The Recovery Letters blog has been bringing hope and solace to those suffering from depression since 2012. Now its creator James Withey has published an inspiring new book…
By Margaret Nicholls
A letter can be a powerful thing. Whether it’s a handwritten note on luxury paper or just an email, you can really make a connection with someone by writing a few words, sharing your experiences, telling them your story.
James Withey understands the power of letters perhaps more than most. He is the creator and editor of The Recovery Letters blog and book, where people who are recovering from depression write letters to those who are still suffering. The response has been extraordinary.
James receives one or two emails a week from people saying these letters have saved their lives. He says: ‘There’s a bit of me that knows how powerful they are but when you have a one-line email saying: I didn’t kill myself because of these letters, then it’s hard to take in, but it brings home that they are really helping.’
The first ‘recovery letter’ was written by James himself while he was recovering from severe depression. He had recently been in a psychiatric hospital, on suicide watch, being checked every 15 minutes.
The previous year he had been working as a suicide prevention trainer. ‘I remember sitting in my room thinking: ‘How did I get here? Last year I was delivering training to prevent this and now I’m being checked on myself. It was humbling and surreal.’
His depression meant he couldn’t concentrate on anything, let alone work. He couldn’t read. This was devastating for James, as reading novels was his great joy in life. He lost all hope.
‘I was utterly convinced, I knew to my core, that I would not get better or improve,’ he says. ‘I felt no hope at all.’
But while he was in hospital, a comment from a mental health worker student had a profound effect on James.
‘As she was leaving the room, she turned to me and said: “James, it is possible to recover from depression.” It was like a chink of light had been let in. It was a very significant moment.’
It was the first time that James had heard anything about people recovering from depression. The first time he realised that it was possible.
‘One of the most difficult things about depression is the lies that it tells you,’ he says. ‘When you believe that you won’t get better, that’s the depression talking. The difficulty is that it feels like you. It’s difficult to distinguish between yourself and the depression because the illness takes you over like a cuckoo. You need to ask yourself: is this the depression speaking or me? It’s so hard to separate one from the other.’
As James started to feel better, an idea formed in his mind. What if people recovering from depression could write to those currently suffering? What if people could read that recovery was possible? What if they acted as small shots of hope?
James left hospital, went home and got going on the blog. ‘I sat on my bed, opened my laptop and began to type,’ he remembers. ‘It just came out. I realised that, although I was unable to read, I could write stuff. I couldn’t take things into my mind, but I could get stuff out. For me that first letter was useful and I was hoping that it would be useful for other people too.’
It didn’t take long for people to start responding. Soon people were posting their own letters of recovery on the blog. Before he knew it, doctors and counsellors started to recommend it. ‘People realised how helpful it was to read the letters and to write them too,’ he says.
Now James has published a selection of 64 letters in a book, The Recovery Letters, Addressed to People Experiencing Depression.
The letters pull no punches, they don’t hide how painful depression is, but they do bring hope. ‘They simply say that it won’t always feel that way,’ James says.
Alongside the letters, he has included short, inspirational messages. He explains: ‘When you don’t have any concentration, you need short blasts of hope to get into your brain. Sometimes a sentence or quote will really resonate with you. You think: That’s me! That’s exactly how I’m feeling!’
The true power and beauty of these messages and letters is that they can make people suffering from depression realise that they are not alone, that it is possible to recover. And that they will let in more chinks of light, more beginnings of hope.
Extracts from The Recovery Letters:
This is not how it has to be, this is not how it will always be, you can and will get better. I know, I am surviving it.
I know how it feels to think all is hopeless, to think there is nothing valuable or worthy about myself, that all the people close to me who assure me there is good in me don’t really know me and would recoil if they could really see me for what I am. I know how it is to be tired of the exhausting, draining, lack of any enjoyment, the drab colourless existence. At times I wished I had the energy or the courage to end it all. At times, what stopped me was the stigma my family would have to live with after a suicide. I did not even believe it would actually matter if I died. I did not believe I was important enough or worth it. I was not worried about causing them great pain, as I did not even believe there would be any.
Those feelings and thoughts are not really you, they are the illness. And you are not weak, it is not your fault, it is an illness that does not respect age, sex, background status, or anything else. And there is treatment for it. Please, talk to your doctor; if he is not sympathetic, talk to someone: a friend, a relative, a Samaritan, anyone. There is help, and you will get better.
There is colour in life, it does get better. I sought help three years ago, and am on the way to recovery. It is worth getting out of bed in the morning. I am starting to live again, not just survive, and not just exist. Life is still hard, but it is worth the struggle again for me, and it will be for you.
You are unique, and you are worthwhile. This world is made up of billions of fallible, beautiful human beings like you and me. Hang in there, it IS worth it. Please, hang in there.
With all the love and hope I can give you,
In the dark treacle of this illness it may seem impossible that you will ever be well. You may want to end your life, or hurt yourself or just stop feeling the unbearable pain of whatever has caused this.
It seems impossible that you will ever feel normal again, to feel like you did, to laugh or not think about the pain.
The loneliness of this illness is impossibly cruel, it may feel that no one understands how awful it is. Whereas no other person can completely follow the feelings and emotions you have, there are many others who have felt this dark and have come out again and live full lives. It is possible. With patience, care, rest and love you will get better, your body is telling you to stop, to climb off the horse and sit in the stable a while.
Get help, push for help, you are important even if you don’t feel it. Remember people care and want you around, people love you and want you to live.
Hope is the one thing that is in short supply with depression and it is the one thing that we need when unwell.
I hope you continue to live, I hope you recover.
I know it. The nothingness.
I’m better now, so I can think about it like it was nihilism. But I know it wasn’t. It was more physical than that.
I’d lie in bed feeling like I didn’t know, couldn’t think, what I could do to make this mental anguish stop. I felt nothing about my family, my friends, my life. I remember being in Morocco, with my sister. The pressure to feel excited, to feel, anything! But I couldn’t. I curled into a lump and couldn’t even cry.
You know what helped? Some pills, some doctors, some talking. Some friendships. And then life. Life took over. Things changed. In a way I could never predict. And now I feel alive again.
It can happen. That’s what you need to hold on to. That it can. That it will change again. And this thing that wasn’t the depression, that you used to know as happiness, can happen, to you.
People can be good. Sunshine can feel good again. And once more, life.
• The Recovery Letters, edited by James Withey and Olivia Sagan. Available from jkp.com, £9.99.