After a family crisis left Lee Woodruff with symptoms of depression and anxiety, she found the courage to reach out for help—and the tools to maintain her mental health.
When Lee Woodruff joined the ABC News program Good Morning America as a “life and family contributor” in 2007, she had plenty of hard-won experience to share about navigating the unexpected challenges life can throw down.
Just two years before, the mother of four had been anticipating a new period in her life, a time when the stress at home would ease off and she could take more enjoyment in her family and pursuits.
Woodruff had ushered her two youngest children off to kindergarten that fall. She’d even signed up to be a class mom for the twins, something she hadn’t felt free to do with the older kids.
On the professional side, she worked as public relations executive and freelance journalist. Her husband, journalist Bob Woodruff, was promoted to co-anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight in December 2005—a title that came with a significant bump in pay.
Just a month later, Bob was nearly killed when an improvised explosive device (IED) struck his convoy while he was reporting near Taji, Iraq. The blast left him with traumatic brain injury and threw Lee and her family tumbling into an emotional free fall—one which it took them all a long time to climb back from.
Bob spent five weeks in a medically induced coma to give his brain a chance to rest and heal. His lengthy recovery involved months of therapy to improve his speech, language and memory, as well as multiple surgeries
There were mornings when simply getting the kids out the door—their 15-year-old son and 12-year-daughter along with the twin girls—and tending to Bob’s needs was more than Lee thought she could bear.
This is how Lee described that period to esperanza: “I would wake up in and think, ‘How do I take care of them all?’ It was like there were these bats and birds flying in and out of my head.
“I isolated myself from other people who weren’t in my circle and found it harder to see people in their ‘happy lives.’ I ate less, slept less, got acid reflux from the stress.”
Still, she put on a brave face for her children—even when she was feeling anything but.
“No matter what size blaze was raging around us, I was determined my children would not smell smoke,” she writes in In an Instant, the New York Times best seller chronicling the Woodruff family’s journey to recovery following Bob’s injury.
Lee essentially went into autopilot mode—dealing with doctors, talking to family members, and keeping her household running.
At “Women Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness,” a recent luncheon hosted by the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, Woodruff recalled that she had always seen herself as a rock.
“I was a glass-half-full kind of girl,” she explained. “I was the person you wanted to be with when an elevator cable was cut.
“I don’t know what I would necessarily do in that situation, but I would be calm, cool and collected. I never understood what it was to have a simple anxiety attack until I was that person.”
In truth, she writes in In an Instant, “you can’t know how you would behave in a crisis until it drops out of the sky and knocks you down like a bandit: stealing your future, robbing you of your dreams, and mocking anything that resembles certainty.”
As guest of honor at the luncheon in June, Lee spoke candidly with Ellen Levine, editorial director of Hearst Magazines, about the depression and anxiety that caught her completely by surprise in the wake of Bob’s recovery. She had seen her mother affected by depression, so she knew what the illness looked like and what it could do to a family. Even so, she didn’t see it in herself.
“I never heard the term ‘situational depression,’ but this experience jettisoned me to understand [depression, anxiety and panic disorder],” she told the sell-out audience at the Metropolitan Club in midtown Manhattan.
It’s not uncommon for individuals to experience symptoms of anxiety and/or depression during or after a stressful life event, explains David Straker, DO, a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City. (He has not treated Lee.)
In some cases, the constellation of symptoms will meet criteria for a depressive or anxiety disorder. Alternately, emotional distress and impaired daily functioning following a life stressor may merit a diagnosis of adjustment disorder, which falls under the mantle of stress-response syndromes.
Remarkably, Bob Woodruff returned to the air just 13 months after his injury with a documentary called To Iraq and Back: Bob Woodruff Reports. Lee fully expected to feel better as soon as her husband did. That didn’t happen.
It was as if she was still waiting for the other shoe to drop, for more bad news about her husband to arrive. She couldn’t seem to get back to her baseline comfort level.
“I still had this fear of the phone ringing after 9:30 p.m. I would still [get anxious and scared] even though I could roll over and touch him,” she recalled.
“I had friends, family, faith and fun, but I had all these plates spinning and they just crashed after a year.”
The immediate crisis may have been over, but the feeling of being under siege remained.
“It’s like flooding a car’s engine. You press the accelerator so many times that it floods the engine,” Lee said.
When we are under stress—whether physical or psychological—the nervous system gets primed for fight or flight. Our bodies release all sorts of hormones designed to help us make it through the perceived danger.
“I had friends, family, faith and fun, but I had all these plates spinning and they just crashed after a year.”
With stress disorders, however, those responses continue even when the immediate cause is gone.
According to Lee, “It’s a payback after your adrenaline surges. These feelings are something that live with us after trauma.
“It’s a hard-wired response to stress, not a horrible, shameful thing…. Things happen in life that are bigger than you. They are not your fault. It’s what happens when your life spools out of control.”
Ultimately it was Lee’s mother, now 82, who encouraged her to seek help, using imagery that evokes the gear used to protect soldiers from harm.
“She said, ‘I think you need body armor … you need to talk to someone and take medication.’”
Many of the same approaches used to treat clinical depression and anxiety—talk therapy, a course of medication, healthy lifestyle changes such as getting regular exercise and good sleep—also help people who are experiencing adjustment disorders or post-traumatic stress.
One of the reasons Lee continues to talk about what she and her family went through is to raise awareness about caregiver burnout, which she refers to as the “next third rail in mental health.” Like many mothers, Lee had to learn to be good to herself while still being there for her family.
“Whether we are caring for our partners or aging parents, we must be good to ourselves and be great stewards to our own selves,” she said. “It’s OK to ask for help and take medication.”
For Lee, a sense that the stigma around taking antidepressants has receded made it easier to start treatment. Staying on medication for a year “helped me hit the reset button,” she told esperanza, “but I still had to do all the work.”
By “all the work,” she means buckling down in talk therapy as well as making lifestyle changes that promote physical and mental well-being. Exercise plays a big part in her maintenance.
“I’ve always been an exerciser who could go for a run that would change my mood. I’m a swimmer, too, and one of the first things I did when Bob was in the hospital was find a pool … I got in the water every day. It really helped,” she explained.
According to Straker, the New York psychiatrist, “Exercise is one of the best antidepressants and anti-anxiety treatments out there because it boosts our body’s own supply of natural feel-good chemicals called endorphins.”
Lee also found a therapist who happened to be a former priest. When she asked him for something she could hold onto when life was at its bleakest, he offered advice that helped her then and still helps her today.
“It’s a payback after your adrenaline surges. … It’s a hard-wired response to stress, not a horrible, shameful thing.”
“When you are feeling sad, depressed or anxious, go to the land, whether water or hills, and let nature in,” she recalls.
The therapist also recommended that she go back to basics when she is having a hard time.
“He told me to ask myself, ‘Do you have a roof over your head? Enough to eat? People who love you and whom you love?’ Everything always looks better in this light.”
All in the family
Looking back, Lee thinks she might have kept too much from her kids. She thinks it might be more helpful for the whole family if parents were more forthcoming during traumatic times—within limits.
“Historically, we would say nothing to children, but history needs to change,” she said, adding: “Kids don’t want to hear all the possibilities and potential outcomes, they want big, broad brushstrokes.”
When her son was having trouble sleeping, the two would say a prayer before bed.
“It was that simple. He fell asleep.”
Giving back helped the family move forward, too. They founded the Bob Woodruff Foundation to assist injured servicemen and their families. The nonprofit foundation has raised more than $20 million, which has been invested in grassroots groups that help veterans get the care and the fresh start they need.
“One of the ways to pull yourself out of the mine shaft is giving back,” Lee noted. “There are many people who have one-one hundredth of what Bob and I had. We had resources and friends who jumped in to do everything for us. These families need our help.”
Her own family is doing well. Lee is a contributor to CBS This Morning. Her bibliography now includes Perfectly Imperfect: A Life in Progress—seriocomic reflections on marriage, raising kids, and coping with life’s curveballs—and Those We Love Most, her debut novel. Bob is back to where he was before the injury, physically and professionally.
“Whether we are caring for our partners or aging parents, we must be good to ourselves.”
“He is a living miracle. The brain is such an incredible mystery,” Lee said.
Their twins are now 15, and the older children embarking on adulthood. All four are thriving, Lee said, though she admits she’s still not ready to ask how they really felt after their dad’s injury.
“There’s still a scab there. They look great and are doing great, but I don’t want to look under the rug yet.”
These days, she is feeling something akin to post-traumatic gratitude.
“Out of stress can come growth,” she says. “You learn to feel things more, enjoy life more and laugh more after you see horrible things.”
Sidebar: In her own words
In an Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing (2007)
This memoir, which draws on journals that Lee Woodruff kept, takes readers on a heartfelt tour through her marriage with journalist Bob Woodruff before, during and after he was injured while covering the conflict in Iraq. Bob weighs in with his perspective on their family and his career. One reviewer described it as a “testimony to the power of the human spirit, to the catharsis of love and to infinite hope.”
Perfectly Imperfect: A Life in Progress (2009)
This often-humorous collection of essays widens the scope from marriage and tragedy to broader aspects of a busy woman’s life, including childbirth, aging, raising teenagers, and the sustaining value of friendship. According to Publisher’s Weekly, “Lee moves fluently from deep to lighter subjects, such as worrying about her sagging knees or bemoaning her otherwise ideal husband’s woeful gift-selecting ability.”
Those We Love Most (2012)
Lee refracts the emotional truths of surviving a crisis in her debut novel, which centers on how a close-knit suburban family navigates the loss of 9-year-old James in a car accident. His mother feels emotionally overwhelmed, his father retreats to the local pub, and his grandparents must deal with fault lines in their own relationship. “Woodruff is surprisingly subtle in her nuanced portraits of the complexity of marriage, the far from well-intentioned people who seem to thrive on tragedy, and the great struggle to find meaning in life,” opined Booklist.
Printed as “Lee Woodruff: Stress test”, Summer 2015