About a month ago, a dear friend of mine asked if I’d be interested in writing a quick review of a book I recently read. I jumped at the chance because when I first read Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan, I couldn’t put it down. Her story not only was so interesting, it was scary to think that someone could go through what she experienced.
Without further ado – my review as featured on Traditional Femme:
A Review of Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan
On a rainy summer Saturday afternoon, I was cruising the shelves at our local bookstore and stumbled upon Susannah Cahalan’s memoir, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness. I admit I was drawn to it by the haunting image of the author and the book’s title on the front cover, but once I read the summary on the back, I was sold. I took it home and I couldn’t put it down.
Cahalan is a young, twenty-something woman with a bright career ahead of her as a journalist with one of New York’s most famous publications. She has a wonderful boyfriend, with whom she recently entered a serious relationship. She’s healthy and ready to take on the world. Life is great. Not much later, she wakes up in a hospital unsure why she is strapped down with wires hooked to her body that are traced back to monitors and machines.
While the precise point of when her illness began is hard to pin down, she realized in the time leading up to her diagnosis some of her symptoms: migraines, light/color sensitivity, difficulty controlling emotion, seizures, numbness in her left hand, hallucinations, and intense paranoia.
With her paranoia, it started with a bug bite that prompted her to fumigate her apartment to rid it of the bed bugs she thought she saw. She suddenly had the urge to read through her boyfriend’s emails – something she never would normally do. She started to feel like she was slipping into a deep darkness.
Doctors continually asked her how much she drank or smoked, if she was taking drugs and partying, as her symptoms raised suspicions toward that direction. Conversations with friends and family turned into her hearing things they weren’t really saying. Cahalan knew there was something else wrong – this couldn’t be the cause of her decent into madness.
After her stay in the hospital, visiting with various doctors/medical professionals, and receiving multiple scans and tests, she finally found a neurologist (who was also an epileptologist/neuropathologist) who helped her get closer to finding the cause of her breakdown. After conducting a simple pencil and paper test on Cahalan, which lead him to the diagnosis.
“Her brain is on fire… her brain is under attack by her own body.”
In her attempt to recollect the events leading up to her diagnosis, Cahalan uses her exceptional journalistic skill to carefully craft her story while she puts the puzzle back together. She was lucky to have hospital records, interviews, notes from journals she and her family members kept during the time she was in the dark, videos from when she was in the hospital, and wonderful doctors who were dedicated to finding the cause of ailment.
Though heavy with medical jargon, this book is very informative; Cahalan shares her experience in the hopes of regaining her memory and helping others who find themselves in a similar situation. Don’t let the terminology discourage you from reading her story; she has the unique advantage of explaining these terms to her audience as she learned them, making it easy to comprehend. She’s become an advocate for the sufferers of this illness, prompting people suffering to ask more questions and explore all possible causes and solutions in trying to get their lives (and memories) back.
Calahan’s memoir provides readers a brave account of how a very rare illness took part of her life away and left her scrambling to put the pieces back together, without any recollection of how it started or how she ended up in the hospital with an illness with the cause basically unknown. Her boyfriend and parents never gave up hope that she would find herself again, and fought hard to make sure she had the best treatment possible.