When James Withey was suffering from depression, he craved something to give him hope. No one spoke about recovery or healing. There was no light at the end of the tunnel, only darkness. And so James set about creating the sort of thing that he had needed at his lowest ebb; a collection of stories telling others there is hope, it’s not all blackness, you can get through this. And in helping others, he has also helped himself. This is James’ story
Depression is a bugger. A real git. To be honest, I could use much stronger words than this and often do.
Depression has been with me all of my life in some form but about 10 years ago it hit me on the head with such force that I was unable to do function at all. It was like a fairy tale giant had taken his sledgehammer and was repeatedly smashing me in the face and then convincing me it was my fault that he was doing it. Nice eh?
I lost everything when depression came. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t see anybody, I couldn’t wash, I couldn’t laugh; I couldn’t remember who I was or what I was meant to be doing.
I was in crisis, but it was hard trying to convince myself I needed help. I felt I should be able to sort all this out by myself. None of my other male friends had depression, somehow, they were able to sort out any muddles they had in their heads by themselves, so what was wrong with me? I felt I wasn’t being strong enough or man enough. Real men don’t get depression I thought. If I was a ‘real’ man I wouldn’t be feeling like this, right?
When I started to feel suicidal, I went to Accident and Emergency because I didn’t know what else to do. I waited for 8 hours to be told that I was being ‘a bit sensitive about things’ and was given some Valium and told to see my doctor the next day. I told him how ill I was feeling, he sighed, like I had unnecessarily inconvenienced him, and reluctantly called the crisis team. I was prescribed anti -depressants and sleeping pills but things got worse, and worse and worse. And worse. After a month of being seen by support workers at home, and one more horrendous A and E visit, my life still felt at risk I went to psychiatric hospital for a week.
Now, psychiatric hospital is like a glamorous boutique hotel. Now wait, it’s really not, it’s the exact opposite. The staff wanted to help but were too busy and I was too scared. I kept to my room afraid to venture out into the communal areas. It was my necessary prison.
One afternoon, sitting on my bed (which was bolted to the floor) and looking out of my window (which only opened a few inches) I started to think about hope. No one had spoken to me about recovery, no one had said that there was any chance that things could get better. Only depression spoke to me, and it was shouting vile insults and telling me that I had no future. I suddenly realised that if I was ever going to get through, I needed to hear about hope.
When I got out of hospital, I went to see my psychiatrist.
“Where can I read stories about how other people manage their recovery?” I asked.
“Hmm.” He thought for a while. “I don’t think there are any.”
“What none?” I said.
“No, I don’t know of any. I tell you what, how about read this book, that might help.”
He handed me an enormous 500 page tombstone like book on depression, from an eminent psychologist.
“But I can hardly read a page.” I said. “There’s no way I can get through this. And anyway, I want to read something from other people with depression.”
Now thankfully sitting on my own bed at home, I thought, well if there aren’t any recovery stories, then maybe I need to tell mine and see if other people want to tell theirs too. What if other people wrote a letter to others experiencing depression, telling them that things can get better? What if I published these letters on a website for everyone to see? It couldn’t just be me that needed to hear that you could still live your life whilst managing depression could it? That’s how The Recovery Letters project was born.
The Recovery Letters website has around 70 letters at any one time, from people around the world, different genders, ages and all types of depression. The letters are so powerful because they reach out to the person suffering and say ‘We get it, we know that indescribable pain, we know how exhausted you are, how hard it is to get up each day, we’ve felt that too, but you know what, it’s gets better, we’re living proof of that’.
In 2017 a Recovery Letters book was published. It was a World Book Night title in 2018, is on the Reading Well list for mental health, (where GP’s can recommend useful books to patients), it has been published in Welsh, recently in German and amongst other accolades, Cosmopolitan magazine named it was one of 12 Mental Health Books Everyone Should Read.
The impact of the letters has been incredible. People often write and tell me reading them has got them through the night, that they feel understood and less alone. They say that reading about symptoms and feelings that they thought just peculiar to them, have made them feel validated and less ashamed.
Repeatedly, people tell me the letters have stopped them from taking their own life. This always makes me cry because the letters saved my life too.