“Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness” by Susannah Cahalan


asteriaiconThis is another book where I had seen a review in a magazine and found it rather intriguing. When we finally got a copy in the book store, I jumped at the chance to read it. The book is a sad story, which had to be pieced together from Cahalan’s family, her friends, and her physician’s accounts, as well as hospital records.

Susannah Cahalan was 24 at the time she got sick. She was in a new relationship, with a promising career as a newspaper journalist ahead. Then one day, she woke up in a hospital room, strapped to a bed, deemed psychotic and violent, and had no memory of what happened to her.

It started with a bed bug bite, which is still unclear as to whether it ever really existed. She started having seizures, and started to behave peculiarly. She started demanding things, began having hallucinations, and became paranoid.  Her boyfriend and family struggled with how to help her, since they had no understanding of what was happening to her. She saw physicians and all thought that she partied too much and just needed to settle down, or they thought that she was having a mental break. She was labelled as psychotic, bipolar, or schizophrenic. As her illness progressed, her psychotic episodes got increasingly worse, and increasingly more frequent, until one day she was hospitalized and strapped to a bed for her safety. She most certainly would have died, had it not been for one physician who had recognized her symptoms as a relatively unknown disorder.

Cahalan has Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a rare disorder where the patient’s body is incapable of regulating itself. The patient first begins showing bizarre psychotic behaviours and wild mood swings, which leads to incredible sensitivity to light and sound, eventually leading to catatonia, and ultimately death. She was very fortunate to find a physician who was able to recognize the symptoms and save her life.

For me, this story struck home. My dad had been sick with a physiological disease, which was misdiagnosed as a number of mental illnesses before one physician finally realized what it was, all because it was something rare and relatively unheard of. Cahalan’s main agenda with writing her story is to raise awareness of her illness, which I can fully appreciate. Maybe it can help another person escape the suffering she had to go through.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was very open and honest, and it shed light on just how little we know about the human body. She raises some interesting questions about mental illness, how we treat people with mental health issues, and how they are viewed. Perhaps in some instances these people are suffering from a physiological issue, rather than just a mental one. Cahalan was fortunate to survive, though she is not completely unscathed by her ordeal. I liked that she didn’t paint herself as perfect, in fact she didn’t really establish a base line of what her personality was before she got sick. She pieced her illness progression through various stories and points of view so she could understand what truly happened to her and now is merely trying to get her life back on track.

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