Writing down our thoughts and feelings can be an incredibly helpful tool in managing depression. This serve as my impetus for launching Recovery Letters – a unique platform where people write letters about recovering from depression, addressed to those currently suffering. At the moment the letter writers have experienced different types of depression including clinical depression, bipolar and postpartum depression.
The story behind this project is deeply personal.
The psychiatric crisis team are about to leave my flat; they’ve checked that I’m alive, (I am, just) they’ve checked to see if I’ve eaten anything (I haven’t), they’ve checked to see if I’ve had a shower (I haven’t) and now they’re checking to see if I keep living for the next 24 hours (I’m not sure).
They’ve been coming every day for a few weeks since I went to hospital saying I was suicidal. This involved a seven hour wait and culminated with being told that I was ‘quite sensitive’ and sent home with some valium. They suggested I go and see my GP the next day; I did, he sighed, as if I had deliberately spoiled his day, called the Crisis Team and told me wait in the corridor until they came.
This episode of depression has been the worst in 20 years. I have lived with it all my life, with some suicide attempts in my teens but since then it’s been like a low grade cold that I have put to one side. Now, it has hit me in the face and has kept hitting me. I am in constant unbearable pain, I can’t work, I can’t concentrate and my anxiety has joined depression in the same cramped one-person tent.
What I want to do is talk about what has happened to me, but this isn’t encouraged and they don’t have time, another patient is on the list. I don’t blame them, after working in social care all my adult life I know the constraints and pressures, but even so, it doesn’t help and I wonder whether their visits are benefiting me at all. They suggest I take a walk, then spot my camera on the coffee table and encourage me to take some photographs. It’s like they’re speaking another language.
They leave with smiles and say they will be back tomorrow, then one of them turns in the door and says:
‘You know James, you can recover from depression.’
‘You can recover from depression, it is possible.’
Really? Really? You can recover from this? I’m unconvinced. Depression’s voice is much louder and it’s telling me that it’s impossible to recover and I believe it.
I ask my Psychiatrist and GP for books on depression but I can’t read a sentence of them, they sit and stare at me. I head to the library to find books on recovery, short stories of hope, but find nothing.
Weeks follow months, and I go and stay in Maytree Respite Centre for the suicidal in London, where I hear more people telling me I can recover, slowly, very slowly hope starts to dent depression’s vile voice a little. I am admitted to psychiatric hospital where I start thinking about the importance of recovery stories, I need to hear how other people have recovered if I am going to continue to get better.
Out of hospital I started to develop The Recovery Letters, where I write a letter to other people suffering from depression, saying that it gets better, because it has, it’s not gone, it’s just better than it was. I invite other people to write letters and the website takes off. People write and tell me how the letters have helped them, they can see that if other people have recovered that they might be able to do the same, some people tell me the letters have saved their life. It’s astonishing, beautiful and massively humbling.
The letter writers also tell me how important the letter has been to them; the act of writing has helped them see their progression and reaching out to others has been part of their recovery. The letter writers come from all over the world, and are recovering from all types of depression.
Five years later we have over 60,000 hits on the website each year, the website has had some wonderful press coverage and a new book of Recovery Letters is out published by Jessica Kingsley. We now have many people who have read the letters when they were unwell and now have contributed to the website or the book.
The letters don’t disguise how horrible depression is; this isn’t an exercise to forget or pretend that depression isn’t horrific. Like the other letter writers my depression still hits and when it does it hits hard and fast and I hate it. But I also know that I’m not alone, that there are millions of others how suffer in the way that I do.
When I am unwell I read the letters, and they remind me that it won’t always feel that bad and that gets me through another day.
James Withey is the Founder of The Recovery Letters Project. He lives in Brighton and does public speaking about depression and recovery. The Recovery Letters are all written with the intention to try and alleviate some of the pain of depression, to make the loneliness slightly more bearable and above all to give hope that you can recover. James sees recovery as self-defined but can include living alongside symptoms or being symptom-free, being stable on medication or medication-free, but most of all living a life with some meaning.