Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan is probably the most interesting story I will ever read.  5-stars in my book, easily.

If you’ve never heard of this book, Brain on Fire is a memoir written by a former New York Post journalist who experienced what was believed at the time to be a psychotic breakdown in 2009.  Told from the recovered Cahalan’s point of view, Brain on Fire describes the first stages of her “meltdown,” which lead to seizures and a month-long hospital stay, as doctors try to figure out what caused Susannah Cahalan to “have a breakdown.”

It’s always funny to see how drastically my opinions about a book can change as I get further into the story.  As I was first getting into the story, I grossly underestimated Cahalan’s experience, and I had a pretty low opinion of the book overall.  The beginning of the book had me thinking Cahalan was just another millennial acting out and blaming it on a mental illness in order to shirk responsibility for her behavior.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Throughout the book, we realize that Cahalan was experiencing a life-threatening condition that, during this time, often went misdiagnosed.

One of the more interesting aspects of Brain on Fire is the fact that Cahalan did not actually write much of the memoir based on her own memory; she can barely even remember her initial breakdown, her hospital stay, or the subsequent at-home treatments at all.  It really is amazing what the mind is capable of.

Aside from the fact that Cahalan’s story is nothing short of remarkable, the writing is something to be admired on its own; this may seem obvious, as Cahalan is a journalist, but I’m not just referring to proper English this time.  In Brain on Fire, Cahalan explains not only the science behind her condition, but also how the different parts of the brain and body interact with, and can potentially create problems for, one another.   To say this is a well-researched book would be an understatement.

The story alone is enough to warrant a 5-star review; I can tell already this is the kind of book that I won’t just forget about any time soon.

Even more amazing, though, is the impact Cahalan has had in the medical community by using her reach as a journalist to spread awareness about the illness from which she, and many other patients, suffered.  As embarrassing as this is to admit, I teared up a bit thinking about the help (and, without a doubt, emotional relief) Cahalan has already brought to so many families and individuals, by making more doctors aware of her illness, which was previously so rarely identifiable.

If you’re looking for a good true story about someone who stared down death, definitely check out Brain on Fire.

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