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Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness | [Susannah Cahalan]

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness

In 2009, Susannah Cahalan woke up in a strange hospital room strapped to a bed, under guard, and unable to move or speak. Her medical records - from a month-long hospital stay of which she had no memory - reported psychosis, violence, and dangerous instability. Yet, only weeks earlier she had been a healthy, ambitious twenty-four-year-old, six months into her first serious relationship and a sparkling career as a cub reporter
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Publisher's Summary

In 2009, Susannah Cahalan woke up in a strange hospital room strapped to a bed, under guard, and unable to move or speak. Her medical records - from a month-long hospital stay of which she had no memory - reported psychosis, violence, and dangerous instability. Yet, only weeks earlier she had been a healthy, ambitious twenty-four-year-old, six months into her first serious relationship and a sparkling career as a cub reporter.

Susannah’s astonishing memoir chronicles the swift path of her illness and the lucky, last-minute intervention led by one of the few doctors capable of saving her life. Weeks ticked by and Susannah moved inexplicably from violence to catatonia. Over one million dollars worth of blood tests and brain scans revealed nothing. The exhausted doctors were ready to commit her to the psychiatric ward, until the celebrated neurologist, Dr. Souhel Najjar, joined her team. With the use of a simple - yet ingenious - test, he was able to make a lifesaving diagnosis - revealing a newly discovered autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks the brain.

With sharp reporting drawn from hospital records, scientific research, and interviews with doctors and family, Brain on Fire is a crackling mystery and an unflinching, gripping personal story that marks the debut of an extraordinary writer.

©2012 Original material © 2012 Susannah Cahalan. Recorded by arrangement with Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. (P)2012 (p) 2012 HighBridge Company

What the Critics Say

"Engrossing.... Unquestionably, an important book on both a human and a medical level. Cahalan’s elegantly-written memoir of her dramatic descent into madness opens up discussion of the cutting-edge neuroscience behind a disease that may affect thousands of people around the world, and it offers powerful insight into the subjective workings of our minds." (Mehmet Oz, MD, Professor and Vice Chair, Department of Surgery, New York Presbyterian-Columbia Medical Center)

"Brain on Fire reads like a scientific thriller, but with a profound and moving philosophy at its heart." (David B. Agus, M.D., Professor of Medicine and Engineering, University of Southern California, and author of The End of Illness)

What Members Say

Average Customer Rating

4.0 (952 )
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  •  
    Brian Quaranta ASHEVILLE, NC, United States 01-07-14
    Brian Quaranta ASHEVILLE, NC, United States 01-07-14 Member Since 2005
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    "For those interested in neurology & psychology"

    This is a well-written and interesting memoir by a young woman who suffered through a period of time in which she experienced a form of "madness." Since she doesn't give away the particular disease in the title, I won't give a spoiler here; I have some background in the relevant fields and did not expect the answer. Her look back at this time in her life is thoughtful, and I found her ability to explain her medical condition and its details to be friendly to a general reader but not condescending. In general, the prose reads easily and well. I suspect that this book will be (has been) a very useful vehicle for spreading information about her illness, and will do considerable good. Glad to learn that she has recovered well and wish her the best. The narrator did a fine job of capturing the author's various moods and did some interpretation of the family members' voices as well.

    13 of 13 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Eric Schurr Boston, MA 01-18-14
    Eric Schurr Boston, MA 01-18-14 Member Since 2012
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    "Very scary, real story, superbly written and rea"

    I love books that are about real-life situations that are hard to believe, frightening, or otherwise amazing. This is one of those books. They story itself is enough to make you want to listen, but you can tell the author is a journalist because the writing is exceptional -- very tight, very descriptive. And the woman who read the book is perhaps the best I've ever heard (even with her attempt to imitate the accent of a middle eastern man!).

    6 of 6 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Linda SIMI VALLEY, CA, United States 11-15-13
    Linda SIMI VALLEY, CA, United States 11-15-13 Member Since 2004
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    "Fascinating"
    What made the experience of listening to Brain on Fire the most enjoyable?

    This is a gripping true life story of a young woman who descended into madness and came out of it to tell the story. It is rare to find a first hand account of this sort. Well worth reading.


    What about Heather Henderson’s performance did you like?

    Excellent narration, felt like she was living it and telling you what happened


    6 of 6 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Douglas Auburn, WA, United States 11-20-12
    Douglas Auburn, WA, United States 11-20-12

    College English professor who loves classic literature, psychology, neurology and hates pop trash like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.

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    "Compelling and Interesting..."

    A riveting account of a young woman's struggle with what only appeared to be a complete mental breakdown and her struggles to find a correct diagnosis in the hurry-up, conveyor-belt world of American medicine. It is a story both of personal endurance and an indictment of the current medical system, deeply engaging and enlightening at once.

    20 of 23 people found this review helpful
  •  
    John M. Sonntag Norfolk, VA 03-25-13
    John M. Sonntag Norfolk, VA 03-25-13 Listener Since 2009
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    "Pretty Interesting"
    Would you say that listening to this book was time well-spent? Why or why not?

    Yes it was time well-spent, interesting to hear about how the brain works and someone's life can be turned upside down.


    Have you listened to any of Heather Henderson’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

    not sure, but she was very good!


    4 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Mark Reno, NV, United States 07-08-13
    Mark Reno, NV, United States 07-08-13 Member Since 2006
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    "What happens when a body turns on its brain"
    Any additional comments?

    True story of a young journalist whose body starts attacking her brain and she goes crazy, with outbursts similar at times to those of Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.” Turns out to be a disease just identified in 2007. Told without sensation and matter-of-factly, like a newspaper article. She’s very lucky — as she points out — to come from a place of privilege that allowed her good care and the patience to pursue extremely high-end treatment, kind of like an episode of “House.” It definitely makes you realize that people’s actions are not their own.

    13 of 15 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Elbara Washington DC 04-20-13
    Elbara Washington DC 04-20-13 Member Since 2003
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    "Alarmingly Instructive"

    A fascinating story, well-narrated. This is the second book I've read in the space of a year where persistent, even heroic efforts by persons close to someone suddenly manifesting mental illness to find the right doctors and treatment have discovered an underlying physiological cause that, when treated, restored the patient to a normal life. The other book was "Saving Sammy: Curing the Boy Who Caught OCD." It is alarming to think of all those diagnosed with schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, etc., and consigned to numbing drug treatment and mental institutions who might also be victims of ailments that, if properly diagnosed and treated, would give them a productive life rather than dooming them to the shadows. It cries out for better research into possible physiological causes for the most serious and disabling mental illnesses.

    8 of 9 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Pearl Glacier California 03-09-13
    Pearl Glacier California 03-09-13 Member Since 2011

    Epic

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    "Enter into a psychotic episode..."

    I will not seek to give away things that would make listening to this less suspenseful, but rather focus on reasons for listening to this book. Susannah Cahalan tells the very personal and insightful story of her flight into psychosis. Her authorship allows the reader to contemplate what it might be like to become mad, and I believe increase ones compassion for those who also suffer from mental illness. Her investigation into the aftermath also details the emotions that her family felt- something that rounds out her story and at times brought tears to my eyes. The love extended around her I believe brought her through the journey with the ability to write this narrative. The stigma of being mentally ill is overcome by her writing a very detailed account of her journey, which I salute her for! The book also reflects upon the physiological basis of psychosis. Critically, I think that she still stigmatizes the mental hospital although rightly it was not the place that would have been most healing for her. I found her episode similar to what many manic patients I have known experience, as afterwards their episode is shrouded in partial memory which she overcomes by video that was taken and accounts of her loved ones. Her story should challenge doctors to continue investigating when a combination of symptoms don't make complete sense. Her story should allow one more empathy when we encounter those who are suffering with such a mind bending illness.

    7 of 8 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Cynthia Monrovia, California, United States 03-17-14
    Cynthia Monrovia, California, United States 03-17-14 Member Since 2012

    Audible listener who's grateful for a long commute!

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    "Brain Fever"

    I'd heard of Susannah Cahalan's "Brain on Fire" (2011), but I'd also heard Cahalan's a New York Post reporter. "A tabloid reporter?" I thought. "A writer from the rag famous for headlines like 'Headless Body found in Topless Bar' (April 15, 1983) and 'Weiner's Rise and Fall' (June 17, 2011)?" Clever headlines, sure - but aren't all tabloid writers as nutty as their ledes? "Maybe the job did her in," I thought, mentally dismissing the book.

    My newspaper snobbery almost made me miss a very well written, insightful book based on sound, peer reviewed and published scientific research. In her mid-20's, working a dream job in New York City with a new boyfriend, Cahalan developed Anti-NMDA- (N-methyl D-aspartate) receptor autoimmune encephalitis, At the time - and probably still - people who develop signs and symptoms of that disease are diagnosed with psychosis of unknown origin, or schizo-affective disorder. The only really unexplainable symptom is seizures - others, such as abnormally high blood pressure, can be misdiagnosed as an concurrent, but unrelated problem.

    Cahalan was lucky - she has a well educated family, and her bitterly divorced parents set aside their animosity to aggressively advocate and care for her. In fact, Cahalan's parents' new spouses were admirably supportive, despite Cahalan's paranoia - which had her saying particularly hurtful things to one and all. Even with parents and a boyfriend convinced Cahalan had more than "just a mental illness", pinpointing the cause was long and arduous - and almost didn't happen in time to prevent irreversible physical and mental problems. The treatment was an arduous course of steroids and intravenous immunoglobulins and plasmapheresis. Cahalan's care ended up costing her insurer over $1 mil, although if she had been properly diagnosed to begin with, the bill would have been 25% to 50% less.

    Cahalan did something that was incredibly brave: she carefully researched and wrote about a situation that not only almost killed her, but also had her acting in ways that she later found were incredibly embarrassing. The most courageous admissions were about the hallucinations she knows she had - but are such vivid memories, she still half believes they were true.

    Audible, I blame you for making me a newspaper snob in the first place. (That happens when the monthly subscription includes a 48 to 52 minute every weekday New York Times Audible Digest; your drive is about an hour; and the NY Times writing's usually pretty good.) Audible, I also thank you for knocking me off my literary high horse to find a writer worth the listen. I'm not going to start reading the New York Post, but I will look for other medical/scientific books by Cahalan. And, yeah, maybe I'll actually read a Post article along with an especially "punny" headline.

    [If this review helped, please press YES. Thanks!]

    21 of 26 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Jeanne Lauderdale, MN, United States 06-17-14
    Jeanne Lauderdale, MN, United States 06-17-14 Member Since 2011

    So many books, so little time

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    "Hard to stop listening"
    Any additional comments?

    The skilled reading of this book made it very hard to stop listening. What an experience this young woman lived through. If you like medical mysteries, this is a terrific (literally terrifying) tale.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
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