Hi, I’m Charlotte Preval-Reed. As you probably know by now, I’ve suffered with various mental illnesses but got better and went on to write a book called “Positive Thoughts From Portobello Road”. I thought it’d be helpful to share my recovery story here for those going through something similar, to give you hope that things can improve.
My story started in July 2008 when I began to suffer from depression. The depression was the most horrific and challenging period of my life but it was also the making of me, as you’ll discover by the end of this story. Unfortunately, alongside the depression I was also struggling with depersonalisation disorder. Depersonalisation is a very disturbing mental illness triggered by trauma, stress or recreational drug use where your brain starts to experience waking life as if you’re dreaming it. When you look through your eyes nothing appears real and you feel permanently outside of your body, looking at life happening as if you’re stuck behind a pane of glass. It is terrifying.
The first three months of living with my mental illnesses were horrific. I had no idea what was happening to me. All day, every day, the depression felt like a sense of impending doom and gut-wrenching sadness; the kind you’d have if your entire family had been killed. However, there was nothing wrong with my life to make me feel that way.
As for the depersonalisation, it made me feel completely disconnected from the real world and all the people, places and things that I loved. This led to me having panic attacks, sometimes up to six a day. I also had strange physical sensations; daily headaches and a permanent feeling that a torrent of water was gushing through my head. All these symptoms made me genuinely think I had gone insane. There was no respite from all these strange things I was experiencing, I even felt the impending doom and sadness in my dreams. It was a 24hr continual hell.
I visited my GP and then a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with depression, depersonalisation and anxiety. I was offered various medications to help (with probable, strong side effects), but I made a very personal decision that medication was not a route I wanted to go down. I have nothing against medication, and indeed it can be life saving in many cases, it just wasn’t the route that felt right for me. If you’re struggling with similar conditions then you may feel that trying medication is the right thing for you to do.
For me personally, I felt an instinctive urge to try and recover naturally so I started researching things I could do to help myself. The first thing I did was visit the Brain Bio Centre in London, where I consulted the nutritionist at the centre who tested me for all the vitamins and minerals I might be lacking that can lead to mental ill health. I worked with the nutritionist who devised a special supplement plan to address all my body’s imbalances, and I also changed my diet from microwave meals to healthy and nutritious home cooking. I tried Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which helped, had counselling on the NHS, and also started exercising. Having never taken regular exercise before I started walking for 1-2 hours every, single day. This gave me a focus and I walked even when I didn’t want to as I knew on some level it was helping me.
My family and close friends helped me get well too. Having their support meant I could talk about how strange and awful I was feeling to understanding and kind people. I also had various holistic treatments and found Five Element Acupuncture to be extremely therapeutic. I saw my acupuncturist once a week for over two years. She treated my physical symptoms but she also treated my spirit, and helped me understand what was happening to me on a soul level. I remember her saying that all my suffering would be worth it because she knew that one day I’d use it to help other people. In my darkest hours, I clung to her words for dear life. Even though there was no ‘quick fix’ for my illness, at least I felt some good might come from it one day. In the meantime, all I could do was endure the hell I was in and pray that I’d make it through to the other side.
I’ll be honest, it took a long time for me to get better. The depression went away after about 2 years, to be exact. As for the depersonalisation disorder, I actually still live with it to this day. In most people it fades gradually over time, but occasionally it can become chronic for some sufferers. This might sound worrying if you currently have depersonalisation yourself, but please do not be alarmed. For one, it’s very probable it WILL fade away for you. And secondly, over the years I found that by completely accepting the condition it has meant that the panic and terror that accompany it have dissipated. I still feel totally detached from the world and reality feels like I’m dreaming it, but this altered mental state I permanently live in genuinely doesn’t bother me anymore. I’m able to lead a happy and fulfilled life despite it. (If you’re struggling with depersonalisation you can also contact the NHS hospital called “South London and Maudsley” who provide the widest range of mental health services for the U.K.)
Anyway, back to the story. One thing I did in my recovery from the depression was to start writing positive thoughts every day. I wondered if forcing myself to think of something positive would improve my outlook on life. I won’t lie, it was virtually impossible to have even one positive thought during that time, but I made myself do it. I guess I was somehow trying to coax or even trick my brain into thinking better thoughts.
Little did I know that what had started out as a small and personal attempt to heal my mind would eventually turn into an unimaginable source of happiness for me and would also be the way I’d help lots of other people too, just like my acupuncturist had predicted.
And here’s how it happened – I ended up writing so many positive thoughts during my recovery that when I was better, I decided to turn my favourite ones into a book. I then illustrated the book with cartoon characters, animals and stickmen, got it printed and began selling it to anyone who was kind enough to buy a copy. What happened next took me by total surprise; the book went on to sell tens of thousands of copies, reached all corners of the globe and selling it quickly turned into my full time job!
Initially, it was family and friends who bought my book, and their wonderful feedback gave me the confidence to get more books printed. I then plucked up the courage to go around London asking in book shops if they’d sell copies on my behalf. Each morning I’d fill my rucksack with books and nervously approach the shopkeepers. I felt totally out of my comfort zone but luckily the shopkeepers said yes and even put the book by the till for all to see. The book then became popular very quickly, and in some shops it was their best-seller. The shops would keep re-ordering books and before I knew it I was running a small business. I had no clue what I was doing and had to learn very fast, but it was all so exciting too. Oh yes, and one of the shops that stocked the book was the famous Notting Hill Bookshop which features in the film “Notting Hill”. It felt so surreal to see my book in such an iconic place.
After a few months I had the idea of taking a stall at Portobello Market in Notting Hill, to see if my book would sell there too. I also turned my favourite thoughts from the book into art prints, bought nice mounts to display them and hung a big sign behind the stall saying “The Table of Positive Thoughts”.
Over the weeks as I ran my stall I was astounded by the response I got. Although my book had been doing well in the shops, I’d never seen an actual reaction from a customer before. It was simply amazing. They would smile with delight as they leafed through the book’s pages, giggling away at the drawings, and some even burst into tears because they said the thoughts resonated with them so much.
People would buy a book or a print and come back within an hour to buy loads more. They said they knew lots of people who needed cheering up by my work; a family member with a chronic illness, a friend in hospital, a sister with a broken heart, a depressed boyfriend, a lonely neighbour, a daughter that wanted a career change, a brother with PTSD, a best friend going through rehab, a son with autism or simply a friend whose birthday was approaching. Even the local police and MP’s stopped by my “Table of Positive Thoughts” to read a few thoughts as they walked past.
I was totally speechless. My little book, which had originated from such a dark, sad and lonely time in my life, was being enjoyed and appreciated by so many people. It was such a lovely feeling. I frequently had queues of people at my stall wanting multiple copies of the book, and I’d get visited by people from all over the world who’d been following my positive thoughts on Instagram and Facebook, often making a special trip to Notting Hill to visit my table.
My online sales were doing really well too. Because Portobello Road is such a tourist destination it really helped spread the word about my work and loads of people were ordering off my website. By that time, I was receiving email after email from customers thanking me for writing the book. They would write such lovely, heartfelt messages saying how much it had helped them. Some of the emails were so touching they made me cry.
One email that stood out in particular was from a young woman. She said she’d been suicidal for a year but my book had made her not want to give up. She explained how she read one page each day to keep her going, and the fact that I’d recovered from depression gave her hope that she could too. She signed off by saying that my book had changed her life. It made me think back to my own dark days. And I suddenly remembered how my acupuncturist had told me that one day my suffering would help people. It seemed like that time was now.
Going from the depths of mental illness to publishing my book has shown me that truly wonderful things can spring from very difficult times. When I was mentally ill it felt like a curse. However, now I’ve made peace with the illness I see that despite it being the worst thing that ever happened to me, it was also a gift. That’s because the depression gave me the material to write the book. And now that book means I get to stand on the wonderful Portobello Road, running my “Table of Positive Thoughts” and meeting truly lovely people from all around the globe.
I really hope that by reading this story you’ll feel better or inspired in some way. If you’re going through a tough time and are in the depths of pain, I hope this story makes you feel that things can, and do, improve. Although you’re suffering know that you are healing as well. Your soul is just trying to find its way back home, and it will.
As I’m still running “The Table of Positive Thoughts” I hope I’ll see you down there one day. You can find out where it’s located and what days and times I trade on the “market stall” page of this website. I also post more of my thoughts and illustrations on my Instagram and Facebook pages so you’re welcome to follow them there.
Lots of love and cheerio for now,