'You're still you, and you always were.'
Words by James Withey
A large heavy blanket of nails has smothered you, you can’t move, there’s no light, there’s no hope of the blanket coming off and the pain is constant.
This is depression.
In 2012, I sat in my room in psychiatric hospital on 15 minute suicide watch. I’d had my belt taken away from me and I was trying to eat a baked potato with a plastic fork (trust me, it’s really difficult) – and I thought, what I needed to hear are stories of hope and recovery, an antidote to the blanket of nails. Doctors would urge me to read huge tombstone like self-help books on depression and I couldn’t read a page. Where were the survivors’ stories? Where were the people telling me it wouldn’t always be this bad? That’s what I needed.
A few months later and out of hospital, I was back at home in Brighton. I sat on my bed and typed a letter and The Recovery Letters project was born. I addressed the letter to people suffering from depression, telling them how bad I had felt, how it felt like the nails were destroying me, but now the pain was less, it hadn’t gone altogether but it was better and that was the key, it was slowly getting better. The blanket wasn’t off, but it was lighter and the nails were blunter.
I uploaded the letter onto a website, created a twitter account @RecoveryLetters and asked other people recovering to submit their own letters and we were off; suddenly I got e-mails flooding in from people telling me how much the letters had helped them, how knowing that other people were alive and in less pain helped them through the dark nights of insomnia and the suicidal thoughts.
Now that The Recovery Letters is being published as a book, we can reach people who want a something solid to help their recovery. They can underline passages, turn over pages and have it by their bed when they wake. A book has ballast, and the letters inside help people to feel more stable when depression has capsized their life.
The word, when you’ve lost the world, helps.
The Recovery Letters, £9.99. You can read more about the project here.
Extracts from The Recovery Letters (£9.99)– James Withey and Olivia Sagan
Thank you for opening this letter. You probably won’t be reading much at the moment. So I need to grab your attention.
I want to tell you something. I have been where you are, or my own version of it. Depression (or whatever you prefer to call how you are feeling at the moment) is different for each of us. And there are different sorts. But that really doesn’t matter. What makes you and me similar is the utter awfulness of our experience. The weariness, even exhaustion, and yet inability to sleep. Lying awake for hour after endless hour, either alone or next to a partner who you can’t talk to about the darkness of your thoughts. How pointless everything seems, especially in the mornings. How things you used to look forward to feel trivial and too much effort. How worried you are about stuff you used not to worry about, and even more worried over things that were worrying you already. And how loathsome and undeserving you feel, in every possible way.
Let me tell you a secret. When I was last ill, not all that long ago, I wanted to be dead. I even felt jealous of people with terminal illnesses like cancer because they had a reason for staying in bed and dying and people wouldn’t think badly of them for it. And yet at the same time, I didn’t actually believe I was ill. I went along with my psychiatrist and GP because I thought I must, and I didn’t have the energy to argue with them. But inside, I knew I was a lazy, work-shy, cowardly, incompetent, self-obsessed waste of space.
Now let’s talk about you. You are a wonderful person, with many fabulous and interesting things that make you who you are. It is just that you have lost sight of these for a little while. I’ve been visited by depression many times, each different in its own vile way. From my experience, and that of many others who have generously shared theirs, the special things that make you who you are will come back. It is just that the strength, patience and hope you need to wait for them to return is exactly what depression takes away. So right now, everything feels impossible. I truly know that feeling.
Depression is an illness. It can actually be seen in the brain. It may get better on its own. But depending on how severe it is, that can take ages. However bad things seem right now, if you don’t seek help, they could get worse. You may have already found that it helps to talk to a friend, or call a helpline. If not, however hard it feels, please think hard about giving this a try.
Your doctor can help you. He/she can support you to decide if you need medication and/or a talking therapy, or a referral to more specialist services. If you are prescribed them, the new antidepressant medications work with your body to help you heal. Yes, they do have side-effects. But so do antibiotics and you would probably take those if you had a serious infection. People and websites that tell you that taking antidepressants is a sign of weakness honestly don’t know what they are talking about. Please don’t take advice from anyone who isn’t a qualified doctor. If you are prescribed medication, I hope you will consider taking it, including waiting for it to start working, which can take a few weeks, and avoiding the things you should avoid while you are on it. And if you are referred for a talking therapy, or a group, please give yourself a chance, however anxious or low you are, and give serious consideration to going along.
Some of us find sharing what we perceive as our ‘weaknesses’ very hard. I know I do. But bottling things up is not a good idea. My biggest breakthrough has been learning to share how I feel with those close to me. I have to keep practising. And so will you. It is very hard, but worth the effort.
I could write pages and pages about how you WILL get better. But your concentration is probably not great right now. And there are other lovely letters here that I hope you will also read.
I just want to end with this. You will have good days and bad days. In time, you will gradually notice that there are more good ones than bad ones. You will rejoice again in small things, like a walk in the rain, or the smile of a stranger. You will find things to do that give you a sense of achievement. I did jigsaw puzzles and very bad knitting. You can choose your own. Just make the tasks small and achievable. And celebrate what you have done. Because you are amazing to have found the strength to do them.
Learning to be kind to yourself can be a lifelong project. But if you aren’t kind to yourself, it is much harder to be kind to other people. So for that reason, it is a generous and thoughtful thing to do, rather than an indulgence, as you may once have thought it.
Thank you for reading this. And well done. It was a huge step.
I wish you luck on the rest of your journey. And please know this: you are not alone.
With my loving kindness for your gradual recovery.
You’re not a failure. You’re not a bad person. And you’re not alone.
Right now you may not believe any of that, but read it again. And again. Powerful light exists in those truths.
I understand that the darkness feels so real. When I’m hit with depression, my first waking sensation is overwhelming dread, and I’m totally convinced that every day for the rest of my life is going to feel this bad. Even if a tiny part of my rational brain tells me that’s absurd and not true, I simply cannot imagine a different kind of day or feeling.
It’s a weird sort of existence, one that feels lifeless without being dead. I remember feeling that I didn’t want to actually kill myself because that felt like too much effort…but I didn’t want to be alive anymore because that also felt like too much effort.
What fooled me and others for a long time is the fact that I’ve always been a happy and optimistic person. Most people couldn’t tell I was struggling – and I didn’t admit it myself for a long time – because I still did good work and succeeded in going through a lot of motions. As I told surprised people later, I’m a highly functioning dysfunctional person. But inside I knew I was falling apart. Whatever the cause of your depression, hear this truth: your body is under attack, and your brain is taking a hit. There’s no shame in getting help when you can’t help yourself. Depression is a journey of peaks and valleys, so take advantage of ways to smooth the road.
Please tell someone you trust how you’re feeling – even if you sound crazy in your own ears, people are kinder than you realise. Be gentle with yourself. Use whatever you think could possibly help even a little: wisely administered meds, compassionate talk therapy, healing prayer, healthy foods and supplements (I’m sold on omega-3s and vitamin D), hot baths, pedicures, daily walks, whatever. Buy yourself flowers. Listen to banjo music. Have dessert.
Eventually, when the right combination of tools comes together and you let time work its magic, light will slowly dawn. Eventually, you’ll wake up in the morning and sense something closer to relief – maybe just a hint at first, like an air kiss. Eventually, you’ll look back at the dark shadow but realise you’re not walking in it any more. You’ll be able to see and even celebrate the bright truth that you’re still you, and you always were.
Sending you a big hug and a prayer,