11.16.2016

Susannah Cahalan: Brain on Fire


I started reading this book at a point where I was reading a lot of memoirs by people suffering from mental illness. Within a month I had read Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation, Emma Forrest's Your Voice in My Head, and then finally I picked up Susannah Cahalan's Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness. This will be my shortest review because I am scared of saying something very stupid.


This memoir (288 pages) follows Cahalan's decent into madness. She is a journalist at the New York Post in her early 20s and suddenly starts to notice these major changes in her behaviour. It starts with her suspecting her boyfriend (who is a goddamn saint and I'll talk more about him later) is cheating on her. She starts turning his apartment over, desperate to find naked photos of an ex or some sort of incriminating email. As a self-diagnosed psychopath, I can sort of relate to this experience? You go your whole life, and multiple relationships, being completely trusting and never suspecting a thing, but once you start looking you start to feel a bit unhinged. Of course, this women's brain is ON FIRE, and I'm just good old fashioned "crazy." All I mean is she stops being able to recognize herself and that is scaaaaaaary.

Anyways, eventually it starts to escalate to where she is having fits / seizures in the middle of the night which her boyfriend starts to notice. She is eventually hospitalized and things become much, much worse. She was having hallucinations, acting like a 4 year old, and was pretty much unrecognizable to anyone that use to know her. Eventually she loses an entire month to this disease ... she can't remember any of it. She explains early on in the book that she is piecing this month together by interviewing doctors, family and friends, as well as looking at tapes of her in the hospital.

"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."

Cahalans experience is nothing like the other two memoirs. She isn't bipolar or clinically depressed. It turns out that she is suffering from an auto-immune disease that has "inflamed" her brain. But my favourite part of the book is how it addresses not having a diagnosis. There is a scene where Cahalan is almost begging for a diagnosis from her doctor ... suggesting she "must be bipolar." It's interesting for me because typically we hear about how your diagnosis should not define you, yet the alternative, i.e. not knowing, is somehow worse to me.


“Just because it seems like schizophrenia doesn't mean that it is,' Dr. Najjar told me. 'We have to keep humble and keep our eyes open.” 

So back to the topic of her boyfriend ... I use to always say that the most unrealistic thing about the movie Short Term 12 is that John Gallagher Jr.'s character is just too sweet, understanding and patient, and obviously is not a real human male. Short Term 12 is fiction. Cahalan's boyfriend is real, and gives me like an ounce of faith that there are decent human males out there. He just sticks with her the entire time. Even when she acts essentially like an animal.

The title of the book is a bit misleading in that it seems like she is only going through this for a month. After she is diagnosed and appropriately treated, she spends years trying to get back to her old self. And these are the sections that I find the most interesting to read.

One of my favourite things she talks about in the book is all the subtle changes in her personality after the auto-immune disease. The most terrifying change to me is in her sense of humour. She mentions how she never found sitcoms very funny, and always thought they targeted low-brow humour. After she gets out of the hospital she finds herself cackling at episodes of Friends. A show she never used to even crack a smile at now makes her tear up watching.

This isn't a book about mental illness, but it has some similar themes.

Ugh now I have to address the movie adaptation. So this is something out of my own nightmare. Imagine how happy I am when I learn that Dakota Fanning was cast to play Cahalan? As with everything, that turned to shit, and instead Chloe Grace Moretz was cast. Kill me. It played at TIFF this year but not during the weekend we were there.

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