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Depression and recovery in Australia

Self-discovery through depression

Describing the meaning of recovery was complex for many people we spoke to. Most people talked about how recovery was a gradual process of self-transformation, rather than a return to how they felt before their experience of depression (see ‘Getting better’). Most people experienced periods of feeling better and for many, depression signified a profound life-changing experience that influenced the way they saw themselves, their lives and the world around them. For many, this involved reassessing the ways in which they were living their lives. A few said the experience of depression enabled them to develop and grow as people, and become the people they had always wanted to be and putting an end to worrying about what others thought of them.
 
Many described becoming more patient, and no longer worrying about pleasing everybody. Jack told us he would not want to change his experience of depression as: ‘the person I have become now is a person that I actually like'. John commented that even if it was possible to, he would not want to erase his painful experience if the price was returning to the life he lived before depression. Many people appreciated what they learned about themselves in living through depression.
 

John thought it would take a lifetime to find out some of the things he had learned, if he had...

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Age at interview: 40
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 37
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So I just - I've really checked out of the whole, get more done equals more life idea. I actually think you get more out of life if you get less done, if you're less ambitious, you plan less in a day. I mean you - I really do smell the roses, I mean I genuinely do smell the roses. I move slower, I walk slower, I do everything slower, it's fantastic. 
 
And I've got more time for people, it’s - the irony wasn't lost on me, but after I gave up being a pastor, I actually had more time for people, so, you know, it's really strange because my life was full of just meetings and planning and budgets and events and programs
 
So, I never wanted to – I actually never wanted to get better and have my old life back. I never wanted to get back to the way things were because I realised that I had to change and, I actually wanted to be better because of depression and so for me recovery, it was, it was a journey that hopefully, ended up with me being a changed person for the better. And I guess they're some of the things that have changed for the better in, in my story.
 
For most women the ability to be more assertive, less hard on themselves without feeling guilty, not accusing themselves of things that they had no control over, learning that their life should be about them, and respecting themselves were newly gained perspectives. As Jane told us: ‘I own everything that I do, and I say no’. That is just the most liberating thing that I learned to do, was just to say no’. A few women who described themselves as recovered from perinatal depression talked about the deep changes they experienced, and reflected on their transformation as positive one. Emma described her earlier perinatal depression as a life-changing experience.
 

Jane’s depression experience helped her to focus on the things she really wanted to do.

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Age at interview: 39
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 29
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Just progressively feeling more and more like myself really.
 
And, you know, I've changed careers, I now run my own business. I've done things I, you know, done things I never thought I'd do, travelled, so since the kids have been born I've been going overseas by myself regularly.
 
So I've seen a lot of the world that I hadn't seen previously. So life is very, very different to what it would have been even if I'd just - if I'd never had the depression life would be very different. And so the depr – the PND really helped me be very clear about who I am and what I want to do I guess. So in that way it was good.
 
I'm much clearer on who I am and who I'm not. I'm – I mean, it's hard, because I haven't got access to the person I would have been if I'd continued on that trajectory, it's hard to know how I would have turned out but I'm much more adult. I take responsibility for myself and my actions, I talk in ‘I’ language about, ‘I feel, I want, I think’. 
 
 

Emma described discovering pleasure in enjoying simple things with her children.

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Age at interview: 33
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 32
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But maybe I also say recovery because I, I want to believe it. Do you know what I mean? I don't, I want to feel like I'm through the other side and so by saying it, it will mean that I am. But I actually feel I am. I feel much better. I feel I can deal with a lot more things. 
 
And I have talked to my GP about a third child and my anxiety about getting it again. But she's very pragmatic and very, you may not get it, you may. Let's deal with it when it comes. 
 
It's made me reflect a lot more on life and its stresses and the pressure we put on ourselves as parents and mothers and - I mean I wonder if I would have done that anyway. But because I do, I now do this meditation quite a lot it's made me sort of see, it's slightly go off, off on a tangent of trying to simplify life and live in the moment. And not be influenced by, trying not to be influenced by how nut society tries to entangle our lives.
 
Yes the simple kind of life, have a lot more home days. And try and live in the moment where sometimes if, I try not to be on the phone when the kids are awake, you know. You've got a lot of admin anyway but certainly the internet can drain time so I try not to be on the internet. I try to sit down, I mean it's so basic - sit down and read with the kids and count their toes a couple of times a day, do you know what I mean? Just enjoy them and just sit out, it doesn't have to do anything, just sit out there and catch grasshoppers and just enjoy. 
 
Kim Hai who doubted she would make a full recovery from depression, talked about how she had learned to be more rational about her feelings of sadness and to accept sadness as an integral part of her life. She had also learned to allow herself to feel good – something that was foreign to her before she experienced depression.
 

Even though Kim Hai experienced periods of feeling better supported by a trusted counsellor, she...

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Age at interview: 59
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 39
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But now I feel good because I have learned to feel good - that's what I would say - through all these life experiences and counselling sessions, with support from friends and maybe spiritual beings. I have learned to feel good and allow myself to feel good to an extent that I allow myself to, and not feeling so much of the doom and gloom and wanting to go back to the bottom in order to feel safe anymore. It is very abstract, it is you know a bit complicated I think, even to me. 
 
So I don’t think I'm a person who - I'm feeling good but I'm always prepared for disaster. That's what I would say. But not in the traumatic way I used to, like, the oh, good time never last. You know, something's going to happen. This is not going to last. That's what I have always felt. But now I sort of feel good and I, I'm more rational in my feeling good or feeling sad. I still feel sad and I feel like sadness is my refuge. I don't think sadness is bad. 
 
Because I feel like sadness is healing too. If we allow ourselves to feel sad, it might heal us, and we're not afraid of being sad. I'm not afraid of being sad. It's comforting sometimes. 
 
Those who questioned the notion of ‘recovery’ usually compared their current selves with who they were before depression. Many felt they changed significantly, but did not necessarily consider this ‘recovery’. Some observed that recovery did not mean returning to who they were before depression, but becoming another, different person.
 

Kymberly was proud of the person she became through depression and believed she could be an...

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Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 45
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Is recovery possible? yes. I do wonder, the one thing that I wonder about is once you've reached that or, or experienced that weakened state I wonder if you ever become fully strong again? Or if you constantly have to be aware that that is a weakened part of your - I don't like the word.
 
So that you need to maybe be more conscious and aware of it than the other, than another person.
 
Yeah, that's a good question. Well it's made me, it's made me weaker I guess in some regards and it's made me stronger in others. I feel happier now, like, you know, the last couple of years have been shit, absolute shit. But I like, I love myself now. I know that I'm, I know that, I know that this is a new life for me that I've chosen and I've created it. Like I believe you create your reality with the choices you make and the, and the things that you say, you make it and I own the bad things that happened to me. Whenever those bad things were happening I never sat there and blamed a god or my, someone else or anything like that.
 
And what do I have now? I have sadness, I've had a lot of sadness. I've had that depression, I could have done without that. But I feel truer to myself, I feel more like myself. I feel like I'm showing my children how to live and that they always have the option of making choices in their life. 
 
 

Louise saw recovery as being about developing a new self.

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Age at interview: 45
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 32
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Recovery. I think it's not to get back to how you were before, because that was your old self and you want to be developing your new self, because life is about changes and if you try to hang onto all those old things, you are going to find it really, really difficult
 
You want to be learning new ways of thinking and doing things and that's what I see recovery as. I don't see it as a permanent thing, ‘I've now recovered and I'll never have another bout of depression again’. It's like saying I'll never break my ankle again. I might break my ankle again.
 
You've got to mature and it’s through adversity that you do mature and that they say it's easy to steer a ship in calm waters. It's when you get into those choppy seas you see the real character of a person. so yeah, having, having depression and the things that are associated with it and working through them and - and being open. I’m quite open to lots of things and a lot of people aren't.
 
Some people talked about feeling healthier, happier and more mature, stating that through depression they learned a lot about themselves. Many had re-assessed lifestyle aspirations that had contributed to stress, aspirations mostly related to material possessions and career goals. A few people ‘downshifted’ to simpler, but emotionally more satisfying lives in which they made space and time to focus on what really mattered to them. A few people acknowledged that had they not experienced depression, their lives and self-understanding would not be as enriched.
 

Peter changed his worldview and his values as a part of his depression experience.

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Age at interview: 49
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 36
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How different am I? Well look I was a card-carrying Liberal member when I left the money market and now I'm a Marxist. So yes, oh well I hope that I've become a lot more compassionate, a lot less arrogant. And you know, despite and despite these feelings - and it's a weird thing that you can go, well I've got, I've got this feeling of impending doom and sadness - which I have now. Like I've got it, I can feel that now - but I've compartmentalised it. And I go, well that's interesting.
 
So, yeah, I really hope that that it has made me a better person, you know, it's a strange thing to say. And I don't, I don't recommend it as a method [smiles]. But yeah, you know, I'm happy with who I am…
 
A few people who had migrated to Australia had to confront their hopes of returning to their home countries and grief about lost family ties and friendships. Ivan saw his experience with depression as one of the most enriching and significant experiences of his life. For him, and some other migrants we talked with, relinquishing the dream of returning to their country of origin and accepting that their life was in Australia was healing.
 
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Ivan talked about the realisation that Australia, not Europe, was home, and of the legacy of...

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Age at interview: 58
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 52
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I think I have found my home. Australia is my home and I have accepted it. Perhaps one of the causes was that I had a subconscious feeling' ‘I should go back, where my roots are, I should go back to Croatia and retire there’. Yes, very likely. It was like something I never achieved…but today it is clear. Some four years ago we were in Croatia and I finally realised that this (Australia) was my home.
 
I have definitely not returned to the stage I was at before depression. I had unbelievable skills, energy and will…with extra kilos, my energy and…umm, my abilities have become limited, and I don’t have any need to compete, to prove something, to achieve. I think that everything in my life has settled. I think I am in a period of spirituality, thinking, quiet conversations, long walks…one would say, yes, a retired person…no, I think it is maturity and it makes me happy. I feel full, excited and happy because of qualities I have.
 
I have reached the stage when I can control my life, my way of life. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow but my experience of depression was so significant in my life that I can take it as the most important experience in my life. I think that depression was one of the most significant experiences in my life which enriched me, gave me dignity and fullness of life and understanding of life.
 
Many felt that experiencing depression and living with suffering helped them to learn to accept themselves, enabled them to grow and take charge of their lives.
 

Safra felt depression had made her a much stronger person.

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Age at interview: 56
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 52
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Right now I am looking at myself as a survivor. I look at myself as I have the strength to say no to this person who was abusing me mentally. And I can look into my life and say, I don’t need anyone to give me approval. And all the wrongs that I was doing before I can right it now. 
 
I think when you are depressed you lose all dignity for yourself and you have to find the dignity through depression. 
 
You’ve got to believe in yourself that you, you are the only one that can change things around you. Never wait for a partner, your child, a friend to change things for you. It’s a very hard journey, but it’s the real journey. 
 
In addition to inner gains, a few people talked about deriving pleasure from feeling reconnected with their social networks and broader society. Some were actively looking for opportunities to help others.
 

For Clinton, recovery involved reconnecting with a broader social environment.

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Age at interview: 38
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 19
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So you have the - recovery for me would mean being able to have a life where I am making a difference to the world, so some form of positive social interaction; where I'm happy inside myself, so I can be self contained; and recovery for me is to get to a point where I can live life without having something going on in my body or my mind that is like a toothache. 
 
A mental toothache. Recovery for me is doing enough work, getting enough assistance to get to a point where the - even a mental toothache, or even - I can - I could put up with a - having a mental sniff, but anything more than that is something I would not consider recovery. 
 
Living in an environment where I am able to grow, living in an environment where I'm able to continue to move forward, that's recovery. If I'm in a world where there's an abusive relationship, or someone living with me who's constantly yelling or stressed, and my entire day is stressed as a result, that's not recovery. Recovery is also something you think of in terms of oh, they've recovered. Recovery is, for me, something you can look at in terms of the future, but it's also a present tense. 
 
 

Millaa connected depression experience with creativity.

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Age at interview: 20
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 15
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And you know what, I think - I consider depression also like a baptism of fire for dep-, for artistic people. You know that you’re really, you know that there's something creative in you if you've got some sort of depression and it lasts for a while, you know. And if it stems from something like identity or, you know, being queer or something especially, it's probably something to do with - perhaps you're going to get really creative or perhaps there's something in you that needs to be expressed in a way that's probably not, you know, as conventional as sport, or maybe even sport, but you know, maybe something - writing or drawing or singing or music or whatever it might be. I think that that’s, that’s how you really know that you’re a creative person, is if you’ve got a little bit of depression, I think yeah. 

Millaa appreciated his experience of depression as it provided him with a chance to learn about himself and facilitated a ‘personal reflection’ to acknowledge his problems and deal with them. This helped him grow as a person. A few people found the experience of living through depression liberating. Others who saw their suffering as a continuum talked about their hopes, explaining where they would like to be once their depression passed.
 

Ron thought that suffering and joy went hand in hand and described this as an enriching state of...

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Age at interview: 62
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 27
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So when you start - when a person starts to take charge of their life and be responsible with - for their life, not controlling their life because that may be another form, is that then you open up a whole lot of consequences and a whole lot of possibilities. And of course there’ll be, there'll be pain and suffering in there too but there may be that great opportunity for joy and for freedom and, you know, all those other wonderful things, because you really need both sides of the coin, you can’t just have one, just have all joy and peace, we need to have the other side too like night and day. 

 
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Amelia had never thought about 'recovery' from depression, but she constructed a persona of whom...

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Age at interview: 51
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 38
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God. I think, well, I never exactly have thought of that word, recovery, or recovered from depression. But if I can imagine myself without it - I do have this little image of myself as a retired elderly woman who's like very competent, and she has energy this amazing woman. 
 
And she does things that she's wanted to do all her life, and she's not afraid to do them, and she's not afraid of failure. I quite like that woman. I feel quite fond of her. And who knows? One day I might be her. So I guess, maybe, that's my thought of what it would be like.
 
She would go to a country that I've always wanted to go to.
 
And she would just teach English to children or to adults and help them in the refugee camps - not by doing anything physical, because she's such a hopeless physical person. But she's got a big mind and she's got a kind heart, and so she can help people with those - she wouldn't always not have the energy to do those things. That would be lovely. 
 
I think I really would love to become that woman - who's so self confident that she can just do what she wants to do. And she doesn’t worry all the time that she's a failure and she's not doing her job properly and not good enough to do what she wants to do. 
 
And I do have a little part of me that thinks I might be that woman one day, so that's nice. So I just - she'd be really happy that I have that little part of me.
 


Last reviewed January 2016.
Last updated January 2016.
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