Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness

Susannah Cahalan’s memoir.

I had been in the hospital for eighteen days, and not only wasn’t I any closer to a cure, I wasn’t but my condition seemed to be heading steadily downhill.

p. 121, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

Susannah Cahalan’s memoir is electrifying. Written with the help of medical journals, the journals of her parents, and other such resources, she recreates her month where her brain was on fire, suffering from a rare autoimmune disease.

At first, I struggled to get into the novel. I made the mistake of watching the Netflix film of the same name, and already knew what was wrong with Susannah. Yet, the more I read, reaching page 100, I became interested in the story. No longer did I need to color as I listened to the suave narrator’s voice; the words on the page compelled me to continue reading.

I’m not a med student, so the explanations of what was going on in Susannah’s body medically helped. Overall, this is a well-written novel, one that not only puts the reader in the perspective of Susannah as she struggles to regain her normal self, but also reminds the reader that our bodies are extremely fragile. (As someone who once had an allergic reaction to a medication, I at least grasp a better understanding of what it means to have your limbs move on their own.)

Early on her the memoir, Susannah meets several doctors, all of whom believe she is suffering from different illnesses: bipolar disorder, alcohol withdrawal, and even schizophrenia. Despite her increasingly worrying behavior–mood changes, seizures, and hearing voices–her tests come back normal.

The different diagnosis, even the ones in the hospital, bothered me. It made me realize that we are compartmentalizing medicine, making it very specialized. (I also realized this based off on a comment from one of my mom’s friends. Her sons work in the medical field, and both of their fields are specialized.) Thus, the problem keeps getting worse for Susannah, despite the normalcy of her medical tests. In short, her doctors are unable to figure out what is wrong with her.

Without giving away the rest of the plot, it’s an intense ride, one that made me internally cheer whenever something was discovered. This happened especially after Dr. Najjar made a breakthrough after asking Susannah to draw a clock on a piece of paper.

Click here to hear Susannah Cahalan in her own words, describing her time in the hospital, and her disease.

“Brain on Fire” Netflix trailer.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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