Willis Ekbom Syndrome: Are You Obsessed With Bugs?

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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What is Willis Ekbom Syndrome? Why did it seem like Susannah Cahalan might have Willis Ekbom Syndrome?

Willis Ekbom Syndrome is a condition where someone is obsessed with bugs. It can be a precursor to psychosis, and Susannah was believed to have this disease before being correctly diagnosed.

Read more about Susannah’s symptoms that seemed like Willis Ekbom Syndrome.

Was It Willis Ekbom Syndrome?

At the height of the New York City bedbug scare in 2009, Susannah finds two red dots on her arm. She’s convinced she has bedbugs and demands that an exterminator schedule a costly spray, even though he finds no evidence of infestation. 

Obsession with bugs, called Willis Ekbom Syndrome, can signal the onset of psychosis. It’s frequently undiagnosed because people with the condition are more likely to consult exterminators than mental health providers.

Obsession Affects Her Work

Even though she thinks she might have bedbugs, Susannah goes to work the following day at the New York Post. Ever since she started her reporting job as a seventeen-year-old intern seven years earlier, Susannah has loved every second of it—keyboards clacking, news junkies high on adrenaline, rows of cubicles marked with Manhattan street signs. She’s intimidated by Steve, who was made head editor of the Sunday edition though he’s only in his thirties, and she finds comfort in Paul, an old-time newspaperman with a tendency to swear. 

Today is Tuesday, the day reporters pitch their ideas for the Sunday paper. It’s such an important ritual that reporters work feverishly to deliver the best pitches they can. Susannah usually goes to the meeting with at least three well-developed ideas, but when the meeting is called today, she realizes it’s completely slipped her mind. 

When it’s her turn to speak at the pitch meeting, Susannah starts to ramble on about a story she saw on a blog, desperately hoping for some real ideas to come. Steve interrupts her, saying, “Don’t come in unprepared again.” Paul’s face blazes with rage. Susannah leaves the meeting, furious at herself and bewildered by her own behavior. How had she let that happen? Her colleague Angela tells her not to worry; she’s a pro and shouldn’t take the lapse seriously. 

Still, Susannah continues to brood about her bad performance. At home, she prepares for the exterminator by throwing out hundreds of Post clips she’d written over the past seven years. Much like her obsession with bedbugs and her bad performance at work that day, throwing out her beloved clips runs contrary to Susannah’s nature.

After hours of throwing things out, she feels a terrible dread in the pit of her stomach. Her mind is pierced by a white-hot flash like a migraine, though she’s never had one before. She stumbles to bed, convincing herself she’s gotten the flu from a man who sneezed on her in the subway.

Willis Ekbom Syndrome: Are You Obsessed With Bugs?

———End of Preview———

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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