Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan is a fascinating memoir about her life in New York as a reporter when she suddenly develops psychiatric symptoms. Her story is reconstructed from the medical record, family, co-workers and doctors as most of her memory was compromised during her month hospitalization. It is a medical detective story that opens up the door to how little we know about brain viruses, immune system and its part in psychiatric diagnoses. At the beginning we watch her “lose her mind”, that is what it looks like. The good news is Susannah was living in NYC within the proximity of cutting edge medical research and resources, otherwise she would be an institutionalized psychiatric patient now instead of a writer of this book.
A terrifying account of being sick and not sure what it is, Susannah describes the commitment of friends and family who advocate for her when she is unable to speak or move. She spends a hellish month in a NY hospital as she expresses paranoid delusions, jerks her body into contortions that would remind you of the Excorist, catatonia and seizures. “Her brain is on fire,” one doctor tells her family. “Her brain is under attack by her own body.” Enter a new diagnosis never heard before, but might be more common than you think: anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. This is an autoimmune disease that in essence is the body’s immune system attacking the brain. Once treated with this new treatment protocol she is rescued from the fire in her brain. What is sad is the number of people in our population who might suffer from anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis and can’t get a diagnosis or treatment. Tracy’s 2 cents.