Saving Sammy: The Boy Who Caught OCD by Beth Alison Mahoney

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Hardcover, 272 pages

Published: September 22, 2009 by Crown (1st Published January 1, 2009)

Setting: Maine

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Saving Sammy: Curing the Boy Who Caught OCD is Beth Alison Maloney’s memoir about her pre-teen son’s struggle with an unusual form of obsessive compulsive disorder. In a lovely, eloquent writing style that flows like a good novel, she tells her story. With close attention to the cycles of nature, the author paints vivid details that take you through all the seasons in coastal Maine. And with the same attention to detail, she makes her family’s day-to-day experiences tangibly and heartwrenchingly real.

When 12-year-old Sammy began to have trouble coping, Beth attributed it to his adjustment to the transitions in their lives. Beth, an attorney and devoted single mom, had moved from California to Maine with her three sons a year earlier. They were now in the process of moving from their beloved rental house by the sea into the new home she’d purchased. So when Sammy started developing odd compulsions, she believed “this too shall pass.”

However, his compulsions increased exponentially, and he suffered constant, debilitating anxiety. Each day, he went through a series of complicated rituals. It began with drinking the same five juices, one after another, each morning. He had to complete a series of complicated motions every time he entered the bathroom or came into the house. These included swirling his legs, ducking, crawling, rolling his head on his neck, stepping sideways, or high-stepping over invisible walls. He avoided mats, doors, and faucets, and he couldn’t shower or brush his teeth. He had difficulty touching anything or being touched, and even casual hugs were impossible. He couldn’t attend school, and he rarely met friends or enjoyed outside activities. His condition eventually took over the family’s entire life.

Sammy was treated, with psychoactive drugs, for the chemical imbalance that is presumed to cause OCD. However, the medications didn’t help. Thus began a long journey through psychiatrists, neurologists, and other specialists. With fierce dedication, Beth researched his condition. As options dwindled, she faced every mom’s worst nightmare. She watched her son, worn down by fear, anxiety, and isolation, begin to lose hope.

Eventually, Beth did get some hard-won answers. She heard about a condition called PANDAS, in which OCD can be caused by exposure to strep throat, even if the child was asymptomatic and even if there was a negative strep throat culture. At this point the long trip to recovery began.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder in children is a topic very close to my heart. Most parents of kids with mental illness and other challenges won’t find a clear-cut medical answer or a “cure.” Nevertheless, I think all parents of kids with complicated needs will connect deeply with this book. Beth Maloney does an amazing job of recreating the struggles many families face: the social isolation of not being able to participate in “normal” activities, the heartbreak of seeing ones child suffer, and the all-consuming need to uncover some answers.

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