The Ones She Left Behind

The story of a man left to care for his infant son after his wife committed suicide while suffering severe post-partum depression. Originally published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Seattle, WA), in 2003.

Alexander Soukakos has his mother's deep brown eyes and heart-shaped chin. But he doesn't have the comfort of her arms, or the sound of her voice. At 16 months, he says Mama. But his mama never comes. He was asleep in the car, buckled in his safety seat, a year ago when Carol Soukakos hanged herself from a basement water pipe.

She had to work to die. On her first attempt, she tied a length of electrical wiring to a metal heating duct. The duct gave way and she crashed hard to the floor, gashing her head.

She must have been frantic. Her husband, a Seattle restaurateur, would be coming home soon. It was the first time she'd been left alone in weeks.

She tied the wire again. There was blood on her hands. The space was barely high enough to stand up in. To end her life, she had to bend her knees.

She left no note.

But she did leave, in retrospect, a chilling message.

Carol may have died by her own hand, but the noose around her neck was a severe form of postpartum depression, a widely underrecognized disorder that affects 10 percent to 20 percent of new mothers. In one or two cases out of 1,000, the depression becomes so extreme it verges into psychosis.

This is not the baby blues.

This is a stealthy, lethal invader that steals one of a woman's most primal urges: her maternal instincts. A lion will kill for its cub. Postpartum depression is the lion turned on itself.

A week before Christmas, Thomas Soukakos, 45, bustles around his kitchen, packing a bag for a babysitter.

Alexander chirps "cookie, cookie" from his highchair. Bright even in winter, the kitchen feels like the soul of this small, shingle-sided house nestled in the belly of Madison Valley. Toys and bottles litter the countertops where Thomas cooks for his son every day. Hand-written signs on the fridge tucked in among family photos say: "Stay present" and "Patience."

They're written in Carol's hand.

The first signs that something was going terribly wrong started just after Christmas a year ago.

Normally cheerful, compassionate and highly organized, Carol, 34, became increasingly confused and depressed. She was convinced she wasn't a good mother, that she wasn't producing enough milk, that she was failing her baby.

Sometimes she would grab her breast, squeeze hard, and say, "See?" She would look at Thomas wildly when nothing came out.

Sari Gallegos, the naturopathic doctor who delivered Alexander, assured her the baby was thriving. Thomas assured her she was a good mother.

But Carol couldn't be convinced.

"Why she thinks all those things I have no idea," he would say later.

Thomas, who came to the States from Greece 18 years ago, is an earnest, passionate man. Sometimes, when he talks, he clutches at his heart, as though trying to rip the right words from it. He has something to say. He wants people to listen. He wants them to understand about postpartum depression and psychosis so no other child will lose his mother. He doesn't want them to look away.