Thursday Book Feature: Brain on Fire

<strong>Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness</strong>
by Susannah Cahalan
Copyright 2012.

And I thought the dream I had a few weeks ago in which I woke up in a hospital, not sure how I got there, was bazaar. This takes the cake, and it wasn’t a dream. In the spring of 2009, Susannah Cahalan woke up and found herself strapped to a hospital bed, not remembering how she got there. When she panicked, a figure in purple with a foreign accent told her to calm down. Thus begins her memoir about her experience with a rare autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks the brain.

The author explains how she first experienced symptoms while she was working as a journalist for the New York Post. It started as an obsession with bed bugs in her apartment. She then experienced numbness and other flu-like symptoms and gradually became forgetful, paranoid, and dilusional. Her gynecologist referred her to a neurologist who said these symptoms were caused by stress and too much drinking. Then, she had her first seizure, and things went downhill from there. Her parents were finally able to get her admitted to New York University Hospital’s epilepsy unit.

Since she doesn’t remember much of what happened after that, most of her information was gleamed from interviews with family and friends, her father’s journal, and footage from EKG video. She describes the battery of tests she endured and how she was visited by neurologists, psychologists, and other professionals who were stumped by her condition. She reverted from being paranoid with dilusions to a catatonic state where she could barely speak, let alone care for herself. Her doctors were about to send her to the psychiatric unit when a new neurologist joined the team. After performing a brain biopsy, running more tests, and conferring with other doctors across the country, he finally diagnosed her with anti-NMDA receptor autoimmune incephalitis. This neurologist pointed out to her parents that her brain was on fire, hence the title.

After being given medication to combat this disorder, she was discharged. She then describes the long, arduous process of recovery. Although she was able to move and care for herself by this time, her speech and thought processes were slow. She talks about how her parents, boyfriend, and other relatives and friends supported her during her stay in the hospital and recovery. After six months, she returned to her newspaper job, and she describes how she completed her first major assignment, an article about anti NMDA inhibitor autoimmune incephalitis and her experience with it. She provides more information about this disorder.

This book was an Audible daily deal, and I’m glad I picked it up. The narrator does an excellent job portraying the author’s first-person account of her story. I love this book’s beginning and ending in which the author describes waking up in the hospital’s epilepsy unit, then returning years later after her recovery for a visit and her encounter with a nurse who cared for her during that time.

I would like to have known more about Susannah Cahalan after she returned to work and successfully published her first major article. She mentions moving in with her boyfriend, but did she eventually marry him and start a family, perhaps balancing that with her career?

According to the author, this rare disorder strikes women of child-bearing age and is often mistaken for psychosis. At the time this book was written, a percentage of women afflicted with anti-NMDA inhibitor encephalitis ended up in psychiatric hospitals where they eventually died. So if you’re a young woman, I encourage you to read this book, and if you experience any of the symptoms mentioned, consult a neurologist before you see a psychiatrist.


Abbie Johnson Taylor
We Shall Overcome
How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

That’s Life: New and Selected Poems
My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds
Like Me on Facebook.