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Depression and recovery in Australia

Stories of growing up

Stories of depression were built-in to people’s overall life stories. All the people we talked with reflected on their lives and looked into their past for clues to make sense of how their future lives would unfold. Many people described their childhood as a happy period when they felt cared for and loved. Ivan said' ‘My childhood was joyful, happy and carefree, on a beautiful island, beautiful climate with my parents whom I adored and who admired me’. For them, it was events in their adult life which they believed contributed to their depression. In contrast, others described feeling a sense of puzzling sadness from early on in life.
 
Many thought childhood family experiences had contributed to their depression. Clinton described growing up feeling that his way of ‘looking at the world was different to others’; that he had a ‘sort of pain in my experience of life that other people didn’t seem to have’ and experienced difficult relationships with his family. A few people described inconsistencies in parenting approaches, for example being physically punished by one parent and protected by the other. Sometimes this left them confused about ‘rights and wrongs’. Safra, growing up in Malaysia, said her mother had physically punished her for no apparent reason, while her father had been very loving: ‘So I had this growing up of happiness from my father and fear from my mother’.
 
A few people grew up families with a parent with an alcohol dependency which caused family troubles, including breakups and emotional and physical turmoil.
 

Rosie described growing up in a dysfunctional family that left her with low self-esteem.

Rosie described growing up in a dysfunctional family that left her with low self-esteem.

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 44
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How would I describe myself - I am probably a outgoing extroverted type person but at times shy and lacking in self-confidence. Ah, we grew up in an alcoholic family so my father was an alcoholic and unfortunately that caused a number of problems as children growing up, so it left some scars. And so there’s symptoms I guess if that’s what you call them, that we experience, and that one of those is lack of self esteem, lack of confidence.
 
Ah, we didn’t have much of a family life which was really sad because we didn’t grow up learning – I guess the, we were never allowed to have friends home because Dad would always be violent and, and drunk. He would stagger up the hall, a lot of the plaster in the walls was all cracked and stuff. Most Christmases he’d fall over the Christmas tree and break the ornaments which was very distressful for my Mum. 
 
We learnt violence. You know, a lot of swearing. Ah, Dad used to hit Mum all the time, put her in hospital a few times. She tried to commit suicide at one stage. She kind of gave up. So… it really affects you as children because we didn’t have kids home, other friends home. We didn’t go on holidays and we were very isolated. So whilst in some ways I suppose, well it was very poor and very bad but it learnt, it taught us to be independent. But I think, certainly I can only speak for myself but I’ve… too independent now in some respects, you know, so… 
 
Traumatic events in childhood happened outside of the family environment for some people. Two men talked about being sexually abused in their childhood, without their families’ knowledge. For Paul, a work training course which involved watching graphic material about children being sexually abused triggered memories of his own childhood abuse. His powerful reaction started a chain of psychological reactions that, in his view, created his depression.
 
Other people told of early experiences of family breakdown or death. Louise explained, ‘my parents divorced, when I was 14 and 15, and that was a big, a big shock and to everyone in our family and a big change for all of us’. Kymberly described a long-lasting sense of loss following her father’s suicide; Debra felt lost after her father died when she was young girl. Stewart lived through his parents’ divorce, abandonment by his biological father and the death of his loving stepfather. Although his mother was caring, Stewart said she had her own problems: ‘Well she was an alcoholic, there was no two ways about that’. As a consequence the family went through a lot of financial hardship. Others talked about experiencing the death of a parent at a young age, grief following bitter divorces and physical, psychological and emotional abuse.
 

Losing her father at the age of 10 was a life-defining moment for Debra.

Losing her father at the age of 10 was a life-defining moment for Debra.

Age at interview: 43
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 34
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My father passed away at, when I was 10, which I found very hard as I had a, quite a good relationship with him - was a tomboy, did a lot of things with him. Found that once he had gone I felt a little lost.
 
My father was born with a bad heart so he wasn't actually allowed to do a lot as a child. I felt that a lot of the things that we did together he was able to enjoy through me doing them because he wasn't able to do them as a child. I was very, very close to my father. Where I was outside doing things with him my twin sister would be inside doing things with my mum. My brother was only five when my father died so I didn't really have much to do with him in the early years of him being a baby. 
 
But the loss of my father really did have an effect on me that I probably wasn't as much aware of until I started to hit my teenage years and started to achieve things - scholarships at school, passing HSC, dedicating them all to my father. And also things like getting married, you know, him not being there. Having my first baby, him not being there. So that loss really did have a profound effect on me. 
I don't really remember doing much with Mum I must admit in the early years, you know, Mum was a housewife, good housewife, you know. 
 
So it was a really big shock for her. But I really did do pretty much everything with my dad. He was actually my hero.
 
Kim Hai became involved in her mother’s love affair as a ‘letter writer’ which she felt was detrimental to her emotional wellbeing as she was very close to her father. Another woman lived with a mother with serious mental health condition that was never explained to her. In addition she felt her father was relying on her for support and never protected her from often troubled family circumstances. Others struggled at school, or lived through physical illness and hospitalisation in childhood. Andrew described having a caring mother, but missed having more of her attention as she had to also care for his siblings and deal with her own depression.
 

As a child Andrew spent a lot of time in hospital. Even though he understood why his mother was...

As a child Andrew spent a lot of time in hospital. Even though he understood why his mother was...

Age at interview: 51
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 43
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The beginning for me started back when I was a kid. Ah at an early age I found myself not being able to do what ordinary kids do. Ah being out in the playground, I had a lot of trouble in school with learning. Ah I found out that I had dyslexia which complicated my learning. My understanding of concepts was very poor so I didn’t do very well at school ah in my formative years. I was also found out that I had kidney problems at an early age. Ah when most kids are growing up and learning what life was about ah from mentors, their parents, unfortunately my father passed away at nine.
 
I never had a mentor in my life that I could go and ask questions. Ah you know how do I handle this? What life’s all about and things like this. Mum was very occupied with four other kids. Two of us had kidney problems. We used to spend a lot of time in hospital. Of course without the support of Mum but that was through no fault of her own. She had her own issues with ah I don’t know ah mental issues, depression ah as I found out later on in life she was actually on antidepressants as such. And I think, no I know, I basically grew up, if you can term the word, alone.
 
A few people grew up in families where one parent was chronically ill which led to problems such as financial hardship. Some women assumed the role of caring for the rest of family due to prolonged illness of a parent from a very young age. This left them with a sense their childhood and youth was different from that of their peers and they felt they missed out on important phases of their lives.
 

Amelia was responsible for housekeeping since the age of 12 as her mother was frequently ill.

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Amelia was responsible for housekeeping since the age of 12 as her mother was frequently ill.

Age at interview: 51
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 38
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And, when I was in my teens my mother had been very unwell a lot of the time. And then, my, I had a fair bit of responsibility at home to look after things in the house when my mother wasn't well. So like I can remember - I can't remember exactly how old I would have been the first time she went into hospital, but, I think probably about 12, something like that. And so it was my job to look after the home and the family, and the cooking and the washing and the cleaning, and all of that, when my mother went to hospital.
 
When she came home from hospital - the first day she came home - I can really clearly remember her getting very cross with me because she was resting in bed when my father came home from work. And I was cooking the dinner. And I didn't drop what I was doing to go out and greet him when he came home and offer him a cup of tea. And she was really cross with me because that was my job. If I was the one looking after the house, then my job was to go out and greet the working men. She always called my brother and my father the working men. In fact my brother was at university - oh, he was at school rather, but especially my father; I had to greet him and offer him a cup of tea and, and ask him how his day was, and all the rest of it.
 
And I'd sort of foolishly misinterpreted it and thought my job was to prepare the dinner. So anyway, throughout that time I was in, at high school she was not terribly well. And I was helping out a fair bit and then, when I was at university, particularly in that first year I remember, she was quite unwell. So, I remember like other kids would be going to the refectory and having coffee. I thought that was so cool, to have coffee, but I'd have to say no because I'd have to leave as soon as my lectures had finished and go home to cook the dinner and stuff like that. 
 
Others felt neglected which left long-lasting consequences, most often a sense of oneself as not being worth other peoples’ attention. A few people, both men and women, ended up in unloving and abusive relationships as adults. For a few women, this was seen as an escape from their pain-inflicted families. Some people talked about going through problems and crises at school, being bullied and harassed, but never felt supported by their parents, even when they knew what their children were going through. Shaz said: ‘Mum knew I was unhappy but she didn’t really, like we never had that sort of mother-daughter relationship where we talked about things. And I had all these questions and I wanted someone to talk to but I had no one. So I kept it all inside’. A few people traced their feelings of being depressed to an early age and some attributed this to having been neglected by their parents.
 

From an early age Millaa had to take care of his younger siblings as well as himself, as his...

From an early age Millaa had to take care of his younger siblings as well as himself, as his...

Age at interview: 20
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 15
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And as the old - I'm the oldest in my family; I have two, a brother and two sisters, they’re all younger. My sister was a newborn at that time; she was only about one. And my parents started to really fight, you know, verbally, physically. They would fight each other in the home. And… you know, I tried to sort of help with what I could, you know, with the, with the kids, more so with, with my siblings, I tried to sort of protect them. But at the same time I was also quite weak in that I had to hide in my room a lot as well. You know, I tried to put them in their rooms and lock the doors so they'd be fine and then I'd go to my room 'cause I just couldn't deal with it, 'cause I was, you know, I was only a decade old, but...
 
And so yeah, I used to sort of hide. But I remember it because when I used to hide in my room I called it my white, my white sanctuary because the walls were all white. It was a sanctuary for me, you know, because I could just write or draw or paint or, you know, watch some television or something while my parents sort of blew up downstairs. But I remember that, being in my room once and I remember this incredible feeling of loss, and loneliness, and just sadness, and pity and all these other little emotions, but they all put together became this sort of monster in me. You know, like this demon, almost, you know – just haunting. 
 
For a few women who looked up to their fathers when they were growing up, this relationship was problematic. They were looking for support and encouragement but were met by unsupportive responses. This had a lasting effect on their self-esteem and their belief in their own abilities. Most of these women were academically successful and ambitious as young girls, but were advised to enter into traditionally female-dominated professions such as nursing or teaching. Amelia said that even though she was one on the best students in her class, she often thought ‘maybe I'd kind of just be valued more or, loved more or something like that if I wasn't stupid’. Most of these women became professional women and high achievers despite the discouragement they experienced. However, a few commented that their experiences were devastating, and they kept living their lives trying to please everybody, as they had ‘lived to please’ their parents when young.
 
 

Alice was angry at her father for putting her down instead of supporting her academic endeavours.

Alice was angry at her father for putting her down instead of supporting her academic endeavours.

Age at interview: 55
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 54
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I’m angry at, you know, my father, for his sort of, you know...’ I mean he, he, his message to me all my life was, you know, good, average, mind you there’s nothing wrong with being good and average either, but when it’s told to you in that way there is, you know, comparing me to other people who were much smarter and brighter and who would end up as, you know, fabulous academics or lawyers, doctors, Indian chiefs, and I was the, you know, good average, you know, go and do nursing because that’s what, you know, girls who aren’t academic do, or did in those days, that kind of rave, so I was angry at that, angry at whole lot of things and after Mum died of course the anger started coming up more and more in different ways… 

A couple of women who were the youngest child in their families felt that they were a disappointment to their parents, their fathers in particular, for not having been born boys.
 

Since childhood, Jules had felt like an outsider in her own family.

Since childhood, Jules had felt like an outsider in her own family.

Age at interview: 61
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 55
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The first time I think I realised that there was something different was when I was seven.
 
I felt the outsider in the family, I felt the outsider when I went to school or went out, you know, I just have always felt as if I was an outsider, and I still do feel that I'm an outsider.
 
Other memories of my childhood are of privilege, so I have a memory of my, I'm the youngest of three girls. Actually, that will take me off onto another area – I felt as if I failed at birth. I was the last chance for a son and that was - I grew up knowing that. I grew up feeling that if (sister’s name), if my, either of my sisters had been a boy I may not have been born.
 
And that influenced the way I related to my father, it was almost as if I needed to be the boy. I wasn't a tomboy, but by the time I was 15 I realised that if I was ever going to have a reasonable conversation with him, I would have to learn about classical music, the stock exchange, and cricket.
 
Polygamy caused distress for couple of women. For Akello, her father taking a second wife and having subsequent children cast a shadow over a previously happy childhood. She blamed herself, as she thought she was not good enough a child for him. Her experiences in the boarding school she was sent to were unhappy too. This led to low self-esteem throughout her life. For Safra, the effect of her husband taking a second wife after they moved to Australia from Malaysia and their consequent divorce after she refused to accept this as a ‘cultural norm’, was devastating.

Although many people we talked with considered their childhood experience as having contributed to their depression, others with similar experiences did not connect these to their depression, but cited many other causes (see Views about causes’). 

Last reviewed January 2016.
Last updated January 2016.

 

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