That November 2007 episode was the first of Will’s bizarre and inexplicable meltdowns; it would not be the last. For the next 16 months specialists in three states offered various explanations for why Will had suddenly morphed from a sociable, well-adjusted kid into a fearful boy so beset by crippling obsessions that he refused to sleep alone, go to school or even play with the family dog. “We went from having a fun-loving, independent 8-year-old to a child who was more like a 2- or 3-year-old,” his mother recalled.
The surprising — and surprisingly common — cause of Will’s problem eventually led to a somewhat controversial treatment that appears to have cured him. Now 11, he shows no signs of the anguish he and his family endured.
During a Thanksgiving visit to San Diego a week before the car incident, Will had run a slight fever, then seemed to recover. His parents initially hoped the car episode was a fluke, but a few days later something similar happened: During Sunday brunch at a restaurant, Will suddenly got a panicky look on his face and bolted outside, complaining of a strange smell.
Will’s outbursts prompted Teague to take him to the pediatrician, who found nothing wrong. After a second visit, the doctor determined that Will might have strep throat and prescribed a 10-day course of amoxicillin.
Will said he felt better, and his anxiety seemed to wane. But three days after stopping the drug his fever and sore throat were back, as was the severe anxiety. Teague and her husband, who both had successfully battled panic attacks of their own, thought maybe Will was developing the same problem. Teague also noticed something else: Her son had begun repetitively throwing his head back and sniffing, as if he had a runny nose.
After a Christmas vacation punctuated by visits from worried grandparents (both grandfathers are retired doctors), school posed the next hurdle. A previously good student popular with his classmates, Will told his mother he didn’t want to go to school. Unable to ride the bus because the noise and rocking movement upset him, he also couldn’t bear to be separated from his mother, although that had never been a problem before.
“The janitor or vice principal would come to the car and peel him off me, screaming and crying, as they dragged him into school,” Teague recalled. He developed insomnia, grew extremely fearful of germs — leading to his refusal to play with the family dog — and was so afraid of vomiting that he began eating lunch alone in the school cafeteria, avoiding his many friends.