Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Book 64: Brain on Fire

I don't feel like I usually read that many memoirs but it seems I was on a bit of streak.  Given all the positive reviews, I had to pick this one up, of course.  In this book, Susannah Cahalan documents are temporary bout of insanity, how it developed, the medical community's reaction, and her eventual path back to herself.

Cahalan doesn't have a history of mental illness in her family, but at some point in her early/mid twenties, she starts acting odd and off.  She becomes paranoid, and very difficult, unable to focus on work, and just generally does not act like herself.  As far as she can tell, it all starts with an odd tingling in her hand and arm, but her first visit to a doctor only leads to a diagnosis of stress as a result of too much work and drinking.  However, her family encourages her to seek other options, especially when she experiences seizures, and soon things have progressed so far that she has to be hospitalized.  As Cahalan points out, she was fortunate enough to be in the neurological department as a result of the seizures rather than the mental health portion, because it meant the doctors kept looking for a cause rather than going with a schizophrenia diagnosis though she exhibited signs of it and was at the right age of its onset.

This is an incredibly informative book about the progression of a disease and how Susannah's brain and body betrayed her, turning on themselves.  While I was reading, I couldn't help but think that in ways she was incredibly privileged, being able to go home to her parents, take the time off from work when she was simply acting off rather than facing the full-fledged illness, and even the fact that she spent a month in a hospital surrounded by a team of professionals.  In fact she even acknowledges this in the last few chapters when she discusses the repercussions of this illness, and the ways she has been able to use her experience to help others.  In ways, it seems like if this disease was going to happen to anyway, Cahalan was the candidate that could most benefit others because with her background as a journalist, she was more able to provide a clear picture of her journey and raise awareness for others that could face this.  As she admits, she also got lucky because in the end, she was able to find out what was wrong with her and put a name to it, while there are surely others who have simply been dismissed as crazy and put away or ignored.  It's a very illuminating book, and absolutely fascinating.  I wouldn't even want to imagine how this situation would have worked for someone with a less supportive family, and Cahalan definitely struggled.  In fact, even after her recuperation, she sometimes wonders about the person she was vs. the person she is, and how much of herself was actually changed or lost as a result of this period in her life.