“The mind is like a circuit of Christmas tree lights. When the brain works well, all the lights twinkle brilliantly, and it’s adaptable enough that, often, even if one bulb goes out, the rest will still shine on. But depending on where the damage is, sometimes that one blown bulb can make the whole strand go dark.”
Blurb: “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?”
The first time I heard about Susannah Cahalan was through the Netflix Film, of the same, in which Chloe Grace Moretz portrays her. After finding the biopic equal parts devastating and fascinating, I was really intrigued about reading the books to see the point of view from the real Susannah.
In the space of a month, Susannah Cahalan went from being a healthy woman in her twenties, to having psychotic episodes, losing almost all ability to function, and faced with the possibility of spending the rest of her life in a psychiatric hospital. She ended up being diagnosed with a rare condition called Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis which is basically where the receptors meant to protect the brain from infections mistook her brain for an infection and chose to attack it instead.
The really interesting aspect of this book is that Susannah remembers nothing from what she calls “a month of madness.” She shares moments from the early stages of her illness and talks in detail about her manic moods, paranoia, and the seizures. But once she enters the hospital it’s just blank space in her mind. For this reason, the first part of the book is reliably told from Susannah and then she actively acknowledges that the information about her experiences may not be accurate as she relied on interviews she conducted with medical staff, video footage, and her parents’ journals to piece everything together. This inadvertently worked really well in getting the outside perspectives from those around her and to get a sense of the scale this illness affected not just her but those who loved her.
It’s also a testament to how much medicine and science continues to grow and evolve with research. Susannah’s scans all came back completely clear. She was the 217th person to be diagnosed with the condition.
Brain On Fire paved the way for more research into brain activity and helped many people who had been misdiagnosed get the help they needed. The number of those diagnosed now is in the thousands.
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