Brain On Fire: My Month of Madness

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Brain on Fire – Susannah Cahalan /// Nonfiction – Contemporary


Full disclosure, I could not put this book down so there will not be much negative criticism, at all actually.  Cahalan is a New York Post reporter so her writing flows more as literary journalism than anything else. So we are just going to call this literary journalism because I hate the term memoir. I don’t even know why, I like them enough to keep reading them. I think for me at least, I equate the term memoir with someone telling me how they did so many awesome things in their life. It’s like the world’s worst humble brag. That is not this book I promise.

Susannah chronicles her life of being a healthy 24 year old reporter living an all around normal life. Then in a mere matter of weeks her life disappears from her. One day she wakes up in the hospital room strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak. Her medical records for her month long stay show psychosis, violence, and dangerous instability. As her weeks in the hospital draw longer she slips from violence into near catatonia. All of this taking place as her family refuses to accept her multitude of misdiagnosis’s that lead medical staff wanting to commit her as they cannot find anything biologically wrong. Eventually Dr. Souhel Najjar is called, nicknamed Dr. House, who comes up with her life-saving diagnosis.

This book worked for me in a lot of ways. I think a poorer written book would not have opened so many eyes to the world of neuroscience and mental health and how we are still so far behind. As Cahalan points out her disease was not discovered until the 2000s. Yet, several doctors believe it has been around since humanity began. She was originally diagnosed alcoholic, then schizophrenic. As she points out, nearly everyone in her position is given the original diagnosis of schizophrenic, not because the doctors suck, but the overworked system they are apart of does. This was the most eye-opening and the most heartbreaking part of the novel for me. It was at this point in reading that I called my mom to make sure if something happened to me that they get as many opinions as it takes.

Cahalan has few to no memories of her month in the hospital. She was required to construct what happened through hospital records, research, and interview, the most helpful being her dads journal from her days in the hospital. I think this is what made a memoir of this nature stand out so much. She is forced to consult everyone she possible without her own biased of ‘well this how I remember it.’

Favorite Quotes

“The girl in the video is a reminder about how fragile our hold on sanity and health is and how much we are at the utter whim of our Brutus bodies, which will inevitably, on day, turn on us for good. I am a prisoner, as we all are. And with that realization comes an aching sense of vulnerability.” 

“When we live in a time when the rate of misdiagnoses has shown no improvement since the 1930s, the lesson here is that it’s important to always get a second opinion. While he may be an excellent doctor in many respects, Dr. Bailey is also, in some ways, a perfect example of what is wrong with medicine. I was just a number to him (and if he saw thirty-five patients a day, as he told me, that means I was one of a very large number). He is a by-product of a defective system that forces neurologists to spend five minutes with X number of patients a day to maintain their bottom line. It’s a bad system. Dr. Bailey is not the exception to the rule. He is the rule.” 

Reread? No, no way. It scared me, started making me question if I could come out the other end of that still strong, realizing my own vunerability. It is great to think about these things and open my eyes to these things but it is emotionally draining and no way am I doing it again. However, I stand by everyone should read this once.

Also if you’re a nerd like me and research everything you can about a book you become passionate about after you read it, Cahalan did some pretty interesting interviews between the release of her article in the New York Post (inspiration for the book) and the book itself. The today show once was my favorite but they were all good.

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