Overcoming Depression

By Vickie | Uncategorised

May 02

Reflecting On My Journey to Overcoming Depression

I am not a psychoanalyst. I’m not really interested in dwelling on negative events that happened in the past. I’m not sure this form of therapy is not very much practiced these days anyway.

You know, that clichéd scene with the patient lying on a couch and the therapist in a white coat asking questions about the patient’s relationship with his mother.

I’m not so sure it’s effective in overcoming depression either, because when you’re struggling with negative thinking styles, the idea of going over and over the horrible things that have happened in your life just ‘wires’ them in more and more strongly.

While I’m not suggesting just denying any painful or hurtful memories (that would be unrealistic and unnatural), I just don’t believe thinking about them over and over is such a great idea.

Unfortunately, if we are experiencing chronic low mood, we are likely to have fallen into a habit of dwelling on the past, focusing on all the bad things that have happened to us to get us to where we are now. Rumination is one of the most insidious symptoms of depression. Breaking the habit of focusing our thoughts on our painful pasts is really important for a brighter future.

However, what I do think is helpful is to put on our scientist’s lab coats, and reflect briefly back on our own histories to try to identify periods of time when we were more optimistic, happier, calmer, had more enjoyment out of life.

Think about where you were living, what work you were doing, whether you were involved in sports or physical activity, whether you had a spiritual practice (religious or non-religious), who you were living or working with, what your diet was like, what your physical health was like.

You might begin to see patterns emerging around when you were feeling OK and when you were feeling really bad.

Read on for how I briefly went back over my life. I’ve broken it up into study/work and then thought about the kind of lifestyle I had during each period of time.

Childhood to End of School

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Books are definitely my favourite things.

I was a happy child, though quiet, serious and introverted. My favourite place on a Saturday morning was the local library. I had odd interests; Anglo-Saxon history, where surnames and placenames come from, chimpanzees. I loved learning about other countries and cultures, languages and history. I enjoyed playing with other children but for a short time, when I was very young, I did experience bullying and for a while took my teddy bear to school. I was happiest on my own with a book.

For years through my childhood I was taken regular to doctors who examined me, stuck wires to my chest, scanned, poked and prodded me until I was absolutely sure I was physically defective.

The operations were traumatic and I remember crying after Mum left me after day visits. She was probably crying too! Overall, they were successful and I have lived long after the ages when death was a possibility and am very grateful to all the medical people involved.

But psychologically, being physically examined, being the centre of medical attention and something to be worried about, and then the trauma of the hospitalisations and rehabilitation may have been the start of my self-consciousness which plagued me through my adult life.

I remember being allowed out of bed for the first time after my heart operation. All I wanted to do was run down to the tall oak tree near our house and climb into its leafy branches, away from the worried eyes of the adults around me.

Looking back, I think my teenage years were when my tendency to negative self-talk became more obvious.

I hated exercise and was pretty hopeless at it. In fact, my parents put me through extra physical education classes before school for a while. Humiliating and excruciating. While my friends went to netball or gymnastics after school, I went home to my books.

I did some walking each day, a kilometre to the tram stop and back going to school and I even went swimming occasionally, though I was very bad at it and only managed a few laps.

I also had very low self-esteem. This might have been a ‘growing up’ thing, but I always thought people

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My childhood was full of medical things; doctors, nurses, hospitals, machines, procedures.

were staring and whispering about me, laughing at me behind my back. Not my close friends, but other people at my school or even just strangers in the street.

I lacked confidence and hated my body. I thought I was weak, defective and unattractive. This may stem from the two major operations I went through: my open-heart surgery at seven and a major back operation at fourteen. After the back operation I wore a brace for six months which necessitated large baggy clothes. I had no bust and massive hips. I felt ugly.

The stage was set for depression.


After school I went to the University of Melbourne and enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts (honours) degree in archaeology and Middle Eastern Studies. I loved uni. I think I was one of those odd people who went to uni to learn stuff.

But I still felt blue and down in the dumps quite a lot of the time. I still lacked confidence around others and when I needed to present in tutorials. I found it very hard to share my opinions and ideas in class.

I thought everyone was so much cleverer than me.

I had friends but no very close ones. I went out with my friends fairly regularly but I often felt lonely. I still didn’t do any regular exercise and had talked to myself in very negative ways. I often compared myself to others and judged myself lacking.

I vividly remember suddenly noticing my reflection in the tram window one morning going to lectures and being shocked at how tired I looked. I wasn’t sleeping well. I was ruminating: thinking and worrying.

After University: My 20s

At the end of my degree, I asked to join a research team which was excavating in Syria. I was keen to pursue a career in archaeology, my major at university. I was accepted and spent the next five years going to Syria and in between, because I had finished my course, working temporarily at a receptionist or admin clerk for businesses around my city.

I had started flamenco dance classes so I was exercising regularly.

But I hated my jobs, still lacked confidence and was very confused about my future. I thought maybe objects conservation might be a way of working with archaeological materials, but after taking first year chemistry and feeling like a fish out of water, I gave up that idea.

I had a few failed relationships, one of which left me particularly devastated.

Rumination, worry about my future and negative self-talk continued to affect my sleep.

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I loved research but it wasn’t a completely healthy lifestyle…

In my late 20s I decided I’d go back to archaeology and began my PhD, but the work in Syria stopped. I was excited to start my research but noticed in June, July and August, the winter months in my home town, my mood plummeted. I felt the loss of the hot Syrian sun. I had stopped taking dance classes but I did walk every day with my dog.

The first years of my doctoral studies went badly with my lack of confidence showing through in supervisory meetings where I tried to support my ideas but was regularly shot down. Finally I did get a good, supportive supervisor, but I think the damage was done. I felt disconnected from the department, unsupported and miserable.

I emerged from the years of research with a doctoral degree and a heavy dose of depression.

Research is a solitary affair and I found all my friends had moved on and were marrying and even starting families. Meeting with my supervisor was the only social activity I had.

I was still walking the dog but sleeping very, very badly.

I was desperately worried about my future and knew I couldn’t handle the academic life. I was miserable about the thought of leaving archaeology but couldn’t see, realistically, how it could give me a living.

After Archaeology: Age 31-34

I left my first love; archaeology.

I retrained in immigration law and got a job at a centre assisting newly arrived migrants and refugees.

The work was challenging and I was busy, but I was reasonably happy. I enjoyed the advocacy work, learning about my client’s stories and experiences. I loved being surrounded by colleagues from so many different countries and hearing a multitude of languages around me.

In the evenings and on weekends I continued walking the dog, my only form of exercise, but my stress of the doctorate was still with me and I didn’t have the energy to do much more than stagger around the park.

Occasionally I went out for Friday night drinks with my work friends, but spent most weekends alone.

Looking back, although I was eating sufficiently, many meals were pasta or rice based, heavy on meat and lighter on vegetables. I also munched my way through Chinese takeaways and fast food fairly regularly.

The work gave me a huge amount of satisfaction, though it was quite stressful and the politics of the centre was getting everyone down.

Job Loss 1

One day, completely out of the blue, I got a call (I was on leave at the time) that the centre was closing down and we’d all be out of a job. I wavered between anger, distress and confusion.

The centre director had made very poor spending decisions and the government body which funded the centre had refused to throw any more good money after bad. We were all angry and I spoke at several public meetings about the closure.

We were all very distressed about where that would leave our vulnerable clients; many of whom had complex needs around housing, employment, mental health and immigration.

And I was confused about what to do next. As the weeks went on I applied for other jobs, sometimes getting an interview, other times not. My anger faded and was replaced with a deeper depression than I had yet known.

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When I lost my job I was so confused and desperately worried about my future.

Finally I got a job offer with an organisation which had been given some of the funding which would have gone to the first centre. Apparently I made an impression and for the ten months I was there, I led the team of settlement workers helping newly arrived migrants and refugees find the assistance they needed to start their new lives in Melbourne.

Job Loss 2

After that first year, the organisation decided to make some changes to the roles of the team and everyone’s job was put out for application.

Although they invited me to apply for the team leader role, I knew I wouldn’t get it. It was an organisation which was at loggerheads with my own values. They acted like a corporation, with all the structures and rules and regulations that corporations like to act with. I’d come from a community based organisation that aimed to make differences in people’s lives, while this organisation was more concerned about corporate colours and marketing materials and presenting a business face.

I didn’t apply for the leadership job and found myself without work yet again.

A Very Small Business Age 34-38

Looking back, I can hardly believe I decided to set up my own business. I found a small office and put out a shingle hoping for clients to flood through the door.

They didn’t. I didn’t know how to get clients; in fact, I didn’t know the first thing about running a business.

I think I wanted to hide from the world, doing my own thing in my own little space. In reality, I was way out of my depth and sinking fast. 

I continued to get out to the park, but shuffled between park benches where I’d spend time sitting and ruminating. Wearing massive sunglasses that covered half my face I avoided all eye contact with other people and chose other paths if I saw someone coming.

Because I was running out of money my meals become filled with cheap fatty sausages, pasta and tomato sauce, fried rice and eggs, with the occasional piece of fresh fruit.

Nights were excruciating. Sleep came only after hours of thinking, the thoughts churning around in my head. How could I get more clients? How would I make any money? Why did I lose my job? How did I end up here? What’s wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just be happy and get my life working? How would I survive?

I never saw anyone and dreaded the phone ringing. Every few weeks I’d go and visit my parents, forcing myself to dress nicely and slapping on a happy face, all the while crying inside. I felt I was a complete failure and an utter disappointment to them. After all they’d done for me, raising me and educating me, I was this terrible loser.

In fact, my parents loved me dearly and would have helped me out if I had had the presence of mind to ask. But my self-esteem was truly rock bottom.

My house was a pigsty because I couldn’t summon up the energy to tidy it up. I only showered if I had a client coming in (very, very slowly I was getting more appointments, but they often did not turn into further work for a variety of reasons).

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The very worst years.

I could barely get out of bed, wept bitterly every day and beat my head against the hard tiles of the shower cubicle or a door frame to dislodge the fuzziness that seemed to have taken over my brain.

These were the very worst years of my life.

Yet I didn’t slip into suicidal ideation and the only reason I can think of for that was the presence of my dog. I cared way more for her than I did myself and that made me get outside into the sun once, often twice a day. Later, when I eventually sought professional help I remember telling the psychologist that the only time I felt even slightly brighter was in the park with my dog and I think there is a very good reason for that. Sunshine and even just a little movement does much to clear the cobwebs in the head.

I was at my lowest point.

I wanted to live and I wanted to live well. I just had no idea how. Years of telling myself I was no good (after all, what had I achieved? No house, no job, very little savings) and life just brings disappointment after disappointment had led me to the point where I began to wonder what the point of it all was.

I had wondered for a while whether I had a malfunctioning hormone system. My monthly cycle was horrendous; massive dips in mood, weeping, complete loss of motivation, energy and appetite. I started to track my moods, plotting on a graph my overall mood that day, noting whether I had done any extra exercise and what I had eaten. But no patterns emerged. I was up and down like a yoyo. Or rather, down and then very down.

Seeking Professional Help: My Late 30s

Finally, I went to the doctor. I was feeling worse than usual, with dizziness, dry mouth, aches and pains and an inability to do anything but sit and cry.

She diagnosed flu and depression.

I got onto a low dose of citalopram, a SSRI anti-depressant medication and signed up for 12 weeks of psychological counselling.

Things looked up.

I managed to find a few more clients, but these were small local businesses and business migration was an area I knew nothing about, so I spent many long nights reading up on the laws and regulations.

Each client I went to meet filled me with expectation and almost every time I returned to my office filled with dread; there was always something about each case that would make it extra complicated, difficult or impossible and the fees I had imagined flowing into my business account just evaporated.

Business clients I did take on were pushy and rude, or had expectations which were far higher than I could deliver and I dreaded listening to messages on my office phone or reading emails for fear of yet another angry client.

I seemed to feel slightly calmer but I still slept badly, ruminated constantly, took no other exercise than a slow stroll around the park and remained isolated from friends.

But I wasn’t any closer to really overcoming depression.

Losing Frances and Closing the Business

Eventually I realised that I couldn’t continue with the business. I felt an utter failure but looking back, I had many clients who were very happy with my work and whom I’d been able to make a huge difference in their lives, reuniting them with loved ones. But at the time, I just wanted out.

Then my beloved dog died.

For weeks after I was on auto-pilot, finalising applications, moving furniture out of the house and into storage, cleaning the house, dragging myself through the day, pushing my emotions away and just focussing on what needed to be done.

I moved back to my parents and went to bed and didn’t get up for a fortnight.

I cried every day for exactly three months and then decided I had to get on with the rest of my life. I felt I was on my way to overcoming depression. Click To Tweet

I went back to temping, getting work as a receptionist or admin clerk, living at my parents and thinking about my future. During this period I had more contact with friends and family, though I didn’t exercise as much. I was eating better and starting to ruminate less as my brain was focused on making decisions about what to do next.

Teaching English in China 39-44 years

Finally I decided to retrain as an English language teacher and took a course which was partially online and partially in the classroom.

I had thought about teaching English before, when I was wondering what career option to take after university. I love languages, reading and writing. It seemed like a good fit.

I felt happier and enjoyed getting to know my fellow students at the course, often stopping for a coffee or drink after class. I was getting out and about, had plans for the future and although I was still lying awake for some of the night thinking and worrying, I was getting more sleep than before.

I went to China. I taught in Hohhot, the capital city of the province of Inner Mongolia, in China’s central

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Yurts on grasslands around Hohhot, China

north. A beautiful, small city surrounded by mountains and grasslands, Hohhot was cold, very cold in winter, but had bright blue skies and brilliant sunshine, attractive parks and all the modern conveniences one could need.

My colleagues were wonderful. My students were enthusiastic. I adopted lost dogs and accommodated them in my tiny flat until I could new homes for them. I borrowed a bike and explored the edges of the countryside. I bought fresh fruit and vegetables in the little village next door, exchanging smiles and the same few Chinese phrases I had with the woman who ran her shop out of a tiny dark room.

I began to ruminate less as my brain was taken up with lesson planning and all the exciting new experiences I was having. I felt I had finally found an occupation that suited me. I had friends, had joined a gym in town where I worked out and did Mongolian dance classes, was getting enough sunshine and sleep, preparing healthy meals and had meaning in my life.

I was sleeping well, waking refreshed and eager to go to work. My mood rose steadily. Finally, finally, I was well on my way to overcoming depression.

Towards the end of my second year in Hohhot I made the mistake of deciding to go to another city to teach. I didn’t know that at the time and while I was sad to leave Hohhot, I was excited about moving and getting to know another Chinese city.

I went to the ancient city of Xian, at the Chinese end of the Silk Road, where the terracotta warriors were found.

And life took a dive.

The job I had been promised, teaching students in the department of English vanished and I ended up with unmotivated students from the accounting, engineering and IT departments who are forced to learn English and usually end up cheating or paying their way through. I felt unvalued.

My colleagues were rather aloof and unfriendly, despite my best efforts. Both American, they chose to hang around together and I soon felt excluded.

The promised gym was not yet built and the campus was on the far outskirts of town, which meant joining a gym as I had in Hohhot was impossible.

The atmosphere was full of pollution; a disgusting heavy grey fog that hung low over the land and obscured the sun.

My mood took a battering and I found myself quite unhappy. My only comforts were the stray dogs I found and hid in my apartment, in fear my colleagues would tell the authorities. I had a few very able and keen students who became ‘friends’ and took me to visit their families but I often felt lonely.

Counting the days until the semester was over, I looked forward to going home.

Back in Melbourne: Teaching International Students

I arrived back in Melbourne tired but happy to have left China. I enjoyed my time there but three years was enough. I quickly got a job in one of Melbourne’s universities, teaching in the English language centre. At the same time I started building a house- and dog-sitting business, taking care of people’s homes and pets while they were away.

I enjoyed the teaching but found the administrative processes quite demanding. Meetings, teaching from a set curriculum (rather than creating my own as I had in China), marking to an assessment rubric; I found it rather stifling creatively. But I had wonderful colleagues and felt I was still on my right path.

I was seeing my friends regularly and walking almost daily. I was enjoying the fresh, unpolluted food of Australia and generally sleeping well.

A project that had always been at the back of my mind – publishing my PhD research – resurfaced during that time and I decided to do something about it, finally!

You see, I had pushed archaeology away. It had been my passion but during the PhD years, I had become so unhappy and my confidence so low that I couldn’t see how to create a career out of archaeology. Regret and sadness haunted me but I never allowed myself to think of archaeology because it seemed futile.

Finally, now, I seemed to have the emotional energy to do something with that research. I took a course in self-publishing and reworked the thesis into a readable book for a general audience. The whole process only took a few months, after nearly thirteen years of wondering what if!

Even more exciting, I was chosen to launch the book at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival, an internationally acclaimed festival of writing and books.

As the launch day approached I got more and more nervous. I was convinced no one would come. I had some hiccups finding a specialist who would agree to speak at the launch. I got so caught up in details that I barely spent time on my own speech and threw something together last minute. I began to sleep badly and spent more time ruminating than I had in years.

The launch went well in hindsight but even now I blame myself for not selling more books. I had botched it up, I was sure. My negative self-talk really affected how I saw the success of the launch and even today I look back with a sense of regret, even though, in reality, it went quite well.

The Low Mood Returns

The thing is, I was beginning to experience low mood yet again.

I had gone off the anti-depressants because I had run out while in China and feeling pretty good on return to Australia, had not gone back to the doctor for more. I thought I was overcoming depression by myself.

http://depressionrecoveryschool.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/depression-1250870_1920.jpg overcoming depressionI began to feel a bit of a failure, both at book selling and at teaching.

Chatting with colleagues at work I realised that most of them had higher degrees in teaching. They always seemed to have great ideas for their lessons and breezed through their classes. I began to feel like an imposter. I wasn’t a real teacher!

I began to struggle with classroom management issues and putting together engaging lesson plans. I got flustered when students asked me questions and struggled with marking.

My negative self-talk grew into rumination and interrupted my sleep. I dragged myself drowsily out of bed, talking myself through each step of preparing for work. I began to dread each day.

Because I had spent so many months preparing the book I had neglected my regular walking and my days went from being indoors at home to indoors at work and back again.

Being a casual teacher I was able to reduce my hours and having enough insight to know that my mental health was beginning to suffer, it was more important to get myself right than to work full-time at that point in my life.

So what have I learned from all this?

For me, what I’m doing in my working life has been a potential stressor and trigger for low mood.

That is, if I’m happy in my study or work, my mood is high. If things are not going well at work, I tend to dip (or plunge) into a low mood.

I’ve also learned that messages learned about my physical self, my body, when in childhood and especially my teenage years were carried through into my adult life in the form of self-consciousness, lack of confidence and self-doubt.

I’ve also learned that having to reinvent myself constantly was a source of stress, but ultimately also of great joy as I realised that not everyone has to have the kind of life that society sets out for us – school, college, the same job or occupation, marriage, children, mortgage, and so on.

This means I don’t need to feel strange or useless or a failure if I choose to follow a different occupation.

Nor do I need to compare myself with others, judge my achievements or my sense of self-worth.

Overcoming depression means I have learned that I need to eat well, exercise regularly, stay connected with friends and family and find meaning in my work to stay well.

I haven’t tumbled back into the full effects of chronic low mood because I am doing things in my life that make me more resilient. Again, I didn’t know exactly what they were but on reflection and with the knowledge I now have, I can see how my lifestyle has supported me to stay strong and not dip down again.

Now that I have that knowledge, I can consciously choose to live in a way that protects me from dipping down into stress and negative self-talk and I can share that with you so that you too can live in hope.

So How About You?

It’s your turn now.

Go on, go back through your past (briefly) the way I have. Don’t dwell on causes of pain or hurt. Remember, you’re a scientist doing an experiment. It’s important not to get emotionally caught up in the events of the past.

If you like, you can use a chart like this one below. Copy it out. Fill it in. What patterns do you notice? When did you feel happier and more positive? When did your mood and emotional life plummet downwards?


How did I feel about my job (or school)?

My friendships

My diet and exercise

My hobbies, volley work etc











Teenage years










College, uni, training, first job, 20s










30s (extend the table up to your present age)











The key is not to assign blame, go over painful events or conversations. Think for a short time about each period in your life and make notes on:

  • Your general mood at the time (were you an upbeat person, enjoying life, happy and optimistic?)
  • Your diet at the time (include alcohol consumption)
  • Your physical activity
  • Your relationships with friends and family
  • Your work/study
  • Your sleep patterns
  • Your spiritual life, your sense of contribution to the community, any voluntary work, involvement with social or environmental groups
  • Your hobbies and interests

Try to identify patterns and stressors in your life. The following are just examples…

  • Were you always a bit happier living near the beach?
  • Did you loathe your accounting job and become much more satisfied when you moved into marketing?
  • Was it a blow to move cities for another job, when you had to leave your family behind?
  • Did you feel life became empty when the children left home?
  • Was the loss of your mother early in life a tragedy you never quite came to peace about?
  • Was the diagnosis of cancer something that triggered you to withdraw from the world, or go out and embrace it?
  • Were you always a bit happier when on the road, travelling from place to place?

This is a crucial exercise but it is very important that you stay objective about it.

Pretend you are looking back over the life of another person, someone you don’t know. It is very important to remain as emotionally distanced as you can. Please stop this activity if it brings up very painful memories that threaten to overwhelm you.

Don’t take too long over it. A brief look back and a quick think about your lifestyle is really what we are aiming for here.

Then, do something to relax. A shower or a bubble bath. A cup of tea and a good book. A walk through the park with the dog. You’ve achieved a major step forward in overcoming depression.

Good on you!

What to do next? Read on for the next step.

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You’re on your way!




About the Author

If you'd asked her 15 years ago if she believed life could be a wonderful as it is today, Vickie would have answered, 'I just don't know, but it doesn't seem likely.' Now she knows that if she can turn her life around, it's possible for you too. Ask Vickie how she can help you design the life you'd really love to live and say goodbye to depression forever.

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