Friday, March 21, 2014

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

I saw a neurologist once.  I was feeling increasingly confused, forgetful, and mentally disheveled.  I would find myself driving on the freeway and suddenly not know where I was or where I was going.  I would walk into a co-worker's office only to forget why I was there.  I'd read a book or watch a movie and not remember what it was about.  The neurologist gave me a handful of tests, during which I quickly realized, I'm definintely not crazy.  I knew my name, what year it was, and could easily draw the face of a clock on a sheet of paper.  Given the timing of my symptoms with the recent birth of my son, I was diagnosed with nothing more than mommy brain.

A bit embarrased, but definitely relieved, I laugh about my bought of hypochondria.  At the time though, I thought I was losing it.  And that's what happened to Susannah Cahalan.  She slowly started noticing little things that were unlike her...a jealous thought, a migraine, sensitivity to lights.  She even went to the doctor and had an MRI and blood tests.  Everything came back normal.  Maybe she was stressed.  Maybe she was about to have a breakdown.  Maybe, as one doctor believed, she just partied too much.

But when her symptoms went from bad to worse and she had a series of seizures, Cahalan had the doctors' attention.  Still, all the tests came back negative.  Her symptoms, which appeared similar to schizophrenia, took her down a month-long rabbit hole of madness, most of which, she has no memory.

Brain on Fire is Cahalan's descent into madness and her climb back out.  As it turns out, it was a simple test, in fact one of the same ones I was given on my panicked visit to the doctor, that led to Cahalan's diagnosis.  Cahalan relied on interviews with her family, doctors, and her own fragmented memory to reconstruct the events during her illness.

If this doesn't sound compelling enough, Cahalan takes you deeper.  You'll learn about monstrous tumors complete with hair and teeth that inhabit otherwise normal people, and even delve into the supernatural to see how her symptoms are eerily similar to people believed to be possessed with evil spirits.

Given Cahalan's occupation as a journalist and the fascinating subject matter, this is a book you won't want to put down.  And given that it's a true story, you won't soon take your sanity for granted. 

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