Recent Reads: Brain On Fire


Once upon a time, I had a dream to read 52 books this year. Unfortunately, one setback put a wrench in that dream, so I haven’t been working towards the goal anymore. In fact, I’m 8 books behind schedule according to my Goodreads account. Make no mistake, I’ve been reading consistently since the setback. But I just haven’t been forcing myself to go too fast. The reason I was able to read quickly was because I was able to read during work downtime. But that stopped. So I had to find time after work, and it always ended up being bedtime and I always ended up falling asleep and I always want to read books that around 400+ long. And breathe….

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan has been on my Kindle for quite a while (I believe I bought it as a Daily Deal…if you don’t check those out, you are depriving yourself of some excellent steals on great books!). I read about it and it piqued my interest, but this memoir has a lot to do with an unknown illness that affects the brain and I can be a bit squeamish from time to time. And, of course, the story is true…that makes it extra-tough. I finally decided to pick up the Kindle and dive in.

Cahalan makes sure to put a disclaimer of sorts in the beginning of the book. For about a month, when she was really suffering through her then-unknown illness, she had no real idea what was going on around her. Some of her memories are hallucinations that have stayed with her while others are very random and come back at the strangest of times. She referred to her doctors, family, and friends to recount the story.
This was smart, in case some people find the story a bit unbelievable.

Susannah was 24 when she got sick…but she didn’t know exactly what was wrong. At first, she felt as if she was coming down with a flu. Then, she experienced anxiety and mania (in which she felt powerful and in control in an almost dangerous manner). Not long after these symptoms, if you will, she began to experience seizures. That led her to a variety of doctors, the ER room, and eventually the neurology wing of NYU’s medical center.

The strangest part of this is that pretty much all of Susannah’s basic health tests…blood work, EEGs, CT scans, MRIs, neurology tests (reflexes and repetition) were coming back negative for any illnesses. Unfortunately, her health was declining at a rapid rate. She slurred her words, she could barely move and lost weight at a rapid speed, and she would go from an almost catatonic state to extremely paranoid in an instant.
In order to find what ailed her, the doctors had to think outside the box. And thank God they did.

I had an idea of what Susannah had based on some review-reading a while back, but I think it would be especially interesting to save it for the book. Reading the story unfold, the health unravel, was extremely interesting. The brain is such a force and Cahalan repeats a few times that it is similar to Christmas lights…they all work together, and can still operate if one goes out…but if the wrong one goes out, then the lights can’t function without it. I’m paraphrasing that…she said it a lot better.

If you’re into memoirs and you enjoy some medical fact and history, this is the book for you.

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