Like A Stitch of Time, this book is about the author’s experience with a health issue that severely affected her brain. There are some similarities and some stark differences. In the prior book, the onset was very sudden (an aneurysm). In this case, the onset was gradual and confusing, at first Cahalan thought she just had the flu. Then she started having problems with motor skills, visual perception and emotional control- breaking into sobs over nothing or displaying extreme aggression and suffering from vivid paranoia. Her behavior become so erratic she was finally convinced to see doctors but got different answers: alcohol abuse withdrawl, side effects from medications, a mental illness such a schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Her family got her checked into a hospital when she started having seizures. She was nearly at the catatonic stage when a different doctor was assigned to her case and finally came up with the answer- a rare infection had attacked her brain tissue. The rest of the story is about her treatment and recovery.
Again like the prior book, she describes struggling with language afterwards, but didn’t do any therapy sessions and doesn’t go into nearly as much detail about how loss of language and articulation temporarily affected her life. Her recovery was complete enough that she was able to return to work and of course, write this memoir, in the hopes that it would help others who suffered from the same frightening illness. That’s the part that struck me most, after reading this book. Not the alarming symptoms and interesting information about the brain, but how very narrowly she avoided being put in an institution for the rest of her life, misdiagnosed with a mental illness. A lot of her symptoms very closely resembled schizophrenia, her inarticulate vocalizations and stiff body movements in later stages were just like those depicted in horror films about people being “possessed”. And why do those films invariably depict young women? well guess what, this disease tends to afflict women under 18. It is horrifyingly sad to think how many hundreds of people in the past probably had the same illness and were condemned as being possessed by demons or shut up in mental hospitals. Nowadays it’s treatable but still only if it gets recognized quickly enough- the testing was not at all cheap, author was so very lucky to have affluent parents who didn’t give up on her and insisted on more answers. I can’t stop wondering how many other mental afflictions are due to pathological causes that could be treated if we just knew more about them.
I didn’t quite enjoy this book as much as the last one, though I did read through it pretty quickly. It’s not as articulate and introspective. The writing is a lot more straightforward, which I don’t mind. I admit I had some moments of disbelief, probably colored by finding out that Cahalan is a reporter for a tabloid newspaper. However all the things I’ve looked up since finishing the book, sound quite true enough. There was one scene where I was thrown out of the narrative by an unlikely choice of words: someone was described as nibbling on her yougurt. It just seemed odd to me. I think of nibbling as something done with crunchy food. Very minor detail to get hung up on, but still it stuck with me.