Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness.

I just recently finished Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan. It was an intense read. First, because I read it in two days so I took it all in at once, and second because there were pieces here and there that poked certain parts of me.

Brain on Fire is part memoir and part investigation into a psychotic break caused by an extremely rare autoimmune disease. Cahalan is able to re-create periods of her life she has no recollection of, through the accounts of her father, mother, partner, brother and friends. Since she’s a reporter by trade, she’s able to access and include her medical reports, doctor notations and even video from a hospital ward she was in prior to her diagnosis.

There are more than a few things that poked the bear…

First, the initial few days where she knows something is wrong and nobody is hearing her, are really difficult to read. Luckily, Cahalan seems to have some good friends and works in a supportive environment, because I can only imagine what a shit-show that could have been (and is for many people suffering from non-obvious conditions). The feeling of, “I'm not right, something is wrong, I feel off,” is unsettling, but when it’s psychologically it’s exponentially more terrifying.

As Cahalan goes deeper into her story, untangling what she can, I can’t help but pull from my own experience when empathizing with her. There are significant periods of my life I do not remember. There are events and situations friends remember that I do not. There is a decade of my life that is imbued by a haze that only occasionally clears.

There are times when I feel so drained and disconnected, that it isn't hard to imagine being one notch further along, and that notch being what gets me hospitalized. I often seek mental health services when I'm on an upswing. When I'm down and out, I self-protect to such a degree that I isolate and hibernate until I have the energy to return to the world. But on those days, the days where I'm the lowest, most basic version of myself, I don’t doubt that my tone and expression would be alarming. Hospitalization stands as a possible reprieve, and a possible trauma.
Cahalan is forced to give up her apartment, and return to live with her mother. She is cared for by her parents for months. This also had me reflecting on my own situation living with my mother. Though I'm working and trying to save-up for a down payment, that rationale only goes so far. I've been such a mess for so long, I've been relegated to this decade-long childlike living situation that mirrors the feelings of infantilization and embarrassment that Cahalan describes.

Overall the book was a great read, in large part due to her prose, but maybe even more so because of how rare it is to hear the story of madness told by the one who lived it. Or lives it, presently. We are all so internalized. It’s all so frantic and immaterial. The consciousness of it slips through our fingers like mist. It takes beautiful and terrifying shapes that we want to capture and show to the world, but no matter how much we want that to happen, it’s nearly impossible. This vaporous state of being. These intangible tangents.

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, a recommended read.

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