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Depression and recovery in Australia

Experiencing depression

For many of those we talked to, putting their experiences of depression into words was difficult. Some felt that ‘something was wrong’ from a young age; others were confronted with depression in adulthood. Millaa told us: ‘ My depression eventually sort of bubbled to the surface I guess was when I was about 10, so it was sort of… the end of primary school going into high school’. He went to describe depression as ‘general sadness and malaise’. Most people had experienced numerous episodes of depression and talked about periods of feeling better, rather than a sense of recovery. Some people reported prolonged periods of wellness, but only a couple of people expressed confidence that depression would not return.
 
Some felt that they could pinpoint when their depression began, while others could not. Many thought that depression could be fully understood only by those who had experienced it themselves. Amelia thought her experience of depression was likely to be very different from other peoples’ experiences and said, ‘so I might not be able to understand them'. Most people talked about different physical symptoms as well as emotional feelings of depression. Ivan described his experience: ‘My libido was close to zero, I was absolutely uninterested in any sexual activity or any other activity or hobby…I would start some useless disputes and endless arguments and create emotionally charged situations where I would explode’.
Others described long periods of anxiety, or of feeling very emotional, tearful or hopeless.
 

Peter remembered a period of increased anxiety that eventually led to depression.

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Age at interview: 49
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 36
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And I used to drive from the [place name] over to the city every morning and I started to notice that as I was driving into the city and coming over the hill and taking the hill down to the bridge that I’d saw the city and I'd start to get sick, start to feel sick and , and nauseous. And, and well wondering what was going on and feelings of impending doom. And I'd get into work and it, it would be fine and I'd finish work and off to home and then - and it happened again and again. But the, you know, I'd feel nauseous and sick at the thought of going in there and  that feeling would extend further and further during the day. 

 
And this went on for a little while and suddenly the, the things that I was finding that were fulfilling in my job started to – not be fulfilling. You know, and I'd go home, my sleep patterns would start to be disrupted. And I, I used to call it, you know, the night of the you know, the, the long night sort of thing and the - four o'clock in the morning on the dot it would be. And it was impending doom and there was nothing physically wrong with my environment. There was nothing that, that would engender that sort of feeling from an outside perspective and I suppose you try and ignore it for as long as you can. 
 
And this went on and on and my sleep became disrupted and, and the nausea was happening on a daily basis and - and at the same time and, which was strange. And then one day I was sitting in front of my computer and all of a sudden I couldn't read it. And I couldn't read anything and I was supposed to be going into a meeting and I couldn't do that and  I just couldn't do anything. And so I went home and took a couple of days off. 
 
And I was feeling anxious and sad and sick all the time. That pit of the, gut wrenching, pit of the stomach type feeling. And I know that I kept on saying to my doctor, it's like the feeling when I found out my, that my father had died, a couple of years before, that initial gut wrench that, that happened. That, you know, only lasted for, you know, a minute or two then, but now it was all the time. And I, you know, lost interest in food and just smoked cigarettes and laid down really. And because I wasn't doing anything else my sleep was getting worse and you know, the four o'clock would come and you were wide awake and that's just went on for quite a while. 
 
 

Debra described her depression as a very emotional experience, but over the years she learned how...

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Age at interview: 43
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 34
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To, for depression it's emotion. It's very emotional, very teary, very very down, very there's not light at the end of the tunnel. Very I can't cope with doing things, I'm going to burst into tears. I can't think about certain things because they're going to make me very sad. Also on the other side too it can make me very irritable as well in a sense that if I'm feeling down and somebody says some, something to me that I don't like or anything I will react differently to how I normally would react. You know I probably, you know I'll be more snappier or I'd start crying or, or something like that. 
 
And I had that last week because I take, put the Kalma up to one milligram and so I felt like an absolute failure that I wasn't able to cope with half a milligram of Kalma. And just felt very down and very, very tearful and very emotional about the fact that I wasn't able to reach that goal, wasn’t able to hit that expectation. So then I refer back to what we call my toolbox, which, you know, is, is full of all sorts of psychotherapy and, and medication as well. And so I try to put that psychotherapy tools into use and today's not so bad.
 
 

Susan described her depression as an overwhelming sadness combined with questioning her reason...

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Age at interview: 61
Sex: Female
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Well it’s, it depends on how you define depression really and if you define depression as feeling like there is absolutely no point to anything whatsoever and you know why on earth are you alive, and what's the point and you might as well, you know, cut your losses and go and jump under a train. That's what I was experiencing in (country name), while I was deciding what to do.
 
Ah, and I can’t even think of (city name) now without feeling that terrible feeling of aaah, just such a profound sense of – not even sadness; I don’t know how to describe it. It’s just kind of darkness in the soul. So I think that that was depression.
 
And what I was thinking was ah it's sort of like a basinful of water, you know, the plug is in the basin and - but the tap is dripping so you – when you, you've got that sort of terrible sense of hopelessness kind of hovering, it's like that basin is getting fuller and fuller and even the slightest more drip will make it overflow, and the grief is the plug but the water that's filling up is the depression. That's sort of how I - that's a metaphor for me, how it feels. So, you know, to unplug the grief will let the depression out, but it's really difficult to unplug the grief because grief is there. 
 
I remember standing in the kitchen one day and I had this - this beautiful white mug that I used to have all my- you know, drink tea and coffee out of, it was my mug and it had a big black S on it for Susan, and it was given to me by somebody that I’ve, I loved and I remember lifting it above my head and crashing it down onto the quarry tile floor of the kitchen and then thinking to myself, why did I do that? It was sort of like destroying S, so I thought, aha this is not very good, and that was soon before I left that relationship and then started to find my own recovery. 
 
A few people resorted to alcohol and other substances to alleviate their distress, but discovered this was not a helpful solution.
 

Avoiding people and drinking was part of Jack’s depression experience.

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Age at interview: 71
Sex: Male
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Well I suppose, look, it’s a feeling of not wanting to face anybody, ah, it’s the feeling of locking yourself away, which I did. People could knock on the door; I wouldn’t even answer the door. And these are people I played footy and cricket with. I’d just drink. But the feeling was, well total, total insecurity, a total of not being, a total feeling of not belonging with, to, or anywhere. You just feel completely isolated. And at that stage I had no idea how to break out of it, except drink. Because when you drink you get yourself blotto and you don’t have to think. 
 
But really that’s a trap too because, when you start drinking, you just go round on a racetrack and you think about the same thing over and over and over and over again. But then, then you get this feeling where you, you just start to quiver inside, you, that’s how bad you get. Well I did, and you’d quiver. You’d absolutely - you’re insides – you’re not shaking outside, but you’re inside shaking. Horrible feeling, it really is, because you just don’t know how to deal with it. And probably that was my mistake, not seeking to talk to somebody else or anything, or anybody. But I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know any better.
 
A few people described feeling very anxious in places such as shopping centres with many people, noise and colours. Many people described physical manifestations of their feelings. Emma said: ‘I felt like I'd lost all the tone in my face. It was a real, really physical experience where you - you know when people smile with their eyes? I couldn't even lift my eyes up, it was very overall body feeling, this whole, you know, this feeling’. People talked about experiencing a ‘churning in [the] stomach’ and having ‘an aching brain’. Others talked about feeling ‘numb’ – as one woman said, ‘my emotion, my mental health, everything about me had shut down’.
 
Feeling ‘fragile and tired’ and a loss of motivation were frequently mentioned. Sara told us: ‘I think one of the things that gets really underestimated in depression is the physical sides of depression. I would find it enormously difficult to physically activate myself’. Many people told us they cried frequently. Artaud described feeling ‘just unable to do anything, unable to think positively, unable to get out of bed’.
 

Many physical symptoms were part of Ralph’s depression experience, along with an inability to do...

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Age at interview: 67
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 35
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A bad day would be just miserable, going to bed crying for no reason at all, with the light on, because I didn't want the light off. Not wanting to go out, not wanting to have friends around. Not going to play tennis. In fact even at one stage I couldn't, couldn’t bring myself around to plan a holiday. It just, just felt too daunting to have a holiday. This is in America, but – , due to come up to summer vacation and I wanted to go on holidays, but – or sorry the family did – and I thought it’d be - because that was what we were there for, besides work - but I thought I don't know how am I going to this, I don’t know how I’m going to do it - don't know. Strange country, driving, other side of the road, new places, I can't do it.
 
Well there's depression of course and there's anxiety; panic attacks. There's the crying spells. There was the tingling in the hands or the arms. Numbness in my back; numbness in my back; numbness in the legs; difficulty in walking - feeling that my gait's not quite right; not sleeping of course; feeling angry; uncoordinated sometimes.
 
 

Andrew said when experiencing depression after his wife’s death, he felt despair and helplessness...

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Age at interview: 51
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 43
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Ah yeah I’d say despair would be one of them. Ah a fear of what was going to happen to me from now ah because if I didn’t have someone to support me. It was like I was back when I was a kid and I was wanting somebody to just pick me up and, and look after me. And give me that sense of assurity that everything was going to be all right. And oh I just - helplessness. Ah I don’t, I don’t believe I was fearful of - I just think, I just, just trying to, trying to think. 
 
Just the hopelessness of the situation that - and it might have been self-driven from my own needs. Ah yeah, desperation.
 
Some talked about ‘going into hiding’, cancelling appointments, avoiding friends, having family troubles, and going on sick leave to avoid going to work. Belinda said she became a ‘constant piker as well, which you know I think came across as unreliable; which I don’t like’. A few struggled with ‘irrational thoughts’. Ron was concerned that he was ‘losing control’ of himself and worried he might hurt himself or his grandmother with whom he was living at the time. Kymberly who thought of herself as ‘irrational’ during episodes of depression said: ‘…when you're in a bout of depression, I call it quicksand’. Louise described an overwhelming feeling that each day seemed very long and said she often wondered how she would get through until evening.
 
Many felt an inexplicable sense of guilt. People talked about not being able to cope with everyday activities, feeling angry or irritable, and worrying about the impact of their behaviour on family members. Some had periods of insomnia which left them exhausted during the day. Others slept a lot. Lack of energy and fatigue were common experiences.
 

John experienced family tensions, sleepless nights and suicidal thoughts.

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Age at interview: 40
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 37
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Probably when I began to notice that things weren't going well was - I started to have sleepless nights, so I was lying in bed and I was trying to figure out why a particular individual wasn't doing the right thing, or wasn't doing their job, or whatever it might have been and it was kind of like circular thinking, I just couldn’t figure it out. It just made no sense, I couldn’t figure out these problems and I'd just lie in bed all night thinking about them. 
 
The sleep sort of got a bit worse. I started getting these, really vivid dreams. I'd wake up totally drenched in sweat; I'd just wake up totally wet and I'd have to get up out of bed and I'd have to pull the covers back and then I'd sort of go for a walk around the house, get a drink and wait till I'd dried off and then I'd go back to bed. And they - those sorts of dreams stayed with me for years, just really vivid. Not so much nightmares, but just vivid, vivid dreams, and really stressful dreams. 
 
The tension was really, palpable at home and just the sense of conflict and even when we weren’t talking it was passive aggressive, you know? It was just simmering all the time. I got to the point where I just couldn’t manage anymore and I couldn't see any way forward. Everything was just too hard, everything was just too painful, I really wasn’t coping and in my scrambled brain I - I knew that really the only way out of this situation that would be best for my wife and for my family would be for me to suicide, to end my life, because I think- my, my parents separated when I was 10 and I know the impact that that had on me as a child, and I just couldn’t do that to my kids. 
 
 

Feeling cold and slow was a part of Belinda’s depression experience.

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Age at interview: 35
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 25
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Sure. Okay so it’s felt, you know, it always feels heavy. Ahh it feels heavy here, so I guess on my heart, around here. And I had felt in the past that there was just like black clouds or a – people talk about a black crow or something over their head, and I fully understand what that feels like. It feels like there’s no sun coming down and shining on me. There is no warmth. I am very cold. And because there is no warmth, there is no life, for me, in me. The heaviness translates for me into like sludgy, sort of slow walking, slow talking, you know tiredness and stuff and just immense sadness, ahh sadness and just feeling like there is no point in ahh living essentially and just pain, just pain around my heart and just, and just constant leaking of tears is the way that I get depressed. 
 
And so what happens for me is that I turn it in on myself. So I might feel that what’s going on in the world is futile, but then somehow you know I have not made enough of a contribution to you know help alleviate that futility. So you know I know that what happens for me is that I turn it around and blame myself for things, which you know is a pattern that I have learnt to try and break and you know, I am better at it now, but, as I describe it, I am a bit so. It’s a bit of a, you know, it’s a constant struggle to – well constant vigilance to just keep it, to just keep it at bay. 
 
Belinda said it was ‘hard to look after my physical health but, eating healthily and exercising and sleeping, but I was knackered every day, and it was the depression, it really just knocked the wind out of me’. Clinton described feeling a ‘white hot rage inside of myself. It's actually a reaction that you're having to turbulence that's going on inside that hasn't been settled, and hasn't been dealt with’. A few people mentioned the isolating nature of depression, some saying they tried to hide it out of fear of being seen as ‘weak’ and stigmatised as a consequence (see Social experiences and stigma).
 

Shaz described the isolating nature of depression.

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Age at interview: 46
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 19
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Oh that’s really hard. Sometimes you don’t want people around and you just like want to be by yourself. Not that that can be bad. That can be good ‘cause we all need time to reflect and have some time out. But then when you’re depressed and you’re unhappy and you’re not functioning normally, you know, your friends might say to you, ‘Oh, come on let’s go out to a nightclub,’ and you don’t really want to go because you can’t be bothered getting dressed or you can’t be bothered putting makeup on. It, it’s an effort. But yet you want to be with your friends and they’re - I know they - initially they tried to incl- - my hairdressing friends you know, they tried to get me to go out with them and that, but it got to the point where I didn’t want to.
 
And it wasn’t because I disliked them, that was the depression. I was… just so consumed and confused. It’s like I had the devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other and they’re just fighting and your head’s just going like that and you, you don’t know what’s going on. You, you become irrational.
 
Gabrielle who worked in a small country town described her experiences: ‘I felt extremely isolated because I worked in the health profession in the community that I lived, so I was known. So, it was something that wasn't talked about, so that made me feel ever more isolated; and I felt a failure basically’.
Many people described experiencing low self-esteem as a significant element of their experience of depression. Amelia’s description reflected the feelings of many: ‘I feel vaguely like a human being, pathetic, incompetent and incapable’. Comparing herself with fellow PhD students she said' ‘I couldn't remember any words that had more than one syllable, and just this feeling that everybody at the uni was like so smart and I was just so dumb’.
 

Rosie talked about how the way she was treated by her mother during her childhood had lasting...

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Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 44
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I can remember I was asked out on a date by a guy who absolutely adored me, [friend] his name was, and I was so embarrassed and thought I was fat that I wore my school jumper because I felt I looked better in that than I did in any other clothes. You know, and I just, I cringe when I look back and think gosh. And I guess as an adult you kind of would think that you’ve learnt to re--evaluate yourself but I haven’t. I know I’ve still got very, very poor, very low self confidence, low self esteem. 
 
And it was interesting, something happened at work last week. Someone criticised a report that I did and it was like my Mum. It just pushed those buttons and it wasn’t what that person said, well it was, but I’m sure they didn’t mean it in that kind of context, they were just giving me feedback that I’d actually asked for. But it was my Mum telling me again I wasn’t good enough, and boy, it pushed buttons and I didn’t really realise that until a couple of hours afterwards when I look back in hindsight and thought, yeah you know, they pushed buttons that come back from that childhood.
 
People described depression variously as' ‘suffocating’, ‘meaninglessness’, or ‘senselessness’. Many used metaphors to describe their depression, including' ‘black cloud’, ‘a big cloud over everything in my life, like I’m looking through things through a cloudy lens’, ‘basket full of misery’, ‘feeling blue’, ‘the whole world just lost its colour’, ‘spiralling down into like a black abyss’, ‘ a nightmare of misery’. Millaa described depression as ‘like a dog scavenging for any remnants of your sanity, in a way, you know… or trying to eat away at you’. A few people talked about a ‘bottomless pit [that] is always ready to swallow you’.
 
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For Amelia, depression was a 'horrible enemy'.

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Age at interview: 51
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 38
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So perhaps that’s sometimes the reason- but it's sort of - but when I'm totally in it - when I'm really, really feeling terrible - it's just an enemy. It's just a horrible, horrible enemy. Like it's not part of me at all; it's just something inside me that makes me really want to - either makes me want to think only about injuring myself, or, makes me just unable to see anything positive, anywhere, in anything. It's all completely black.

Suicidal thoughts and self-harm

For most people part of experiencing depression was having suicidal thoughts. Some described repeated attempts to end their lives.
 

Linda described her struggle with suicidal thoughts and characterised her depression experience...

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Age at interview: 26
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 19
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It's really hard to explain. It's sort of like the whole world just lost its colour. Everything just, everything that I used to love I just had no interest in and I didn't want to see my friends, I didn't want to go to work, I didn't want to study. I didn't want to do anything, I just wanted to sleep and just wanted to disappear. And you know, the thought of dying was probably the best solution that I could think of at that time. 
 
It was just, yeah, it's a really hard thing to explain to someone who's never had depression. But it's just like your whole world just sort of shuts in and, yes, it's awful 
 
Yeah. My lowest point was just before I started, before I went to the doctor before I started taking medication. I just, it's hard to explain. I just felt like I just didn't want to live. The option of not living felt like a better option than the option of living basically. I didn't want to do anything. I just, I was moody, I was crabby, I was tired. I could sleep all day and all night without a problem. I just, I hated everything. I hated myself and I hated myself even more for not knowing why I felt like that. It was just probably, like I said before, probably the worst part was I just didn't know why I felt like that and I just wanted to snap out of it but I couldn't. And the more, you know, the anger and angrier you get at yourself the worse it becomes and it's just a big awful cycle.
 
 

Chloe first attempted suicide at the age of 16, but it was never discussed in her family, who...

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Age at interview: 25
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 19
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As soon as I hit Year 7, Year 8, it just kind of blew up into this mass, like, anxiety and depression. 
 
And my self esteem plummeted and all of a sudden I was like fat, hideous, a loser, just, you know, I didn’t think too much of myself, and - so I was about 14 when I really started getting quite depressed. And I got symptoms like self harming and kind of like suicidal thoughts and it was - and - when I was about 15, I developed an eating disorder to try and - I don’t know. I guess I wanted to feel better about the way I looked and just - I’m not too sure. 
 
And on my 16th birthday, I attempted suicide for the first time and I was in Year 10. And, no one knew, like, at school because mental illness wasn’t mentioned at school so it would – if you went - if anyone knew about that I would be like an outcast and people would spread rumours about me. And my family had this whole persp - perspective that it was more of like an attention seeking thing and that I didn’t mean to do it, and. My Mum basically just said, ‘Don’t do it again!’. And, ‘You’re fine; be a good girl,’ or whatever.
 
And I saw a psychologist twice after that through the hospital and he was really intimidating so I didn’t go back to see him. And from there on it went kind of a lot worse, I guess, because I’d reached a really low point; possibly the lowest you could get and because it wasn’t addressed then, it just went downhill, and Years 11 and 12, it was like I got into the drinking and the drug taking and really badly self harming and just a bad eating disorder. 
 
And I kind of, I was really happy though, like to people, like I had this really great mask on so at school I was actually like the class clown. Like, it was ridiculous; like I was the, the loudest, funniest kind of, you know - I partied the most and it was just funny because I’d go home and I wouldn’t sleep at night and I was just so depressed but no one knew about it, like not even my family.
 
 

Paul talked about becoming very fearful about his suicidal thoughts.

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Age at interview: 39
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 29
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I got to a point at - where I was living we had a fantastic garage. Every man would be proud of this garage. You know all the bells and whistles of a big industrial setup. And that was - I lived there. I did. I did a lot of jobs around the house and I really enjoyed it. And I decided that’s it, this is my place. I’m going to take my life. I got some, some rope and ah some things and ah had basically set it all up. When I was doing it I was aware that I was going to use it. But at that, right at that minute there, I wasn’t. I just thought get it ready because I don’t want to have to muck around. I just want to do it.
 
And it stayed like that for a while and I sort of left it there. I decided - I knew I was all over the place. I’ve very close family, Mum and I are very close, always have been. I sort of shut down from them and I went into hiding from everyone. And I was, I was starting to get very, very scared. Ah I was at court one day at (name of court) and was watching a court matter that I had an involvement in and as prosecuting. And for the whole time the court matter was on and I was in the witness box as well. The whole time I was being cross examined all I thought about was going, getting, hurrying home to the garage and taking my life.
 


Last reviewed January 2016.
Last updated  January 2016.
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