By Michael Spangler
I am Senior Master Sergeant Michael Dennis Spangler of the United States Air Force. I am a proud and accomplished military professional from a Specialized Unit. I have worked in over 30 countries and accomplished hundreds of difficult and occasionally dangerous missions successfully and honorably.
The story I am about to tell you is agonizingly painful for me for share. However, I believe that increased awareness of this serious, possibly deadly condition is so very much more important than my personal pain. I hope with all my heart that many will benefit from this information about Postpartum Depression. This has been my plan since soon after 17 May 2004.
That was the day I lost my wife, Annie Imlay-Spangler, to postpartum depression. She needed serious mental health counseling and therapy. I did not see it. I fervently hope that others will learn from my horrible experience, before it’s too late.
The memories of our efforts, failures, hopes, dreams, our ecstatic reaction to the arrival of Johnathan Michael Spangler and the ultimate tragedy of Annie’s death are events I will share with my son happily and of course, sadly when I determine that he is ready.
Annie was an Honor Graduate in High School, world traveler, devoted friend to many, best friend, lover and wife to a career military man. She earned an undergraduate degree in biology and chemistry, a post graduate Doctor of Pharmacy degree, was a practicing Doctor of Pharmacy at the San Diego Veterans Administration Hospital and in her spare time, a Lt. Commander in the United States Naval Reserves.
Annie was also a militarily qualified Expert marksman with the 9MM handgun.
We had tried to have children for nearly 10 years. Annie retired from the US Naval Reserves on 01 June 2003. Shortly after then our frozen embryos that became Johnathan were implanted in his mother. She underwent massive hormone treatments to maintain the pregnancy. She was 46 years old.
I administered many of the shots and during much of the first and third trimesters, I did not recognize the personality of the woman that I had known for over two decades.
We kept the pregnancy secret until the 2nd Trimester. She had experienced one miscarriage and we didn’t want to get our hopes up too high. Our years of planning were coming to fruition.
Master Johnathan Michael Spangler arrived at 8:30 P.M. via Cesarean Section on the 10th of February 2004. He has been referred to by relatives, friends and in some media reports as a “Miracle Baby”. I never thought of him that way when he arrived but perhaps now he really is. After 10 years of fertility treatments and procedures our young man was here!
The first few weeks after Johnathan’s birth were joyous beyond anything Annie and I had ever known. Then a darkness we were only vaguely aware of and neither of us, nor our friends or family could comprehend, began taking over Annie.
In retrospect I know that she was beginning to consider a sad, desperate and final new plan. She developed this plan while I was out of town, in Salt Lake City assisting her blind mother. After she picked me up at the airport on 16 May 2004, Annie for the first time mentioned she had considered suicide.
I was stunned as I never have been before in my entire life.
Had I known then what I know now, had we been to just one of the Postpartum forums, I would have forcibly taken her to a hospital immediately and this tragedy could possibly have been avoided.
This was a medical emergency! But we didn’t know it at the time.
I suggested that we go to the hospital but Annie, the “Doctor of Pharmacy,” said, “No! All they’ll do is give me drugs and lock me in a room.” We did agree that I would arrange counseling for her Monday.
After all, my confident, strong, independent, brilliant yet down to earth Annie couldn’t seriously consider ending her life just when our long awaited and latest adventure had begun as planned.
After hours of talking, she assured me as we were going to bed that evening, “Don’t worry Michael. I won’t do anything stupid.”
As far as I know, that is the first time she ever lied to me in 25 years.
Annie left our home late in the morning of 17 May 2004 to go grocery shopping. She turned as she walked out the front door to look at Johnathan and me playing on the floor, smiled and said “You two will be wonderful together.”
Ah. How sweet huh? To you mental health professionals and others here familiar with Postpartum Depression I know what you’re thinking. Recalling the last sentence she ever spoke to me in person sends chills down my spine to this day.
Later that afternoon, I called her cell phone. She was sitting in the parking lot thinking. I became frighteningly concerned and consumed with dread at the tone of our conversation. I put Johnathan in our van and sped to her location only to catch up with and follow right behind the second set of paramedics to arrive at the scene. I slammed the van into park and leapt out at the sight of her. Her 13 week old son waited cooing in their van as his father fell to his knees and screamed in vain:
“No!!!!! No!!!!! Annie!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Please No!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
Johnathan never caught a glimpse of his mother lying lifeless on the asphalt next to her car in a pool of blood.
It is an image frozen in my memory that I so wish I could erase.
At 2:42 P.M on 17 May 2004, sitting in her car in the parking lot of the Vons Grocery store in the North Park suburb of San Diego California, Annie Imlay-Spangler had put a 9MM hand-gun into her mouth and pulled the trigger, killing herself almost instantly.
She was always extremely efficient in everything she did.
Annie had evidently decided that “Motherhood” was too overwhelming for her limited abilities.
According to the Police Report of the incident, Michael Spangler positively identified his wife’s body at 2:45 P.M. on 17 May 2004.
It is a miracle that my son is not in a grave next to his mother. She had mentioned that horrible option during our conversation on the 16th of May.
And in early October of 2004 I was told of two tragedies where the mothers did kill their children along with themselves. And I have heard of far too many since then.
I do not know how their husbands go on. Had I lost both Annie and Johnathan you would not be listening to this message from me today. Those husbands have my deepest admiration, sympathy and respect. They are much braver and stronger men that I.
My dreams of our future as a family of Annie, Johnathan and I were irrevocably shattered by her death. I had to create new dreams for Johnathan and myself. But Annie has lost all her dreams of us together forever. And now can never share them, on earth anyway with her husband and son.
Johnathan is a very healthy, extraordinarily happy little boy with an amazingly mellow disposition. So like his Grandfather John and his mother.
Annie and I could not have been luckier if we had filled out an order form to God for a child.
So often as I witness the wonder of this growing child, when we play and laugh and read and talk and run and learn, sadness for her deeper than any I have ever known fills my heart and I think, “Oh my love, you would be so happy now.”
“Why the hell aren’t you here!!!!!?”
This was not part of our plan.
Aida del Carmen Rojas Llave, a Pediatric Nurse and Midwife arrived 26 September 2004 from Peru sponsored by an officially approved Au Pair and Cultural Exchange Program.
I had pursued many options and investigated hundreds of Au Pairs from all over the world for months before deciding upon Aida. Annie felt spiritually close to Peru as no other country in the world she had visited and I took that as a sign from her.
As it turned out, Aida and Johnathan fell in love, then Aida and I fell in love and we were married in San Diego in June of 2005. Before then I had never given serious consideration to the phrase, “When God closes a door, he opens a window somewhere.”
When I watch my beautiful son tiring himself out running around, constantly exploring, joyfully tearing up the world (meaning our house) and witness the overwhelming love between him and Aida, I know that despite my loss, I am truly blessed.
And always remember that no matter what anyone says; even the most accomplished of us are capable of doing something horrendously “stupid”.
New Mothers…..Husbands or lovers or partners or family or friends of new Mothers and Medical Professionals pay attention to what I have said here!
Or as Johnathan would say, “Please por favor?”
I do not want anyone else to lose their most cherished dreams.
Adapted from a speech given to the PHA's 2008 MamaFest fundraiser at Temple Solel in Cardiff by the Sea. Michael Spangler serves as military liaison for PHA.