The note was simple in its anguish. “I am so uncomfortable in my body, I could scream,” it read. “I don’t know how long I can keep going. I want to die yet want to live. What shall I do?” Buried under papers in a drawer, the note had been scrawled by Phil Aronson, the husband of plus-size model and Fashion Emergency host Emme, during one of the darkest days of his battle with clinical depression in 2003. When the couple discovered the note last summer, as they were cleaning out a desk in their New Jersey home, it served as a reminder of just how much they have been through in the past three years. “It was the worst experience of my life,” says Aronson, who believes the depression was brought on by an excruciatingly painful urological disorder. Like many of the 18.5 million adult Americans estimated by the National Institute of Mental Health to suffer each year from clinical depression, Aronson saw both his and Emme’s once-idyllic lives fall into disrepair. At one point Aronson even attempted suicide before finally finding his way out of the darkness with the help of medication and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).
Life is now back to the way it was. Aronson, 42, has returned to work, and Emme, 41, is rebuilding the career she put on hold to care for her husband. Their daughter Toby, now 3, is in pre-school. As for Phil’s depression, “I hope to God it never returns,” Emme says. “I don’t know if I could be strong enough to go through it again.” Since the disease continues to be shrouded in mystery and battled in relative silence, Aronson and Emme decided to speak about their ordeal in the hope of helping others. They sat down with PEOPLE’s Todd Gold.
Phil: In March 2002 I picked up a virus that turned into prostatitis, an inflammation of the prostate gland that results in burning pain. I saw four urologists. They prescribed medication to knock it out, plus painkillers, but nothing worked. On a scale of 1 to 10, the pain was at an 8. I’d tell Emme I couldn’t stand the pain and wanted to kill myself. My identical twin, Seth, had been seriously depressed 20 years earlier after a broken engagement. But you can’t anticipate something like that happening to you. By the time I did, I was too far in to get out.
Emme: We tried to keep life normal, but all of our plans began to fall apart. Every weekend I made excuses to friends. Phil couldn’t leave the house because he had such angst over his physical and emotional pain. I had to cut down on the trips I took for business—even the 20-minute trip from home to New York City. I’d look for windows when Phil was having a better day, but they were infrequent, and business suffered. Then we went out to the beach for two weeks with Phil’s family. Phil spent all night pacing back and forth like a caged animal. He turned to me, pleading, crying, “Nothing’s working. You’ve got to help me.” I stood there helplessly, thinking, “Oh my God, I don’t know what to do.”
Phil: Soon after Toby’s first birthday on Aug. 9, 2002, I saw Dr. Ralph Wharton, a psychopharmacologist/psychiatrist at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, who’d treated my brother during his depression. He prescribed the antidepressant Elavil, and Darvon for the pain. I hoped the medicines would be my magic bullet, but they weren’t.
Emme: It had been almost a year since this thing had started, and our life was almost unbearably strained. There was Phil’s sanity, and then there was my own. So like Phil, I began seeing a therapist. During the sessions, I’d bury my head into the pillow and scream.
Phil: My doctor thought it would be a good idea for me to exercise because it increases the level of serotonin, an organic compound believed to play a crucial role in depression. I started riding my bike into the city. It’s about 30 miles round-trip. That ride took me over the George Washington Bridge. As I crossed the bridge, I got off my bike and stood at the edge, looking out at the water. Sometimes I’d stand there for half an hour, trying to convince myself to jump. But I couldn’t. It was a tug-of-war between having every intention of stepping over the rail and ending all my problems, and wanting to live for Emme and Toby.
Emme: Once I found out what he was thinking, I put an end to the bike riding. I started having people watch Phil all the time. I didn’t want him to be alone. But then he started to beat himself up. He hit himself. Hard.
Phil: I would stand in front of the bathroom mirror and berate myself till I smacked myself. I’d also sneak out in my car. I’d put the top down and see how long I could drive with my eyes closed. I’d imagine hitting a tree. I had many crying episodes around then. I remember leaving rooms because I didn’t want Toby to see me cry. One time I remember, after making love I sobbed in Emme’s arms. I could not stop crying. I had zero libido. I wondered if I would ever be intimate again.
Emme: It was Aug. 1, 2003, and we were about to hit bottom. As I left my therapy session, Phil was sitting outside in the waiting room, slumped in the chair with a woe-is-me look. I said, “Get up and let’s go.” As we walked home, we saw a guy from the neighborhood with his dog and his family, and Phil began visiting with them. Suddenly he became the Phil who was great to strangers, but as soon as they left, Phil went back into his depression. I was so upset by that. We got home and we weren’t talking. I didn’t even want to be in the same bed as he was that night. I fell asleep in the other bed in Toby’s bedroom. The next morning Toby and I went in to wake up Phil. We were singing, “Good morning to you.” When he didn’t stir, we sang louder. Nothing. All of a sudden I looked over on the night-stand and saw a weird handwritten note and thought, “Oh my God, Phil has attempted suicide.”
Phil: The night before, I’d kissed Toby goodbye and then I walked into the bathroom. There were so many bottles of antidepressants and pain pills, and none of them worked. It probably took me 5 or 10 minutes to swallow everything. But it was so much easier than jumping off abridge. I thought, “Soon I’ll be asleep and won’t remember a thing.” In retrospect, I didn’t want to die! I was just screaming for help and didn’t think anyone could hear me.
Emme: I called 911. Within minutes the emergency guys were in our bedroom. I was yelling, “Help my husband!” I was a basket case. I was so angry he’d tried to take his life, but I realized it wasn’t about me. He was in so much pain.
Phil: I was put in a holding room and then the emergency psychiatric unit at Englewood [N.J.] Hospital and Medical Center. After four days I moved to Columbia Presbyterian, into the psychiatric ward, which was full of people suffering like me and some much worse.
Emme: When I finally got inside, I saw Phil curled up on his bed. Another guy was talking crazy, cursing at the top of his voice, spitting and acting wild. I was scared. After 15 minutes, thank God, Phil got switched to a single room. Dr. Stefanovich, the woman heading his care, and Dr. Wharton raised the idea of ECT—electroconvulsive therapy. They explained the therapy and said there’s been a good success rate with ECT [see box, next page]. Dr. Stefanovich said, “It could shorten the amount of time you’re here.” I asked if anyone died during it. She said very rarely, but she had to admit there was a chance. It was Phil’s decision, and he felt very strongly that he did not want to have it.
Phil: It scared the hell out of me. You’re put under general anesthesia and they induce a seizure. I knew someone who’d had it and done well, but I also thought of the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—lobotomies and all that kind of stuff. They explained it wasn’t like the old days, but I decided no, and on Aug. 15, after 10 days, I was released.
Emme: Phil’s meds were ineffective. On one of Dr. Stefanovich’s follow-ups, she asked if he was ready for ECT, and Phil said yes. On Sept. 29 he was readmitted to Columbia Presbyterian.
Phil: Sometime the next morning I was taken to a private room, and soon after I began the first of my 10 ECT treatments. I was put on a gurney in another room, where they’d snap some electrodes onto my head. Then I waited for the anesthesiologist. The next thing I knew, I was being taken off the gurney and walked to a table where they had me drink orange juice. The treatment affects your short-term memory, so I don’t remember much else. I was dazed.
Emme: In mid-October I wrote in my journal, “Phil is on his third treatment. Insurance is over in four days and he has seven more to go.” Insurance was a constant fight, and we did whatever we could. Phil’s doctor said, “He just has to take the treatments, and you have to let us be the judge as to how many.”
Phil: In the middle of the treatments, my brother Jonathan, who’d been fighting brain cancer for the past 17 years, visited. He was wheeled in. He was having trouble with his speech, so he didn’t say a whole lot. But he told me to hang in there. He said that Emme and Toby needed me. Tears rolled down my face.
Emme: After his seventh treatment, Phil was released from the hospital. A week later he went back for three more. Then, according to Dr. Stefanovich, he was done. I was so excited. I wanted so much to get back to our old life. But poor guy, he was fresh from being zapped. He couldn’t remember what day it was. I was delusional to think we could just step out of that nightmare so quickly. For the next few months we allowed the treatments to take effect and the side-effects to wear off. Phil’s short-term memory was spotty. He didn’t know how to get into town or to his parents’ house. But he complained very little, and it was much better than before. He was so gentle. It was almost like seeing life through a child’s eyes.
Phil: Through November and December, I felt more aware and I wasn’t suicidal, yet I still wasn’t myself. I frequently thought about Jonathan, whose long fight with brain cancer was coming to an end. I’d go, “What am I complaining about?”
Emme: By Dec. 31 Jonathan was nearing the end. He was living at Phil’s parents’ home. We stopped by every day. The entire family was at the house on Jan. 6 when his suffering finally ended.
Phil: Emme called upstairs and said, “Phil, quick, come down.” He was gone. I cried, took a deep breath and realized his fight was over. Then the miracle happened. I woke up the next day feeling nearly like my old self. For the first time in about two years, I felt positive, like I wanted to live. “Jonathan passed on last night,” I wrote in my diary. “I know, through the grace of God, his strength was given to me. I have a lift. No more depression. Must get pain under control and I’ll truly be back.”
Emme: On Feb. 23, 2004, I wrote, “I can say that Phil, Toby and I are survivors.” Phil’s meds were and continue to be slowly reduced so that eventually he won’t have to take them at all. But he’s still in therapy. For me, that spring and summer were vitally important. I was able to get out of the house without Phil and have time with people who were able to nourish me emotionally and help me start the process of living again. I also continued therapy. I’m learning the courage to accept that Phil is trying his best, and that has to be good enough.
Phil: Through my brother and the graciousness of a friend from high school who’d gone through a bout of depression herself, I got a job in November 2003. Seth remembered that getting out of the house had been an important part of his recovery from depression, and so he urged me to go even though I didn’t feel up to it. I’d sit at my new desk for weeks, trying to wrap my head around making sales calls. Now, more than a year later, I’m landing great accounts. Although 40 percent of people with depression experience it again in their life, I don’t fear it or think about it. I look back on the past three years and think, “Well, life is tough. Nobody gets a free ride.” That’s the lesson we’ve learned. Mental illness is extremely prevalent, but unfortunately not enough people talk about it. They’re ashamed of being perceived as weak. I see myself as stronger for having survived.