Tuesday, December 2, 2014

#60 (2014/CBR6) "Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness" by Susannah Cahalan

I've seen Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness (2013) by Susannah Cahalan around in bookstores and it caught my interest. So I finally picked it up. This was a fast read and a fascinating true story of  a 24-year-old woman who loses her mind, without warning and without explanation.

Susannah Cahalan is a reporter at the New York Post when her life starts slowly unraveling. It starts with a little paranoia, acting odd, and missing deadlines. Susannah's symptoms quickly progress to where she is almost impossible to live with: yelling at people, trying to escape from her parents house, and being completely irrational. Susannah's first noticeable seizure occurs at her boyfriend's apartment. When Susannah goes to see a well-known neurologist, he dismisses her symptoms and says she is most likely suffering from alcohol withdrawal and sends her home. It is only when her parents insist on more that Susannah is admitted into the epilepsy ward at the NYU hospital.

Once at the hospital, Susannah's problems are only beginning. She is a troublesome patient: paranoid, difficult, and constantly trying to run away. This, with her lack of continuing seizures, has the hospital staff ready to transfer her to a psych ward. Again, her good health insurance and protective and involved parents ensure that she gets the best of care. However, it is only as she worsens and becomes almost catatonic that the doctors finally figure out what is going on with her and what might possibly help her.

This section of the book was definitely the most compelling. Part mystery and part horror movie, I could both relate to Susannah as a person, and was incredibly disturbed by how close she came to not getting the medical help she needed. It's terrifying to know that you could lose any connection to the person you thought you were without any warning or control. Also, going into the book knowing Susannah was suffering from a disease, it was infuriating to read how her neurologist dismissed her symptoms and even exaggerated her drinking in her file.

"If it took so long for one of the best hospitals in the world to get to this step, how many other people were going untreated, diagnosed with a mental illness or condemned to a life in a nursing home or a psychiatric ward?" (151)

The rest of the book follows Susannah through her long recovery as she slowly gets back to her normal self. I didn't find this section quite as interesting, but it was still worth reading. Probably the biggest problem with this book is that we learn almost nothing about Susannah's life before her illness. Thus, it isn't really clear exactly what she's lost or what she's trying to get back to, and it's hard to relate to her on any level deeper than hoping she gets better. We know that she's a reporter and that she's worked at the New York Post since she started there as an intern at seventeen. She also mentions that her boyfriend is in a band and she considers herself a hipster, but that's about it. There is no doubt that the point of this story is Susannah's illness, and perhaps it's unfair to expect her to bare her soul in order to tell that story. However, when I compare it to books like Wild by Cheryl Strayed, it felt like something was missing. Her relationship with her both her parents changed dramatically through the course of her illness, but to understand the real impact of this change we need to know more about her relationship with her parents before her illness. For this reason, this book probably could have been more personal and more powerful.

Susannah Cahalan ends her memoir with the knowledge that twenty percent of patients with her condition relapse, and the fear that the madness might come back to her. There were two themes that stuck with me long after finishing this book. The first was Cahalan's unique insight into mental illness with her brief but well-documented plunge into psychosis, and how her personal perspective might change other people's attitudes on the subject. The second was the understanding of how quickly we can lose everything we use to define ourselves.

"The girl in the video is a reminder about how fragile our hold on sanity and health is and how much we are at the utter whim of our Brutus bodies, which will inevitably, one day, turn on us for good. I am a prisoner, as we all are. And with that realization comes an aching sense of vulnerability." (227)

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