By Jodi Bryant

Tears streamed down Mona Hanekom's face as she stared at the images of herself. All she could say was: 'I am beautiful!'

This was the turning point for the then 35-year-old, originally from South Africa, who, unbeknown to her, had been suffering depression for years.

'Blessed in abundance', Mona, whose real name is Minette, says she had no reason to feel the way she did.

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"I grew up on a beautiful farm in a small town in South Africa. I was very privileged and have an awesome, loving family. There was never a shortage of anything – no abuse, drugs or alcohol. So, feeling unhappy in myself made me feel very guilty!"

Being a pastor's wife added to her guilt. "I would think: 'I'm a Christian, I shouldn't be feeling this way'. And now I can say with honesty, religion has nothing to do with depression!"

The couple moved to New Zealand 11 years ago and have called Whangarei home since. However, Mona believes her depression started while still in South Africa.

"I left a great job in Cape Town and moved back to the little town I grew up in. I was happily married, but had no job, no purpose."

Six months before immigrating, they welcomed a baby and she believes the excitement of moving to a new country kept her going.

However, another baby and raising children without family support, excess weight, the lack of sleep and subsequent bad diet, topped with postnatal depression, eventually took its toll and Mona sunk into a silent, bed-ridden depression.

"I never really felt like the 'beautiful, confident, 63kg girl my husband married again," says Mona, 37. "I was constantly tired with no energy, no vision, no purpose.

"It's this evil cycle you're in, a dark pit and it's so deep and so dark and lonely. It's someone asking you: 'How are you?' and you answer: 'Great thanks!' but on the inside, you're screaming out: 'Help me!, I'm drowning, I don't want this.'.

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"People would say that exercise helps but exercise is seriously the last thing you want to do. All I wanted to do was sleep because, when you sleep, you don't have to think about it. And every morning you get up thinking: 'Today is going to be an awesome day!'... and the awesomeness never shows up," describes Mona.

It was the thought of her husband Gideon on his own with the kids that kept her from taking her own life.

"I just couldn't do that to him or them. I imagined them crying and saying: 'Dad, I miss mum'. Thinking how I would react in a situation like that if I had to lose my husband - it would be heartbreaking."

Mona says it was only her husband who really 'saw me'.

"He saw the daily struggle of not wanting to get out of bed, not wanting to shower, not wanting to cook or clean, not even having the energy to smile. He was the one that had to pick up the pieces, working two jobs and keeping the kids and household going, while always telling me: 'You're beautiful' and: 'I love you', with a smile. He's the most amazing guy. He is my best friend and I couldn't even share with him what was going on because I didn't know myself, to be honest."

As a trained professional counsellor and relationship coach, it was an extremely powerless and frustrating position for Gideon to be in.

He explains: "There's nothing worse than knowing what a person needs but nothing you suggest or offer is received or applied. Part of the frustration is perhaps a lack of empathy on the spouse's part – not really knowing or understanding what the depressed person is going through because it's so outside of your own experience and framework."

Gideon believes a spouse suffers as much, albeit differently, with these feelings, while trying to look after themselves and the family.

"Love is tested when things get tough and it's not reciprocated – but it also grows it. Too many give up when the going gets tough, and that's the last thing a depressed person needs to also worry about.

"I just made it my mission to reassure my wife that I'm here, not going anywhere, and she can take all the time she needs to work through things. I'll be waiting on the other side. Part of this is because of the knowing that we're all struggling in our different ways and a marriage needs to be the safe place where we can 'suffer safely'. So, I made sure she could. We did promise 'in sickness and in health' after-all!"

Late 2017, the couple had a rare opportunity to take a three-day cruise and this was when Mona had her revelation.

She recalls: "There were cocktails galore, shows and dancing every night. I had some money saved up and told Gideon I would love to get some studio photographs done while on the cruise. On Gatsby night, we got dressed up, I did my own hair and make-up, and we went for our photo shoot.

"We only spent five minutes in the studio and then off we went to celebrate Gatsby night. The photo reveal was the following evening; the first one popped up on the computer screen and I started crying. By the final image, the tears were streaming down my face and all I could say was: 'I am beautiful!'

"I always felt that I wasn't good enough, pretty or worthy."

Mona turned to her husband and, through her tears, told him she wanted other women to experience seeing themselves the way other people see them, as she had just done.

Although it was a lot of money for just five minutes in the studio, it was money well spent because it kicked off the amateur photographer's career, sparking the 'I Am Project'.

The project focuses on portrait photography for women, giving them the chance to experience being a model for the day and capturing their beauty and worth.

Coinciding with this, Gideon's mother was visiting, and Mona opened up a little about her feelings, thereby opening her eyes to the fact she may have been suffering from depression.

This began Mona's heeling journey and, deciding to forego medication, she began a lifestyle upheaval, beginning with cutting out all processed food.

"You know, they'll put anything in processed food to make it cheaper and taste nice so that you'll buy it again. They care more about their bottom line than human life. So, anything with numbers in the ingredients, I stopped buying.

"I lost 22kg and felt so much better but knew I had to make further changes."

She began thinking, not only about what she was putting in her body, but what she was putting on the outside. "Our skin is the biggest organ we have and will absorb anything we put on it, I now make my own cream for my skin and you get some amazing natural products. Again, just like with processed food, the manufacturers can hide anything under 'fragrance'.

"Once I switched to more natural products is when I saw another big difference.

Our bodies are like a car - if you put dirty fuel in it, it's going to give you problems.

Gut health is so extremely important and has been linked to depression; diet drinks, aspartame, sweeteners, energy drinks... is the worst thing you can put in your body.

I followed a very strict Keto/paleo diet, except for my one spoon of sugar in my morning coffee - I couldn't give that one up!"

Now, it's rare for 'the beast' to raise its head in Mona's life but she is aware of the triggers.

"I'm doing great most days but sometimes hormones can play a role, or takeaway food after a long day of work and no energy for cooking. I know that for me it's triggered by processed food so I just need to take a look at what I'm eating. When I find myself in that dark pit again, fasting really helps to get rid of the toxins.

"Gideon can pick up on my energy and he'll support me until I feel better. And the funny thing is, now when he asks me: 'Are you okay?', I still answer with: 'Yes, I am', even though I'm not.

"I still can't talk about how I'm feeling when I go under. I think something changes in your body that makes it impossible to talk about it."

Their journey has helped Gideon resonate with the couples he works with through counselling and, by sharing her story, Mona also hopes it will help those going through it, while contributing to her own heeling.

"It's a dark, lonely, hard path to walk and so many people struggle with it. Growing up in South Africa, there was always a bad stigma around depression. It's the kind of thing that gets swept under the rug. You don't show that you're struggling. It's a hard thing to talk about, even now when I'm through it. But I went from being bedridden with depression to absolutely loving me and on my journey to health, I realised there's a lot of people struggling with depression and loving themselves.

Today, Mona's business is thriving and the self-taught photographer recently received an accreditation from The Portrait Masters.

"Portrait photography is my passion. If I can help one woman out there who doesn't feel good about themselves, then I'll be happy. I don't want anyone else to feel the way I did. I want to change the way women feel about themselves."