“Saving Sammy”, A Review
At the age of twelve, Beth Maloney’s son, Sammy, underwent a rapid transformation. This change was not a pre-teen growth spurt or onset of puberty hormones: he became an entirely different person. A smart, energetic young man who loved his family, science, and math became a person seemingly possessed.
He would only enter his house from a specific door. He would jump, jerk, and twirl as he walked, avoiding obstacles that only he could see. He refused to touch anything with his bare hands. He screamed, raged, and sobbed uncontrollably. It was as if someone else now inhabited Sammy’s body and controlled his mind.
Despite no prior symptoms, indications, or family history, doctors diagnosed Sammy with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Tourette’s Syndrome. His quantity and severity of symptoms were startling, even to the medical professionals.
Faced with this diagnosis, Beth Maloney asked the same question any of us would:
When will he get better?
The collective medical response:
He’ll need medication and therapy to combat this mental health disorder, but he will not be cured.
Ms. Maloney was unconvinced and steadfastly maintained that she would get her son back. In “ Saving Sammy: Curing the Boy Who Caught OCD,” she describes with vivid detail and insightful clarity how she did just that.
Despite popular belief and network comedy TV shows such as “Monk,” OCD is neither quirky nor funny. If a penchant for cleanliness and a desire for strict routine were the extent of the disorder, it wouldn’t make the headlines. Unfortunately, it goes much deeper into the human mind.
Individuals who fall on the OCD spectrum struggle with unseen fears, intrusive thoughts, and obsessions, many of which are illogical to others. The outlet for that inner struggle is often compulsive behaviors. Checking the light switch twenty times a night to make sure it’s off. Regularly washing hands to avoid “contamination.” Moving around one’s house in a particular sequence to make sure that “nothing bad happens.” Many sufferers cannot adequately describe what exactly fuels their compulsions, but they are compelled nonetheless.
Even by standards of the disorder, Sammy’s compulsions and behaviors were extreme. His inner world ultimately ruled the life outside his head. Days became weeks, which stretched into months. He ate and drank little, refusing anything except specific foods provided in particular ways. His mother feared that he would die. She worried that he would hurt himself. She even feared he might kill himself. The disease had stolen everything from Sammy, possibly even his will to live.
Ms. Maloney describes in heart-wrenching detail the intricacies of her family’s daily life while caring for Sammy. The routines, compulsions, and trials that Sammy underwent and how she (and her other two sons) tried to help him. Many days they felt utterly overmatched and defeated.
Despite her patient’s behaviors, Ms. Maloney refused to accept the medical opinion that told her that her son was lost, a prisoner of his mind. She placed the rest of her life on hold and dedicated herself full-time to finding a solution to Sammy’s situation. Her book reads like a personal biography, weaving in aspects of their family life along the Maine coast into a captivating story about how she fought for her son.
Ms. Maloney’s perseverance is fantastic. Despite weeks and months of severe emotional trauma, dead-ends, bad advice, and medical disinterest, she keeps going to find Sammy a cure.
Her efforts and stamina remind us that you can’t give up when the stakes are high enough.
The Expert In The Room
For treatment, OCD typically falls under the purview of psychiatrists and psychologists; it’s a mental health issue that mental health professionals handle. Ms. Maloney’s contention: what if Sammy’s symptoms and compulsions were not the outgrowths of a mental disorder? What if there was another pathological reason for the onset of the disease?
The disease’s rapidity and extremity left Ms. Maloney skeptical of the medical advice and feedback she received. How does a normal, healthy boy morph into a seeming lunatic almost overnight? She challenged the experts in her march to find that reason.
Her story reminds us of a fact we are prone to forget: an expert is only a man or woman like ourselves. They possess limited time, attention, knowledge, and energy. Like us, they have biases. Pride is a stumbling block for them, as it is for all of us. Ms. Maloney reminds us that sometimes it takes the energy and questioning of an outsider to get to the heart of a matter.
Family and Community
Ms. Maloney freely and effusively acknowledges her community of friends and family who rallied to her family’s predicament. Others helped watch her kids, school tutors worked hard to accommodate Sammy’s habits, and family members chipped in for ongoing medical bills. Her friends were available at the drop of a hat for a phone call, walk, or a long cry.
Such actions remind us: we can be individuals, but we need the group. We need a close community to help see us through the trials of life. When the storms threaten to sink our boat, we must have fellow travelers to help us bail water and stand a turn at the wheel.
Our communities need to be valued and strengthened at every opportunity.
Ms. Maloney’s book is a testament to the strength of the human heart, the love of a family, and the faith that sustains her through it all. What people we could be and what relationships we could have, if we labored with such diligence in our daily lives. “Saving Sammy” contains lessons for all of us, and is well worth a read.
Originally published at https://fjwriting.com on August 26, 2020.