So, since I am now a certified college graduate, I’ve decided pursue some more ~mature~ hobbies in my spare time. Blogging, cooking, reading. Recently, I picked up a book that actually caught my eye a couple of months ago while wandering the shelves of the campus library, but with a pile of assignments to attend to, there was no time to indulge in leisurely reading. Well, having recently come into some time… err, lot’s of time, (there’s not much for a young twenty-something to do in the ‘burbs between hospital shifts) I decided to take advantage of this opportunity to get to that book I’d found so intriguing.
We’ve all had moments in which we seem to have momentarily misplaced our marbles. It’s a feeling I can identify with. This past year, I managed to bury mine somewhere deep in the denial of a floundering relationship and impending graduation. And more recently, after moving back home, I oftentimes find myself searching under sofa cushions for my sanity. But what if you were to actually lose your marbles?
For Susannah Cahalan it began with paranoid delusions, followed by vivid, oftentimes terrifying, hallucinations. It began with nervous tics, followed by violent and frequent seizures. It began with general fatigue, followed by the crippling impairment of fine motor skills. The symptoms onset innocently enough, but rapidly transformed to the sinister — transfiguring Cahalan into a person almost unrecognizable to family, friends and colleagues.
(So basically, if you’re a hypochondriac, this is not the book for you.)
Part autobiography, part investigative reporting, in her book “Brain on Fire”, Cahalan attempts to piece together the events that precede and transpire in her “month of madness”. Through journal entries, video footage and interviews, Cahalan weaves together an intimate portrait of a girl whose mind is unraveling at an alarming rate. Yet, at the same time, Cahalan remains removed from her subject – or rather, as removed as anyone who is writing an account of their own life can be. One has to praise Cahalan for her journalistic prowess… And at the same time, wonder if this kind of objective narrative does not also serve as a form of self-protection.
I could go on brambling about the merits of this book. Or its pitfalls. But the truth is that I am wholly unqualified to partake in that kind of literary criticism. Though once an avid reader, it is a point of shame that in my adult life I have seldom found myself reading for sport. When I first picked up this book many months ago, my curiosity was piqued by the dark notion of some kind of sinking descent into hysteria. On movie night, I’m always the first to suggest a scary movie or a creepy documentary exploring the depths of the human psyche. (I’m also the type to cover their eyes and ask what’s going on the whole way through — sorry friends and fam!)
The second time I picked up this book, I was feeling about half-way unhinged myself. I reached for this book like I was reaching for the direct line to the crisis care hotline. I brought it home with me from the library, hopeful for a happy ending from Cahalan. Especially being that she was so young, so female, so like… me.
The third time I picked up this book, I was at home. And I read the inside the flap. I now see why it is good practice to do so before check out (–you see why I might not be so qualified to write a literary review?). As it turned out, I had mistakenly assumed that Cahalan was suffering some form of psychological breach. In reality, Cahalan’s well-being was in arguably graver immediate danger. Suffering from a rare autoimmune disorder called anti-NMDA receptor-encephalitis, Cahalan’s body had literally begun to attack her own brain. Okay, different, I thought. But still incredibly interesting. I continued to read.
And I’m glad I did, because I really enjoyed this book. I found the variety of narrative mediums through which Cahalan recounts her story — be it video summary, document photocopy, or scientific diagram — to be interesting and engaging. As a medical scribe, I quite appreciated the depth to which Cahalan went in explaining scientific research and insights into the etiology and nature of the autoimmune disorder from which she suffered. But that’s about where my literary criticism of this autobiographical account stops. Because, as I mentioned earlier, I may not be the most qualified to speak to the literary merits of this autobiographical account. How literary critics are able to conjure the [insert verbose verbiage here] words necessary to conjure imagery encapsulating the essence of an entire work in but a few sentences is beyond me. When it comes to adjectives, my vocabulary is apparently lacking.
Cahalan manages to write a, dare I say, pleasurable (?) read recounting a, let’s just say, less than pleasurable experience. Ironically enough, it’s in the quiet following the storm of events that drag Susannah from the bright lights of NYC to the flourescent glow of the hospital that I find myself most engrossed by the grossness of this illness. In the chapters documenting life following diagnosis, Cahalan reflects on the ways that her brush with insanity has changed her. Will Susannah ever really be fully recovered from the crippling effects of the anti-NMDA autoimmune disorder? Fast forward to today, aaand play: In many respects Cahalan appears the picture of health & happines. Bright, vibrant and beautiful as ever — but now Cahalan is engaged. And her career? Sky-rocketed since the release of her best-selling novel.
With every nervous impulse or neurotic thought, she is plagued with the question, am I losing it again? When she sees a bug scuttling across the floor, she wonders, am I seeing things? Is that really there? This experience has changed her. Cahalan can now truly appreciate just how fragile the human psyche really is. And so, in this way, although Cahalan has slayed the monster, its ghost remains to haunt her.