“Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness” Gives Hope to Those Struggling With Illness

February 23, 2018

Addison Dlott, 23, is a storyteller, content creator, and writer specializing in non-fiction media. Her work spans a spectrum of media and non-profit organizations including CNN, PBS, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the National Organizations for Youth Safety. She is passionate about exploring the intersection of storytelling and social change. Her work has been recognized by the Director’s Guild of America, and in 2019 she was named as a Fulbright Grant Recipient. She is an Ithaca College graduate with a B.A. in Documentary Studies and Production.

“My arms suddenly whipped straight out in front of me like a mummy, as my eyes rolled back and my body stiffened. I was gasping for air. This was the start of the dark period of my illness as I began an existence in purgatory between the real world and a cloudy fictitious realm made up of hallucinations and paranoia.”

Sounds like something out of a nightmare, right? This is how author Susannah Cahalan describes the beginning of month-long ordeal in which she spirals into madness.

This captivating, can’t-put-it-down memoir, “Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness,” depicts Cahalan’s rapid deterioration due to the rare autoimmune disease, Anti-NMDA encephalitis.

Cahalan is a young woman on the rise. She has a new serious relationship and a promising career as a journalist with the New York Post. But she hits a speed bump when delusions, uncontrollable crying, and a series of dramatic seizures suddenly control her. Her short-term memory was nearly nonexistent and the paranoia became unbearable.

Riddled with physical and mental maladies, doctors had no clear answer as to what was happening to Cahalan. Lupus? Schizophrenia? MS? Cahalan was pinned as “an interesting case” ­– a description no patient ever wants to hear.

After a painstaking investigation, Cahalan was diagnosed with Anti-NMDA encephalitis, a disease only discovered three years prior to her diagnosis. In short, this rare autoimmune disorder inflames certain parts of the brain, specifically those involving memory, learning, and behavior. Cahalan was only “the 217th person worldwide to be diagnosed since that time.”

Cahalan is only able to write about her month-long hospitalization by watching videos of herself and interviewing doctors, friends, and family. She has no recollection of a time where she could not move or speak.

In the months after her release, Cahalan regained her self-esteem, independence, and normal functioning. She had the unwavering support of her loved ones and supportive medical team.

What makes this memoir so enthralling is her journey of recovery. “Brain on Fire” is a story of courage during isolation and darkness. Her story provides hope. It is an amazing feat that Cahalan could put her story on paper. In one part, Cahalan is attempting to write a piece about her illness for the New York Post. She watches videos of herself in the hospital and is sickened.

“I was outrageously skinny. Crazed. Angry…I had the intense urge to grab the videos and burn them or at least hide them away, safe from view.”

But she didn’t. Cahalan had the courage to share her story with the world, and it is a gift for all those suffering from any type of illness, invisible or not.

Cahalan also writes about finding a piece of jewelry that was lost during the midst of her illness.

“Sometimes, just when we need them, life wraps metaphors up in little bows for us. When you think all is lost, the things you need the most return unexpectedly.”

While the medical miracle of this memoir is fascinating, the impact of the underlying story of bravery in the face of darkness is one to never forget.

Interested in reading “Brain on Fire”? You can buy it here.