Review: Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

Book Title: Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
Author: Susannah Cahalan
Published Date: August 6th, 2013
Published By: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Memoir
Book Link: Goodreads
Purchase Links: AmazonBarnes & Noble
Synopsis (from Goodreads)
A gripping memoir and medical suspense story about a young New York Post reporter’s struggle with a rare and terrifying disease, opening a new window into the fascinating world of brain science.

One day, Susannah Cahalan woke up in a strange hospital room, strapped to her bed, under guard, and unable to move or speak. Her medical records—from a month-long hospital stay of which she had no memory—showed psychosis, violence, and dangerous instability. Yet, only weeks earlier she had been a healthy, ambitious twenty-four year old, six months into her first serious relationship and a sparkling career as a cub reporter. 

Susannah’s astonishing memoir chronicles the swift path of her illness and the lucky, last-minute intervention led by one of the few doctors capable of saving her life. As weeks ticked by and Susannah moved inexplicably from violence to catatonia, $1 million worth of blood tests and brain scans revealed nothing. The exhausted doctors were ready to commit her to the psychiatric ward, in effect condemning her to a lifetime of institutions, or death, until Dr. Souhel Najjar—nicknamed Dr. House—joined her team. He asked Susannah to draw one simple sketch, which became key to diagnosing her with a newly discovered autoimmune disease in which her body was attacking her brain, an illness now thought to be the cause of “demonic possessions” throughout history. 

With sharp reporting drawn from hospital records, scientific research, and interviews with doctors and family, Brain on Fire is a crackling mystery and an unflinching, gripping personal story that marks the debut of an extraordinary writer

Disclaimer: I bought this book for myself.

I had had my eye on this book even before it came out. It looked interesting and it combined some of my favorite things: medicine and memoirs. So I knew that I had to snatch it up as soon as possible. I was very much hoping that it would live up to all the hype that I had it built up to in my head.
It was amazing. It was raw and gritty which I feel is the mark of a wonderful memoir. The story was so scary and harrowing I couldn’t put it down for very long. There seems to be a real lack of these medical related memoirs which I find is a real shame.The way that the author wrote the book was so unique as very few books do it in this journalistic style.
The way that the illness was chronicled was fascinating. The seizures and paranoia and the violence seemed to come out of nowhere until Susannah was essentially catatonic. The doctors had clearly never seen this before which is what happens when a patient has a “zebra disease” and not a “horse disease” This is not uncommon in hospitals where doctors are trained to look for the obvious diseases (called the horses) and they don’t know about the zebras. So while Susannah’s family got frustrated at the doctors for not knowing what was causing Susannah’s behavior, from my extensive hospital experiences the doctors were ruling out the most obvious things first.
I really liked how the book was divided into three parts. The first part was the beginnings of her illness all the way up to a seizure on the hospital floors. The second part chronicled the desperate attempts to identify what was going on and all the measures that the doctors took in order to get there. Followed by the correct diagnosis and the treatment that followed. The third and final part of this book focused on Susannah’s attempts to assimilate back into her old life all the while reconciling herself to the idea that she’d never be the “old Susannah” again.
I loved how even though her parents had been divorced many years ago,they were able to come together and help Susannah through this. They had two great spouses in Giselle and Alan who were also part of Susannah’s support system. When things of this nature are going on,it is very important to have a support system and I loved that Susannah did have such a great support system. She also had her wonderful boyfriend,Stephen, who stuck by her when so many other men would have turned and ran for the hills.
This book is not one for everyone. Even those who enjoy memoirs because it is pretty heavy on the medical terminology and neuroscience. Things that I am able to follow very well,but not everyone else has the ability or the frame of reference to understand what is being said. Particularly towards the end of the book where the author goes into further explanation about the diagnosis.
I am giving this book 4 stars. Yes I enjoyed it,yes I will probably read it again but I think parts of this could be really hard for someone not in the medical profession to understand. I think it would have helped if the book wasn’t relying so much on the advanced medical lingo.

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