I love reading the true-life stories of brave people who overcome ridiculous odds. I love peeking inside someone else’s world and gaining hope for my own struggles in life knowing that someone surely had it worse, and persevered through their circumstances.
Susannah Cahalan’s memoir “Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness” took me into the realm of a young woman on the edge of a promising journalism career at the New York Post who inexplicably went crazy.
One day she seemed fine and the next, as she walked through Times Square to her office, the colors hurt her. She believed bed bugs infested her apartment and even after the exterminator told her there was no evidence of bugs, she made him spray again, claiming they were crawling all over her at night. She suspected her boyfriend of cheating on her and tore apart his apartment looking for evidence. Her behavior at work drew worried expressions from her friends, and when she was unable to complete interviews or write, she knew something was wrong.
At first her family doctor told her that she was suffering from stress and that she drank too much. Unsatisfied with those results and after a seizure, the testing got more intense. Every test came back negative. All the doctors told her she was “just fine,” that her illness was all in her head even as her health deteriorated. She lost her appetite, couldn’t concentrate and started to show more and more signs of psychosis, almost as if she was possessed. She fought against those who loved her most — her mom, her boyfriend and her father — but she was eventually admitted into the epilepsy ward of NYU hospital after a second seizure.
Spanning the time right before her illness got serious and the recovery from her ordeal, Cahalan sheds new light on the new world of neuroscience, and gives hope to those who suffer from unexplainable brain disorders by paving a path for new tests and treatments for a rare brain disorder called NMDA-receptor autoimmune encephalitis.
With horrifying details pieced together from hospital video, her own journals, hospital records, interviews with family members, her boyfriend and her doctors, as well as her father’s personal journal of the ordeal, Cahalan shows that her illness didn’t stop her from being a brilliant journalist, it may have propelled her to a different status as a human being — a superhero who lived to tell about her illness and help others.
Her article “My Mysterious Lost Month of Madness,” which spurred the book’s development, may have saved the life of countless others. This was confirmed when Cahalan learned that one father used her article when trying to get doctors to save his daughter’s life as she suffered through a similar brain disorder. Here is a video from Susannah Cahalan on “The Today Show” with the father / daughter that she saved:
I loved this book and was unable to focus on life outside of it. As the snow poured and the winds blew and the polar vortex (another strange phenomena) showed the power of nature, I silently cheered Cahalan to victory over her own powerful unknown nemesis.
The big question that her book comes right out and asks is how many others over history and in the present have suffered from this same illness without a diagnosis? Once the diagnosis was made for Susannah, the illness was relatively easy to treat even though the recovery period was arduous. She was lucky, and had the best care available. How many others were left in a comatose state without an explanation to their family members?
The brain may just be the final frontier of medical science and Cahalan illuminates the mysteries of the brain in touching and thought-provoking, short chapters that will keep you entranced until the very end.