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Hear it From... Mary Jo Codey

graphicMary Jo Codey is a devoted wife and mother, a gifted educator and counselor, and a staunch advocate for individuals whose lives are affected by mental illnesses, including postpartum depression. The former First Lady of New Jersey, Mrs. Codey was instrumental in the passage of the Postpartum Depression Screening Bill, which became New Jersey law in April 2006. The law allocates $4.5 million to help healthcare professionals educate expectant parents about postpartum depression and provide screening for symptoms after delivery.

To listen to the complete interview with Mary Jo Codey, click here.

Question: How old were you when you had your baby?
Mary Jo Codey: I was 29 years old when I had my first baby, Kevin.

Did you know about postpartum depression (PPD) and if so, how did you hear about it?
Mary Jo Codey: I had no idea what postpartum depression was and it never even occurred to me that you can be mildly depressed after having a baby, never mind severely depressed, which is the way it went for me. To me, it didnít make any sense; it would be like someone who just won the million dollar lottery, but when they gave him the winning ticket he became depressed.

Question: If you have more than one child, did you experience PPD with the other children?
Mary Jo Codey: I had another son, Christopher; after having severe postpartum depression the first time, I was worried and I went to my psychiatrist and I asked her what the chances of getting postpartum depression again would be. I was on medication for postpartum depression for the first child and she said we would have to go off the medication. I really wanted, with my whole heart and soul, another baby. I discussed it with my husband and we decided to go for it. The depression returned 3 months into the pregnancy after being off the medication.

Question: Were you happy about having children?
Mary Jo Codey: I was extremely happy about having my first son, Kevin, because Iím a teacher and children for me are the greatest gift that God could give anyone. I was always praying to be able to get pregnant. I had a hard time getting pregnant; it took my husband and I 3 years to get pregnant with Kevin. So, happy would be an understatement.

Question: Did you have a difficult pregnancy?
Mary Jo Codey: I didnít have a difficult pregnancy with my first child, physically. Mentally, I was worried about losing the pregnancy; because it took me 3 years to get pregnant with him. So I was stressed out the whole time I was pregnant.

Question: Did you have a supportive partner during and after your pregnancy?
Mary Jo Codey: My husband was always there for me; he was supportive emotionally. Financially, I really didnít have too many worries and it just didnít make sense to me that someone who had as much as I did could be depressed after having a baby.

Question: How did you feel the first 2 weeks after having the baby?
Mary Jo Codey: The first day after I had the baby was pretty nonemotional for me. And after I delivered him, they asked me did I want to hold the new baby and I said not really. I didnít want to talk to anyone; I didnít want to even see the baby. I couldnít have cared less, which I understand now was the first red flag that something wasnít right with me after the birth of the baby. Two weeks after the birth of the baby, I was so depressed, I could hardly breathe and I realized that I was depressed because I was withdrawn; I didnít want any gifts that people were giving me. All I wanted to do was sit in the closet of my bedroom with the door closed and have everyone leave me alone.

Question: What were you feeling/thinking?
Mary Jo Codey: I was thinking: Thereís something wrong with me. Why donít I want to see my family? Why donít I want to see the baby? Why am I so withdrawn? I remember thinking: People must think badly of me; we had a nurse to come in for the first 2 weeks after Kevin was born and I never went down to see the baby at all. I didnít check on him; I didnít ask about him when the nurse would come up to talk to me and I thought she must think Iím a witch. And I thought my friends who I wonít talk to on the phone must think Iím ungrateful. I thought I was selfish and immature -- and things got worse after that. I started taking care of the baby myself when he was 3 weeks old and I didnít bond with him at all. I just remembered from being a teacher we had many child growth and development courses to become a teacher and I knew Piagetís theory of development; I knew I couldnít leave the baby wet without changing him because he wouldnít develop trust when he was older. I knew all these theories and I was taking care of the baby with my head and not my heart because I just couldnít bond.

Question: Did anyone ask you how you were really feeling? Did you want anyone to ask you how you were feeling?
Mary Jo Codey: No one asked me how I was really feeling; people just expected me to feel happy and had no clue that I was so depressed -- no one except my husband.

Question: Had you experienced other mood disorders in your past, such as bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, eating disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disease?
Mary Jo Codey: I had no history in my past of bipolar disorder or anxiety disorders; or obsessive-compulsive disorders that I can think of. I was not on any psychiatric medication previous to Kevinís birth, but I was depressed once when I was 26 years old. It was a pretty severe depression because it was the first time in my life that I told my husband, and he wasnít my husband yet, that I needed a psychiatrist because I knew physically I was fine, but mentally I couldnít get out of bed. And I said to my husband, "If I canít get out of bed and physically Iím fine, I must need a psychiatrist," which made me kind of horrified because I really didnít know what the whole psychiatric situation was and I was kind of horrified that I had everything that I wanted and I still needed a psychiatrist. I didnít understand the chemical part of depression.

Question: Is there a history of these illnesses in your family?
Mary Jo Codey: There is a history of depression in my family; my father was depressed over losing his job. I think he cried for a year and I didnít understand what depression was and I was so angry with him. My mother was depressed. My father said all she did was sit on the edge of the bed and comb her hair and cry.

Question: Had you experienced sexual abuse or domestic violence in the past or during your pregnancy?
Mary Jo Codey: Iíve never experienced sexual abuse or domestic violence in the past and never during my pregnancy.

Question: Did you seek help for PPD, or did someone suggest it?
Mary Jo Codey: I didnít know what postpartum depression was and no one certainly around me knew what postpartum depression was, so no one suggested it.

Question: How long did it take for you to decide to seek treatment?
Mary Jo Codey: I knew when Kevin was 2 weeks old that I needed help for depression.

Question: From the following list, where did you go for help: pediatrician, family physician, OB-GYN, therapist, pastor, doula, breastfeeding expert, or a social worker?
Mary Jo Codey: I called up my obstetrician/gynecologist and I said: Iím depressed; I have no idea why. He had known me for 10 years previous to this; he was just as shocked, I think, as I was because I was so thrilled during my pregnancy. He said to me I needed a psychiatrist to deal with this level of depression that I was experiencing because some women did get depressed after having a baby and he didnít know how to medicate psychiatric disorders. So he gave me the name of a woman who would treat me for postpartum depression.

Question: Was it difficult to ask for help?
Mary Jo Codey: Deciding to seek treatment was easy because I was desperate; I went to just the OB/GYN first and then to the psychiatrist. It was difficult to ask for help because I was so depressed and I felt like such a selfish person when I had to ask for help for depression after having a baby.

Question: What kind of treatment did you receive?
Mary Jo Codey: The kind of treatment I received was medication right away. I took antidepressants for 3 weeks and it didnít work, so then I tried another 3 weeks on a different antidepressant and that didnít work. So we went through almost 12 months of switching antidepressants. All the time Iím having scary intrusive thoughts that Iím going to hurt my baby.

Question: Were you breastfeeding at the time of your treatment? If so, did this affect your choice of treatment?
Mary Jo Codey: I wasnít breastfeeding. Breastfeeding was something that I desperately wanted to do. I read all the books on breastfeeding; I got the pads to breastfeed and I went to the hospital with all my equipment and I was so depressed, when they asked me if I wanted to breastfeed, I said thereís no way I want to breastfeed; I donít even care if the kid eats! Thatís how depressed I was.

Question: Did you feel any shame because you were receiving treatment for PPD?
Mary Jo Codey: The shame that I felt that I was receiving postpartum depression treatment was overwhelming. The fact that someone could be depressed after having a baby didnít make any sense to me.

Question: Did you share what you were going through with family and/or friends?
Mary Jo Codey: I told no one, except my husband knew obviously that I was depressed, but my sisters came down for Christmas and all the while Iím having scary thoughts that Iím going to hurt my baby and I donít want to see anyone and Iím terrified all the time. I would put a Santa suit on the baby and they would think I was just fine.

Question: Did your doctor run any tests to see if other health problems might be causing your symptoms?
Mary Jo Codey: The first thing doctors did when they saw how depressed I was or what a mess I was was check my thyroid; I must have my thyroid checked 100 times and, unfortunately for me, I thought thereís nothing wrong with my thyroid. It must be me, that Iím really crazy.

Question: Do you feel there was anything you could have done differently to have prevented or lessened your chances of getting PPD?
Mary Jo Codey: I donít think I could have done anything differently to lessen postpartum depression because when I had my son 22 years ago, there was nothing out there on it, so no one was around to help me do anything for it. I was in a psychiatric hospital; I finally committed myself when I had a scary thought about putting the baby in the microwave. I thought thatís the straw that broke the camelís back; I was having thoughts of smothering him, throwing him off the balcony and they would torment me 12 times a day. And when I had the microwave oven thought, my husband came home from making a speech and I said: Iím going into the hospital first thing Monday morning. I told him what my thought was and I said youíre going to have to raise the baby on your own.

Question: Did having PPD affect your feelings about having more children?
Mary Jo Codey: I was happy and I felt gifted that I was pregnant with the second baby, but I was very much afraid of postpartum depression. Iíve seen many women over the years hesitant about ever having another baby and most of them wound up having babies again, which means postpartum depression is treatable. Itís not you, and you wonít spend the last of your life in a psychiatric hospital the way I thought I would.

Question: Is there any advice you would give women who are experiencing PPD?
Mary Jo Codey: Advice that I would give women who are experiencing PPD is not to be afraid of going on medication because medication can only help; itís not going to change your personality; itís not going to turn you into a zombie; itís not going to change who you are. Itís just going to make you who you were before you had postpartum depression. Another piece of advice I would give mothers with postpartum depression is to reach out to the Web sites; they can give you professional help and personal help with people who are dealing with postpartum depression. Donít be terrified of those intrusive thoughts that youíre having; donít beat yourself up over them. If you canít dismiss those thoughts in your head, itís time to talk to a psychiatrist because you probably will need postpartum depression medication.

Question: Is there any advice you would like to give to healthcare providers who deal with pregnant women or new mothers?
Mary Jo Codey: I would ask pediatricians to ask a mother when she comes with her baby whoís a few weeks old or a few months old how she is feeling. You can get postpartum depression any time from the birth of your baby to the first year -- the best thing you could ask a mom is: How are you doing with the baby? The pediatricians tend to focus on the babies; the gynecologists and obstetricians tend to focus on the motherís physical well-being.

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