In 2008, Susannah Cahalan was 24 years old and an up-and-coming reporter for the New York Post where she had started as an intern when she was 17.
She lived on her own in New York City and was in a new, but serious, relationship with Stephen. At first, Susannah thought maybe she was coming down with the flu. She just didn’t feel right. Her head hurt, she felt sluggish, she was forgetting things, and she was obsessed with the idea that her apartment was infested with bedbugs.
There is a lot Susannah doesn’t remember about what happened to her, or that she remembers incorrectly or just in flashes. In writing her story she uses her considerable skill as a journalist to access all of the resources available to reconstruct events: countless interviews with medical personnel, with friends and with family; her extensive medical records, including video taken of her in the hospital; and the notebook her divorced parents used to communicate with each other.
Susannah’s list of symptoms began to grow. She had migraines, nausea, irrational mood swings, numbness in her left side. When she contacted her regular doctor he immediately sent her to a neurologist. The exam, including an MRI, only showed enlarged lymph nodes, and the doctor concluded she had mono. However, her behavior became more and more erratic, and when she had her first serious seizure it marked what she calls “the line between sanity and insanity. ... the start of the dark period of my illness.” In spite of her doctor’s belief there was nothing seriously wrong with her, she was eventually admitted to the epilepsy ward of a New York hospital thanks to the persistence of her parents.
This is a fascinating story, a medical mystery solved largely because of Susannah’s loving and supportive family who never stopped advocating for her and because of an exceptional doctor who came to her rescue. Brilliantly researched and written, Susannah’s account of her ordeal is both a cautionary tale of how the body can turn on itself and a celebration of resilience and survival.
Additional Book Train Staff Picks
1. “Windup Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupia
2. “The Dark Winter” by David Mark
3. “Live by Night” by Dennis Lehane
4. “Apocalyptic Planet” by Craig Childs