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Depression and recovery in Australia

Getting better

Getting better and the meaning of recovery are complex concepts that mean different things in different contexts and to different people. This section presents personal stories of getting better from depression and views on recovery.
 
Stories told by people about recovery covered topics such as the search for a meaningful life, going in and out of depression, and personal victories over a condition that often ruled peoples’ lives over long periods of time. Some people described why they felt recovery from depression was difficult to achieve. A few who felt they had recovered mostly described it as a gradual process which included regaining a sense of control over aspects of their lives they used to enjoy – work, friends and family. Very few people had experienced only one episode of depression; for most it was a cycle of phases of getting better followed by phases of depression. Stories of recovery reflected these patterns, with some people who had experienced periods of recovery saying they always worried about depression returning.
 
Pathways to getting better varied. Talking honestly about their depression and viewing it as a positive experience was considered by some as an important step towards recovery. Many also talked about the need to ‘consciously decide to want to get better’ as a critical first step. The majority of people experienced some periods of time when they felt better and various degrees of recovery. Those who had experienced long periods of feeling better emphasised that reaching that point had taken a long time and a lot of soul-searching.
 
A few people believed that the possibility of recovery was related to the type of depression one had experienced. Some thought recovery was not possible. However, some with this belief had nonetheless regained some of their former functioning with the help of talking therapies, medication and complementary approaches (see ‘Talking treatments’, ‘Experience with antidepressant medication’ and ‘Complementary approaches’). Others believed that accepting depression and living with it represented a form of recovery.
 

Jules did not consider herself as being in recovery, and talked about the signs that would...

Jules did not consider herself as being in recovery, and talked about the signs that would...

Age at interview: 61
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 55
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I'd know I had recovered if I was having a least a cup of soup in the middle of the day, and something to eat every night, preferably planned for but you know. I don't eat junk food though, which is good.
 
If I was getting up and I get up every day, I don't stay in bed, but if I shower and got dressed relatively early, whether I was going out or not. 
 
If the competitions between how messy every room could get, ended and that I wasn't living in fear that someone might call in unexpectedly so that I couldn't go through the pretence that at least the place looks reasonable some of the time. So automatically, I mean basically, just put the dishes from after I've used them in the dishwasher, instead of letting them get around the kitchen. Taking the rubbish down, wanting to, when I was most productive on the PhD was, I would get up and I would do three hours before I'd do anything else, doing that, getting back into that. 
 
Doing more work, if I could, working with groups, which is my favourite type of work, in organisations, and writing the books that have been accumulating, finishing (future book title), wanting to go over to my daughters'.
 
I do see me finishing the PhD. I do see me writing. I would like to have another relationship, I know I don't have time for one before I finish the PhD [laughs] I do believe I, that I will be able to come back and be earning money as a consultant.
 
I mean this most importantly, I feel that somewhere, I'm not sure what it looks like yet, but there's something I have to do about this, not for - when I'm well, my passion about mental illness, depression, anxiety, the stigma still of it, there's something I've got to do. I don't know what it is, I don't know what it looks like but I want to make use of this experience in more ways than one, and that is to, to be well, to not be living in the way that I have been living for, just for far too long.
 
 

Kim Hai was determined to ‘fight’ her depression, but was not sure she would ever fully recover.

Kim Hai was determined to ‘fight’ her depression, but was not sure she would ever fully recover.

Age at interview: 59
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 39
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And I feel like in the future, what it holds for me, I might still relax into depression but I know the way out, because I know for me counselling works. I know there are people out there, professionals as well as friends, and government agency like refuge, CAT team who could help me you know to get away from immediate danger, immediate danger from someone or from myself, if I ever feel suicidal. 
 
I am determined not to let the depression get me. That's my determination. But it doesn't mean I am sure like I will not be depressed in the future. In my view, depression is something, like a gradation, it is compounded by specific life circumstances and it is the thing like once you have it with your make-up, genetic make-up, and your life story make up, it will be like a sound wave. It will be up and down and up and down to a certain extent. 
 
It might stabilise but it might never go away. You, I don’t think I'll ever be cured of it but I feel rather safe now because I know what to do if I see the sine wave going to go up and I know how to get it down. Did that make sense?
 
 

For Suzi, recovery meant having more good than bad days and having friends who are well.

For Suzi, recovery meant having more good than bad days and having friends who are well.

Age at interview: 50
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 21
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Recovery means… having more good days than bad, being able to engage with well people. I know when I’m in hospital – initially when I used to go into hospital you’d meet these wonderful people and you’d want to keep friendships going afterwards. And no, that doesn’t work. That’s not a good idea, you know. I find, yes, you’re nice to people and you help the people when you’re in there and then when you finish you go your separate ways. Because those people you sort of know because for whatever reason you both were in a crisis at the same time, which I don’t think is a good basis for a friendship, so I want to be relating to well people when I’m out of hospital. I think, the more friends that I have who are well, I think that’s a sign of wellness. I think you can have a lot of unwell people, but in fact earlier years, like back with the anorexia, I made some really good friends with some of the people I was in hospital with then. 
 
Very important, one of the most - you know, there’s certain things that you learn along the way that help you, and when things start to go down and you start to feel like you’re falling back into the depression all you can do is just pull out the things that have helped in the past. 
 
So when you’re getting, when I’m getting down, I think, you know, no I won’t just roll over and go back to sleep. I will force myself to go to the gym or to go out and do something because nine times out of ten that will help, and I will force myself to interact with the dog. There are certain things, you know, and you just grab on to those and, you know, sort of pull yourself along with those. The dog is one of those.
 
A few people realised they were getting better once they were able to return to study or work. This was accompanied by increased levels of self-esteem and a sense of empowerment. Andrew noticed he was more assertive at work and respected himself more, and took this as a sign of recovery. Louise said turning her experience of depression in something positive that could help other people in similar situations by volunteering with a NGO (non-governmental organisation) that supports people with mental illness helped her remain in recovery.
 
A few indicated that, as they went through their experiences of depression and recovery, every time they ‘came back’ they felt a bit stronger. Indications of improved mental health included better interaction and spending more time with their families and friends, a less confrontational home and/or work life, keeping regular appointments, and better control over their time. Saying ‘no’ to friends’ requests without feeling guilty was important for Jane. Akello said she stopped feeling as though she was ‘carrying the whole world on her shoulders’. Ron hoped that being in recovery would help him once again make his own decisions. Akello said recovery saw her become more organised at both home and work and able to complete tasks. For some meeting financial obligations, and not being upset by other people contributed to feeling in control. A few women said recovery was associated with losing weight gained through taking antidepressants.
 

Clinton talked about recovery as a ‘serious of small victories often followed by another little...

Clinton talked about recovery as a ‘serious of small victories often followed by another little...

Age at interview: 38
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 19
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The other thing my wife really appreciates is the amount of work I've put in has really reaped benefits, but she knows that - how seriously I take this marriage, because it comes down to when she sees me reading a self-help book, when she knows that I'm online doing some research, when she knows that where I'm going on Wednesday is off to see my psych again - and I've never, ever stopped the journey. And - and if I had a year with no medical expert contact, or no reading of books, or no brain exercises, or no, you know, working for [NGO name], I - that - that would make me scared. 
 
I have to have that learning, this constant, ongoing journey, this constant, ongoing learning experience. And I don't ever expect it to stop. Because even if I did get to a point where I felt perfect, then it becomes no longer recovery. 
 
What we need to do is we need to make a port where ships will call, and that ship can be your own. You need to make a life for yourself where, you can be happy, and have some peace. And everyone has different expectations for things, but when you look to tomorrow, is there hope? Is there something enjoyable coming up next week, or next month, or next year? Is there something for you to look forward to? And that's what I do. 
 
But I've managed, over the years, to break my expectations down to a point where just being in my garden is now enough. And the simple pleasures, I'm really starting to savour them. 
 
And I just know that if I keep working the way that I've been working - in fact I can even afford to relax a little bit now that I'm 38, and that I've spent 15, you know, 15 years on myself. I can afford to relax a little bit now, but I know I'm always going to have to do a little something every day. 
 
Other important signs they were getting better people talked about included regaining self-respect, learning to love themselves, regaining a sense of freedom and independence, being able to do things in their life, be who they wanted to be, and a renewed sense of self-reliance. Simplifying their life, cutting back on social or work commitments, giving themselves time to get emotionally stronger before they were ready to return to work, lowering expectations and enjoying simple things were part of many people’s recovery. John commented that lowering his ‘mythical’ expectations of his marriage took the pressure off it, which in turn helped him start feeling better.
 
Ivan commented that he knew he was getting better after he became convinced that he needed to ‘fight’ and ‘conquer’ his depression. Dani said realising she could change her thoughts and feelings was very healing. Peter saw his recovery as developing a ‘degree of independence from depression’, aided by taking the right treatments he was receiving for his depression. For others, the goal of recovery was leading a meaningful and satisfying life, ‘whether it be with a mental illness or without’.
 

Belinda described recovery as the realisation that having depression is OK.

Belinda described recovery as the realisation that having depression is OK.

Age at interview: 35
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 25
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I reckon for me recovery would mean being able to live with knowing that having depression is okay and that it will you know it will come and go but that the lows are not so low and that the okay times are just around the corner. I don’t think that, for me, that depression will go away altogether but you know I’ve sort of learned over the years that I can live with it and that it might be there but it doesn’t mean it needs to affect other parts of my life as much as it used to. 

 
So yeah that’s what I reckon recovery is.
 
 

Linda felt on the way to recovery when she accepted her depression as an illness that she was not...

Linda felt on the way to recovery when she accepted her depression as an illness that she was not...

Age at interview: 26
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 19
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So what does recovery mean for you?
 
Just being able to function again. Just to be yourself again. Just, you know, to be able to be happy and to feel happy and just to feel like you should feel and not feel like there's a giant cloud over your head all the time. And just to be able to function it's, you know, nothing special. Just to be able to be yourself and the person that you were before, before you were depressed, is probably, you know? And not having to rely too heavily on counselling or, you know, or medication or that sort of thing. Just to be able to get up and live your normal life.
 
I'd say the most healing thing was me coming to the realisation that that it wasn't my fault and that it, that I shouldn't feel guilty about it. Because it was not something I could control. I guess getting an understanding of what depression is and that it affects a lot of people and it's, you know, it's not just me. I think that was probably the most healing part. 
 
And just getting to a point where I felt like I'd done it and I felt like I'd gotten through it. You know the light at the end of the tunnel - I'd finally reached it and I was just - I felt like my old self. I think that was probably, you know, the most - I can look back now and be proud of myself for getting through it, so yeah.
 
Well I'm currently, I'm a para planner working in finance. I'm currently studying my Diploma of Financial Planning so within six months hopefully I'll be certified and I'll be able to start seeing my own clients. Yeah, so the future looks pretty rosy. When I think about my future I don't think about anything affecting it. You know depression doesn't even enter my mind. It's just a thing that's there but it's not, you know, it's not going to weigh me down in any way, so yeah. 
 
I've got a partner and hopefully we'll get married sometime in the not too distant future [laughs]. Yeah and I'm built my house and yeah life's good. 
 
It’s part of who I am but it doesn't define me, you know, it's just - I can, you know, I can I guess not embrace it but I can live with it and it's definitely - doesn't even factor into my future. And I would never let it get to a point - well hopefully I would never let it get to a point where it would ever affect me to that point again. So yeah hopefully I've reached my light at the end of the tunnel and you know never go down that track again. When I think of the future it's all pretty rosy so, [laughs] yeah. 
 
A few people saw recovery as largely a personal responsibility and dependent on working on oneself. Ruth said she knew she was recovering when she was able to actively pursue her goals in life and added that ‘change important for recovery has to come from within’. Colin characterised depression as a ‘solo trip’. His recovery included shifting his focus on himself to others and letting other people help along the way. Not having regrets was also important and he knew he was getting better when his wife commented that she ‘got him back’ again. Gabrielle felt that looking back into her earlier life, supported by her husband and her therapist, started her recovery process. As she got better, she learned to love and believe in herself, and recognised that there were people around her who honestly cared for her.
 

Chloe talked about her experiences of living through phases of depression and recovery and what...

Chloe talked about her experiences of living through phases of depression and recovery and what...

Age at interview: 25
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 19
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Yeah then I just started working full time and yeah I’ve been in recovery for the last couple of years. It’s been like - I’ve been doing really well and at the moment I’m seeing a really great psychologist and a psychiatrist and on some really good medication that I found really helped after I tried like I don’t know how many [laughs] different medications I’ve tried. 
 
And yeah so things are finally [laughs], are finally doing well [laughs], 10 years down the track but yeah, it’s been a really long process, so, that’s…
 
I think recovery begins the day you decide that you don’t want to live like that anymore. It’s making that first decision to change the way your life is and the way it could possibly end up. And then from then on, it’s seeking support from whether it be friends, family, doctors, health professionals. For, for me, support from my partner was the most important aspect. Just having someone to talk to is really important otherwise you just keep it inside and no one, you know, will ever know about it. And it kind of yeah gets all bottled up, and then. Yeah recovery, yeah is just taking positive steps. You know they can be really slow. Like it can take years - it could take months to years to recover, you know, and I’m not sure whether you can fully be recovered. Like you know there’s always a chance of relapsing. Like for me I was – [laughs] I had some really bad health problems a couple of years ago and I had to have some surgeries and stuff. 
 
 
And then I was diagnosed with just chronic pelvic pain so I had like really severe chronic pain where I couldn’t walk or work. You know, and this was after I started working and it was all going really well and then I just got really sick which I think could’ve been from all the stress. And just sitting there with all this pain thinking, ‘I can’t do all those things that I really like doing, like you know hiking and cycling and stuff anymore’. And then I relapsed straight away into depression because my quality of life went way down and I’d worked so hard to get it up there.
 
And then you know it happened so quickly. I just went down again but luckily, because I’d been through it before, I kind of knew which supports to go to and what works best for me, and yeah, I made it through so I’m still managing the pain side of it as well and then all the other mental stuff, so yeah. 
 
 

Jack realised that no one could help him to get better and this was his own responsibility.

Jack realised that no one could help him to get better and this was his own responsibility.

Age at interview: 71
Sex: Male
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Recovery? Well this is to me, I don’t know that ah this would go for anybody else, but it means you get up off your bum and you move forward. It doesn’t matter which way you go, to the side, right, left or straight forward. But you get up and you move. If you don’t move, you die. I could honestly say I didn’t realise I had such a strength of character within myself at that stage. But obviously I must have because that’s how I did it. And I didn’t rely on anybody else, I did it all myself, as you’ve realised, I hadn’t gone and sought doctors, I hadn’t sought out specialists, or I haven’t picked out a friend to talk to, any of that sort of stuff.
 
I’ve just gone and done what my father and mother always told me, is do the right thing. Just go and do it. And that’s what I did.
 
 

Millaa talked about choosing between giving in to or fighting depression, and helping yourself...

Millaa talked about choosing between giving in to or fighting depression, and helping yourself...

Age at interview: 20
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 15
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Recovery, eergh. Well, I haven't really recovered, I wouldn't go that far, but - because I still very much deal with it on a daily basis. But , but recovery in the form of - that I'm better than I was a few months ago, anxiously and depressively, is that – what does it mean to me?, well it means that you're not as… you’re not as hazed over, you're not as insulated, you're not as scared about everything and you're not as sad as, as well. You’re not, you try to not - once you come out of the, the black and you start to come back into the sort of grey area, you start to sort of - you have time to really sort of reflect and think, and think to yourself, ‘You know what, it's my choice really, if I want to be depressed by what I have to go through’. Because it's your brain, it's your – and you have a I mean, it's very emotionally based, I know that too, obviously. 
 
But it’s your choice if you want to get really, really depressed, like to the point where you want to commit suicide. Like, suicide is your choice. You choose to put the knife in your hands, you choose to put the gun to your face, you choose to swallow the poison. It's not someone else forcing you to do it, is it. It's not someone hold-, holding the knife to your neck and saying ‘OK now, you take hold’, you know. So I think it’s, it is a choice. But that being said, it's an emotional choice. It's very - it’s not a logical choice, being depressed, obviously. But you do have a choice to try and work through whatever issues are giving birth to the depression, when you're “sober” enough to, you know, when you're out of that depressive haze, out of the real darkness. When you're into the sort of - more of the light. 
 
And you, you, you know, you have a choice to go and seek therapy, to go and help - go and get help and to also help others and maybe through helping others you can help yourself, which I think perhaps I can do. That's why I want to share my story because I want to help others and perhaps then help myself, 'cause I can learn from others, they can learn from me.
 
For most people, recovery was a very personal journey that involved both reflecting on life before depression, and using what they had learned through their experience into life afterwards. Being able to enjoy the things that had previously given them pleasure was key.
 

Susan described recovery as rediscovering joy in life, and being optimistic about the future.

Susan described recovery as rediscovering joy in life, and being optimistic about the future.

Age at interview: 61
Sex: Female
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The best word to describe it is zest, you know, zest being like lemon juice on a salad; it gives it a sharpness and it brightens it up and it makes it taste great. It's a sort of a spiritual zest that, that I think is my healthy default position, that when I'm well and not depressed zest is my natural response to life, and that it takes the form of energy, of - especially of creativity, you know. 
 
I wake up in the morning and I'm thinking about – I'm thinking really creatively about problems that I deal with, or about words to a song that I might write, or places that I want to go to and how to, how to achieve that - how to achieve things that I'd like to achieve. It's a sort of a zest and energy. That's how I feel when I'm really well, and the anti-depressants make that more possible, but don't restore it totally, ‘cause I think it comes from in, within. A drug can't do that for you, I think. 
 
On a good day I feel that there are opportunities and surprises in store and that my life will be - the last third of my life, or the last quarter of my life perhaps, will have wonderful things in it. What they might be, I don't know. I've started a bucket list. Do you know what a bucket list is? A bucket list is all the things you're planning to do before you kick the bucket, which is - that is to say die. And there are places that I would like to go to and things that I want to achieve before I die. 
 
So my bucket list includes things like write a good piece of music, see Barcelona, see Venice, go to Antarctica, take a really good photograph, ah learn Italian, you know? Things that I'd like to do before I die, so I’ve started a bucket list and that's full of optimistic thought and ideas. 
 
 

Rosie talked optimistically about her recovery and what she wanted from her life.

Rosie talked optimistically about her recovery and what she wanted from her life.

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 44
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But there’s so much else to live for. You know, there’s wonderful places out in the world to go and visit and there’s people and there’s just - you know this weekend we, one of the girls bought Song Star which I’d never heard of before but it’s just you know, two microphones and CDs. I’m usually very, very self conscious and conservative. Well, you know, we were up singing and screaming and screeching into this microphone. God help the poor neighbours that had to put up with two nights in a row. 
 
So the future’s got lots. You know, it’s, you have to make your own future, you have to make opportunities, you have to take them when they’re presented to you. It’s very easy to sit and be melancholy and to drown in your sorrow and to say, you know, poor me. You can fall into that psyche and sit there and go, and I do, I have moments of that. But you have to pull yourself out. You have to look at other people and everybody’s got problems. When you talk to people and you actually ask them questions, everybody’s had tragedy of some kind. Okay, yeah, they didn’t lose a child, okay maybe in my eyes on the scale of things, it’s the worst thing that can every happen to you. And it probably is one of the worst. 
 
But it’s relative to everybody and everybody’s got different levels of strength and how they deal with it. And you have to keep pulling yourself back and remembering that.
 

Last reviewed January 2016.
Last updated January 2016.
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