Wednesday, January 7, 2015
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan
Published November 2012 by Free Press
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review
When twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. What happened?
In a swift and breathtaking narrative, Susannah tells the astonishing true story of her descent into madness, her family’s inspiring faith in her, and the lifesaving diagnosis that nearly didn’t happen.
This book has been sitting on my bookshelf for over two years, despite the fact that I told the publisher when I accepted it that it sounded "fascinating." Despite the fact that I've read several reviews since then that confirmed that it is, in fact, fascinating.
Why did I finally pick it up? Because I was looking for something I thought would be a quick read at the end of the year so that I could start 2015 with a new book. Not because I thought it would be fascinating but because I thought I could blow through it. Not really fair to any book. Fortunately, this book demanded that I not just blow through it.
The publisher's summary makes it sound as if Ms. Cahalan just woke up one morning unable to move or speak. In fact, her first indication that anything was amiss was the day she notice two spots on her arm she assumed were bedbug bites. She instantly became obsessed with ridding her apartment of bedbugs despite there being no evidence that she had bedbugs. Over the next few weeks, her symptoms began to escalate and she ceased to be able to function normally. Despite an inability to focus, extreme emotional highs and lows, and some hallucinatory episodes, every test she had, every doctor she saw told Cahalan that she was "normal."
Is it normal for a twenty-four-year-old to have to be watched over by her parents and boyfriend because she has become so unstable? Is it normal for a young woman to be hearing things? Is it normal for someone's personality to rapidly change? Cahalan's family and friends knew things were not normal but there seemed to be no answer as to why. Even after she began to have seizures.
With all of the advances in medicine, with the ability to share information greater than ever, it always amazes me how often doctors are unable to correctly diagnose patients. To be far, Cahalan's true diagnosis was relatively newly discovered and required experimental treatment. But it seemed that her doctors were entirely too quick to blame mental illness when the first tests couldn't find a physical problem. Cahalan's condition had progressed to the point where she might not have been healed had not just the right doctor become involved in her case. She knows that had she been any where else in the country when she became ill, she might not never have recovered or even died.
Brain On Fire was the perfect blend, for me, of science and personal story. Cahalan has developed much of the book from videos taken in the hospital, her parents' diaries, her own diaries from that time, and the recollections of family and friends because she recalls almost nothing from her time in the hospital. She also gives the medical explanation as to why she was misdiagnosed, how her brain turned on her, and how she was finally treated that lead to her cure. It truly is fascinating reading.