Sixty-seven pounds. That’s a number I never thought I’d see when my thirteen year old son stepped on the scale. Sixty, yes – maybe sixty-two or even sixty-three soaking wet. But, sixty-seven pounds, a mere three pounds away from seventy, seemed unreachable. That is until my son met John Giannone, the New York Rangers sportscaster on MSG Networks. The change in him since their first encounter is nothing short of remarkable. Simply put, this connection that he’s forged with John and the ripples of change it has sent through his life have renewed my faith in humanity.
I “met” John two years ago on Twitter during the Rangers’ fairly unremarkable cup run. It was nothing like this season – it was over way too soon – but, we started “talking” hockey and writing and our kids. I am a Rangers nut and to have a hockey insider with an incredible store of knowledge and a brilliant take on the game to discuss my favorite team with was (and still is) something I truly enjoy. He’s also a great writer and has been incredibly supportive of my work, reading my book more than once – and my synopsis and essays, etc. He has an eagle eye and has been a great help.
Add to all that the fact that John is totally down to earth and incredibly kind and you know why I consider him a true friend, even though we’ve only really met a few times. So, this is why the night before the first time we finally met in person at the Rangers’ Hockey House (a fan festival located just outside Madison Square Garden), I confided that my son, J, suffers from severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and an eating disorder. At thirteen years old he weighs only a few pounds more than my nine year old. He’s my height, but weighs about twenty-seven pounds less than I do. You can read about his battle (and why it has felt like the worst possible karma for me) here: Hungry.
I told John how J looks up to him and was so excited to meet him and he promised to spend some time chatting with J. He not only made good on his promise, talking to J and his brothers about sports and their lives, while a line of autograph seekers built up behind us, but he also gave J his email address, so J could write to him during the playoffs.
My son has spent five long years in therapy, not counting the time it actually took us to find a therapist. It’s been a process of two steps forward, three steps back – always ending up somehow worse than he was before any breakthrough. We met with five therapists before one finally figured out what was wrong. The process took three months – I started searching for a therapist right after the school psychologist made me cry during J’s second grade parent-teacher conference. He was asked to sit in and his contribution was this: turning toward me with a look of mock sympathy and saying, “How miserable you must be; you don’t even know what’s wrong with him.” J’s teacher handed me a box of tissues as she saw my eyes well up.
So, you can figure out that it’s been a long, arduous road – often feeling as if we’ve hardly made any progress at all. OCD is usually just portrayed as a person being neat or a control freak. In reality, it’s like a prison – the person suffering from it is trapped in a vicious cycle of routines, usually quite elaborate. These elaborate OCD routines were like a noose around J’s neck, choking the joy out of his life. His teachers reported that he simply stared vacantly in class, not taking notes – seemingly not there at all. Going out to dinner was such an anxiety provoking ordeal for J, that we avoided it. He was terrified of new places, new foods and even familiar foods in new places. He lost weight while we were in Disney World in February, because there was so little he would eat. He lost even more when he came down with the flu in March, which quickly escalated into pneumonia a few days later – his weak body a prime host for a secondary infection.
The worst of J’s routines and fears revolved around food. They are the routines that are the hardest to break and the ones with the most devastating physical and emotional impact. Not eating was leaving J vulnerable to both serious physical ailments and emotional instability. How many of you find yourself moody and unable to focus after skipping a meal? Now imagine eating hardly anything day after day. We begged J to eat. We threatened to take him to the hospital and have a feeding tube put in. We took him for regular weight checks and made him drink Boost, a nutritional supplement. But, nothing worked.
That is until he met John. Back to that meeting at Hockey House – J felt incredibly special to be the focus of John’s attention while so many people waited to chat with him. He felt even more special when he received his first email reply from John. We were in the drop-off line at school and he couldn’t wait to go in and tell his friends. But, there was something bigger going on than just feeling special. The day we met John, J ate an entire slice of pizza for dinner and didn’t do a routine before it (the first time in years). The next morning he ate a new food for breakfast – and again, no routine. I couldn’t believe it. We had brought both pizza and new foods to J’s therapist’s office to no avail. Those times he’d promise not to do the routine, but the next day he was back at it.
I asked J what was allowing him to quit something that had become so ingrained in him, even though it was so detrimental to his health. He explained that the day we met John he was so excited, that he forgot to do his breakfast routine. So many good things happened; he decided not to do it the next day. His budding friendship with John was such a great distraction that he didn’t do it the next day nor did he do it the next.
After four days of being routine free I sent John a novel length email thanking him for the profound impact he had on J’s life at that point already. This is part of that treatise, “I was sure that the effect would wear off and he’d be back to his eating routines in a day or two – but, today’s the fourth day and he’s still routine-free. Just thinking about it, I tear up. Raising a child with a mental illness is an arduous, sometimes soul crushing task and I can’t thank you enough for giving us a glimmer of hope.” Well, those four days have turned into just over six weeks. From the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs to the finals. And, J still isn’t doing food routines. It feels like some sort of miracle every day. I marvel at how sometimes the simplest things can have a profound impact – like kindness.
John certainly didn’t have to give my son the attention he has. Some people are only nice to those who have something to offer them – furthering their career, a chance at publicity – a symbiotic relationship is the driving force behind a lot of acts of kindness. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. But, my son – a thirteen year old boy – has nothing to offer in return for everything he has received. Except – the feeling of making a huge difference in a young boy’s life. It’s gone beyond even eating. The week before J’s bar mitzvah we brought his sign-in book to Hockey House. John penned the most thoughtful, encouraging inscription and I really think it had a lot to do with J’s sudden confidence. He chanted his Haftorah perfectly. He embellished on his D’var Torah on the fly, adding in an entire passage about my dad who passed away three years ago. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. He even winged his candle lighting speeches, calling friends and family up to light candles with snappy invitations that sounded as if he worked hours on them. And all thanks to a connection forged through hockey and Twitter – the most unlikely of catalysts for such a profound change.
I told John that this amazing connection reminds me of the starfish story. If you don’t know it, you can read it here: https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/56782.Loren_Eiseley It’s about a wise old man who happens upon a boy throwing starfish into the ocean – the old man tells the boy he can’t possibly make a difference, there are too many starfish to save. The boy throws a starfish into the ocean and says, “I made a difference to that one.” And, that’s what John has done – made a huge difference to one person. And for that, we’ll be eternally grateful.
Note: I broke my rule of never sharing photos of my kids (at least not recent ones) on my blog, because J really wanted me to feature the photo above. I made sure he read this essay and approved of it, because it’s his life I’m laying bare. I wanted to make sure that he’s ok putting a face to his story. He was more than happy and said that he doesn’t have anything to hide. He wants to help others feel not alone and I’m so proud of him!
If you’d like to learn more about John and what he does, visit MSG Networks’ website.