Brain on Fire: Susannah Cahalan

Brain on Fire

Brain on Fire

Subtitled My Month of Madness, Susannah Cahalan chronicles her 2009 descent from normality into paranoia, manic episodes, seizures, and eventually catatonia. This fascinating book exposes the complexity of the mind, and how conditions affecting the brain can surface in so many disparate ways.

Susannah notes that many symptoms she experienced due to changes happening in her brain could be caused by many factors, leading to misdiagnosis or no diagnosis at all. Starting with abnormal forgetfulness, obsession with imaginary bugs, and erratic behavior, along with left-side numbness, she sought treatment but imaging and bloodwork showed nothing wrong. Her doctors chalked her symptoms up to too much partying, alcohol consumption, and not enough sleep.

Meanwhile, Susannah is going through a frightening array of experiences (due in hindsight to partial seizures in the temporal lobe of her brain):

After a severe seizure she is admitted to a hospital, saying:

I would never regain any memories of this seizure, or the ones to come. This momement, my first serious blackout, marked the line between sanity and insanity. Though I would have moments of lucidity over the coming weeks, I would never again be the same person.

Despite increasingly severe symptoms of paranoia, Capgras syndrome, tantrums, mood swings, and eventually difficulty speaking, recalling words, and communicating, the medical staff were making no headway on a diagnosis. Fear of being afflicted with an unknown disease permeates the book which is dedicated to "those without a diagnosis".

Susannah quotes Willam F. Allman's Apprentices of Wonder: Inside the Neural Network Revolution

The brain is a monstrous, beautiful mess.

commenting on the difficulty of linking areas of brain activity to human behaviors, or indeed the reverse: the extreme challenge of arriving at a diagnosis when human behavior is influenced by some psychosis.

Throughout, the dedication of Susannah's boyfriend, mother and father are striking - it's clear that without their support her story would have had a different ending. You will also meet the amazing Dr. Najjar who makes the major breakthrough in the case and brings Susannah back from the brink.

It's impossible to leave this book without reflecting on the fine line between sanity and insanity residing in the delicate mass of tissue sitting behind your eyes.