Book Review: This One Is Special

“Whatever will my friends think, when they read this book of dreams? We are not used, as a society, to revealing our inner worlds.”

This One Is Special, by Suzanne Askham, is a memoir of raising the author’s differently abled son, Timmy, who has multiple and complex health issues and needs. Timmy was born apparently healthy but within ninety minutes of his birth had stopped breathing. It was the beginning of a journey that no new parent expects to have to navigate.

Doctors were keen to diagnose, that appropriate care could be offered to the baby. This resulted in a plethora of painful and invasive tests over an extended time period. Suzanne slowly realised that what her son was being put through was as much for the benefit of the clinicians as for his long term wellbeing. Indeed, some of the clinicians did not regard Timmy as having a long term future. Suzanne, however, could see her boy’s potential and would not give up hope.

The bulk of the book is taken from a manuscript written in 1999, when Timmy was three years old. This is bookended by: a prologue explaining why it was written but not published at that time, and by a few chapters written as Timmy reaches adulthood.

Suzanne analyzes her dreams. She prays and practices meditation. Along with her interest in holistic medicine, she admits that some of what she sets store by can sound a bit “woo woo”. Suzanne writes of her spiritual rather than religious beliefs. Reading many of these passages took me outside my comfort zone.

I am a firm believer in the power of the brain in health issues – of the painful reality of psychosomatic illness. Why then does something that sounds more spiritual than scientific unsettle me? I tried hard to read with an open mind. If the author believes she saw Jesus in a dream and this helped her, it harms no one. She states that Timmy benefited from certain alternative treatments.

Suzanne writes with a gentle cadence but there is an underlying anger to how the differently abled are treated. She noticed that Timmy sensed differences in attitude to his presence in a variety of settings. At home, amongst friends, and at nursery he would be relaxed, sociable and happy. In hospitals he would be upset and afraid.

Timmy’s early years were spent in Kingston, a Borough of London. Suzanne describes it thus:

“The primary schools came top of the national tables this year, and the borough has the highest number of graduates in the country. There is a feeling here of many people living fulfilling lives, and a liberal acceptance of differences.”

Such acceptance is not found everywhere. Suzanne encounters many who ask her the wrong questions – projecting their assumptions about her son – or do not treat Timmy as she would wish. As well as trying to make potentially life changing decisions, when the medical establishment does not always provide full information, she must run the gauntlet of public scrutiny.

“It is harder to feel love towards someone who is looking at me critically.”

The book is about Timmy and the difficulties he has faced but also about the changes these catalyzed in Suzanne. She observes how her attitude can affect outcomes. She learned to garner strength from quiet preparation – to picture the positive and seek to forgive.

Suzanne, raised as a military child, attended a boarding school but still appears close to her family. She also writes warmly of the support received from her partner’s family. Friends were attentive, even from a distance. Although ultimately it was down to Suzanne to deal with everyday issues, she had a network she could rely on.

Her partner, Steven, was finance editor at a national newspaper. They had private health insurance. I regard these facts as significant as they enabled Timmy to receive the best care available – money makes a difference. Still though, when Timmy took seriously ill during a holiday in America, the emergency treatment he received there – thanks to their insurance – was superior to anything the NHS could offer. Suzanne is grateful to but not glowing in her praise of NHS healthcare practices.

She observes the need to set aside what might have been – regret – and to enjoy what is possible now.

I most enjoyed the chapters that offered a glimpse at the family life Timmy enjoyed – how he was appreciated for being himself. When Steven was preparing to visit Everest, Timmy and Suzanne went to London to watch him abseil of a high rise office building. Timmy and Steven enjoy star gazing. The family made a happy memory swimming together under a waterfall in St Lucia. Suzanne and Steven are not afraid to take Timmy on adventures. His joyous reaction after his first flight was beautiful to read.

And this book offers many such moments of beauty in amongst the major challenges of a child with severe health issues. Suzanne has found her own way to get through.

The world needs less cynicism and much more kindness. Science progresses when it remains open to possibilities.

Timmy has confounded the experts on many occasions and grown to adulthood. I hope that reading this account of his early years will offer light to other parents of differently abled children. Whatever one thinks of the range of holistic treatments mentioned, it is fine to be challenged by such honest and heart-felt opinion.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.