Susannah Cahalan wakes up to absolute darkness and silence. Her mind is sluggish as she tries to form a sentence. She wonders where she is. It takes a while but gradually the world snaps back into focus. As darkness falls away, Susannah absorbs her surrounding: a television set, curtains and a bed. Cahalan instantly decides that she needs to leave. Something is holding her down to the bed. It is a straitjacket.
The above passage sounds like a gripping tale of fiction, a great mystery story if you will go along. Except it is real. It’s the beginning of the searing personal story of journalist Susannah Cahalan as she battles an illness that affects her brain in a maddening sort of way and puts her in a psychiatric ward — a world where despite scientific advancement, the state and care of mental illness is, not surprisingly, appalling.
But then Cahalan uses the skills of her profession to piece together a manuscript that is coherent, sharp and captivating. Her story begins in New York, in around 2009. It was a time when the Big Apple had bedbug scares. And one day that fear finds its way into Cahalan’s life as she has eerie nightmares about them for consecutive days. Upon calling an exterminator, Cahalan finds no signs of infestation. She isn’t convinced and can feel bedbugs crawling on her skin. And so, it begins.
Author Susannah Cahalan.
While describing the assorted characters that make up colleagues at The Post, home to tabloid journalism and yet as active as any newsroom can be, Cahalan writes: “It’s like a bar without alcohol, filled with adrenaline-soaked news junkies.”
What makes it endearing is that she’s quick to admit her own weaknesses.
In a meeting with a senior editor in which Cahalan is expected to pitch ideas for stories, her mind is like an empty box. She writes: “Usually I had three coherent ideas to pitch; they weren’t always great, but I always had something. Now I had nothing, not even enough to bluff my way through the next five minutes.”
Actual events drive Cahalan to a strange reality where the lines between senseless and reasonable begin to blur at a whirlwind pace when she begins to lose hours. A period of illness follows Cahalan and she admits that she has pieced some parts of this story from outside sources.
Eventually though, a doctor named Souhel Najjar diagnoses Cahalan with a rare autoimmune disorder that really puts her brain on fire.
It isn’t just that this book is stunning for its brutal honesty or meticulous writing, but it is also Cahalan’s observations that make the story so human, and broken. You could, of course, frown at the sheer mention of The Post, or you could get past preconceived notions that we seem to share on media outlets and those associated with it. At the heart of it is a brilliant writer and that really matters.
Brain on Fire is not necessarily a story about illness. It is a triumphant story of courage, identity, the mystery of the human brain and above all, the idea that the mind can perhaps recover all that which has been lost given time and clues. The book is an unforgettable piece of writing that will stay with you for a long time to come.
Maheen Sabeeh is a freelance journalist in search of penguins. She tweets @maheensabeeh
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, February 23rd, 2014.