Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
by Susannah Cahalan
I had seen this book numerous times at Barnes & Noble, and despite that I’m a fan of memoirs, I doubt I would have read this one, except that it was chosen for my book club.
In a nutshell, it’s the author’s harrowing account of “losing her mind” when she descends into a bizarre neurological illness that baffles her family, friends, and even doctors. Twenty-four years old, happily involved with a newish boyfriend, professionally successful as a tabloid journalist, Cahalan begins developing strange symptoms, and over time exhibits more alarming and strange behavior – from paranoia, to numbness in her limbs, to chronic insomnia, to hallucinations, and finally, seizures. After months of spiraling more and more out of control, her family knows that her doctor’s pronouncement that Cahalan has just been partying too hard is not what’s at the bottom of her symptoms. Finally, she is admitted to the epilepsy ward at NYU Medical Center where she ends up strapped to her bed because she repeatedly becomes violent and tries to flee. After several more weeks, a brilliant and innovative neurologist finally correctly diagnoses her with a brain inflammation caused by a severe autoimmune response. Once she is correctly diagnosed, she begins a months-long, grueling treatment. In the end, she recovers, but continues to live with the unsettling knowledge that the condition could recur.
In all honesty, although the story is well-written, and certainly suspenseful, I had trouble connecting with the author. I probably had some prejudices playing into my perceptions, because as soon as I learned that Cahalan is a tabloid journalist, I kept wondering how much of her own story is embellished and sensationalized. I was also put off by a sense of … I don’t know … elitism? Her family came across like they were above this sort of awful trial, that their daughter was too good to have something like this befall her – and their reaction to any suggestion that Cahalan was impacted by her illness cognitively – I don’t know, it was off-putting to me. I felt a lack of humility, I guess. But that very well could have been my own biases.
In any case, it really wasn’t until the last portion of the book that I felt Cahalan came across as a compassionate person concerned about anyone outside of herself.
It’s a good story if medical mysteries intrigue you, and it certainly makes one wonder how many people are misdiagnosed with different forms of mental illness when their illness may actually be pathogen-based.