In 2011, James Withey was staying at the Maytree Respite Centre in London. He had lived with depression, and as it became worse, he experienced suicidal thoughts and attempted suicide more than once. During this time, James wanted so badly to turn to books, which had been a source of escapism and balance throughout his life.
James had always loved reading, but when his depression became worse, he no longer could rely on novels for solace. Instead of being able to fly through multiple books per month, he was laboring over sentences. James yearned for stories that offered hope. He wanted to see his own experiences with depression reflected in books, but he failed to find anything that shared something personal about recovery.
While at the Maytree Respite Centre, James searched for those stories of hope, and the possibility of recovery. When he couldn’t find them, he decided he needed to do something.
James created The Recovery Letters, a website and social account that compiles letters written by people to themselves. These writers address themselves in the letter and share their own personal stories, offering hope and inspiration to get themselves through dark times as a result of living with behavioral health issues. We interviewed James to learn more about this insightful project and its necessary place in the world
Angela Milinazzo (Milinazzo): Could you talk about why you started the Recovery Letters?
James Withey (Withey): I started The Recovery Letters because I couldn't find the messages of hope that I needed for my own recovery journey. I kept asking psychiatrists and mental health practitioners where I could go to find stories of how other people had come through depression and how they were managing it now, but there was nothing — nothing online and no books I could read.
I knew that if I was going to try and make it through this acute period of illness that I had to hear from other people and be inspired by them.
I was recommended huge 500-page books about depression, but I could barely read a page my concentration was so bad. What I wanted was short messages of hope from one sufferer to another. Eventually, I thought, if it's not out there then maybe I need to create it.
Milinazzo: How did you encourage/invite people to submit their own Recovery Letters? When did your project really “take off”?
Withey: I wrote the first letter, uploaded it onto the website, and then took to social media to ask people to submit letters too.
Amazingly, the letters came in really quickly. It seemed that people wanted to write about their experiences of recovering to help people who were suffering now.
The project really took off when I got a BBC Radio interview which broadcast the letters to millions of people. After that, I got some more media coverage, and magazine and TV interviews, and the world started to see the power of the letters.
Milinazzo: You speak about the power of seeing your own experiences reflected or represented in others’ stories. Why do you think it’s so important that we provide platforms for these types of stories (stories about people living with mental health conditions)?
Withey: It's so important to tell our story to others because depression makes us feel so alone, so isolated and we think that our symptoms, thoughts and pain are peculiar to us. When we share our story, it's like blowing a dandelion; the pieces disperse beautifully and they comfort others because they see it's not just them suffering.
Depression convinces us that we're to blame, and that we're despicable people. When we hear others' stories we see the illness affects us in many similar ways. Through our shared experiences, we see depression as an illness - not as a character flaw.
Milinazzo: Why do you think this project has had so much success?
Withey: Because it's about hope. Depression destroys hope, yet hope is the antidote to depression. Without any sense that things can improve depression can win; and we know how many people take their own lives through the darkness and pain that it brings.
Also, writing a letter to someone else, albeit unknown, creates a connection. When one person reaches out to another, there is something so loving and compassionate that a kind of magic happens.
Milinazzo: What most surprised you when you started the Recovery Letters?
Withey: Two things surprised me. Firstly, how powerful the letters could be. I got e-mails, mostly sent in the middle of the night, saying that the letters had saved their life, that they were on the edge of suicide and reading the letters gave them hope to stay alive.
Secondly, how much the letter writers themselves gained from the process. Sharing their experiences helped many readers, but it also helped themselves. They were able to feel that the pain of their illness now meant something, and for many, the writing process in itself was cathartic and therapeutic.
Milinazzo: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about people who live with mental health conditions? Which myths or misconceptions do you hope to dispel with the Recovery Letters?
Withey: I think the biggest misconception is that we're 'weak', that if we just pulled ourselves together we could get better. The truth is that when you're experiencing pain so excruciating, suicide can seem like the only option. Just living moment by moment takes the most enormous strength.
I hope that by reading the letters people can see the that real depression is not an adjective, but a cruel painful illness that destroys lives.
Milinazzo: Do you think that hope is an important part of recovery?
Withey: I think hope is the most important part of recovery. Without hope, suicide and self-harm seem like the only route to take because they can take us out from the pain. An illness like depression that destroys hope, that lies to us and berates us with toxic poison, has to be combated with something powerful like hope.
Milinazzo: What advice do you have for others who want to support a loved one living with a mental health condition?
Withey: I'm often asked this question and the truth is I'm not the best person to answer it! However, I have learnt from my husband how he manages me and my illness.
- Support, but don't take over. For example, help the person find support, but don't act on their behalf. Sit with them, but let them do it. You have to take responsibility for your own illness.
- Have a system where the person scores their depression. I give my depression marks out of 10. If it's between 8-9, I know I need some help from medical services. 10: I'm suicidal and need emergency services called. 1-3 is a good depression day! Giving a score to your loved one lets them know what they need to do and how you're feeling.
- Know that we hate the illness as much as you do; we would do anything to have it gone.
- Take time out for yourself. This is absolutely crucial and may well include getting support of your own.
- It's not always about doing something or saying the right thing. Often people need space, or just being sat with quietly.
- Don't be afraid to ask if your loved one is feeling suicidal. Talking about suicidal feelings makes people safer NOT more at-risk and you won't be putting thoughts in their head.
Milinazzo: What do you hope people will take away or learn from reading others’ Recovery Letters?
Withey: That there is hope. That change happens. The pain of depression is hideous but will alter. That you aren't the only one suffering. You can live a full life with depression. You can do it.
You can purchase a copy of The Recovery Letters here. A follow-up to the first book will focus on loneliness and be in the same format as the first. They are currently taking letter submissions from around the world. For those interested, visit the website here. For anyone who would like to submit a Recovery Letter of their own to the website, you can find details here.
If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255. All call centers are open 24/7 and calls are confidential. Visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org for more information.