Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

Overview from Barnes and Noble:

One day in 2009, twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a strange hospital room, strapped to her bed, under guard, and unable to move or speak. A wristband marked her as a “flight risk,” and her medical records—chronicling a month long hospital stay of which she had no memory at all—showed hallucinations, violence, and dangerous instability. Only weeks earlier, Susannah had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: a healthy, ambitious college grad a few months into her first serious relationship and a promising career as a cub reporter at a major New York newspaper.

Who was the stranger who had taken over her body? What was happening to her mind?
In this swift and breathtaking narrative, Susannah tells the astonishing true story of her inexplicable descent into madness and the brilliant, lifesaving diagnosis that nearly didn’t happen. A team of doctors would spend a month—and more than a million dollars—trying desperately to pin down a medical explanation for what had gone wrong. Meanwhile, as the days passed and her family, boyfriend, and friends helplessly stood watch by her bed, she began to move inexorably through psychosis into catatonia and, ultimately, toward death. Yet even as this period nearly tore her family apart, it offered an extraordinary testament to their faith in Susannah and their refusal to let her go.
Then, at the last minute, celebrated neurologist Souhel Najjar joined her team and, with the help of a lucky, ingenious test, saved her life. He recognized the symptoms of a newly discovered autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks the brain, a disease now thought to be tied to both schizophrenia and autism, and perhaps the root of “demonic possessions” throughout history.
Far more than simply a riveting read and a crackling medical mystery, Brain on Fire is the powerful account of one woman’s struggle to recapture her identity and to rediscover herself among the fragments left behind. Using all her considerable journalistic skills, and building from hospital records and surveillance video, interviews with family and friends, and excerpts from the deeply moving journal her father kept during her illness, Susannah pieces together the story of her “lost month” to write an unforgettable memoir about memory and identity, faith and love. It is an important, profoundly compelling tale of survival and perseverance that is destined to become a classic.

My thoughts:
I listened to this audio book earlier this month.  I had read a review of the book in a magazine and it really interested me.  Cahalan put together the things she can remember, journals and notes kept by her parents, interviews she did after the fact with doctors and family and some surveillance video to piece together the month of her life that she has no memory of.  There are so many things we do not know about how the brain works, it is such a complex organ, that reading about this was fascinating.  I have to admit that sometimes details felt a bit repetitive, but it was still fascinating.

What do you do when you can no longer rely on yourself to judge what is real or not?  When you can't tell if you are being paranoid or having a panic attack, when you can't get your body to do what you want it to or to speak in a way that can be understood by others?  How many people who end up in mental institutions or homeless shelters have something that could be treated but is missed because the brain is so misunderstood?  Why do some people get better and some are never the same?

As well as being fascinating this book was scary as well.  If it can happen to a seemingly healthy 24 year old, who else is at risk?  How can we know that we are safe?  I can see that this book might actually alarm people and make them start thinking that anytime they did something that didn't make sense it might be a sign that they had an inflamed brain.  This is not a book for hypochrondiacs!

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781451621372
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 11/13/2012
  • Pages: 288

Meet the Author

Susannah Cahalan is a news reporter at the New York Post whose award-winning work has also been featured in The New York Times. She lives in Jersey City, New Jersey.

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