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Faced with loss, Michelle Williams can find hope

Posted Oct 22 2008 4:32pm

If Heath Ledger's ex-girlfriend, Michelle Williams, is looking for inspiration in the face of her loss, she can look no farther than Mary Jo Codey.

Williams (left), an actress, has been out of public view since " The Brokeback Mountain" star's death last week. But she is believed to be very distraught over the loss of the father of her 2-year-old daughter.

Codey, meanwhile, is the wife of Richard Codey, who served as New Jersey's acting governor from 2004 to 2006. But she is known mainly for her public disclosure that she suffered from postpartum depression.

The illness has dominated much of the last 25 years of Codey's life. But her story has inspired many - and now it's culminated with her winning the Eli Lilly Welcome Back Lifetime Achievement Award.

Ten years ago, Eli Lilly and Company, a pharmaceutical promotion company, says it launched the "Welcome Back Awards" to fight the stigma associated with depression and promote the understanding that depression is treatable.

Codey is "an amazing woman who has lent her life, public forum and passion to the cause of perinatal mental health," said Susan Dowd Stone, president of Postpartum Support International. "For years, Mary Jo has been a national spokesperson and crusader for maternal mental health, sharing her story to help other women reach out for help."

Knight-Ridder newspapers recently provided an in-depth and stirring account of how Codey recovered from the depths of postpartum depression to become a national symbol:

After giving birth to a son in 1984, Codey said she didn't feel the joy she saw on her husband's face. Her indifference became irritability, and then she began having thoughts that scared her -- urges to drown Kevin, or put him in the microwave.

Horrified by those images, Codey placed 6-week-old Kevin in her husband's arms and demanded to go to a mental institution.

"I didn't realize that once you were depressed, you could get over it. I just thought I was crazy. I gave the baby to my husband, and I said, 'Find yourself a new wife, Richie, someone who will be good to the baby,'" Codey recounted. "Suicide looked good to me. If you're having thoughts about harming your baby, wouldn't you rather kill yourself?"

At the Carrier Clinic in Belle Mead, N.J., Codey's condition stabilized with antidepressants. She returned home, but hid her experience from her family and friends. "I was afraid that maybe God would think I was ungrateful for the baby, and I wasn't. I went to a fertility doctor for three years to have him."

She stopped taking the medication when she became pregnant with her second son, Christopher, in 1988. By her eighth month, she was severely depressed, and her doctor told her that electric-shock therapy was her only option. She had one 11-week treatment that resulted in some memory loss, but no pain.

"I felt like such a waste of a human being, because there I was, eight months pregnant with a gift, and I was going for shock therapy," she said. "I didn't understand depression was biological and not my fault."

After Christopher's birth, Codey went back on her medication, and this time there were no baby blues.

"I could do and feel the things other mothers did," she said.

She told Kevin, now 20 and a sophomore at Drew University, and Christopher, 16 and a junior at Montclair Academy, about her illness "almost as soon as they could understand English."

"I never wanted them to hear, 'When you were born, your mother was so depressed she went to a psychiatric hospital,"' Codey (right) said. "If I wasn't secure in my relationship with them, I'd be afraid to tell them."

But her battle with depression wasn't over.

Early in 2002, shortly after her husband became copresident of the state Senate, Codey's antidepressants stopped working. Her doctor changed her medicine, but the dosage was too high.
Codey said she recalled opening her refrigerator on St. Patrick's Day, asking Christopher what he wanted for lunch, and then collapsing.

At the hospital, the family was told that doctors had induced a coma to stop seizures caused by the new medication. But then they couldn't bring her out of the coma.

"What do you say to your two teenage sons who ask if Mom is going to live?" her husband said, recalling the days he spent at the hospital.

Codey emerged from the coma after seven days, but struggled without medication for her depression.

Two weeks later, a routine mammogram showed she had breast cancer, the disease that had killed her mother. "I was a mess anyway, so the news didn't frighten me," Codey said. "My family was upset, but I was already as low as I could go."

She had a double mastectomy, fighting the cancer with chemotherapy and the depression with more shock therapy. As her cancer entered remission, a doctor put her on new depression medication that she said had worked well.

Codey said she was struck by the contrast between the care and concern breast-cancer patients receive and the stigmas associated with people suffering from mental illness.

She formed a postpartum-depression group at her local hospital, St. Barnabas, and listened to new mothers recount the same sort of thoughts she'd had. Her husband said he had often come home to find a new mother crying to his wife on the couch.

After Jim McGreevey resigned as governor in November 2004 and her husband became the state's chief executive, Codey resolved to use the opportunity. She speaks to mental-illness and women's groups two or three times a week, she said.

"When we're out on the weekends, women will grab Mary Jo by the arm and say, 'Thank you,'" Richard Codey said. "It helps when you have a survivor who can make people reach out and feel what you're talking about.
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