Imagine waking up in a hospital bed with no recollection of how you got there or how long you’ve been there. Budding journalist Susannah Cahalan woke up to this nightmare when she was 24 years old. In her gripping memoir Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, the reader is invited to journey with Cahalan to the edge of insanity in back.
The story behind Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness is my absolute worst nightmare come to life, right up there with having a stroke or heart attack when I am still young. Cahalan was a young writer for the New York Post living on her own in Manhattan. One day she found red marks on her left arm, which she mistakenly identified as bedbug bites. Then came the light sensitivity, nausea so severe she hardly ate for weeks, and numbness in her limbs. After that she began having severe mood swings that left her sobbing for no reason one minute, scared out of her mind the next, and dancing on a euphoric cloud of happiness a moment or two later. With the onset of her mood swings, she started having hallucinations and attacks of severe paranoia, leaving her frantically searching through her boyfriend’s apartments for signs of infidelity when he was not home. Her family and friends believed that she was just too stressed out from her job, and perhaps on the verge of (if not already having) a mental breakdown. The neurologist Susannah sought out offered little help; he brushed her off with the diagnosis of partying too hard, even though she hadn’t been partying at all.
Finally a series of seizures got Susannah admitted to the hospital. Throughout the next month, she became increasingly violent, started to lose her speech, and progressed toward full fledged catatonia – all without any doctors being able to figure out what was wrong with her. And the scariest part is, Susannah could not remember any of that month. In fact, in order to write about what her family and own body went through for that month, she had to consult scattered notes on journal entries she wrote, hospital videotape footage, and conduct interviews with doctors, nurses, family and friends.
As you probably figured out, considering Cahalan herself wrote this memoir, one special doctor eventually identified the disease plaguing Cahalan. Yet, it is utterly terrifying how close she came to being condemned to a lifetime of mental institutions, or perhaps the more merciful option – death. Cahalan does a masterful job of transporting the reader inside her shattered mind for that brief period of her 24 year old life, also briefly describing her recovery, and explaining the illness that took her to the edge of insanity. With my fascination with all things psychology, I could hardly tear myself away from the story, devouring it in a day and a half, but I truly believe that all readers will be able to appreciate Cahalan’s story. If anything, her memoir shows us just how tenuous the threads of life can be, and how loved ones who fight our battles when we are unable to do so are often the only thing that keep those threads from breaking.
Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.