The human body is amazingly complex. We benefit from our body’s complex systems, but when something goes wrong and we’re ill, that same complexity can make it difficult to pinpoint the problem.

24-year-old Susannah Cahalan suffered from a variety of symptoms that led doctors to declare her mentally ill. But the truth was much more complicated, and much more frightening…

24-year-old Susannah Cahalan was on top of the world with a brand new job and a loving partner.

Susannah Cahalan

Out of the blue, she began feeling sensations and having experiences she couldn’t quite put into words.

She thought maybe she had bedbugs and called an exterminator, but he didn’t find any kind of infestation. 

She began feeling lethargic nearly all the time, and it got so bad that she stopped working. Gradually, she began to experience more intense symptoms like seizures, hallucinations, and paranoia. 

When she was admitted to the hospital she began to treat the staff violently.

And Susannah exhibited the same behavior with her family and friends.

Doctors felt that the most simple explanation was that she was having a nervous breakdown. They began preparing to admit to her to a psychiatric hospital.

But Dr. Souhel Najjar suspected that the situation might be more complicated than the other doctors were making it out to be.

Before he would sign off on Susannah’s commitment to the psychiatric hospital, he wanted to perform one more test…

Susannah Cahalan

Dr. Najjar asked Susannah to draw a clock, and her picture corroborated his theory:

Her “insanity” wasn’t mental at all, but the result of a physical problem.

Susannah Cahalan

Susannah drew all the clock face’s numbers on the right side, which indicated brain damage. 

After a series of scans and tests, Dr. Najjar was able to diagnose her with Anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis. Her own immune system’s antibodies were actually attacking her brain… and winning.

Had Dr. Najjar not caught the illness, Susannah would have fallen into a coma and almost certainly would have died.

Luckily, she underwent treatment and after a month was almost completely back to normal!

Once she was fully recovered, Susannah wrote a book about her experiences to raise awareness for her rare disease.


The book was a success, and she now gives lectures about her illness so that doctors and lay people alike can learn something from her experience.

That’s absolutely terrifying…  Thankfully, Susannah made it through her illness, and all thanks to Dr. Najjar’s refusal to commit her without exhausting all other possibilities.