After losing everything due to obsessive-compulsive behavior (OCD), man fights back from oblivion
By Michael J. Billoni
Sammy Violante, a 63-year-old motivational and inspirational speaker, looks a dozen Mount Saint Mary Academy journalism students in the eyes and exclaims, “Today, I receive $1,500 per month in Social Security Disability benefits but 25 years ago I was making over $10,000 per month. Today, I am the happiest I have ever been because I have found my true purpose in life.”
The young ladies at the town of Tonawanda private Catholic girls’ high school were mesmerized by “The Sammy V Story,” as he spoke about growing up a few blocks from the school, playing basketball at the Phillip Sheridan playground, and always wanting to be a teacher. That was until a Kenmore West High School guidance counselor said there are more jobs in the business field.
Reluctantly, he attended the University at Buffalo and after receiving a degree in management, he began a long, distinguished and profitable career as an investment broker in Buffalo for nearly 30 years.
Making high six-figure salaries annually, Violante had it all in his late 20s, 30s and 40s — money, a model for a wife, a flashy car with “Sammy V” vanity plates, the ability to travel the world, dinners at top restaurants and late nights of dancing and entertaining.
Violante had reached his nirvana back then and he had no intention of stopping this addictive rush of success.
However, in the early 1990s, he felt something coming over him that was extremely odd and eventually would crash his world to the ground. It would strip him of every tangible possession and lead him to the deep, dark hole of depression with many thoughts of suicide running through his mind before he says he finally heard the call from God.
“I began to exhibit excessive doubting and checking on everything I was doing,” he says as his voice lowers during an interview over lunch recently.
He finally went to his doctor, and in 1992, he was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive behavior.
OCD is a biochemical disorder that disrupts brain chemistry and causes high levels of anxiety. OCD inhibits the function of everyday life and the obsession continues to rattle itself in your brain.
“You cannot relax until you do an act to lower the anxiety level,” he notes. “At one time in my life, eight to 10 hours of my day were consumed by paralyzing doubting and checking.”
The effects at work were noticeable as he spent most of the time shuffling papers, unable to complete minimal tasks. In a termination letter from his employer, M&T Bank Securities, it stated “Reason for termination: unable to perform minimal job functions adequately.” Ultimately, this effectively blackballed him out of the industry.
Hits rock bottom
Devastated, Violante was lost. He stayed at home and soon thereafter, on Christmas Eve, his wife told him she would always love him but she could not live with him anymore and she left.
“How could my best friend leave me when I needed her the most?” he asks with mist forming in his eyes.
During that time, he visited 18 different doctors, was prescribed 14 different medications and was in and out of many hospitals, treatment centers, doctor’s offices and rehab facilities.
Nothing worked until his father, who came here from Italy, told his No. 1 son, “Sammy, get on your knees and pray and then look in the mirror. That is the only person who is going to help you. A quitter gives up. You are not a quitter. You are a winner.”
Those words hit home. While many of his friends stopped calling or visiting, his father came by his house several times a week and called often. Soon, Violante found Hahnemann University in Philadelphia for the treatment and management for anxiety and it specialized in OCD. It was led by a world-renowned specialist, physician Edna Foa. He had himself admitted.
“I went out and began to attack my OCD and quickly became an expert of this mental illness,” he recalls of those days in the late 1990s. The recovery was not easy. Twice he came home from Philadelphia and relapsed because he tried to go back to his former life, similar to an abusive drug user or alcoholic.
“I would return home and get into what I thought was my comfort level. After the second relapse, I returned to Philadelphia and before I left for the third time, they sat me down and said, ‘Sammy, your past comfort level must end. Everything in life that was important before, you must block out of your mind. You must forget about your ex-wife, your life as an investment banker and you must look into the mirror and at 50 years old, you must tell yourself you have to begin a new life.’”
It was a long ride home from Philadelphia to Williamsville, filled with prayers and thoughts about what lay ahead of him.
As a Catholic, Violante says he is a true believer that God does listen to prayers and his proof was in his new friend, Ellen, who supported him during his recovery.
They were married in 2000 and 17 years later are happier than ever, he says.
According to the OCD Foundation, only 2 percent of the world’s population that suffers from OCD is at the severe level that Violante must manage daily. Of that number, less than 5 percent ever truly recover.
Why is he different and why does he consider these the best days of his life?
“The meaning in life is to find the ultimate gift that God has given to us,” Violante tells the Mount Saint Mary Academy students. “The purpose in life is to give that gift away to those in need. When the Lord calls me, my legacy will read, ‘Sammy gave it all away to help the kids.’”
Soon after returning from Philly the third time, Violante talked to a friend about what’s next. His friend was on the board of the Compass House, a transitional home for runaway kids located on Linwood Avenue in Buffalo.
Violante met its former executive director, Sylvia Nadler, and instantly felt a connection. He agreed to volunteer and suddenly saw himself being pulled back to his original passion of being a teacher, coach and mentor.
His first day at Compass House was on Valentine’s Day, 2004 and this past Feb. 14, they celebrated his 13th anniversary of volunteering each Thursday. He estimates over 4,000 young boys and girls have heard his message there.
“Sammy had to overcome a great deal of anxiety and began here with great hesitancy,” Nadler recalls. “He was worried about being accepted by young people who were coming from such different life experiences. However, he is so genuine, loving and considerate that even the most difficult kids recognized his ‘solid gold’ heart. Sammy is one of the most beautiful people that I know.”
Interestingly, he is using the same skills that led him to become an award-winning top investment broker to tell his story and mentor youth and students throughout Western New York. In 1990, Empire National Securities, Inc. recognized him as the No. 1 producing investment broker for the entire company.
Gives of himself
He volunteers at 15 youth organizations, facilitates an OCD support group at the Mental Health Association of Erie County, Inc. every other week and, most important to him, he has presented his story to more than 50,000 students in 152 grammar, middle and high schools throughout Western New York since 2014.
Kenneth P. Houseknecht, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Erie County, has watched in awe as Violante runs his OCD support group.
“The room is always packed for Sammy’s group and I see many of the same folks there, week after week, year after year. Many peer support groups come and go, but this one has lasted – and grown – for many years,” Houseknecht said. “That is due, in large part, to Sammy’s exceptional leadership. Sammy is a great motivator. He has a compelling personal story that he shares freely and completely.
“More than anything, he disarms people, creating a safe place for them to share their own stories and find hope and healing. Sammy is one of the good guys — a real community treasure. Even more than that, I am honored to call him a friend. His story inspires and motivates me and many others.”
Bridget McNally, a program assistant in the communication department at the MHA, has a photo of Violante on her wall and has watched him for years. “His group has grown expansively over the years and he never fails to go above and beyond for the members that need it,” she said. “He consistently attends and supports all of our agency events. We are blessed to have a volunteer as valuable as Sammy.”
Sammy’s newfound passion is with young students in schools and it is because of a quote he read from Frederick Douglass three years ago: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
“Volunteering and mentoring our youth became my purpose to get out of the house to make living with OCD easier,” Sammy explains. “Quickly, though, my purpose became my passion and ultimately my passion became my calling from God and that is why I have never been happier in life.
“The two most important days in our lives are when we were born and when we find out why we were born. Through the recovery of my OCD, I have found why I was born.”
Sammy Violante at a Glance
Name: Sammy Violante
Hometown: Williamsville, NY
Education: Bachelor of Science, Business Management, University at Buffalo, 1975 graduate
Career: Investment broker; financial consultant; mentor, life coach, inspirational speaker
Hobbies: Sports and music; making an impact on people’s lives
Motto: “Remember a life is truly unimportant unless it positively impacts the lives of others”
Things most people don’t know about him: A Buffalo Bills season ticket holder for 44 seasons; Master of Ceremonies of many disco dance parties throughout Western New York