Imagine losing your mind and not knowing if you were going to get it back.
That’s what happened to New York journalist Susannah Cahalan five years ago. Initially diagnosed with bipolar disorder, it took a renowned medical sleuth to discover the bizarre truth about her condition.
In 2009, Susannah Cahalan was a healthy 24-year-old working as a journalist in New York. Then one day, she woke up in a hospital bed, constrained, with wires and tubes attached to her head and wrists.
This was the height of what Cahalan calls her month of madness.
‘It’s such a strange thing to recall,’ she says. ‘I believed that people were hired actors playing a role in my life, I accused people of all sorts of awful things.’
‘I couldn’t concentrate; my feelings were all over the map. One second I’d be happy, the next second I’d be hysterically crying.’
The first symptoms were numbness down one side of her body and extreme emotions, and then a period of profound insomnia. Cahalan’s behaviour inevitably filtered through to work, where she began to act quite manically. One day she was walking down a corridor to an interview when she began thinking that the newspaper clippings on the walls were alive.
‘All of a sudden those front pages started to breathe, like contract and expand, and they started to close in on me and the ceilings went sky high, and I had this feeling like I was at the top of a mountain staring down.’
‘After that things went downhill really rapidly.’
Her family realised something was seriously wrong when Cahalan began to have seizures. Her mother became exhausted from constantly monitoring her, so Cahalan went to stay at her father’s in Brooklyn, where she began to have hallucinations.
‘I believed that he was trying to kidnap me,’ she says.
‘My dad is a war buff; he has this war memorabilia stuff. So I remember going to his war room and taking out a blade and looking at the sheath and taking the blade out of the sheath and looking at it transfixed.’
Cahalan became paranoid that her father was going to hurt her, so she barricaded herself in the bathroom and prepared to escape. She even considered jumping out the third-storey window.
‘My stepmother keeps a Buddha statue in the bathroom, and the Buddha statue smiled at me, and so I decided I wasn’t going to jump.’
‘I think that Buddha statue saved my life that night.’