by Susannah Cahalan, 2012
Imagine one day being consumed with paranoia. You snoop through your partner’s email, you’re certain others are saying hurtful things about you, you’re convinced those who love you no longer have your best interests in mind. This is part of what happened to journalist and author Susannah Cahalan.
Susannah was 24 when she started experiencing strange symptoms. She found two bug bites on her arm and demanded that her apartment be sprayed for bedbugs, she forgot work meetings, and she had trouble concentrating during interviews for job as a reporter at the New York Post. Coupled with the aforementioned paranoia, it seemed that Susannah was on the cusp of a nervous breakdown brought on by stress and, as one of her early doctors was convinced, too much alcohol. When the seizures started and Susannah began to retreat further and further into her mind, her family knew that something far more serious was at hand.
The book reads like the best, most gripping episode of House ever, as told from the patient’s perspective. Susannah is upfront about the fact that she remembers little from that time – those weeks are essentially lost to her – so her story is cobbled together from the memories of her parents, friends, boyfriend, and all others who stood by her and watched her descent into madness. It is a credit to her writing and reporting skills that the narrative is seamless and believable. She is, admittedly, an unreliable narrator for her own story, but we so intensely feel the fear and desperation surrounding her case as her doctors work to figure out what is wrong with her.
It is important to note that Susannah acknowledges how privileged she is to have had the cause of her illness found. Not only did it occur at the right time, historically speaking, but her parents were able to pay for her hospitalization and expensive treatments and they had enough time to be able to advocate for their daughter until they found the right doctor. “How many people throughout history suffered from my disease and others like it but went untreated?” she asks. The question is made even more pressing by the fact that this particular disease was only discovered in 2007, but is believed to have existed since the beginning of humanity. “I am the one who is an exception. I am the one who is lucky.”
What’s striking about Susannah’s story is that she was originally diagnosed with a mental disorder. The terms “bipolar disorder,” “schizoaffective disorder,” “psychosis,” and “catatonia,” all have a place here, but the cause is discovered to be neurological in origin. We can’t help but question how many other cases of mental illness are, likewise, symptoms of a neurological disease that with the right treatment could return the individual to their original state. The implications are staggering and open a new door to the way we discuss and treat mental illness. For that reason alone, Brain on Fire is such an important book.
Susannah dedicates her book to “those without a diagnosis.” I can’t imagine their plight – ill with no one able to tell you what’s wrong or how to fix it – and I hope I never do. But for all those in that same situation, and for all those who advocate for their loved ones and friends who suffer in the unknown, Brain on Fire sheds much needed light on the trials of disease. Kudos to Susannah and her bravery in sharing her story.
[Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: read a book with a main character that has a mental illness]