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Jessica Pryor and her husband, Roger, sat in joyful silence as they held their newborn daughter, Ellie.
“It was just pure bliss,” Jessica said.
Time seemed to stand still in the hospital, where the chaos of the busy summer couldn’t reach them.
At home, their two older children, Daxton and Ava, waited to meet their sister. Over the next few weeks, the family of four adjusted to becoming a family of five. Their daily routines and rhythms came together like pieces of a puzzle. But for Jessica, things were beginning to fall apart.
Pressure to be perfect
It didn’t take long for Jessica to no longer recognize herself. Having a newborn intensified the pressure to be a perfect mom. The cheery, upbeat woman she once was vanished. She tried her best to push through it. She didn’t want to admit to her family, or to herself, that something was wrong.
“I thought if you need help,” she said, “you’re not a good mom.”
Jessica’s mental health plummeted. She felt an uncontrollable sadness and could do nothing but cry. Beginning to worry, she decided to confide in her doctor about her postpartum depression at her two-week check-up. Most women, her doctor explained, feel this way after pregnancy as their hormones adjust. Jessica declined the medication offered at her appointment. But after grappling with her shame and guilt of needing help, she called back for a prescription. Her doctor called in antidepressants and told Jessica to come back if she felt worse.
She returned to her busy life as a mother of three, caring for her newborn and keeping Daxton and Ava entertained. Jessica, thinking her medication wasn’t working, stopped taking it before it could help. Her situation turned disastrous. By the time she realized how bad she felt, she believed nothing could be done.
“I just felt completely helpless,” she said. “It happened so fast.”
Giving in and giving up
Jessica’s sadness turned into paranoia. A distorted reality led her to feel insufficient as a mother. Thoughts of self-harm filled her head. With Roger on a trip, Jessica found herself alone in the house, her thoughts growing loud.
“I went out of town one day, and I just had this stomach feeling that I needed to be back home,” Roger said. “Something was severely wrong.”
Roger’s instincts proved to be right. He returned home and found that Jessica had attempted to take her own life. He rushed her to the emergency department. Doctors stabilized her. But she refused psychiatric help. At home, Jessica’s dark thoughts still screamed at her. She continued to self-harm. Roger continued to take her to the hospital.
During multiple hospital visits, Jessica answered questions about her mental state dishonestly. She had a background in social work and knew what to say to convince the staff to send her home.
“I did not really want help,” she said. “I had just given up at that point.”
A system of support
Roger took Jessica to her OB-GYN office, hoping that the care team she had been with throughout her pregnancy could convince her to get help. Michelle Kane, one of Jessica’s nurses, cried when she saw how bad she had gotten. She felt as if Jessica’s body stood in front of her, but that Jessica herself was gone.
“I’ve been with the practice for almost 11 years, and I’ve seen a lot of postpartum depression,” Michelle said. “But I’ve never seen anything quite like that.”
Jessica refused help, again. And Roger took her home, again. After they had left, Michell reflected on the lifeless Jessica she saw earlier and called Roger. She asked him to bring Jessica back to see Dr. Steven Crawford. She thought that if anyone could convince Jessica to get help, it would be him.
Dr. Crawford explained to Jessica that she needed help immediately. Her postpartum depression had evolved into postpartum psychosis. She needed to be admitted into the mental health unit, even if it meant hospital security escorting her there. Jessica reluctantly agreed. That day, Jessica took a step toward healing the pain that existed not only inside of her but also within her entire family.
Returning to the world
Jessica felt completely checked out from reality by the time she was admitted. Staying in the mental health unit, however, made her realize how terrible the situation had been for her and those around her. Missing her daughter’s first Christmas, she felt remorseful for putting her family into a state of distress.
“I feel like my job is to protect my children,” she said. “But it’s really scary when you have to protect your children from yourself.”
Jessica tried several medications in the mental health unit. None remedied her condition. Finally, the staff recommended electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).
“I was so out of it I was like ‘I’ll try whatever,’” Jessica said. “It was life-changing.”
Almost immediately, she felt better. After a few sessions of ECT, the bright, bubbly Jessica returned.
Although she had missed Christmas, she knew she’d be home for every Christmas that followed.
A house full of love
Even though it was frightening, Jessica says her experience brought her family closer together. She now speaks openly about mental health with her children, teaching them that is it okay to ask for help.
“I think when you do go through something like this, it does make you grow stronger,” Jessica said. “And I definitely think it did for us.”
She’s grateful to Roger, Michelle, and Dr. Crawford for fighting for her. Without them, she admits, she would not be here. She’s especially thankful for Roger, who stayed by her side through it all. Roger admits that the experience was hard for him. He has his own healing to do. But he never gave up hope or faltered in his mission to save Jessica.
“You don’t really know how much you really love somebody until you feel like you’re going to lose them,” Roger said.
At the time, Jessica felt trapped by the pressure to be a perfect mom. She wishes that she would have told Roger sooner that she was struggling. Thinking back, she knows the situation might not have escalated if she let go of the shame she felt. Jessica encourages anyone struggling with their mental health to be open and honest.
“If you feel anything is off, even just the slightest bit, just talk to somebody,” she says, “because it can save your life.”
With Jessica home, they’re a family of five again. And each day is better than the last.
“We are a wild bunch, but our house is full of laughter and love. Always.”