If you met Emme and Phil Aronson in the fall of 2001, you might think you were in the presence of the luckiest couple around. Emme was at the top of her game — the ultimate (and perhaps only) model in the plus-size world who could be called a “Supermodel.” Named one of People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People not once, but twice, Emme was the host of “Fashion Emergency” on both E! and Style networks, the author of “True Beauty,” and a popular speaker on topics related to women and self esteem. Phil had left a successful family advertising and communications agency in North Jersey to spearhead the marketing of the EMME brand, which included a clothing line, me by EMME. In addition to their career successes, the Aronsons had been happily married for 13 years, lived in a vibrant community in north Jersey, and were the delighted parents of a newborn daughter, Toby. Life was good.
But that’s before the darkness of depression set in. For over two years, Phil suffered from crippling clinical depression that started in late 2001 and devastated the entire Aronson family. On Friday, March 31, at the Robert Wood Johnson Center for Health and Wellness in Hamilton, the Aronsons will talk about their experiences and their journey into the light and hope of recovery, as chronicled in their book, “Morning has Broken: A Couple’s Journey Through Depression.”
Emme was born in New York City. Her parents divorced when she was a baby, and her mother re-married when Emme was five. The family moved to Saudi Arabia, where she lived for seven and a half years while her stepfather taught music at the junior high school for children of American employees of Aramco. While in Saudi Arabia, Emme’s mother was diagnosed with cancer and the family moved back to the United States in an effort to get her mother the best treatment possible. In spite of that, she died when Emme was just 16.
Emme went on to win a full athletic scholarship at Syracuse University, where she majored in speech communication and graduated in 1985. It was at Syracuse that she met Aronson, who was in her class and majoring in advertising design. Friends during college, the couple didn’t begin dating until after they had graduated.
Aronson was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Tenafly. His father worked his way up from mail clerk to vice president of creative services at CBS but was let go in the 1987 corporate restructuring. The senior Aronson soon opened the Aronson Group, a marketing and communications firm, where he was later joined by sons Phil and Phil’s identical twin, Seth, in the business. Aronson’s mother stayed at home and cared for the twins and baby brother Jonathan.
Emme’s entrance to modeling came by accident. After college, she pursued a career in broadcast journalism. While working in New York in the late 1980s, she read an article about full-figured models. “I was 26, and I needed money,” she says in a phone interview. “I was just dating Phil then, and I didn’t even tell him I was going on an audition.” She was signed by the agency and began working immediately. Within six months she signed on with Ford, the top modeling agency in New York.
“Because of my background in TV, I was always open to talking to the press,” she says. “I still had the mind of a reporter, and I saw there was a story in this. That’s when I started my women’s advocacy work on women, self-esteem, and body image.”
Now Emme is doing double-duty in advocacy as a result of her husband’s illness. The couple is on a mission to share their story and offer hope and support to other couples and families who are living with a family member with depression. “People don’t have to suffer in silence,” the Aronson’s say in their book. “Having lived through it first-hand, we want the millions of people around the world who suffer from depression and their families to know they are not alone.”
Written in alternating chapters, “Morning Has Broken” doesn’t pull any punches about the couple’s struggles and Phil’s hard-won recovery. Emme shares her experiences as caregiver and witness to the devastation of the illness, and Phil writes about the horror of the darkness he couldn’t get out of, but in the end, their two stories come together to create one of hope.
When Phil’s depression began is hard to pin point. “The first sign anything was wrong was in the late fall of 2001,” Phil says in the book. “I didn’t see it coming, and I didn’t pay all that much attention to it until I was in its middle, but at some point I was overcome by this odd lethargy that was completely out of character for me.” It came on gradually, he says, leaving him feeling more and more tired every day.
Soon after, Phil began experiencing chronic pain that — despite consulting with several doctors — went undiagnosed. Thinking that managing the pain would make it challenging to determine the cause, Phil lived with it for months before it stopped almost as unexpectedly as it came. At the same time, his younger brother, Jonathan, was losing his nearly 15-year battle with brain cancer. By then, Phil says, “the depression had become me, and I had become it.”
Emme was the first one to see the changes. “Phil was about three months into the chronic pain when we realized that he was showing serious mood changes, and I began to urge him to seek counseling, which he resisted.”
It didn’t take long for the depression to grow even darker and begin to consume the family. Emme had her hands full with her work and their baby daughter, but when Phil started talking about suicide with increasing frequency, Emme began turning down offers because she feared leaving Phil alone.
Nearly two years after the depression began, Phil made good on his talk of attempting suicide. By then Phil had gotten some help, but had not yet settled on a medication regime that was providing satisfactory relief. On August 1, 2003, Phil took a cocktail of various medications — over 30 pills — and when Emme tried to wake him, she discovered a hastily scribbled note on the bedside table and she immediately called 911.
The Aronsons now look at this incident as a turning point. Finally, Emme says, the true danger of Phil’s situation could not be ignored. He was hospitalized, and after some resistance, he chose to undergo electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), formerly known as electro-shock therapy, which put him on steady footing in his recovery.
As the darkness continued to lift, the couple met up with friend Todd Gold, a writer for People Magazine. “He knew that I had been suffering,” says Phil, “and he said, ‘You should really tell your story.’ He thought we could help a lot of people. I approached Emme and she said ‘No way.’”
“I was very resistant,” Emme says. “I wanted a break. I needed time away from it all; I didn’t want to rethink it. I wasn’t ready.”
Eventually Gold convinced them and the article came out on March 28, 2005. “I was very humbled by the reaction to the article,” says Emme, and she began to see that telling their story in more detail could help countless people. The couple went to the Jersey shore for a month “and we just wrote and wrote,” says Aronson.
Writer Dan Paisner helped put the pieces together, “but it wasn’t us talking into a tape recorder and getting back the finished product,” says Emme, “we really wrote. We set our minds to it.” They both agree that the process of writing was incredibly healing. “It brought us together to talk about the details instead of just saying ‘OK that’s done, let’s get going on with our life,’” says Emme.
Now the couple is spreading the word. “I needed to turn this mess into a message,” says Aronson. “I’ve taken this on as a mission: depression is such a horrific place to be, and there is hope. It was very cathartic for Emme and me to write the book, and it’s amazing how many people have been touched. We just hope that by telling our stories we can help other people.”
People Don’t Have to Suffer in Silence, a lecture featuring Emme and Phil Aronson, Friday, March 31, 7:30 p.m., Robert Wood Johnson Center for Health and Wellness, 3100 Quakerbridge Road, Mercerville. Presented in partnership with Friends’ Health Connection. $25. Registration required: visit www.friendshealthconnection.org or call 800-483-7436.