addition, I tend to avoid things I don't want to do. Most people do this to some extent, but the degree to which I do is often extremely harmful – I'll avoid things to the point where there are serious negative consequences, even if they should be quite easy to do. An example: I've had my water shut off because I didn't pay the bill, even though I had plenty of money to pay it. I just kept avoiding and forgetting to actually send them a check.
ADHD brings with it a couple of other things that are less commonly associated when we think of the disorder. Many with ADHD have strong emotional reactions that come on quickly – feelings of worry, anger, or even positive excitement can often be overwhelming and lead me towards destructive behavior. Some people describe this as "feeling more deeply" than the norm. When my emotions start feeling out of control, I often have to isolate myself for fear of saying hurtful things to my loves ones. I know what I'm feeling doesn't make sense, but I can't safely interact with other people until the emotions subside. Much of this is common with people who have both ADHD and an anxiety disorder, which happens with about 35% of those who have an ADHD diagnosis.
All of this can, at times, really suck. A lot. I struggle on a daily basis to complete tasks. I am emotional, much more than most, and negative emotions can often render me completely unproductive. I have struggled frequently with depression and suicidal ideation. For most of the last 30 years, I felt like I was fundamentally broken – unable to cope in society, and destined to ruin every good thing in my life.
So those are the cons. They suck a lot. But that's not the whole story for me.
I am blessed to feel things more deeply than others, because it allows me to see things others often do not. Things like what despair is really like. How our actions affect others. What it is like for someone in a situation or environment different from my own. I feel compelled to empathize; to understand what it is like for others, and to change what I do to make things easier for them. When I think someone is being treated less than fairly, I want to advocate for them. I am the person who reminds those around me to consider other points of view and experiences. I advocate for those who need a voice, because I don't know how to not do that.
I am lucky to have an ADHD brain, because when it's firing on all cylinders, I can do things most people can't. Human brains are great pattern matching machines, and mine does that just a bit faster and more effectively than most. I make connections others don't see. I often find approaches that others miss.
As a web developer for about 20 years, I can confidently say: I have been quite successful in my career because of the way my brain works. It's allowed me to advocate for users when we're designing backend systems. It's helped me find solutions that weren't apparent to most. But most importantly, it's made me consider other points of view, approaches, and ideas that we so often miss working as a technologist.
I love learning about people's lives: what they are like, and why they make the choices they do. This is incredibly advantageous when making tools for these same people. Making stuff and seeing it work is pretty cool. Making stuff and seeing it empower people to do things they couldn't before is amazing. I love helping people, and building tools for them is a decent way of doing that.
So, I keep working to mitigate the cons, and take advantage of the pros. I take medicine – 5 pills a day – to control my symptoms. I talk to a therapist every couple weeks to coach me through changing how my brain reacts to things. I avoid environments and inputs that make things harder for me. I talk to myself, out loud, to be the friend I need when things get tough. I still have hard days, and sometimes I feel useless and broken and alone, but a lot less than I used to. Somehow, in working through all of that, I started to even like myself. I'm still not really used to that.
There are a lot of people like me, working as tech professionals, who struggle every day. I started a non-profit called Open Sourcing Mental Illness (OSMI) to help them, and create healthier, more productive workplaces. We're doing amazing things, and we're just getting started. If you need help or just want to learn more, check us out.
I started OSMI because I felt compelled to do something. I had to help. I couldn't let others suffer like I have, alone and afraid. We're changing that, for a lot of people, and more every day. People are a little less afraid. Folks talk more openly about mental health. They're getting the help they need.
If I had to have a not-normal brain I do to make that happen, I'm good with it.