Netflix's newest original film might be the most terrifying it's ever made, and it's not even a horror movie. Brain on Fire is a medical mystery drama starring Chlöe Grace Moretz, and it's about the very real and extremely rare disorder that struck journalist Susannah Cahalan when she was just 24. The illness depicted on the film is truly the stuff nightmares are made of, but Cahalan made it through and is alive today. So where is the real Susannah from Brain on Fire now, and is she still feeling the effects of her horrific ordeal?
When Cahalan was struck by her illness in 2009, she was one year into her job as a New York Post reporter. Today, nearly a decade later, Cahalan still lives in New York and still works for the Post, having published her most recent article for the paper on June 16, writing about her experience of seeing a harrowing time in her life turned into a movie. But she wasn't just returning to the paper to address her past; she's been consistently writing articles for the Post for years. Just a week earlier, she wrote a piece on Maine lobsters, and her author page on the Post's website shows scores of articles she's written. It's great to see that Cahalan's ordeal didn't end up adversely affecting her career, but it very well could have.
Cahalan suffered from an incredibly rare anti-immune disorder known as anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. The disease most commonly affects women in their childbearing years, like Cahalan, and is four times more likely to occur in women than in men, according to the Anti-NMDA Foundation. The illness is caused when a person's antibodies, which are produced by the immune system to fight infections, begin attacking the NMDA receptors in the brain. These receptors are responsible for much of the brain's activity, including memory, cognitive function, perception of reality, and even autonomic functions like breathing. It's unknown why these NMDA attacking antibodies are produced, but if left untreated, the disease is fatal. If caught early, however, the condition is highly treatable, which explains why Cahalan is perfectly healthy today.
As for the symptoms experienced by Cahalan, they're quite terrifying, and she can't even remember most of what happened to her due to the nature of her illness. It began with relatively minor symptoms: sensitivity to light and numbness on the left side of her body. Then she broke down crying for no reason at work, and began to worry that something was wrong, according to her own 2009 recounting of the episode in the Post. After seeing a doctor and getting no answers, she had a seizure, which prompted more doctor visits. She then became paranoid and delusional, believing her doctors were conspiring against her and that people on TV were talking about her. She stopped eating, stopped sleeping, and had hallucinations, including believing that her father murdered her stepmother, according to the Post. After being admitted to a hospital, she tried to escape and assaulted her nurses.
After a number of false diagnoses, including that she was bipolar or suffering from alcohol withdrawal, Cahalan finally received the correct diagnosis from Dr. Souhel Najjar. He asked her to draw a clock on a piece of paper, and when she did, she put all 12 of the numbers on the right side of the clock face, leaving the left side blank, according to NPR. This informed Najjar that the right side of her brain was inflamed, since it controls the left side of the body. He described the condition as her brain being on fire, which Cahalan later used as the title for her memoir about the ordeal that she published in 2012, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness.
Today, Cahalan is healthy, though somewhat haunted by what happened to her. She can be considered one of the lucky ones, though. According to the Post, Najjar estimates that 90 percent of anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis cases go undiagnosed, meaning those patients will ultimately be killed by their bodies attacking their own brains. It's a horrifying way to go, but thankfully for Cahalan, she lived to help spread the word about this terrifying disorder so more people can hopefully receive treatment in time.