Two of a Kind

A friendship fostered by a painful bond yields a hopeful future for New Jersey mothers fighting through a debilitating disorder.

A friendship fostered by a painful bond yields a hopeful future for New Jersey mothers fighting through a debilitating disorder.

Mary Jo Codey and Sylvia Lasalandra couldn’t be more different. One is a shy, gentle kindergarten teacher perfectly content to watch the action swirl around her. The other is the swirl, a gregarious, earthy restaurateur who always gets the last word—and the last laugh.

But they are exactly alike in two ways. They once entertained thoughts of killing their babies. And they’re doing everything they can to make sure any woman dealing with those emotions gets help.

Just about every new mother has felt the “baby blues,” that collision of postpartum hormonal changes, sleep deprivation, and the boundless demands of caring for a helpless newborn. Eighty percent of moms experience postdelivery doldrums, but the crying jags and general malaise can be soothed with relative ease by understanding parents, supportive partners, and devoted friends. But getting help with household chores or late-night feedings can do only so much when you’re consumed by unimaginable thoughts about committing unspeakable acts.

Twelve years ago Codey went public with her experiences. The wife of Richard J. Codey, president of the New Jersey Senate and onetime acting governor, spoke candidly of the postpartum depression, counseling, medication, and shock therapy she endured after delivering their older son Kevin. “I had always wanted to be a mom. It took Richie and me three years to get pregnant the first time. We were so excited when I delivered Kevin, and the nurse came into my room and said, ‘Do you want to hold him?’ I just said, ‘No, I am tired right now.’ Richie had these tears of joy and I was thinking, Where’s my joy? All I wanted was a 7-Up. Richie went out to get something and came back without it, and I was ready to kill him. People just thought I was being a spoiled witch.”

Two years ago, a neighbor of the Codeys, aware of Mary Jo’s postpartum nightmare, asked her to talk to a friend of hers, a successful restaurant owner named Sylvia Lasalandra, who had been through a difficult time after giving birth to a little girl, Melina.

“When I met Sylvia,” Codey says, “I just started talking about my experiences…”

“And I just flipped when she told me about the 7-Up,” Lasalandra blurts out. “I just had to have a Coke! I couldn’t believe what she was telling me. What we went through was almost identical.”

Today the pair laugh a lot, finish each other’s sentences, swap stories of kids and husbands—and get things done. Together they championed the Postpartum Depression Screening Bill, which, with the support of Richard Codey and state senator Diane Allen, became law in April 2006. The law, part of the Codey-sponsored overhaul of the state’s mental-illness guidelines, allocates $4.5 million to help healthcare professionals educate expectant parents about postpartum depression and provide screening for symptoms after delivery. It’s the first legislation ever enacted to help fight the illness, and it prompted U.S. senators Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Richard Durbin of Illinois to propose the federal MOTHERS Act, aimed at targeting the illness across the nation. (At press time, the bill was still in committee.)

Postpartum depression affects roughly 10 percent of all new mothers. This means that as many as 16,000 New Jersey mothers each year have entertained thoughts of abandoning, hurting, or even killing their babies—or themselves. There are any number of mitigating factors, including hormonal changes, stress, preexisting depression, or panic at the thought of a future dictated by the needs of a human being you have brought into the world. But one constant remains: It can affect any mother. It doesn’t sort itself out by education, income, or social status.

“Mary Jo was brave enough to stand up years ago and tell her story. That was way before Andrea Yates was on TV,” Lasalandra says. Yates was convicted of murder in the deaths of her five children in the bathtub of their Texas home; she was later retried and acquitted as a result of misdiagnosed postpartum depression that degenerated into the more severe condition known as postpartum psychosis. It was also before New Jersey native Brooke Shields went public about her bout with postpartum depression, prompting noted psychiatric expert Tom Cruise to call it a bunch of bunk. “Tom Cruise actually helped the cause because he acted like an idiot and it got people talking for real about postpartum depression,” Lasalandra notes.

“Tom Cruise showed his ignorance and people jumped on him and it led to an honest discussion about the issue,” Codey adds. “The most important thing we can tell women is that you can beat it and you’re not alone. With the help of medication and the understanding of loved ones, you can get through it. And your life can be great. Kevin and Christopher are 22 and 18, seniors in college and high school,” she continues, speaking of her sons. “I couldn’t be more proud of them. Richie and I made it through.

“Of course, all these years later, when Richie became governor, I knew that I had to tell my story again. It’s a hard story to tell, but I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t use it to help all the mothers who are feeling so alone. They feel like nobody can help them. And when you get through it, you realize that it’s like standing in the ocean with a baby in your arms. There is a riptide that’s pulling you under and you’re fighting with everything you have to keep your head above water.

“When I met Sylvia, I instantly felt this amazing connection,” Codey says. “And over the years, we’ve been able to become a pretty incredible team. She says things that I can’t possibly imagine saying. I always tell her that I am the legislation and she is the entertainment.”

Lasalandra’s parents emigrated from Italy and set up eleven pizza shops in North Jersey. She never got the family business out of her system, and when she met a chef named Michael, he said on their first date that they should get married.

“I said, ‘You’re full of crap. Take me home,’ ” Lasalandra says with a laugh. “I got home and told my mom, and she said, ‘He’s right.’ Seven months later they were engaged. They eventually came to own two restaurants, Bacchus and Bruschetta. “I had it all,” she says. “The restaurants were successful; I was running around managing the business and our 60-plus employees. I was 32 when I got pregnant and I thought it was soon, but it just seemed to be another part of the dream. I mean, I succeeded in everything else I did, so why would this be any different?

“So, when I had Melina, everyone’s telling me about this beautiful little creature and I couldn’t be less interested. When we took her home, I wouldn’t look back at her in the car. We got to our house and I just ran upstairs, shut the door to my room, and cried. All these feelings continued. So I went to psychiatrists, and I am telling them that my feelings are getting stronger and stronger and I can’t find a way to fight them, and they had two answers, either ‘Take the baby home and bond with her’ or ‘What prescription do you need?’ And I’m like, ‘Did you hear a word I am saying? I want to get rid of my baby! And this is what you have to offer? Please.”

In 2005 Lasalandra self-published A Daughter’s Touch: One Woman’s Journey Through Postpartum Depression. It’s an alternately agonizing and hilarious journey through her ordeal, from total desperation to uplifting recovery. She even hired a company to produce a short film, in which she starred. Based on her book, it captured the “Best Short Drama” and “Best Direction” awards at the 2005 New York International Independent Film and Video Festival. Lasalandra has written a screenplay based on the book, and she and Codey have been talking with producers about turning it into a full-length movie. “We met with one the other day who wanted to make the main character kind of ditzy,” Codey says. “Sylvia just stopped him dead in his tracks. I am so proud of her because she won’t do it unless it’s done the right way to promote the right message.”

“I really want Penny Marshall to do it,” Lasalandra says. “All her movies show her great heart, and you know, despite all this brutal stuff, there are some funny moments too. And I know postpartum issues are global, but this story is a Jersey story and it’s got to be told by somebody who gets Jersey.”

Lasalandra and Codey say they share another trait: They picked the right guys. “I can’t even begin to tell you what Richie has meant to me, what he went through during my ordeal,” Codey says. “He is a rock. You can’t imagine how hard postpartum depression is on your family. Without him, I don’t know what I would have done.”

“Michael is the love of my life,” Lasalandra says. “I put him and Melina through so much and he never complained, no matter how worried he was. There was a day when the thought of having to brush my teeth and wash my face had me sobbing. Me, for God’s sake, who at one time couldn’t live without my high heels and favorite pants! After all of this, I can still see in his eyes how much he loves me. I am not so sure I could have been that patient.”

“I talked to Michael so much over the years,” Codey says, “and he has never been anything but loving and supportive and always trying to find new ways to make Sylvia and Melina feel loved.

“You know, when I speak to groups of women, I stand up and can see the look on many of their faces. They’re thinking, What’s this stuck-up rich bitch gonna tell me about what I’m going through? She doesn’t know a thing. But when I tell my story, they see I do know how bad they feel, how scared they are. And I am so afraid for all women going through it, especially if they don’t have a group around to love and nurture them—or if they don’t have the insurance or resources to cover the costs of getting the proper help.”

“Mary Jo and I are so blessed,” Lasalandra says, “but we also prove that postpartum depression can hit anyone. With the proper detection from doctors and nurses, with a plan for education, and—as weird as it seems—having a knucklehead like Tom Cruise come along every once in a while, we’ll be able to make everyone aware of just how serious postpartum depression is. We might not be able to fight all the ignorance, but we do have to make everyone see that we’re not all Andrea Yates and that this is about the survival of kids, moms, and their families.”

“When I was going through it, I talked to my sisters and my mom,” Codey says. “I was just so deeply ashamed about what was going on. I checked into a psychiatric hospital, where the head psych nurse would just say, ‘Well, it’s time to grow up.’ Then I would sit in these group-therapy sessions that were full of men in drug and alcohol recovery. I am the only woman in the room, trying to share my story, and they’re just looking at me, which just made me think, God, I am so whacked. But I can also say that, despite experimenting with medication and the electroshock [therapy], one of the greatest days I ever had was shortly after our younger son, Kevin, was born. I was giving him a bath and my mood lifted because I didn’t have any scary thoughts. Then I knew that I could be all right.

“I feel like the best thing that I can do to help women fight the self-hatred and the public stigma of the disease is showing them Christopher and Kevin. We have a bond that can’t be broken.”

“Now we talk about happy endings,” Lasalandra says. “I couldn’t hold my baby for nine months. My parents and Michael, God bless them, were there for me, and we made it through. I can’t even imagine my life without Melina now, and we’re going to keep fighting until all moms get to love their babies.”

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