Friday, May 31, 2013

Off the Bookshelf - Susannah Cahalan's Brain on Fire

Rather than writing end of year reports like a good teacher should, I read this book last weekend:
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
Every time I sat down I wanted to read more. It's just such a fascinating story...

Susannah describes herself as a healthy, well-adjusted New York Post reporter with a basically sunny outlook. She's in a happy relationship and she works hard to keep her career moving forward. One night, she has a type of seizure and from that point onward starts exhibiting some pretty unexplainable behaviours. When she watches tapes from her stay in the hospital during the time, she describes these as akin to the jerky movements of that crab-walking little girl from The Exorcist {only not quite so "possessed"}. She was not herself and had no sort of understanding of these behaviours as her own nor control over them.

After numerous visits with psychiatrists and specialists, several brain scans, and a month-long stay in the hospital, it turns out that her body was basically attacking her brain, the result of an illness called anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. This is a largely new disorder in terms of diagnosis, as there's really no other way to describe it than she was going crazy; many doctors would call her symptoms schizophrenic, ordering up entirely incorrect prescriptions.

She calls the book a fiction because she doesn't have memory of this time in her life - she's built the story on interviews with friends and family, doctors' and specialists' notes, and videos from her hospital room. The paranoia and hallucinations she experienced are things she doesn't wholly remember. 

In the end I think the book speaks a lot of our vulnerability - we are made of cells that function on a totally non-conscious level, completely separate from our understanding of daily life. It's pretty terrifying to think how quickly this bright young woman changed and for no reason except that she was unlucky. The way she tells the story is so honest and made me value my health in a way I hadn't really considered before. I highly recommend this one; it is nothing short of remarkable.

1 comment:

  1. My husband read this book, and it's on my list for this summer! I love reading cool brain science books, and this one so fascinating. Thanks for reminding me about it!

    Luckeyfrog's Lilypad