Susannah Cahalan’s Parents Fought for a Diagnosis

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Brain On Fire" by Susannah Cahalan. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Who were Susannah Cahalan’s parents? How did the parents of Susannah Cahalan keep pushing until she was properly diagnosed?

Susannah Cahalan’s parents are divorced, but they came together to fight for their daughter. When doctors wanted to say she was mentally ill or alcoholic, they refused to accept that answer.

Read more about Susannah Cahalan’s parents and how they helped her during her illness.

Susannah Cahalan: Parents Find Out About Seizures

Alerted to Susannah’s seizure by Stephen, Susannah’s mom and stepdad pick up Susannah the following morning to bring her to their home in New Jersey, where they can look after her. Susannah Cahalan’s parents took turns keeping her in their home, starting with this stay in New Jersey.

Settling into her mom’s home in New Jersey, Susannah tries to work on an article about a troupe of disabled dancers, but she’s unable to write. Desperate to tell her mom and Allen about this new breakdown in her abilities, Susannah wanders to the family room, where she has another hallucination and goes into a trance. Her mom and Allen make an appointment with Dr. Bailey for the following day.

Susannah and her mom visit Sarah Levin, the psychiatrist recommended by Dr. Bailey. Susannah makes the case for her being bipolar. Levin concludes that Susannah is experiencing manic and depressive states, and she prescribes a drug commonly used for mood and thought disorders. 

Susannah’s mom has doubts. She calls Susannah’s younger brother, James, and asks him if he thinks Bailey’s diagnosis of alcoholism and Levin’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder are correct. James says no to both. Susannah’s mom agrees with him. 

Allen and Susannah’s mom agree to let Susannah return to Manhattan under her father and stepmother’s care. Susannah Cahalan’s parents just want to make sure one of her parents is watching her. All goes well at first, but as Susannah and her dad head for the subway, Susannah’s paranoia returns. She starts screaming on the street, and her father has to push her into a cab to get her to his home in Brooklyn. “They’re kidnapping me!” Susannah yells at the cabbie. She tells her dad she’s calling the police. She’s convinced she isn’t safe in his care.

Exhausted by the time they get to her dad’s place, Susannah just sits on the couch and stares as her dad and stepmom, Giselle, prepare her favorite meal, pasta. When they set it before her, though, Susannah has another hallucination; the tomato sauce is too bright. The basil pulsates. The cheese glistens. Susannah refuses to eat. After dinner, she has another hallucination like the one she had in the car with Allen. She thinks she hears Giselle saying, “You’re a spoiled brat,” even though Giselle’s lips don’t move.

Susannah has other hallucinations that night. A painting comes alive. A bust of Lincoln follows her with its eyes. Her childhood dollhouse is haunted. Her father is beating Giselle.

Convinced her father is going to kill her, Susannah is desperate to get out. She runs to the front door of the brownstone and bangs her fists against the door, screaming, “Let me out! Help!” 

She hears her father run downstairs, and she scoots into the bathroom, locking herself in. She’s about to jump out the window when she spots a statue of Buddha on the bathroom counter. It convinces her that everything will be all right, and she smiles. 

It takes Susannah’s dad an hour to coax her out of the bathroom. When Susannah falls asleep in his lap, he calls Susannah’s mom; they both agree she must be admitted to a hospital. However, both of Susannah Cahalan’s parents insist that she not be put in a psych ward.

Susannah Cahalan’s parents develop a journal system to communicate with each other, as their nasty divorce still makes it difficult for them to speak face-to-face.

Susannah Cahalan’s Parents Fought for a Diagnosis

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Susannah Cahalan's "Brain On Fire" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Brain On Fire summary:

  • How a high-functioning reporter became virtually disabled within a matter of weeks
  • How the author Cahalan recovered through a lengthy process and pieced together what happened to her
  • How Cahalan's sickness reveals the many failures of the US healthcare system

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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