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'I'm not suffering from depression at the moment but the door never shuts, it's always slightly ajar

 

Artist Charlotte Reed drew herself out of depression and created a bestselling book - now her life is being made into a film. As Mental Health Awareness Week begins, Susannah Butter hears her happy tale.

The artist Charlotte Reed, does an impressive impression of Run DMC. Band member Reverend Run recently came to her market stall in London and bought her book of the thoughts and drawings that she made when recovering from a two-year period of depression. "He said 'The book is cool'," she says, putting on an American accent. 'You can sign it to Rev Run'."

Reed's book, May The Thoughts Be With You, has gone from being a project that she self-published ("a steep learning curve") during a period of flux, to a bestseller that is being turned into a film, funded by the company who backed TV hit Girls and Beautiful - The Carole King Musical.

Reed's family are already planning who will play them. Her sister "has to be Kate Winslet" while her father fancies himself as Jim Broadbent. It could even see a Hugh Grant comeback, playing his character from Notting Hill because Reed's book is stocked in that real-life shop.

The drawings of stick figures with light-hearted messages in speech bubbles came out of what Reed (39), who lives in London, calls "an altered mental state". Removing her pink-flecked furry coat ("an H&M buy") and tidying her tumbling blonde curly hair after a morning power-walk, Reed recounts how she was working as a legal secretary and living with two friends in Putney "ticking along nicely, not unhappy or majorly happy" when she "spiralled into a dark place" back in 2008. "Over two weeks, I started feeling really strange. I had this sense that I needed to be on 24-hour watch so I didn't try to kill myself. My mind was racing."

She ended up going to stay with her brother, Richard, the founder of Innocent Drinks, who is five years older than her.

"I called and said: 'Rich I can't carry on, I feel I'm going to do something stupid.' He has a hectic job, the last thing he needs is a crazy little sister going insane, but he's a practical person so it didn't seem to faze him too much."

He'd go to work every day "making jokes like don't kill yourself today will you?" and set her tasks. "In the morning he'd give me a copy of Time Out and ask me to circle five things I thought he'd like to do. Even that little task was mindblowing. It took me three hours to go through the magazine because my mind was racing. He felt he had to give me something to focus on."

She went to her GP "a shaking, jabbering wreck" and was recommended antidepressants but had a strong instinctive sense that she didn't want to take them. Instead she stayed in her brother's spare room, "staring into space having difficulty breathing".

"It was like being in a waking dream. I couldn't watch TV because shows I used to enjoy, like Friends, didn't make me laugh anymore and I couldn't follow them. I almost grew fearful of the TV because it reminded me how weird I was feeling." Everyday activities like going to buy milk felt overwhelming: "It was like: 'What do I need to do to get there?' Your brain doesn't function." In the evenings, her brother and his girlfriend would take her along to whatever they were doing "but I felt so weird trying to maintain a sense of normality in social situations when I felt anything but normal".

The depression started after Reed had a routine foot operation. The surgeon put her on "a concoction of drugs that meant I was high as a kite, with opiates drip fed to me". "I knew there would be a comedown but that down came and it never went away."

Her mother was staying and Reed remembers: "I had this dread of her leaving, that idea was like the end of the world to me. I felt like I wouldn't cope, I'd kill myself, but I couldn't tell her any of that."

That operation was a "catalyst". "I've always had an imbalance, I had eating disorders and OCD but having strong drugs in my system was unusual."

After the first few months she went to treatment centre Brain Bio, which is run by the nutritionist Patrick Holford. They offer medication but also treat symptoms with high-dose vitamin and mineral supplements "to get to the root cause of mental illness". Reed had an elevated level of copper in her system, "which is associated with mental imbalance. It can be a genetic thing". A nutritional regime brought those levels down and she supplemented it with acupuncture which hugely helped: "The acupuncturist had this way of making me feel like I wasn't weird or out of control,"

She also decided to write down a positive thought every day. "I was in too much of a bad state to do it at the beginning and started by putting a thought for the day on Facebook regularly. My friends would start to expect it so I had to do it, otherwise I'd be letting them down." It's similar to what Sheryl Sandberg did after her husband died, writing down one good thing about each day.

Reed says: "I forced myself to see some beauty, even though I didn't feel positive; I had to remind myself of how life is supposed to be through a happy lens."

She doesn't remember her first thought but an early one that springs to mind is: 'It's far more exciting to create a miracle than wait for one to happen.' "That was about me not waiting for the miracle of my recovery but being proactively involved."

Despite warnings about overuse of social media, Reed says that "Facebook was good for my recovery". "We're on social media too much and have to make sure we live in reality but during that period it was a tool to get better."

Openness around mental health helped too. "I'd research people with depression like Ruby Wax and Stephen Fry and the fact they got better gave me so much hope that I'd be okay as well. I'd hang on every word."

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry's Heads Together campaign to end stigma around mental health is "great".

"It's only a matter of years before it's normal to talk about it as if you have a broken leg. Mind says that approximately one in four people will have a mental illness at some point in their lives."

She is "all for" teaching mindfulness and meditation in schools and supports the Headspace app. "Mental health was never talked about and now it seems like it's everywhere. Eventually it will settle and find its place."

We're interrupted by the arrival of Reed's adopted sausage dog, Prince Bertie, who she looks after twice a week through the Borrow My Doggy website ("If you ever have depression, get a dog, they bring so much love into your life").

She takes a sip of the peppermint tea that she's forgotten to drink while talking and settles Bertie in her arms, playing with his floppy ears. She told her parents about her depression once the symptoms subsided. They are retired but her mother was a nurse and her father was the director of a transport company and they are a close family. Her sister, seven years older and a doula, homeopath and artist, spoke to her every day. "She has three young children but I never felt I couldn't call her. She walked every step with me. I was in a storm and she was flashing a light saying, 'This is the way home.'"

Going back to work after two weeks off and being busy helped, but soon after her return she developed RSI. "It was the world's way of telling me to give up my desk job and follow my drive to be creative." That's when she set up the stall at Portobello Market.

Now she recognises "down days". "I don't have depression at the moment but the door never fully closes, it's always slightly ajar and you have to manage that. When I feel a down day coming, I stop everything. I go back to the basics - breathing exercises, meditation, eating well and getting enough sleep. Not living in fear of it helps."

She is dating and relaxed about having children. "I'm 39 and never been particularly broody. If it happens it's amazing but I won't be devastated if not. Deep down I'm a bit nervous of post-natal depression but that wouldn't stop me in the right situation."

Her youngest customer at the stall is six years old and the oldest is 96. The singer Natalie Imbruglia is a regular visitor and calls Reed "a sensitive soul" who can "say things in just the right way to give you the paradigm shift you've been yearning for". She gave copies to her friends Kylie and David Walliams, who now follows Reed on Twitter, much to Reed's delight.

Even if the film makes Reed wildly successful, she doesn't want to give up the stall. "I like the idea that people will see the film then come to the stall."

She tells people who ask about the book her story and says: "We need to get to the stage where mental health is a standard thing you talk about down the pub."

May The Thoughts Be With You by Charlotte Reed, published by Hay House, £8.99

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