Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

At first, there’s just darkness and silence.
“Are my eyes open? Hello?”
I can’t tell if I’m moving my mouth or if there’s even anyone to ask. It’s too dark to see. I blink once, twice, three times. There is a dull foreboding in the pit of my stomach. That, I recognize. My thoughts translate only slowly into language, as if emerging from a pot of molasses. Word by word the questions come: Where am I? Why does my scalp itch? Where is everyone? Then the world around me comes gradually into view, beginning as a pinhole, its diameter steadily expanding. Objects emerge from the murk and sharpen into focus.
I know immediately that I need to get out of here.

Unfortunately, the after-effects of Susannah Cahalan’s rare and newly discovered auto-immune disorder, Anti-NMDA-Receptor Autoimmune Encephalitis, lasted much longer than a month. Patients with this disease are often misdiagnosed and given psychiatric treatment when they really need a neurologist. And sometimes they go into a coma or die from the disease. As you can see in the video, Susannah Cahalan was given a miracle: a correct diagnosis and treatment that brought her back from madness and near-death.

The book is fascinating. Ms. Cahalan does get bogged down in some of the medical details for a few pages/paragraphs here and there, but she always comes back to human interests and how this illness affected her, her family, and the friends and colleagues who witnessed her descent into what can only be described as insanity. The fact that this disease is a physical, neurological condition in which the body’s immune system attacks the brain could be a source of hope for others who are suffering from the same disease. However, Ms. Cahalan is careful to say that the disease is rare, although maybe not as rare as originally thought, and certainly does not explain all or even the majority of cases of schizophrenia and schizoid behavior.

Brain on Fire is a readable, riveting entry in a genre that is one of my guilty favorites: memoirs of madness and people on the edge of mental illness or simple eccentricity. I don’t intend to take pleasure from someone else’s misfortune, but it helps and interests me to read about people who are “outliers”. From them, I believe we can learn what sanity and wisdom and even outlandish creativity really look like.

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