The hunt for happiness: Olympian Eve Macfarlane on her battle with depression

Home » Health & Wellness » The hunt for happiness: Olympian Eve Macfarlane on her battle with depression

1 January 2020

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Eve Macfarlane, 28, is a world champion rower and two-time Olympian who struggled with depression after returning from Rio in 2016. In her own words, extracted from a book she’s co-written called How We Got Happy, Eve shares how she made it through her darkest days.

The biggest key to my happiness is living a simple life, in tune with the environment. My partner and I built a 16sqm tiny home on a trailer, which has become my recipe for wellness.

Building a tiny house with her partner was one of the goals that helped give Eve a new sense of purpose.

It’s given me more awareness around what is really important: the world we occupy, life, love, family, friends and adventures.

Living in a tiny house, we’ve learnt how to lessen our impact on the earth. We eat from the garden and forage for edibles. We have a worm farm for our food scraps, use a composting loo and collect rainwater. We have minimal possessions too – no TV, microwave, toaster or dishwasher, and half as many clothes. We are constantly finding alternatives to the plastic-filled world we live in, with a goal to become zero waste.

It’s this unfussy living that changed my perspective on how I can live more in sync with the natural world, and that’s what has ultimately shifted my state of mind. Today I am much more contented.

A major step for my brain health happened while we were building our tiny home. We moved into a 10sqm tin shack in the winter months, with no running water or electricity. I found so much satisfaction in living extremely simply in the shack, having cold showers under a hose and spending the evenings by candlelight. I had a huge sense of gratitude and I carried a constant feeling of humility. I also discovered I’d been lacking vitamin D (which is necessary for the brain’s serotonin levels) and the shack with a face of windows gave me that light.

Building the tiny home also gave me a purpose, a goal. That’s the tough thing about finishing a big goal or event: the “now what?”

For me, the post-Olympic void was so deep, I began to understand that I needed another goal. Building the tiny home provided just that.

A significant turning point was telling my partner, loving friends and family. Luckily I did this reasonably soon as they were all super supportive, which I believe fast-tracked my way forward. My family are everything to me. I’ve never been much of a talker and often bottle up my emotions, but as time has gone by, I feel our family bond is only getting stronger, and opening up now seems ever so encouraged and supported. My aunty sent me an accurately illustrated book called I Had a Black Dog by Matthew Johnstone. It spoke to me, and I was able to show it to others to help them understand how I was feeling.

Our cat, Jinx, is also great support; he’s always there. I’ve been told that patting a cat reduces stress and anxiety levels, and I totally get that. There is something so calming about it. Those cat ladies with 10 cats are definitely on to something there.

Another significant step in finding myself again, internally, was at Aro Ha Retreat in Queenstown. A week-long retreat of trekking, yoga, eating well, nature and meditation, without a cell phone. It was paramount to my journey out of depression and I can’t thank my family enough for all chipping in towards that huge gift for me.

I was never a big phone addict, but for me, after a week without it, a little time with it felt like too much. I am more aware when I’m on the phone now and can catch myself out. I’ve even implemented a simple rule in the tiny home that phones stay in the kitchen when we’re going to bed. This eliminates that mind-numbing bedtime scroll and aids better sleep. The retreat not only gave me internal mental space, but it also sparked my desire to eat well and start exercising again. I could sense my brain was needing a taste of those endorphins that I was so addicted to as a full-time athlete.

I now take notice of how much I load myself with and if something weighs me down. I’m learning to find the strength to make changes to benefit me and not always trying to please others. This was hard to do during my depression, but once I made the decision to put time and focus solely into my own wellness, I felt committed.

I took things off my plate. I halved my work hours and stopped teaching yoga. My wellness became my number one goal. If I went for a run, my day was a success and my positive cycle began. Don’t get me wrong: it was challenging to do, and on the days I didn’t, I would get down about it. But on those difficult days, that was a clear sign my brain was crying out for it. It became a game with my brain; the hardest part was putting my shoes on, so I simply eliminated that step. I am now, to this day, a barefoot runner.

Once I made the decision to put time and focus solely into my own wellness, I felt committed.

I’m a big believer in balance. If I’m too one-sided with working or full-time training, then that gets me down mentally. Similarly, when I’m too stagnant, that also has an effect. I balance my life by having something (little or big) that challenges me, and then I stabilise myself by giving time toward adventures and the people I love.

Surfing has always been a great passion. The ocean feels so purifying, and riding along the face of a beautiful wave, it’s hard to describe, but the world seems to just disappear.

Paragliding is another hobby – it has a mesmerising silence and weightlessness to it. It’s as though nothing can harm me when I’m by myself, in control, that high in the sky. I can look down on the world. It’s exhilarating, but oddly, I feel so incredibly safe. Painting is another obsession, especially the entrancing feeling of “getting in the zone”. I lose myself in it.

When things start feeling a little rocky, Eve knows she has the tools to help her through.

Yoga has also taught me a lot about myself and life. When I practise yoga (which comes and goes), it gives me inner clarity, my breath becomes present and my mind can rest and restore. I’ve learnt to do yoga away from the mat too. I’ve learn that I can simply be. I don’t have to be anyone or have anything to be content. I can purely just be.

It’s an inner happiness that comes without external things. Yes, I have my surfboard, my paints, the tiny house… but these things do not define me. That is our lifestyle now; we have less externally, and much more internally.

A brief overview of Eve’s mental health journey

Eve experienced depression at the age of 24 for approximately one year. It arose during her transition back to “normal” working life after a disheartening result at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

How did it make you feel?

I felt extremely lazy, tired, useless and unmotivated. I felt like crying all the time. I didn’t want to socialise, go outside or even be seen. Most of all, I struggled to do and enjoy things I knew I loved.

Did you take prescribed medication?

No, I wanted to try to heal naturally.

Were there any triggers that exacerbated those feelings?

  • Factory work
  • Long hours
  • Inside too much
  • I got frustrated and upset at myself for not wanting to do anything.

Was there a turning point when things started to get better?

Yes, building the tiny home. It gave me a goal again – something to work towards. It forced me to de-clutter my life and become more appreciative of the simple things.

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