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Running Head: BRAIN ON FIRE MY MONTH OF MADNESS

Brain On Fire My Month Of Madness


By Susannah Cahalan
Ruby Bacon
Salt Lake Community College

BRAIN ON FIRE MY MONTH OF MADNESS

The brain is one the most amazing organs in our body. It sends us signs to let us know
when we are not feeling well if we have a virus attacking our nervous system, we may become
emotionally unstable because of a mental illness or because we touched a hot stove and burned
our hand. This happened to Susannah Cahalan, her brain sent her signs that she was becoming
very sick and she had no idea what was in store for her. This is her story, which is called Brain
on Fire, My Month of Madness.
I chose Brain on Fire, My Month of Madness because when I was researching the
different books I thought this was a fascinating story about a woman who became sick but did
not know that her life was going to change within a blink of an eye. I was drawn to this book
because her family never gave up to find out what was wrong with her and when they finally
diagnosed her, she was able to get better. She was able to share her story through the help of her
family and because of that she can help other people who may have the same symptoms that she
had and they will be able to get the help they need to get better instead of being misdiagnosed.
The book starts out with Susannah thinking that she has bed bugs because she has two red
marks on her arm. It then manifests into suspicion of her boyfriend cheating on her, so she starts
going through his things. She brings this up to her co-workers at the Post, she is a journalist there
but they dont find the behaviors alarming. She goes to her doctor because her arm is going
numb, who then sends her to a neurologist and they do an EEG in the office on her which comes
back normal so they send her on her way.
She progressively gets worse and ends up having multiple seizures. She ends up having a
really bad seizure, which she does not remember. She sits up, arms straight out like a mummy
with a blank stare that scares her boyfriend Stephen. She also has other symptoms of light
sensitivity, racing thoughts, feelings of people talking about her and she even thinks her father

BRAIN ON FIRE MY MONTH OF MADNESS

murders her step-mom. They finally admit her to the hospital where she stayed for a month.
While at the hospital, she has a team of doctors that are not sure what is going on with her
and they think that it is a mental disorder because all of the tests that they run on her come back
normal except for the spinal tap which shows an infection in the brain. Susannah tries to escape
the hospital so many times, that she has people watching her to make sure she doesnt escape and
because of this, the doctors have it in the back of their minds to just admit her to the psychiatric
ward. She received an answer to her parents prayers, a doctor by the name of Souhel Najjar who
thought outside of the box when it came to medicine.
Dr. Najjar did a simple clock test on Susannah, he asked her to draw a clock and a healthy
person would draw a normal clock, she drew all the numbers on the right side of a clock. This led
to insight on what was going on, she had a brain biopsy to confirm his diagnosis of anti-NMDAreceptor autoimmune encephalitis. This is a very hard autoimmune disease to diagnose and it
took them over twenty days to diagnose her. How many other people go misdiagnosed and end
up in the psychiatric ward or nursing home because their doctors do not know what is wrong
with them?
They treated her with medication and she could be discharged from the hospital. She had
no memory of what happened to her during this time, she had to have the help of her loved ones
to remind her of what had happened to her at the hospital. Her saving grace was that her family
never gave up on her, they knew she was in there still and that she would get better even though
she would become so combative at times. They never lost hope that she would get better and
because of that she did get better and they found out what was wrong with her even though it
was a month of hell. Now she is able to share her story with others and help families who may be
going through the same thing that she did.

BRAIN ON FIRE MY MONTH OF MADNESS

When reading this book I was able to understand what she was talking about when
referring to the brain. When she would talk about the hippocampus, amygdala and the misfiring
of neurons that happened in her brain, it really put into perspective how powerful the brain is.
When we are sick because a virus is attacking our brain, we have a tumor that has invaded the
space within our brain or because of an illegal substance we ingest that changes the way our
receptors transmit pain it is fascinating how our brain will use the different hemispheres of the
brain to let the other parts of the body know that there is something wrong and we need help.
I was able to see how modern medicine, even if it is through trial and error of tests can
help figure out what is wrong with someone when they show signs of confusion, depression,
hallucinations, etc. My father in law passed away a few years ago due to a tumor on the frontal
lobe of his brain. He had been complaining of headaches, tiredness and right before he went into
the hospital he was showing signs of confusion. They took him to the emergency room where
they did a CT scan and that is when they found the tumor.
His wife decided to have the neurologist remove the tumor, but when they did they found
that it had spread further in his brain than anticipated. He ended up having swelling on his brain
that would not go down and they kept him incubated until he passed away. The reason I tell this
story is because while reading this book and comparing it to my personal life events, my classes
are more meaningful to me.
When I researched this book, there were interviews with Susannah on talk shows. There
was one in particular where she met a girl who had the same symptoms and because of her book
and experiences she was able to help save that girls life. Susannah was able to use doctors
notes, videos, her familys notes and memories of her month that was forgotten because she was
ill. Because she is a journalist, she used her talent to help others that may suffer from this

BRAIN ON FIRE MY MONTH OF MADNESS

horrible, frequently misdiagnosed disease.


Psychology is a progressively changing field of medicine, which is so fascinating. Even
though there were the pioneering theorists, we are able to use their knowledge to find new
theories. What worked one hundred years ago does not work now because of the changes within
our society. We are now able to find better solutions to help treat people with mental illnesses,
substance abuse disorders and learning disabilities through modern medicine and because of
doctors and psychologists that are able to think outside of the box.
I am grateful for this progression in psychology because for me going into social work I
feel that so many people suffer from an underlying mental illness and that is why they use
substances to quiet their brain. Or they progressively get worse from using methamphetamines
and go into a paranoid psychosis. With the new diagnosis of drug addiction being a disease of the
brain, I think we will see some great changes in how drug addiction is treated. Which will be a
great marvel of psychology at work with the help of modern medicine and I will be there to help
change the world one person at a time.

BRAIN ON FIRE MY MONTH OF MADNESS

Reference
Cahalan, S. (2012). Brain on Fire My Month of Madness. New York, NY: Free Press.
ISBN: 978-1451621372

BRAIN ON FIRE MY MONTH OF MADNESS

BRAIN ON FIRE MY MONTH OF MADNESS