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Medical Marvel Susannah Cahalan: How to Thrive After Life’s Challenges (ep. 202)

Susannah Cahalan

New York Times bestselling author Susannah Cahalan joins John O’Leary on the Live Inspired Podcast to share about her newest book The Great Pretender + life after an unexpected diagnosis.

Ten years ago, Susannah Cahalan’s life pivoted rapidly in a radically different direction. Recounted in her New York Times bestseller Brain on Fire, Susannah bravely shares her harrowing story of being diagnosed with a rare + newly discovered neurological disease.

Fully recovered + thriving, Susannah calls in from the tour of her newest book, The Great Pretender. It dives deep into an investigation of Stanford psychologist David Rosenhan + his landmark 1970s study which led many to question the validity of psychiatric diagnoses.

If you’re seeking a miraculous story of triumph, this episode is for you. Susannah will articulately show you how to overcome with gratitude, grace + tenacity.

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  • In 2009, 24-year-old Susannah was working as a tabloid reporter for the New York Post when what seemed like depression rapidly morphed into psychosis, paranoia + hallucinations.
  • Various diagnoses were presented during her month-long hospitalization including alcohol withdrawal, bipolar, schizoaffective disorder before a creative thinking Dr. Souhel Najjar was able to properly diagnose Susannah with anti-NMDA-receptor autoimmune encephalitis
  • Road to Recovery: It took a year and a half of treatment for Susannah to fully recover. Looking back, she is able to pinpoint a belief of a bedbug infestation as the beginning of her tailspin.
  • Before being diagnosed, Susannah vividly remembers “high emotional content” like the belief that Abraham Lincoln was following her around her father’s house.
  • She credits her family taking her to a hospital versus a psychiatric hospital as the reason she was able to get the proper care + be alive today.
  • Mirror Images: Susannah has met others who have diagnosed with her same illness, but were given different + unsuccessful treatments at their psychiatric hospitals.
  • The Half Clock: Clinician + researcher Dr. Najjar asked Susannah to draw a clock, which was the piece of evidence to the puzzle that didn’t make sense in diagnosing schizoaffective disorder. It led to a brain biopsy + spinal tap which confirmed the suspicion of anti-NMDA-receptor autoimmune encephalitis.
  • Medical Marvel: Writing The Great Pretender helped Susannah recognize the full extent of her journey + how lucky she was to be the 217th patient properly diagnosed with her illness.
  • In her latest book The Great Pretender, Susannah examines a 1970s experiment created by Dr. David Rosenhan, where eight volunteers posed with classic mental illness symptoms to challenge the validity of psychiatric diagnosis.
  • Watch Susannah Cahalan’s TEDx Talk here.
  • Get a copy of Susannah Cahalan’s New York Times bestseller Brain on Fire here.
  • Get Susannah Cahalan’s latest book The Great Pretender here.

If you enjoyed hearing from a New York Times bestselling author, listen to our Bestselling Authors playlist, featuring my conversations with bestselling authors like Mitch Albom, Judith Viorst + Gary Sinise.


1. What is the best book you’ve ever read? Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.

2. What is a characteristic or trait that you possessed as a child that you wish you still exhibited today? I had a strong sense of tenacity.

3. Your house is on fire, all living things and people are out. You have the opportunity to run in and grab one item. What would it be? The journal I kept when I was sick. It has mine + my father’s recollections of that time.

4. You are sitting on a bench overlooking a gorgeous beach. You have the opportunity to have a long conversation with anyone living or dead. Who would it be? William Shakespeare and I’d ask, “Did you really write all of your masterpieces?”

5. What is the best advice you’ve ever received? Dr. Najjar: You have to look backwards to see the future.

6. What advice would you give your 20-year-old self? Stop obsessing about how you look, how much you weigh, the unimportant things.

7. It’s been said that all great people can have their lives summed up in one sentence. How do you want yours to read? She was curious, she was fair, and she was compassionate.


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