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The Philadelphia Inquirer (PA)

March 1, 1999


For Kim Eberly, it wasn’t enough to hand out party favors to her daughter’s friends. She wanted to hide the favors in a sandbox so the children could dig for buried treasure.

Her friends and family say she poured the same energy and perfectionism into every task, whether designing newsletters, protecting a park in her Delaware County neighborhood, or tackling the only problem that ever visibly threatened to defeat her – postpartum depression.

In 1995, six weeks after delivering her daughter, Morgan, Eberly became so anxious and despondent that, for a time, she was unable to speak. After six months of taking antidepressants and therapy, she recovered. Then, she set out to fight.   She sent female friends and relatives pamphlets warning that postpartum depression strikes one in 10 mothers and often goes undiagnosed.

She wrote them a letter describing feelings  “so powerful and so difficult to understand at the time that I found it easier to shut everyone out.”   When she became pregnant again in 1997, she lined up everything in advance, just in case: a therapist, a psychiatrist and prescriptions. Ian was born July 31, 1998. Five weeks later, the illness struck again.

But with the preplanned treatment, Eberly, 35, “seemed to be doing so much better than the first time,” said her sister Kelley Prasad of Phoenixville.   Until Jan. 2. That morning, Eberly took off in her husband’s pickup, leaving a message that she “needed some time.”

On Jan. 8, the truck was found in a Radnor parking lot. A note inside asked for forgiveness. It said,  “There is something terribly wrong with my brain.”   Nearby, in some woods, police found Eberly’s body leaning against a concrete pillar of the Blue Route. She had shot herself through the forehead.

Eberly’s sisters and mother met recently to tell her story in the hope of urging other families to seek help.   More than 600 people bought $10 tickets to a benefit concert for Eberly’s family, which was held Saturday at Rosemont College.

Eberly’s friends clustered around a table where therapist Karen Kleiman answered questions about postpartum depression.

* Postpartum depression often is confused with “baby blues,” feelings of fear, dejection, anger or anxiety that affect 50 to 80 percent of mothers, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Baby blues start a few days after childbirth and subside within a week or two. Postpartum depression (PPD) is more intense and persistent. It may strike any time in the baby’s first year and can lead to thoughts of harming oneself or one’s baby, experts say.

Ten percent of mothers experience some form of PPD, according to the medical group. From 2 to 4 percent have a major depression, such as Eberly’s, that must be treated with antidepressants, said Lee S. Cohen, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist.

It is rare for women with PPD to kill themselves or their children, but some attempt suicide and more ponder it.  Those with less obvious symptoms often go untreated, said Kleiman, who runs the Post-Partum Stress Center in Rosemont.

“Their hair is perfect. Their outfit is perfect,” she said.  “If you don’t ask these women how they’re feeling, you don’t know.”

Nurse-clinician Susan Ellis Murphy started her PPD support program at Kennedy Health System in South Jersey in part, she said, because some doctors did not see the problem as real.

Throughout the country, health-care professionals such as Kleiman and Ellis Murphy are raising awareness about PPD. They call on doctors to screen pregnant and postpartum women routinely – and urge friends and family to watch for signs.

Symptoms include sadness, guilt, helplessness and hopelessness that disrupt daily life; eating and sleeping problems; irritability; and indifference to or excessive worry about the baby.

Also take note if a woman “loses interest in things she found pleasure in beforehand . . . stares out the window . . . can’t concentrate, is dwelling on thoughts of death, feeling like . . . her baby would be better off with somebody else,” said Lewis Mehl-Madrona, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

“In normal adjustment to birth, there are days of incredible joy, a wide range of emotions . . . In depression, it’s relatively constant,” he said.

Researchers are unsure whether PPD differs chemically from other forms of clinical depression. It is tempting to blame plummeting estrogen levels after childbirth, Cohen said.  But hormonal treatments have not been proven effective, he said, while antidepressants such as Prozac and Paxil have.

What is sure is that PPD comes at a time when women are dealing with the psychological pressures of motherhood, so it is easily dismissed as part of the difficulty of being a new mother, Cohen said.

Experts said new mothers needed family and friends to help them juggle tasks, learn mothering skills, and support their choices.

Eberly had all that, along with the awareness and the will to take precautions. Yet none of it saved her.

* In telling Eberly’s story, her relatives keep coming back to the frightening power of depression.

Married to Scott, her high school sweetheart from Manheim Township, Lancaster County, Eberly was known for working hard as a freelance graphic designer – and for being the kind of mother who might make others feel inadequate.

Pregnant with Morgan, she hand-painted a lamp and sewed curtains for the nursery. Later, she interviewed countless pediatricians and sized up five preschools.

“I picked the one close to my house,” said her sister Jill Gamber, 33.

But when depression struck, Eberly said she wished she could be “a fly on the wall” at her sisters’ homes to see how they each managed their two children. She said she felt like a failure.

“Every day, she did breakfast, lunch, dinner, washed the clothes, went to the bank,” said her mother, Lin Stainbrook. “You could explain the facts, but it didn’t affect her emotions.”

Eberly could not see the reality: She was doing everything right.

High-powered women such as Eberly may be prone to PPD, Kleiman said, because they are not used to the chaos and loss of control that accompany motherhood.

“Part of my job is to show them that part of being a good mom is making a mess, making mistakes,” she said.

Although Eberly thought she could beat a second bout of PPD with careful planning, a sympathetic midwife and plenty of time off, psychiatrists caution against the idea that major depression can be conquered with an act of will.

Eberly’s family wonders about that, too. After Ian’s birth, they kept telling her how well she was dealing with the problem.

“That was supposed to be encouraging, but I wonder now if for her that was more pressure,” her sister Kelley Prasad said.

In December, Eberly wrote in her journal: “I am ruining my family. I have no energy. I just want to sleep. I don’t know how to be a person. How to fit in.”

Her family now says that if they had pooled everything Eberly told them separately, they would have taken her to the hospital.

She told Prasad of a dream during which a knife stabbed through Ian and into her chest. She gave away clothes and linens. After a holiday visit, she told her sister-in-law Tish Stainbrook: “Four hours of bliss and now back to reality.”

That same night, she gave her sister Jill Gamber a limp hug. Gamber said she wondered why she didn’t say, `Kim, are you all right?” But Eberly did not invite people in.

“I would call, and she would just basically hang up on me,” said close friend Susan DiGironimo.

When Eberly disappeared, the family tracked her credit cards and posted fliers. They hoped she was pursuing a fantasy she had joked about: running off with $1,000 to be a waitress.

But the truth made an awful kind of sense. Eberly had found the key to the gun cabinet, which her husband hid in his truck. She had packed bullets in a jewelry box and left a distress signal – a red T-shirt – in the truck window.

Scott Eberly scattered her ashes from a rock by Ridley Creek. Morgan tied a message to a bunch of balloons. When she set the balloons free, she kept one, telling her father: “I want to go to Mommy, too.”

The family moved in with Scott Eberly’s parents in Lancaster County. He quit his job as a commercial diver, fixing bridges underwater: too much travel, too much danger.

On Summit Road in Upper Providence, the family is missed. Meredith Burnett, the family’s neighbor, remembers their efforts to preserve Ray Roche Park. She also said that Eberly had urged her, as a social worker, to get help for a client with PPD.

“This was not a person who wanted to get out of her life,” DiGironimo said.

Prasad has a card Eberly wrote to a friend who had a miscarriage, telling her:  “Don’t expect too much of yourself . . . don’t beat yourself up . . . don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

“That’s exactly what she did when she was depressed,” Prasad said.  “She beat herself up.”