Woman on the Verge of a Diagnosis: Susannah Cahalan’s Terrifying “Month of Madness"
If you’re at all familiar with the content of this blog, you’ll know I’m stating the obvious when I say that I love a good memoir. I’ve gleaned inspiration from the best and brightest businesswomen and partaken in ridiculous mental exercises to grow my grey matter, but today, though the genre is yet again memoirs, the topic at hand today is uncharted territory: disease [though it is also about neuroscience, a topic with which I have already professed my fascination]. My friend Caroline recommended this book to me while I was at school for graduation a year ago, and I was pleased to find it available in the campus bookstore—and even more pleased to find that I couldn’t put it down.
Susan Cahalan was a promising 24 year-old writer at the New York Post in perfect health who woke up one morning and noticed two large bites on her arm. She was convinced they were bedbugs, but, upon professional inspection, found no trace of them in her house. Throughout the next few weeks, she begins to feel hazy and forgetful; assignments slip her mind, she begins to feel paranoid about her position embarrasses and disappoints her boss, and botches meetings she would normally dominate. It becomes clear that the bug bites were a mere microcosm of what ailed her—as she rapidly loses control of all of her faculties, it is clear she is suffering from an unidentified disease—likely of the neuropsychiatric or neurodegenerative persuasion, the doctors instantly assume. She shows little sign of recovery for the month, and details the experience using hospital videos she watched once she [spoiler alert, but, duh, because she lived to write this memoir] recovered, interviews she conducted with family and medical professionals that helped her throughout the month. Though you know from the beginning that Cahalan will recover, the book is no less captivating for it—I found I had to frequently remind myself that I wasn’t reading fiction. Luckily, an innovative doctor comes in and posits that she’s actually suffering from an autoimmune disorder—anti-NDMA receptor encephalitis [encephalitis is “acute inflammation of the brain.” The variety that Cahalan was diagnosed with was not discovered until 2007, when Dr. Josep Dalmau observed that women with encephalitis that had ovarian tumors were experiencing an identical reaction to a shared antibody—if, like me, you’re obsessed with neuroscience but lack the scientific acumen to have studied it in school, this article puts anti-NDMA receptor encephalitis in relative layman’s terms]. Though I may not have sold you with that half-baked medical jargon-infused aside, I can assure that Cahalan tells her story with the skill of a seasoned journalist—you won’t be able to put it down. Also, the first time you get even the mildest of headaches after reading this book, you will convince yourself that death is at your door. Unfortunately, most who lose control of the mental and physical faculties don’t live to coherently tell the tale, so this disturbing memoir is one of the few insights we have into what it feels like to lose everything.
NOTE: this is allegedly about to become a movie...just no. If you're going to see it, at least read the book first.