This is part of my Other Authors series, where I share dissociated voices written by a number of different novelists.
Today is a little bit different as I’m sharing my thoughts on Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, which is an autobiography, not a novel. I’m making the exception for Susannah Cahalan’s book because the writing is as poetic as any novel.
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness follows a very personal descent into madness. Susannah Cahalan goes from fully functioning adult to waking to find herself strapped to a hospital bed – and we get to travel with her.
Cahalan suffers from a range of symptoms, from delusions of grandeur to out-of-body experiences and catatonic episodes. She is able to recount some of her symptoms herself, but others have to be shared with her by those who experience them.
A delusion: “I stare at the doctor’s cheekbones and pretty olive skin. [and I create] wrinkles, first just around her eyes, and then around her mouth and across her cheeks, now line her entire face. Her cheeks sink in, and her teeth turn yellow […] I have a gift. I can age people with my mind. This is who I am. And they cannot take this away from me.”
An out-of-body experience: “There I am on a gurney. There I am being loaded into the ambulance as Stephen holds my hands. There I am entering the hospital. Here I am. Floating above the scene, looking down. I am calm. There is no fear.”
A catatonic episode: “I turned to face him [boyfriend], staring past him like I was possessed. My arms suddenly whipped straight out in front of me, like a mummy, as my eyes rolled back and my body stiffened. I was gasping for air.”
But for me, worse than any of these descriptions is the stark revelation from Cahalan of her loss of self: “I remember only very few bits and pieces, mostly hallucinatory, from the time in hospital. Unlike before, there are now no glimmers of the reliable ‘I’, the Susannah I had been for the previous 24 years.”