(photo credit: My Exploding Brain by Prairie Kittin on flickr.com. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode.)
I read an entire book today. 250 pages. I will never be the same.
It’s not the reading of a whole book in one day that is unusual. Sundays are meant for such behavior, and this is far from the first time I’ve used my Sunday in this way. It was the content of the book that surprised me and imprinted itself upon me. This is not a story I will forget. Of this, I am certain.
The book, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, is a memoir by Susannah Cahalan, a journalist for the New York Post. It was given to me weeks ago by my 17 year old daughter, who had to read it for her senior year psychology class. She thought I would find it interesting.
I thought I knew what it was about before I opened it. It was one of those books about a bright young woman’s fall into mental illness. I could tell from the title, the cover photo, and from the fact my daughter was reading it for a psych course.
I’ve read and been moved by several other books in the genre: Kay Redfield Jamison’s Unquiet Mind, Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation. I probably read each of those books in a single day, as well. There is something about getting inside somebody else’s mind as it goes down the rabbit hole that both horrifies and inspires me. So, this morning, after a social weekend, I pulled out this new (to me) book, curled up on the sofa, and read.
It begins with a bright young woman, who uncharacteristically becomes paranoid that her apartment has a bedbug infestation. After an exterminator tells her her place is bedbug free, she continues to obsess about it. Over the next few days, other signs of possible mental illness rise to the surface: depressive episodes, manic episodes, and what finally leads her to the hospital, an all-out seizure which scares the bejesus out of her relatively new boyfriend.
After several seizures in a row, she is hospitalized in an epilepsy unit of NYU hospital where she has psychotic episodes and slips into periodic catatonic stupors. There is suspicion of specific mental illnesses; one well-respected neurologist insists it is alcohol-induced; yet the doctors continue to find her condition near-impossible to diagnose. We follow her as she deteriorates and as the doctors rule out possibilities, one by one.
Watching her family and close friends take in the changes in her personality as well as her control of her body is devastating. And the inability of doctors to pinpoint what’s wrong and treat it adds tremendous anxiety to their lives as well as to that of the reader.
Her doctors are ready to commit her to the psych ward when a respected diagnostician, nicknamed Dr. House, has her draw a simple sketch of a clock, which becomes the key that helps to define her uncommon, debilitating condition and ultimately presents the treatment that will bring her back from madness.
It was not the story I expected. Unlike the other books in this genre, Susannah’s memoir tells of a young woman whose symptoms mimic those of serious mental illness but end up being something else altogether. It is the story of her fall and her recovery, but it is also the story of the other people impacted by her situation, especially the doctor who refused to give up on her or take the “easy” road and commit her to a mental institution when it wasn’t clear that was where she belonged.
Perhaps because she is a journalist (I think the memoirist Elizabeth Wurtzel might be a journalist too), she uses her story to tell a bigger story about breakdowns in our culture and in our medical establishment.
This is the big problem with reading a book in one day: when the day is done, it is hard to turn your brain off and stop wondering about the implications of what you have read.
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