Saturday, May 18, 2013

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
by Susannah Cahalan

Rating: 4/5

It's not often a journalist tells a story of their own illness, and even it's rarer for one to do it with much objectivity. Cahalan has an advantage in this respect, since she has almost no memories of the acute stage of her illness (the month of madness), and so has had to research her story like any other journalist might. She interviewed doctors, nurses, friends and family, watched surveillance video taken during her hospital stay, and used journals written by herself and her parents to piece together the events that she suffered but cannot remember. She's added to that information the things she does recall from before and after the acute stage of her recently discovered autoimmune disease, in which autoantibodies attacked neuro-receptors in her brain, which resulted in an amazing number of bizarre symptoms, some of which could have (and probably have been, in others) mistaken for schizophrenia. I like that, even after going through this trauma and struggling with about a two year recovery, she realizes how lucky she was. As far as debilitating illnesses go, she basically won the lottery - not because of the illness she got, but because it was discovered and treated and she more or less got her (arguably charmed) life back. 

Susannah is by all accounts a gifted, successful and well-loved individual. Her million dollar treatment was covered by insurance and well-off parents. She had a very large support network that were incredibly involved and not one of them abandonned her. She happened to be able to get into a hospital and eventually be referred to arguably the only doctor in the world that could help her. She had understanding employers that kept her job open for her. Susannah was very fortunate, indeed.

This is not to downplay her horrible, nightmarish journey, which I bet a part of her is thankful for not remembering. She suffered, and the people around her suffered too. The story she tells is both fascinating and heart-breaking. For the most part, this book is fast-paced and smooth, but it also includes some scientific information that you may have to slow down to understand.

On a personal note: 
As someone who has suffered from (non-psychotic) mental illness since childhood, and debilitating, incurable and untreatable physical illness for the past ten years, I have to admit I was envious of Susannah. Her family and closest friends showed a level of loyalty and support that I can't even imagine having. These relationships have remained intact, some of them have even improved, and she has returned to the job she loves. She's even helping others by sharing her story and offering compassion and information to people who contact her with tales of similar illnesses. Once you've had chronic illness for awhile, you realize how preferable acute illness is, even if it is as severe as Susannah's. With chronic illness, family and friends eventually slip away, as do any dreams and plans you had for your future. Your entire life is reduced to infirmity and survival, with literally no end in sight except death. So yeah, I was envious, reading about Susannah's supportive family and ultimate recovery.

To her credit, there is not even a whiff of self-pity in Cahalan's story. She knows how fortunate she was, and how many others aren't nearly so lucky. She's extremely grateful to everyone involved. All in all, a well-written, interesting book that I would recommend to people who like medical memoirs.


  1. I think her story might very well be the exception not the rule. Mental illness rarely garners the support she seemed to receive and family/intimate relationships more often than not crumble under the stress and pressures of the illness. On top of that getting an accurate diagnosis and treatment quickly is indeed a rarity. In my ex-husband's case it seemed like more of a trial and error process. I do agree with your statement that acute illness is preferable to chronic illness. With chronic illness even the most well meaning friends and family get worn down or tired of hearing about it. A friend of mine had a chronic severe pain disorder and even her own mother said "She can't be in pain all the time." ummm yeah actually she can...hence the word chronic.