Susannah Cahalan was 24 years old and a reporter for the New York Post when she suddenly started developing strange behaviors. She went from manic highs to extreme depression, paranoia, and eventually, seizures. She consulted several doctors, including a psychologist, a neurologist, and even her gynecologist. Each gave her a different diagnosis or were unable to find any answers. One said that she was drinking and partying too much. None of them were able to stop the symptoms from getting worse.
Eventually the seizures were so severe she ended up in the emergency room. Not knowing what was causing any of her symptoms, they decided to admit her to the epilepsy ward where they could at least monitor her seizures. Cahalan eventually spent over a month in the hospital before a neurologist figured out she was suffering from an extremely rare, only recently discovered form of an immune disorder which caused swelling, or encephalitis, of the brain. How this was discovered and treated is described in the second half of her book.
Cahalan decided that she would write her own story, Brain on Fire, after she returned to the newspaper. Because she had little memory of what happened, she went over the medical reports and films of her time in the hospital and compared them with her diary. She also interviewed her family, friends, and many of the doctors involved in her treatment. What they said was so different from what she remembered it was shocking.
Cahalan was extremely fortunate because she was admitted to one of the premier hospitals in NYC, which led to her case being referred to the doctor who had recently discovered this new disorder. Had she been treated anywhere else in the country, or at a different period of time, she may have been misdiagnosed with schizophrenia or some other severe mental disorder. One wonders how many people admitted to psychiatric hospitals may have a rare or unknown physical rather than mental illness. The author discusses this in the book, and states over and over how lucky she was to find not only a cause, but a successful treatment. Cahalan’s book was fascinating, although frightening.