by Deb Wachenheim
March 3, 2014
It was one year ago (March 13, 2013) when I lost my sister, the person with whom I shared a bedroom growing up, traveled to places I never would have had the guts to go had it not been for her, and who was the maid of honor at my wedding, as I was at hers. A person who was a loving and much loved aunt to her 4 nieces and nephews, a devoted daughter to her parents, including when they were each going through struggles with cancer, and a mother to a 10-month-old son who was the apple of her eye and meant everything to her.
When Cindy died by suicide last March, after 6 months of postpartum anxiety and depression, our family was thrown into a surreal world of trying to grieve for someone when you are in a state of shock over a sudden and unexpected death, and doing this while the details of her death, and life, were printed in newspapers and on-line. Explaining the sudden death of their seemingly healthy aunt to my then 5 and 7-year-old daughters was a delicate task, and I continue to seek guidance on this process from social workers, knowing that only more questions will arise over time.
I can’t help but ask myself what I could have done, or what I did that I shouldn’t have done, during those 6 months leading up to March 13. I know that is pointless, but I still ask myself, if I had picked up the phone and called her that afternoon instead of sending over a quick check-in e-mail between work meetings, would the sound of my voice have made a difference? I fantasize about talking to her on the phone and discovering what she is planning to do, then keeping her talking long enough for me to write a note to a colleague to call my husband and have him get emergency personnel over to her apartment building before she takes that final step. I know she read my e-mail not long before she died-maybe if I had written a longer message, talking about my kids, she would have been lifted just a little bit out of the dark place she was in and decided that life was worth living. But I will never know.
As I have tried to find ways to speak up, be an advocate, and educate others, I find myself continuously thinking about many different aspects of what new mothers, and especially those in the throes of mental distress, have to deal with, and wondering which of these factors could have been the one, or the two or three, that led Cindy into the downward spiral that resulted in her death.
My sister very much wanted to be a mother. She married in 2009 when she was almost 41 years old and she and her husband tried to have a baby for a couple of years until finally she gave birth to her son. After IVF and miscarriages, she was thrilled to have a healthy little baby boy. At that point she was 44 and wanted to enjoy every minute with her son. Looking back, I wonder if the hopes and expectations were so high because of the circumstances of having tried for a while and then being an “older” first time mom who may not have another chance at having a baby. All new moms (and moms who are not new) have the pressure on them to be, in some respects, “perfect.” And that pressure can often come most intensely from the moms themselves. When Cindy became convinced that she had inadvertently harmed her son, and that she had done something as “stupid” (to quote her) as letting him play on a thin mat on a wooden floor where he could hit his head, her world started falling apart. She became convinced that she was not a good mother.
When Cindy was in a state of anxiety about her son’s health, she spent a lot of time on the Internet researching his presumed symptoms, or anything she noticed that that seemed abnormal. The Internet can be an amazing tool for people going through health care experiences but it can also become a black hole into which someone who is already anxious and depressed can be dragged, finding more and more “evidence” to support whatever is making them anxious or depressed. And when someone isolates themselves socially because of their depression, they can get further and further sucked into that black hole. I think Cindy also may have felt somewhat alone in her motherhood journey, despite having many caring family members and friends who were there to help her along the way, because my mom and dad had both passed away by the time she gave birth. My mom died in 2002 and my dad died when Cindy was about 4 months pregnant. It is hard enough being a new mom and even harder when those who you looked to as role models and who always gave you unconditional love and support are not there.
Finally, I find myself thinking a lot about our system (or often lack thereof) of mental health care. Cindy did start seeing a psychiatrist and taking medication, and she tried to find someone to provide talk therapy. In a city like NYC, with so many health care providers and therapists, I can imagine it was overwhelming trying to find a therapist who could help her. It is hard enough for someone to find a doctor for non-mental health care who you like and feel comfortable taking with openly. It is even harder to find a mental health care provider who fills that need, and harder still for someone who is in a depressed state to be able to find that provider. And who takes insurance at all, let alone your insurance.
I am writing this as I am awaiting the arrival of a videographer from the NY Times who will film me talking about Cindy as part of an upcoming article on postpartum depression, psychosis, and other perinatal mood disorders. I am hopeful that this article will shed some light on this topic, reduce the stigma surrounding it, and, perhaps, help at least one woman who is struggling with PPD or at least one family member or friend who is concerned about someone. And my family and I hope to be able to continue talking and finding ways to help others. We welcome your suggestions.