Article by Jack Dixon 22/11/17
James Withey is the author of The Recovery Letters – an important book that offers support to people experiencing depression through real life stories of successful recovery. James spoke to Lambeth and Southwark Mind about his personal experience and how the extraordinary power of hope kept him alive through dark times.
“You can recover from depression.” James Withey remembers the words that changed his life. It was only a simple sentiment, but one that saved him from a long and torturous struggle with deep depression and suicidal thoughts.
“I remember thinking, ‘oh, really? Is that an option?’ No one had ever told me that before,” says James. “It was those moments of hope that kept me going.”
It was after moving with his husband from Glasgow down to Brighton that James began to experience his most serious lows. Having initially struggled to find work, a job teaching in a sixth form college quickly turned into a nightmare when a student falsely accused him of sexual harassment.
This horrendous event triggered a chaotic period in which James began to question whether life was worth living.
“My background was in counselling and social care, so I guess I was experienced enough to know that I wasn’t very well,” he recalls.
“But to experience depression to that extent was so powerful, it was just extraordinary. It was like being batted around the head, the pain was just incredible.”
In his darkest moments, when depression had all but consumed him, it was the assurance that others had been down in that darkness – and then emerged to find the light again – that kept him going.
This simple message – ‘you are not alone’ – is the theme of James’s book, The Recovery Letters, which is helping thousands of other people rise up from the depths of depression.
The book is a collection of letters, written by depression survivors to those who are suffering. Each makes an offer of comfort and companionship to the reader – as if reaching out to say, ‘I have been there but, believe me, it gets better’.
“I remember thinking that I needed to hear more of ‘you can recover from this’, I need to hear more stories,” recalls James.
“And so I asked around, doctors and psychiatrists, is there something I can look at? A website or a book where I can read stories of people who have recovered or who are managing their lives? They would say no there isn’t and hand me a CBT book as thick as a tombstone.
“The idea slowly started to develop and I remember thinking, if I can’t find this maybe I need to do this.”
James began a blog, detailing some of his own struggles and inviting others to share theirs too. The blog became a website and earlier this year the website spawned the book.
In a matter of months it had already triggered an emotional response from readers, with hundreds e-mailing in to share their own letters of recovery.
“The reaction to the book has been extraordinary,” says James. “I get messages on a weekly basis saying these letters have saved my life. It floors me – it’s amazing the power of words and just telling people they are going to get through it.
“I think it works because it’s a really simple idea and it’s one person saying to another person, ‘it’s going to be better than it is at the moment’.
“I was in a similar place with that pain. Depression is telling you something and you need a sliver of hope that’s telling you that you can get through this, it’s not always going to feel this way. Sometimes that’s enough to get people through the night and be able to carry on. It’s amazingly powerful and overwhelming.
“I think depression is so hard to describe, it’s so hard to say this is how I’m feeling and you feel completely alone. We need other people to validate that experience and go ‘I get it, I know what that’s like’. That feels great because you know you’re not the only one suffering.”
Listen to James talk more about The Recovery Letters and his battle with depression on Episode One of the Matters of Mind podcast.