Imagine it's 2009 and you're a 24-year-old newspaper reporter living and working in New York City. An exciting life, sprinting all over town for stories and interviews. At night, hanging out in bars with your main squeeze and young friends. One day, you wake up with bites on your arm and imagine that your body and tiny apartment are infected with bedbugs. Then you start to hallucinate. Paranoia grips you and you are convinced that your boyfriend is cheating. You have trouble speaking and then erupt in epileptic convulsions.
I'm going crazy. That's your first thought but it's wrong. You are in the beginning stages of autoimmune encephalitis. Your brain is on fire. Your immune system is attacking your brain. Seizures, convulsions, hallucinations are part of it. You speak in tongues, as it says in the Bible, and if you lived in medieval England, your contortions and babbling might be mistaken for demonic possession. If you lived in 2009 America, your loved ones might think you were in the grip of schizophrenia or some other mental illness. You might end up in an institution for the rest of your life, which could be short if you contract the illness in its most lethal form.
Susannah Cahalan was lucky. She found the right neurologist and became the poster child for the disease which, before her, had only been diagnosed 217 times. She recovered and, being a dedicated journalist, wrote a book, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness. It's now a movie.
It's scary reading. Compelling. My daughter Annie gave me her copy. She is bipolar and devours books on mental illness or supposed mental illness. She intends to become a music therapist once she and her therapists get a handle on her illness. She will be a good one, too, as she has experienced a good decade of struggles within the mental health system. It's not really a system. It pretends to be but not enough attention or time is devoted to it. We tend to warehouse those with mental illness, especially those who have the more challenging schizophrenia or schizo-effective disorder or are bipolar, which used to be known as manic-depression. These people are challenged every day. They can be treated but it takes so much time and attention and money which could be spent on more important things,, such as a billion-dollar aircraft carrier to fight Islamic terrorists lurking in an elley in Mosul. Or more tax cuts to the ridiculously rich. Heaven help the needy amongst us now that Trump is running things.
I just finished reading Brain on Fire. It's well-written and, as I already mentioned, scary, especially for those of us who struggle with mental illness -- or have loved ones who do. Highly recommended. Not sure about the movie -- haven't got around to watching it. It screened in September at the Toronto International Film Festival and received lukewarm reviews. Read the Hollywood Reporter review here. Read the book instead. A 2012 New York Times review by Michael Greenberg offers insight.