08/09/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT
Doing time has never been easy for Andrea Yates, but lately her life behind bars has taken a decided turn for the worse. On July 19 she was rushed from her East Texas prison cell to a state hospital in Galveston, 180 miles away. Yates, who had stopped eating several weeks earlier—June 20 marked the third anniversary of the day she drowned her five children—had dropped almost 30 lbs. and begun suffering from severe depression and acute psychotic episodes.
Saddened as they were by the news, Yates's loved ones were hardly surprised. During their visits, her longtime friends Bob and Debbie Holmes found her lucid enough to be troubled by the looming anniversary as well as other painful subjects. Yates told the couple that her husband, Rusty, had broached the topic of divorce, saying that he wanted more children. And she confided having vivid memories of her own children's deaths. "She wailed, she cried uncontrollably. She asked, 'How could I have done that to the children?'" Bob says. "There can be a point that the human mind just can't handle any more."
Rusty Yates told PEOPLE he discussed "the future of our marriage" with his wife on several occasions, but maintains that a variety of factors have contributed to her recent decline (including, he believes, having her antipsychotic medication changed). "She's also concerned about the loss of her children, the loss of her freedom, her appeal, turning 40," observes Rusty, who says he doesn't have a girlfriend. He says he was alarmed enough by Yates's condition when he saw her on July 17 to call her doctors with his concerns.
Since Yates's transfer, her physicians say she has shown some improvement. But her mother, Karin Kennedy, says that during a July 22 visit she was distressed by how confused her daughter seemed much of the time. "She asked me where the children were. I told her, 'They're in Heaven, with God.' I don't know if she understood me or not."
Authorities will not discuss how long Yates is expected to remain in the hospital. But her attorney George Parnham continues to work on her upcoming appeal, which could result in her transfer to a psychiatric hospital. Even so, he admits that hopes for his client's recovery remain modest. Says Parnham: "Simply put, the better Andrea gets, the more she appreciates what she did—which triggers another free fall."