Book Review: Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

What would I do if a mysterious illness turns my life upside down? How will I react to it? These were the questions which I constantly asked myself while reading Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan.

We are, in the end, a sum of our parts, and when the body fails, all the virtues we hold dear go with it.

A young New York Post journalist, Susannah Cahalan documents her life-threatening battle with this rare disease which went on to change her life completely. The author was just 24 years old when she started experiencing symptoms of flu, mood-swings and paranoia. Initially, the doctors blamed it on her lifestyle- basically, she was drinking too much and overworking herself. Through her medical reports, the doctors weren’t able to narrow down the illness. After her symptoms become increasingly worse, Susannah was admitted in a hospital. However, it didn’t help as her hallucinations and paranoia came to a tipping point.

During this period, the author confesses to hurting her loved ones by making shocking allegations against them. As the clock continues ticking, Susannah was running out of time. Finally, it was her meeting with Dr Souhel Najjar which saved her life with a very simple test. Through this test (and a few more later), Dr Souhel realised that one side of Susannah’s brain was infected by a bacteria.

This is a remarkable memoir which is filled with harrowing details of her illness. I was drawn towards Susannah’s writing, her honesty and bravery to recount her whole period with this illness. In the end, Susannah notes that she was one of the lucky few to be diagnosed in time. Since the patients of this illness are usually branded as mentally unstable because there is no clear diagnosis which can be made. Another plus side of the book is the manner in which Susannah simplified her ordeal. While reading this, there wasn’t a single moment where I zoned out.

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