I grew up with a bit of madness around me. My older brother was bipolar, my older sister was also a bit nuts, but she was never officially diagnosed with anything. Over the years I’ve had plenty of moments when I felt a bit crazy myself. I’ve read a lot of books on the brain and it’s usually a scary bit of business. As one doctor put it, we are all one head injury away from being someone else.
Susannah Cahalan is a reporter who discovers that she is slowly loosing her mind. At first she is able to notice a few odd things, but as time goes on she becomes someone else. Much like the story told in Ghost in my Brain, Susannah finds that most doctors are, when it comes to brain problems, fucking useless at best and downright evil at worst. But also like Ghost in my Brain, she has the incredible good fortune to meet a doctor that has the ability and the willingness to help her.
Brain on Fire is a gut wrenching book. A successful, happy person is transformed into a fearful, paranoid who can’t eat or sleep. Worst of all, all the tests the doctors preform tell them nothing is wrong with her. Clearly something is wrong with her. But with no easy answer at hand, the doctors send her home and one claims that her problem is due to her excessive drinking. She has not been drinking excessively.
Changes in the brain are not as easy to spot as a broken bone and not as easy to put back into place. The brain is a phenomenally complex bit of business. It has the ability to lie to us and we have no choice but to believe it. Susannah notices all the changes, but she believes the changes that are taking place are signs that the outside world has changed, not that her perception of the world has changed.
If you suddenly woke up and found everything altered, common sense would suggest that this can’t be the case, but you would have no access to common sense any more. So you would do what you had to do, accept the world for what it has become and deal with it as best as you can. In Susannah’s case, this led to yelling and trying to jump out of a moving car and several attempts to escape from her hosiptal.
Turns out she has an auto immune desiease, but not one that was tested for very often. She was lucky in having a good job with great insurance and parents who had deep pockets. She says that it cost around a million dollars to treat her and bring her back to normal. And she still feels as if she is not who she was. Yeah, brain damage will do that.
This was a story that had me in tears more than once. There’s nothing you can do when your body betrays you. Susannah was lucky in having people that were there for her when she needed them.
One of the odd aspects here deals with memory. Susannah clearly remembers a few of the events that didn’t happen to her. What does it mean that hallucinations are stored as faithfully as actual events? Quite simply, it means that all memories could be illusions. It’s always been a popular myth that the brain stores everything, we just can’t access the info. That has been proven false, all memories are reconstructions, not recollections. There are many brain and memory related topics covered in Brain on Fire, it is well worth reading.