James Withey talks about the very personal motivation behind the creation of his brilliant blog, The Recovery Letters
I’m sat on a chair in my room on a psychiatric ward; the sun is reaching through the branches of the tree behind me and daubing a beautiful light show on the wall. A year ago I was a Training Officer with a large charity delivering courses including the life saving ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) to groups of social care workers and now I’m on 15 min suicide watch.
Depression crept up behind me and broke me in 2011 after a series of events that made my soul collapse. I was fortunate in some ways. I had worked in counselling and social care all my life and knew that I was unwell; I also knew that I was entitled to support. I
had taught others about suicide; how men are more likely to die by suicide, how men want help but find it hard to find the services to match and that suicidal thoughts are temporary but feel permanent.
When I was first ill I spent four nights in the Maytree Sanctuary for the Suicidal in London which saved my life and gave me time to reflect on the notion of recovery. Until my time in Maytree only one mental health professional had told me I could recover from depression; this was a student nurse who was accompanying the full time workers and leaving the flat she turned, smiled and said, ‘James, you can recover from this.’ At Maytree I had a chance to think about this and the importance of hope.
Depression tried to steal everything from me and temporarily succeeded. It took my career, my memory, my concentration, my confidence, my sense of humour, friendships, sleep, eating, motivation and one of my biggest losses was reading. I used to be an avid reader, a few novels a month and suddenly nothing, I couldn’t read a page, I couldn’t read half a page. I borrowed some books from the library but couldn’t get past the first sentence and the more I tried the more of a failure I felt. What I wanted was to read small pieces of writing that would give me some hope that I could get through; I wanted to hear about other people’s experiences of emerging through the treacle like existence that is depression. This is how the idea of Recovery Letters came about because I wondered, if this would have helped me, would it would help others too?
Recovery Letters is a simple premise; people recovering from depression write a letter to those that are currently suffering. I wrote the initial letter and then used twitter to ask other people to write subsequent letters. The response has been incredible, including men who have explained that starved of sleep, late at night, the letters have helped them survive until the morning.
As a man I know the difficulties of opening up; after one disastrous phone call to a helpline at 3 a.m. where the helpline worker didn’t say anything to me, I vowed never to call again and that night took an overdose of sleeping pills. I’m not blaming that helpline worker who no doubt was anxious and unsure of what to say, it was maybe their first call and they just wanted to help. My point is that men need to be engaged in different ways, we need to understand how hard it is for men to open up. Our duty is to provide a variety of methods of support so that the right fit can be found.
Talking about suicide is also hard. When Stephen Fry was asked recently why he didn’t tell close friends about his feelings before a recent suicide attempt, he responded by explaining that it’s like admitting the most embarrassing and mortifying thing you could reveal, so big is the shame. “Think of your very best friend. Very, very best friend. Suppose you suddenly noticed you had a massive and really disturbing genital wart… would you show it to your very best friend?”
The Recovery Letters blog has been running since September 2012 and we now have over 19 letters on the site from people who have taken the time and effort to sit down and write to people they’ve never met. They benefit too, writing down thoughts, feelings and reaching out to others helps to cement one’s own recovery. No one is paid any money to write nor read the letters, yet everyone benefits.
I use the letters myself. My recovery is up and down, as most people’s is, and because depression blinds you to the truth I will often sit down and remind myself that if the people who wrote these letters are alive, living their lives alongside or after depression then I can do the same, and I do.