Rated Reads

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness

by Susannah Cahalan

Rated: High

Susannah Cahalan was living a satisfying life as a reporter for the New York Post, enjoying a fairly new relationship and life as a young twenty-something when her health went crazy. Symptoms started with some erratic behavior and worries about a possible bedbug bite and infestation, and they continued to paranoia, hallucinations and seizures. Usually one to shun doctors, she consulted several doctors, and their insights helped little. The family neurologist concluded that she was just living the high life in New York, drinking too much and sleeping too little, and said her symptoms were results of alcohol intake and withdrawal.

Luckily, Cahalan’s parents pushed for a different diagnosis, and she ended up in the epilepsy wing of a hospital. Even then, it took weeks and a slew of different doctors to go through diagnosis after failed diagnosis and finally figure out the real cause of her problems. During the month of her worst problems, Cahalan essentially lost herself and even now has very little memory of what happened. This book is the result of painstaking research and interviewing so she could piece together the events of those terrifying weeks.

Reading about Cahalan’s crazy symptoms alone is disturbing. Then learning later on in the book how close she came to never being diagnosed correctly — and treated appropriately and essentially returned to herself after months of treatment — is particularly harrowing. She relates her story so well that we can’t help but empathize with her. But then realizing just how easily doctors and the system can write off people’s medical complaints without getting to the real causes — and knowing how much yet doctors have to learn about the workings of our bodies — makes the story that much more scary.

But we’re lucky that Cahalan was cured, so she was able to bring us such a fine and absorbing true tale of a life-or-death medical mystery.

Rated: High, for about a dozen uses of strong language, and a few uses of milder language. There is little detail in the way of sexual references.

— Reviewed by Cathy Carmode Lim

Cathy Carmode Lim has been reviewing books for newspapers for more than 20 years, two of which she was a book page editor. She founded Rated Reads in January 2008.

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  • Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
  • by Susannah Cahalan
  • Rated: High
  • Genre: Nonfiction
  • Reviewer: