Book Review: Brain on Fire

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By Jessica Bovee

Imagine losing your mind. Your brain fails you and you can’t properly function in the society you have been raised in. You lose your identity. Susannah Cahalan experienced just this, and lost her sanity for a month. She began falling behind at work, experiencing seizures, inappropriate behavior, and far more that all culminated into a blackout of hospitals and scrutiny.

Mental Illness is an obvious concern in this book, but her book, Brain on Fire, deepens our insight on issues such as the national focus on medication for illnesses, while bringing us in on the personal stress surrounding figuring out a diagnosis. Cahalan, although diagnosed bi-polar as well as schizophrenic during her journey, was actually finally cured of anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. This autoimmune disease left her life and mind in ruins, but her bestselling story leaves us amazed, yet still perturbed with the medical system in America.

Most of us have been to the doctor, maybe not for losing the ability to control our thoughts and actions, but possibly for the flu, or even a sprained ankle. Nevertheless, we receive a fairly clear diagnosis where a doctor tells us we have a bacterial infection and we need antibiotics, or that we need an x-ray followed with a splint. Cahalan was diagnosed multiple times by multiple practitioners, most of which were unable to give her a clear-cut diagnosis.

One scene in the book talks about her meeting another patient in her hospital room who contracts colon cancer. However, the cancer patient is thankful for receiving a name for what is happening to her body and quickly says a prayer out of joy, at which Cahalan relates to her gratitude in hopes of finding her own label.

This is made more essential when we learn that Cahalan suddenly loses her ability to continue successfully as a journalist and effective participant in society. Both her, and her family, hoped endlessly for something neurological and treatable.

Early on in her struggles, one of her visits with a doctor ends in a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder along with a prescription. This proves to be an unnerving point in this investigative memoir because of the quick jump to conclusions made by various physicians that quickly ended with sending her off with pills.

We all know that medication is far easier than therapy. Dr. Mercola, in 2011, writes about how prescription drugs are now killing more people than illegal drugs. He continues to criticize the “War on Drugs” as being inaccurate because it’s not focusing on the right enemy. Brain on Fire captures much of what is wrong with the medical system in how we heavily medicate instead of procuring safe treatments that may have to deal with diet or, in Cahalan’s case, neurological issues.

She was the 217th person to be diagnosed with the disease, but thousands more are finding themselves in the same predicament. What was once a rare disease, is now a famous diagnosis that has a cure individuals like Cahalan can appreciate.

Fox News had a special episode on Health Talk with Susannah Cahalan about her book and overall experience. She talked about how emotional the condition truly was for her and her family She also urged viewers to advocate for themselves and to develop that needed support structure. Cahalan questioned medical authority, and when she couldn’t, her family and boyfriend were able to be there for her in her time of need.

Having to piece together the month she lost, Cahalan published this novel to not only share her terrifying glimpse into madness, but also show various individuals with similar situations that could relate to the problems she ran into. At the end of the novel, she notes several people who contacted her out of gratitude for writing the book and helping them help a friend or family member who contracted the ailment.

It’s important to reach out to those in our lives that may seem like they are struggling emotionally or socially whether it be in school or at work. Sometimes people can’t reach out for help, or choose not to out of embarrassment or confusion. Cahalan’s experience, while riveting, is also informational in the problems she faced so we can try to avoid these predicaments. Being aware of those around you can make all the difference.

Staying in tune with your body while monitoring yourself and observing others can help cases like Cahalan’s along with countless others that go untreated or without support. Brain on Fire is about a medical mystery, but more importantly, it’s a glimpse into the medical situation in America as well as a tale of love and survival.

I recommend this book for an intriguing piece about one woman’s story that everyone can relate to at some level. You won’t be able to put it down.

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