Author: Susannah Cahalan
Source: OC Public Library
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan
Susannah Cahalan is a young journalist working at the New York Post. She lives with her cat, keeps her apartment messy and loves her job. One day she experiences itchiness and tingling in her left arm, which doesn’t go away for few days. She attributes it to bed bugs and calls for an exterminator. The exterminator denies any possibility of bed bugs in her apartment. But she still insists on getting her apartment treated. Her itchiness doesn’t go even after the treatment.
Her symptoms stay on/off for several weeks after that. She couldn’t concentrate on writing articles at work. And botched an important interview. Then had a break down in front of the entire office. All this scares her. She finally calls her family doctor who refers her to a neurologist immediately.
The neurologists attribute her symptoms to alcoholism. He advises her to reduce alcohol intake and prescribes some medicines. Those medicines don’t help. She continues to experience the strangest and totally crazy moments. Like, she would be laughing loudly one moment and howling the other. She couldn’t eat as either the smell or the shininess of food caused revulsion in her. She even has an episode of an out of body experience. It was as if she didn’t have control over what she was going to do next. So, she fears she might be going crazy. She visits other doctors who refer her to a psychologist. The psychologist diagnoses her as bipolar and prescribes medications for the same. Those medications also don’t ease her symptoms.
One evening, when she is at home with her boyfriend, she has her first major seizure. He rushes her to ER. This begins the worse phase of her illness. Susannah’s parent admits her to New York Hospital. A series of tests, EEG’s, MRIs, etc conducted show negative for most of the brain diseases.Her illness confounds major doctors at the hospital. Meanwhile, she shows symptoms of mental illness like psychosis, inability to speak in sentences, etc. The doctors think of sending her to the psychiatric ward. Then one day, a doctor on her panel, Dr. Najjar gets a breakthrough and we come to identify the name of her illness: anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. And her actual treatment begins
After one month of all this, when she wakes up, she has no memory of what happened to her or how she got there in the hospital. While recovering she researches about her illness. She finds that her illness was discovered just three years ago. She also discovers many doctors don’t know about this disease and its symptoms. So, there could be many patients having this disease but living their life in a psychiatric ward because of misdiagnosis.
She interviews her doctors, nurses, friends, family, and co-workers to create an account of what happened to her. And writes a memoir taking us through her illness from start to finish.
Narrator: Heather Henderson
Publisher: Highbridge Company
Number of parts: 7
Duration: 07 hrs 48 minutes
Review: I liked the narrator. Her narration had the right emotional tones at the right time. No accents as none needed in this book. She made listening to this book a pleasure. There was a time when Susannah had lost her ability to speak in the book, and she would speak in monosyllables or like a child or using broken sentences. Heather’s narration of this part was absolutely perfect. I could feel the frustration of not being able to speak the right words that Susannah must be feeling at that time in Heather’s voice.
Brain on Fire is an interesting and terrifying memoir. Susannah kept me engaged throughout the book. I didn’t get bored at all like I get when I am reading memoirs or biographies. The pace doesn’t decrease at any point. The memoir requires plenty of medical vocabulary which she explains along the way. Her explanation of procedures and tests and medications makes it easy to follow her through her illness. Another good part that I liked, she doesn’t sugarcoat anything from that period and told them the way they happened, even the grossest parts.
Susannah wrote this memoir relying mostly on other sources as she remembers very little from that time. And that got me thinking, If I go through something like this, how would it feel to get up one day and don’t remember the past whole month? Or How much time would it take to come to terms with the fact that I won’t remember those days ever? Or Would I go back to relive those days to document them by watching my own videos and combing other’s memories? I can only speculate, who knows how I will behave in these situations. Better to stick to the present for now.
I like reading about the brain and the mysterious ways it functions. That is another reason I enjoyed this memoir. I got to know many facts about brain diseases, different types of mental illnesses, their symptoms, autoimmune diseases like anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, etc, which was a plus. It’s just that, reading stories like these increases awareness about rare diseases and make you more empathetic to people with illnesses like hers. Overall, I am glad to have read her memoir.
Her parent’s strength and support to her. Her mother and father never gave up. You could see their fear for their daughter. Their utter helplessness in failing to figure out what is wrong with her. But they never once believed Susannah has gone crazy. It was their belief that kept Susannah away from the psychiatric hospital. They were resilient, reading about the terms told by the doctors, asking the right questions, forgetting their quarrel and coming together to support Susannah. Her father specifically tried to keep Susannah optimistic by always saying this:
“What is the slope of the line?’ [My father] asked. I looked at him in silence. ‘It’s positive,’ he said with forced optimism…’And what does that mean?’ Another blank look. ‘It means we make progress every day.”
― Susannah Cahalan,
It was the same with her friends, colleagues and her boyfriend. They stayed with her throughout the illness with regular visits, reading to her and keeping her up to date with gossip from office and the world, etc. It was nice that she had all the support she needed during that time.
“I had asked him many times why he stayed, and he always said the same thing: “Because I love you, and I wanted to, and I knew you were in there.” No matter how damaged I had been, he had loved me enough to still see me somewhere inside.”
― Susannah Cahalan,
Would I recommend it?
Yes, totally, especially to those who like to read memoir/biographies/non-fiction and don’t mind the medical terms.
Have you read this memoir? Did you like it?Are you planning to read this one? Share your thoughts with me.