Brain On Fire – My Month of Madness

Susannah Cahalan was twenty-four-years old when something in the way she perceived things changed. It started with an obsession over bedbugs and descended into hallucinations, seizures and unpredictable acts of bizarre behaviour. Blood tests, scans, numerous procedures, initially all the tests came back negative, her Doctor (a renowned neurologist) insisting it was stress and alcohol consumption. It was neither of those things and if there is one stand-out learning to be gained from this incredible story, it is to ensure always to obtain a second opinion.

Brain on FireThis true story provides a fascinating insight into a rare autoimmune disease which causes the body to attack itself and in this case – the brain. It truly is a story that can and has already changed people’s lives; the writer, a reporter on the New York Post observes her own physical and mental decline and then as her mind descends into chaos, she recalls nothing. Her account is pulled together from interviews, hospital video footage and the journal of her family, until her brain begins to regenerate memory.

It is a path that many will have followed who end up spending the rest of their lives in an institution, if they actually survive it.  Susannah Cahalan, with the help of a supportive and determined family who won’t give up until they find a treatable diagnosis, is fortunate to be seen by the tenacious and talented Dr Najjar, and one final test later, a simple pen and paper exercise, leads him to the all-important diagnosis and her to the path of eventual recovery.

It was his focus on non-psychiatric causes that prevented her from a much more disastrous outcome.  His continuous ground-breaking research posits  that some forms of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression are actually caused by inflammatory conditions  in the brain.  This research may eventually help to break down barriers between immunology, neurology and psychiatry.

Lower Manhatten from Staten Island Ferry by Diliff

Lower Manhattan from the Staten Island Ferry by Diliff

Before writing this book, the author published an article for the New York Post about her experience, prompting an outpouring from many people who had a family member with an inexplicable brain disease – her case highlights the very real possibility that there are thousands if not more people out there descending into a similar madness.

StrokeHer story reminds me of  ‘My Stroke of Insight’, the extraordinary story of the brain scientist, Jill Taylor’s experience when at 37 years a blood vessel exploded in her brain and she too observed her mind deteriorate to the point where she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. She recovered and used her incredible insight and knowledge to share that experience with the world – creating an important resource for the sufferers and carers of stroke victims. She gives an excellent TED talk on the subject here. Interestingly, she became a brain scientist herself due to her brother’s diagnosis of a brain disorder, schizophrenia.

A gripping, unputdownable memoir that shows how little we really know about the workings of the brain and how difficult it is to diagnose. It’s thanks to books like this that more diagnoses can and are being made helping sufferers to find the right path to recovery.