Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness

by

Susannah Cahalan

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Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness: Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Over the next few days, Susannah feels wracked with guilt over going through Stephen's things. At work one day, she asks Mackenzie, the editor for the features page, for help. When Susannah shares what she did, Mackenzie insists it's not so bad and says to just try to not do it again. Susannah wonders if her new birth control, the patch, is maybe causing hormonal changes. Susannah tells the reader that later, Mackenzie would share that she was more worried by Susannah's guilty overreaction than the snooping itself.
Mackenzie's later admission shows that Susannah's emotions are different than usual and exaggerated, and they seem off to those around her. Mackenzie’s concern also makes it clear that Susannah has a web of people who are looking out for her and will be there to support her in times of need.
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Susannah asks Paul the same question, and he tells her the same thing. He insists she's not crazy and says that men commonly keep "spoils of war" like photos and letters from their exes. When Susannah returns to her desk, she realizes that the numbness in her left hand has now moved down the left side of her body and into her toes. She calls Stephen, who suggests she see a doctor. Susannah laughs this off and asks Angela for a second opinion. Another nearby reporter suggests that Susannah see a doctor.
The growing numbness is a continual reminder that this isn't just all in Susannah's head. Notably, it's also the numbness that garners the attention of Stephen and her coworkers, and the numbness is what makes them suggest she sees a doctor. This suggests that Susannah's community (like society at large) takes physical symptoms more seriously than mental ones.
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Love and Family Theme Icon
Responsibility and the Medical System Theme Icon
Susannah laughs, but she's worried by the worry she sees in her colleagues. She calls her gynecologist, Dr. Eli Rothstein, later that day. Though he's usually a laid-back practitioner, he sounds worried by Susannah's symptoms and arranges for her to visit a neurologist that afternoon. Dr. Bailey's office is very drab in comparison to the marble lobby of his building, and she finds the paintings in the waiting room unsettling. The receptionist hands Susannah an intake form, and Susannah tells the reader that a health history form would never again be so simple as it was that day. The only previous illness she’d had was melanoma on her lower back, which had been removed with minor surgery several years ago.
At this point, Susannah's medical team appears to be fully on her side and taking her seriously. Though this will break down later, Dr. Rothstein in particular is proof that there are doctors who do indeed believe their patients when they say something is wrong, and do what they can to fix it. The unsettling nature of Dr. Bailey's waiting room foreshadows the confusing and often negative experience Susannah will have with him over the course of her illness.
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Responsibility and the Medical System Theme Icon
Susannah says that she's the exact opposite of a hypochondriac, and usually needs prodding from her mom to attend her regular doctor's appointments. She's worried by Dr. Rothstein's worry, and feels as though she needs answers. To keep calm, Susannah focuses on one of the bright, abstract paintings of a human face in the waiting room.
Again, Susannah suggests that this is all very out of character for her, which shows how this illness in particular can fundamentally change who she is. When she feeds off of Dr. Rothstein’s worry, it also shows that she is easily influenced by people she trusts.
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Love and Family Theme Icon
Responsibility and the Medical System Theme Icon
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When Dr. Bailey sees Susannah, she hastily describes her symptoms and thinks that she wants to reassure him that nothing is wrong. He conducts his neurological exam, which yields normal results, but asks Susannah to go to the lab for blood work and an MRI. At the lab, the young male technician leads Susannah to a changing area. She folds her clothes and takes off all her jewelry, including her lucky gold ring. The tech guides Susannah to the MRI room and oversees the procedure, and then engages her in conversation as he leads her back to the changing room. Susannah feels exposed, uncomfortable, and as though the tech is being too flirtatious.
As Susannah begins seeing more doctors, their notes, exams, and test results start to tell a very specific story about Susannah's illness—namely, that it doesn't technically exist. This story then has to compete with Susannah's insistence that something is absolutely not right with her. The status of doctors and what they say gives their diagnoses and beliefs more power to dictate what happens to a patient, even if those diagnoses are flat-out wrong.
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Susannah changes as quickly as possible and leaves. Though the MRI is normal, she tells the reader that she'll go on to fixate on the tech's flirtations, which soon start to look malevolent. She realizes hours later that she forgot her lucky ring.
What Susannah describes of the MRI tech doesn't actually show that he did or said anything inappropriate. This all goes to suggest that Susannah's paranoia is taking over, and the reader cannot take her assessments of threats seriously.
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The next day, Susannah tells Angela that her hand is still numb and tingly, and she doesn't feel like herself. Susannah fixates on her lost ring, but irrationally cannot work up the nerve to call the office to get it back. Susannah accepts Angela's offer to walk her home, even though it's a deadline day. At Susannah's apartment, Angela talks Susannah into calling her doctor. Dr. Rothstein tells Susannah that the MRI came back normal. However, a few lymph nodes in Susannah's back are enlarged, and Dr. Rothstein says he suspects Susannah has mono. Angela and Susannah laugh after Susannah hangs up.
It's worth noting that though Susannah is experiencing some of the symptoms of mononucleosis (malaise, body aches, exhaustion), mono doesn't cause paranoia or other psychotic symptoms. This shows that even the generally trustworthy Dr. Rothstein isn't taking all of Susannah's reported symptoms seriously, as a diagnosis of mono ignores these other symptoms.
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Responsibility and the Medical System Theme Icon