Mac Engel

Staying true to herself: UTA coach comfortable with Tourette syndrome, being gay female

UTA softball coach Peejay Brun talks about living with Tourette syndrome

University of Texas-Arlington softball coach Peejay Brun has lived with Tourette syndrome since she was in middle school.
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University of Texas-Arlington softball coach Peejay Brun has lived with Tourette syndrome since she was in middle school.

Peejay Brun knew she has Tourette syndrome since she was about 22, did not fully come out as a gay woman until years after that, and only recently was she able to accept all of it.

“This sounds really, really terrible, but it wasn’t until about four years ago was I OK with all of it,” she said. “I was about 43 or 44 when I just said, ‘This is who I am.’ There are just way more important things to worry about than somebody else’s opinion.”

Brun is the third-year head softball coach at the University of Texas at Arlington.

If you saw her, you will see the Tourette syndrome. The sometimes rapid eye blinks. The involuntary muscle twitching that come with no warning.

What you cannot see is that living with “all of this” required patience, years of frustration, and only until the last few years has a bit of peace come with it.

DIAGNOSING TOURETTE SYNDROME

According to the Center for Disease Control, 1 in 162 American-born children have Tourette syndrome.

Brun, who grew up in Kauai, Hawaii, doesn’t remember experiencing any symptoms until she was in seventh grade, which is typical. Her eyes began to rapidly blink, and her parents figured this was a result of fatigue. Perhaps she needed glasses.

But she had better than 20/20 vision.

When she began high school, the body tics began.

“I would fidget a lot. I would shift my clothes,” she said. “I still do quite a bit during games. There is sometimes an itch that doesn’t need to be scratched. It’s the feeling of an internal itch. Something does not feel right.”

In high school, where everyone is self conscious about every hair follicle, a kid who is unknowingly living with Tourette syndrome is going to be self conscious.

“I was playing a basketball game, and a player from the opposing team was standing behind me and mimicking my movements,” Brun said. “It’s good I didn’t see that because I don’t know if I would have dealt well with it.”

Doctors did not accurately diagnose the problem. It was not preventing her from playing instruments - she was good on the trumpet and the French horn. She was a good softball player and adept at other physical tasks. She was a good enough student to earn a softball scholarship at the University of Hawaii.

The concentration required to play sports, or an instrument, actually reduced her symptoms.

It was not until her fifth year of college did a doctor accurately assess the problem; he handed her a medical book, pointed to a particular page, and said, “Read this.”

“It was reading my life,” she said. “It was this huge sense of relief; it was 11 years of not having an idea of what it was. I would just tell people it was a bad habit.

“But there was also this sense that this was the rest of my life. I can’t get rid of it. There is no cure. Some things lessen it, but it doesn’t go away. You can accept it but there are days that are hard.”

Her condition is not as bad as others. She does not suffer from the potentially wild arm and body swings that can be so problematic, particularly for children. Brun has never had the uncontrollable profanity outbursts, the trait that Hollywood typically uses to characterize Tourette syndrome.

She tried a few medications, but the side effects don’t make it worth it. In her 30s, she participated in a group study which focused on breathing techniques and relaxation methods.

“It’s designed to take your mind off the tics, and they have seen some improvement in children,” she said. “As soon as I walked out your body needs this release. The study made it more emotional for me. There is this idea that you can control it, and it was telling me I’m the problem.”

By this point in her life, Peejay Brun was tired of “being the problem” when she wasn’t. She was just Peejay Brun.

COMING OUT

As much of a struggle as it was to figure out, and accept, dealing with the realities of Tourette syndrome, handling the internal confusion of being a homosexual was equally not as fun.

There is small town Texas, and then there is small town Hawaii. They don’t compare. Small town Texas may feel like an island, but small town Hawaii is an actual island.

She was raised by traditional Catholic parents, and in college Brun just could not figure it out. She would date men, and something was amiss.

“It was an eight-year process that started in high school,” she said. “The older I got, I started to realize if I am afraid to talk about this, am I not a part of the problem? I was trying to accept that I am gay, and trying to get away from it at the same time. I was trying so hard to be somebody that was not me.

“I was trying to fit into something I thought I should be.”

After she graduated from the University of Hawaii, she moved to a place where she knew she could be gay with no problem. Living in Hawaii, she feared going out with women and the stories getting back to her family.

Moving to San Francisco solved that. She eventually told her parents, and that did not go so well.

“That was not a good experience at all. I knew that they loved me but it takes time,” she said. “People have to understand that; that when you ask someone to be receptive to such a big change that has been counter to their beliefs for 20 years, it does not happen in a week, a month or a year. It takes time.”

Brun has been married to the same woman for eight years, and they have been together for 10.

Eventually, over time, her parent’s attitude changed and softened. None of it is a big deal any more.

Not being gay. Not the Tourette syndrome. It’s just who she is and if there is a problem with it, that says more about you than it does her.

“I still suck at finding balance,” she said. “But when it comes to happiness? Yeah. I’ve got that.”

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Mac Engel is an award-winning columnist who has extensive experience covering Fort Worth-Dallas area sports for 20 years. He has covered high schools, colleges, all four major sports teams as well as Olympic games and the world of entertainment, too. He combines dry wit with first-person reporting to complement a head of hair that is almost unfair.

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