First came an innocuous-seeming fear of bedbugs. Bubbly, outgoing 24-year-old New York Post reporter Susannah Cahalan had awakened with a few unexplained red dots on her left arm, and since there was a citywide bedbug scare at the time, she was sure her tiny studio apartment was infested. When a careful search turned up nothing, she called an exterminator, who assured her that the place was bug-free. Still agitated, she insisted on an extensive, expensive spraying; then she filled garbage bags with her old, treasured newspaper clips, which she believed may have housed the vermin. This intense purge left her only with a jabbing head-pain and a sense of terrible foreboding.
So began Cahalan’s month-long descent into insanity and near-death, which she recounts in her harrowing, medical-mystery memoir, “Brain on Fire.” Only late in her odyssey did she learn that an obsessive fear of bugs can be an early sign of looming psychosis.
(Free Press) - ’Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness’ by Susannah Cahalan
In the first weeks, Cahalan experienced alternating periods of normalcy and strange overreactions to ordinary events. As she walked down a corridor to meet John Walsh of “America’s Most Wanted” for an interview, she felt that her perspective had narrowed, “as if I were looking down the hallway through a viewfinder,” she writes. “The fluorescent lights flickered, and the walls tightened claustrophobically around me. As the walls caved in, the ceiling stretched sky high until I felt as if were in a cathedral. I put my hand on my chest to quell my racing heart and told myself to breathe.” Not only was she unable to wing her way through this prized interview, she wasn’t even coherent, and the article never ran in the newspaper.
As her symptoms ebbed and flowed, Cahalan had brief periods of respite — a sense that what she thought was the flu or mononucleosis had only been transitory. True, she was experiencing tingling and numbness in her hands — particularly her left hand, the side of her body where the red spots had first appeared. She was also suffering from sleeplessness, loss of appetite, migraine headaches and waves of fathomless dread. One morning, as she emerged from the subway, the garish colors on the Times Square billboards seemed to physically assault her. She could feel the “shock waves of pigment” vibrating through her body, and she wanted to retch. She was changing in ways that made her unrecognizable to herself — becoming forgetful at work, bursting into tears, consumed by the sense that she wasn’t real and that others around her were also imposters.
Eventually, a prominent neurosurgeon examined Cahalan and pronounced her normal. He attributed her increasingly florid symptoms to too much partying and drinking — a diagnosis that never changed, even after she had three seizures and became manic and paranoid. She ricocheted from having an exaggerated sense of control over her environment — she believed she could age people or make them younger with her mind — to a terror that her father had kidnapped her and brought her to the New York University epileptic ward, after having beaten her stepmother to death. Cahalan was certain that the nurses on her ward were whispering bad things about her and that her mental deterioration was being broadcast to the world on TV. Then, as the disease worsened, she sank slowly into a mute, motionless state of catatonia.