My depression and the healing power of the Wollongong escarpment

Jenae Johnston founded Bushwalk the Gong after finding solace in nature.
Jenae Johnston founded Bushwalk the Gong after finding solace in nature.

After the birth of her second child, Bushwalk the Gong founder Jenae Johnston fell into a pit of despair that would take years to recover from. Here she talks about her journey back to good health and the healing she found deep in the Illawarra escarpment.

Going back more than 10 years ago I was diagnosed with postnatal depression. It appeared to pop up out of nowhere about three weeks after the birth of my second child.

The standard signs were there - disconnection, inability to cope and an unbearable weight of unhappiness.

Help came in the form of a family intervention, an urgent after-hours visit to a GP and prescribed medications and psychologist appointments. There the process began of stripping back the layers to ‘cure’ this vicious circle.

"As much as family can offer support, it was ultimately my lifestyle that needed to change."

"As much as family can offer support, it was ultimately my lifestyle that needed to change."

The journey to some kind of recovery was not a straight path; it came with dead ends, treacherous and false pathways. The process involved rounds of alternate medications to avoid as many side effects as possible, binge drinking on weekends (against advice) and an official diagnosis.

A psychologist concluded that there was no trauma in my past that caused this, nor any underlying mental illness that needed alternate treatment. What I did have was a chemical imbalance that was causing havoc with my serotonin and my ability to relate to this world anymore. I had textbook postnatal depression. Worse still, I was under the mistaken belief that I could simply fix the chemical imbalance and things would go back to ‘normal’.

Jenae with her husband Trent Johnston.

Jenae with her husband Trent Johnston.

After about 10 months, I decided to wean myself off the medication I had been prescribed in order to get some normality back in my life. It was a failure and I went back on medication to curb the dark thoughts and unbearable sadness. It wasn’t until I underwent a one-week course of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine that I saw light at the end of the tunnel. The treatment went to the root of my physical issues which included severe anaemia. It freed me up to deal with the emotional scars left behind by depression, which by now had been going on for a number of years. Five years past diagnosis, I finally could leave the anti-depressants behind after a physically gruelling process of weaning off the medication.

As the years flowed by, some coping mechanisms and revelations evolved to make the light at the end achievable. Being outdoors was a big part of this journey and process, so here’s what I learned …

Medication didn’t cure my depression permanently

Medication gave me the tools to cope with life, like going to work and getting out of bed. It didn’t cure my mental or emotional state, but masked destructive thoughts and smoothed the edges. In fact, I personally found medication disappointing. The expectation is that you will feel happy again when you take them. I didn’t. It moved the emotional low point from sporadic suicidal thoughts to something slightly more positive – to just unhappy. I became more stable, but dull, lifeless and uninterested in the joys of life. Acknowledging this forced me to look for a better way and find the strength to do anything possible to make things better. Initially being on medication gave me the strength I needed to start and returning to them gave me the strength to continue.

Always consult your doctor when weaning off anti-depressants or making any changes to your medication. This is my personal story, however each case is individual and you should be under the watchful eye of your doctor whether undergoing eastern or western medicine to achieve the best outcome for you.

Jenae with her two children.

Jenae with her two children.

I had to actively change my path in order to change my destination

Once I had the epiphany that medication wasn’t going to fix the issue, it was time to move onto making positive changes in my life.

Mild physical exercise outdoors, yoga and intensive meditation seemed to help. Removal of any preservatives, colours and flavourings from food also made a big difference. Shortly after, I realised the alcohol had to go too and cold turkey was the only way. I adopted a holistic approach - clean the life to clean the mind. 

As much as family can offer support, it was ultimately my lifestyle that needed to change. 

Yoga – Bakāsana (Crow Pose)

Yoga – Bakāsana (Crow Pose)

Physical changes improved my emotional health

I found it much easier to cure the outside first by getting in shape, strengthening my mind with meditation and fuelling my body with healthy, wholesome food (except for chocolate, of course!).

The books all say to exercise, and it’s true, but it’s not easy to go out and run. It’s a long pathway to even get out of bed, let alone do laps of the pool. I just did what I could at my own pace.

Having the physical conditioning allowed the emotions to take centre stage, with strength and determination as a foundation. In fact, to my surprise three quarters of the work was done and I was so much better equipped to mindfully watch my emotions, understand them and become in control of them. 

Nan’s organic oranges fresh of the tree, homegrown in Wollongong.

Nan’s organic oranges fresh of the tree, homegrown in Wollongong.

My life has changed, don’t wish for the past back - be prepared to start again

Once I’d experienced depression, I could never go back to the person I was before it. I was acutely aware of every rise and fall in my emotions and constantly on guard against a relapse… thoughts of ‘should I be sad now?’ and ‘is this a normal reaction?’ flooded my mind as I began to over-analyse and hypothesise my brain’s next move. There was a constant struggle of comparisons of emotions: normal vs. abnormal, sad vs. depressed… and here floods in the anxiety, the waves of physical debilitation.

Realistically, this process took years. Over that time I’d become older, my situation had changed and I’d certainly changed as a person. I’d lost friends, gained new ones, become wiser and life was different. Once I went out and fully lived again the changes become really apparent.

A first world problem but a blatant slap in the face, I could no longer snowboard without crippling anxiety; one thing I have officially decided to leave in my past and don’t plan to revisit! I’ve found more appropriate outdoor activities for my current state that don’t cause such stress.

Anxiety can be your friend

Anxiety is a simple internal switch for me now. It’s the internal wake-up call that tells me something is not right and I need to check in with myself. This could be from being complacent and not paying attention to my needs… it’s an instant reminder to stop, listen and check my path is right. Once it’s acknowledged, it’s usually enough for the breathing to slow, the heartbeats to slow and the cold sweating to stop. The key is to stop and assess, and quickly. Regardless of where I am or what I’m doing, I give this physical moment priority.

Find your thing

Once I came back to the ‘’real world’’, there was certainly a sense of being out of place. I was happy again, but I felt I had no sense of direction. I needed to rediscover what made me happy, other than my family of course. I needed my own thing. I picked up my photography, ditched the quest for stupid material possessions and started looking for a real connection – and nature is where I found it. After a short trip to Bali I had the epiphany to start living life more fully every week, not just on holidays. My first mission was to ‘holiday’ in my own natural backyard in Wollongong… the rest is history for Bushwalk the ‘Gong! Ultimately though, had I not had Postnatal Depression, I’m not sure I would have found this journey – so that’s something to be thankful for.

Adventures with like-minded souls and families

Skipping quite a few years along, I rediscovered the outdoors and that brought its own set of challenges. It’s easy to start over-analysing your insecurities… Is it safe? Do I have enough water? Do I know where I’m going? Are there snakes? Can I go alone?

So how does someone with depression or anxiety ‘deal’ in the outdoors?

Adventures with like-minded souls and families

Adventures with like-minded souls and families

Safety in numbers

Ease yourself into this. The decision making and the detail can be overwhelming. Take a friend or join a bushwalking group to help with the stress and anxiety of starting something new in a different environment. There are other people around you that can help make decisions with you, tell you what to take and guide you on the trails. If you are going on a guided walk, you have the luxury of a guide, first-aid knowledge and full information prior and during your walk. Now is the time to use your network, or find one. Having support on the trails is accessible and very sensible and it’s very rewarding to meet people who are like-minded; I guarantee you will meet lovely, open and supportive people.

Trust your instincts

Another throwback I’ve gained from anxiety is being scared of heights/cliffs and confined spaces. This is not a bad thing. It’s my mind telling me to chill for a moment and reassess this decision as it might not be safe – it’s my instinct kicking in. In the outdoors, you need this trigger. There can be a lot of dangerous situations. Embrace your anxiety and thank your body for the warning. You can then make the decision to continue, or try another path. I’ve found with practice, I can now get reasonably close to an edge, and I’m proud of that, but anxiety also keeps me a good safe distance away from danger too, which is a great instinct to embrace.

Be prepared to fail

I also struggle with jumping across rocks over a large span. Even though physics and my reasonably long legs tell me it is very possible, I cave at most situations. I had the experience where there were two burly trusted blokes with arms outstretched waiting to steady me on the other side of a jump across rocks and water. No amount of talking myself through this or coaxing helped; I was frozen. As I backed away, my words were …”I trust you, but I don’t trust myself”. I then took the long walk around and felt completely defeated. On reflection, I realised this is all part of the journey of anxiety. Some things I’m not going to be up to doing and that’s alright. I now take every opportunity to jump across easy sections to try and train the brain it’s safe to do this.

You will fail at times, or maybe a lot, but that’s just an opportunity to try again later. The important thing is not to be upset by it, no one is judging you. I now find I’m the one holding a helping hand to people. Understand that it’s expected and acceptable that people get help in the outdoors, it’s all part of the experience and learning for everyone. People you walk with are prepared to help you, let them feel satisfaction for offering assistance: ‘thank you’ is all they need in return, it’s not necessary for you to provide explanations or excuses, just ask for a steady hand or advice as required. People are willing to help, no questions asked.

Smell the roses

The outdoors and particularly being in the bush, is the ultimate healer. It’s filled with atoms of clean, fresh air, soothing sounds and visual meditation. Once you become more familiar with the bush, and confident, a solo journey to potter and ‘just be’ is very healing. It’s a great opportunity to go find a quiet corner and relax, have a look around the forest floor, look up in the trees and just go with the flow without concerning yourself with a destination.

I find now, the outdoors is critical for my health; my mind and body crave it to be revitalised and to take on the week ahead. You don’t have to make it a weekly event, but the health benefits are certainly available to you if you can make the time to walk, or at least spend some time in the outdoors.

Flannel Flower – Actinotus helianthi

Flannel Flower – Actinotus helianthi

If this story raises issues for you call LIFELINE on 13 11 14 any time or visit www.lifeline.org.au/gethelp. This article does not replace expert medical advice, you should seek appropriate help suitable to your situation.

Beyondblue 1300 224 636 | Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 | MensLine Australia 1300 789 978

Bushwalk the ‘Gong offers free beginner bushwalks encouraging a nurturing and supporting environment for people who wish to enjoy the outdoors with plenty of support. Any questions or feedback can be directed personally to Jenae via social media or www.bushwalkthegong.com/contact.