May 9, 2014 at 2:05 PM ET
At the lowest moment in her life, Jodi Ann Bickley decided the only way up was to reach out — to complete strangers.
Bickley, of Birmingham, U.K., suffered from a brain infection and stroke in 2011 at the age of 23. She was still recovering from health problems last year when a slew of new symptoms forced her to be bedridden, throwing her into a deep depression. As she grappled with suicidal thoughts, an idea came to her: to turn a lifelong habit of writing letters into something that could save her life, as well as touch the lives of others.
"I was just at my lowest point and felt really alone, even though I was surrounded by people," she said. "I needed to create something that was going to make me want to get up in the morning. I thought, if there are other people feeling like they're in an abyss, at their lowest point, I'm going to get them out. So that's what I did."
And so "One Million Lovely Letters" was born. Bickley, who's now 25, started the project by creating a simple blog and putting a call out on her Facebook and Twitter accounts for people to contact her.
"I said, 'If you're having a bad day or a bad week or a bad life and you need a little bit of reassurance or a little bit of love, I can do that. And if you just email me, I'll send you a lovely handwritten pick-me-up that you can keep in your pocket,'" she recalls.
The response was quick — and bigger than she ever expected.
"Within half an hour I'd gotten 50 emails from around the world, from Australia to India," she says. After an hour, she'd received 100. "I thought, 'Wow, there's people that need this.'"
She's since responded to close to 3,000 letters and has 2,000 more in her inbox, from a wide cross-section of people from "all walks of life" — from 11-year-olds to teenage girls to lawyers and businessmen.
"I have people that have terminal illness, people that are brokenhearted, people that are depressed, people that are victims of domestic violence, people that have lost babies, people that have lost a partner, people that are just genuinely lonely," she says.
Each letter she writes is different, and while they are directed at individuals, she also shares letters that may have broader reach on her Instagram account, such as messages she writes to teenagers who don't feel like they fit in, or don't accept their bodies.
"I write what I would write to my best friend on their worst day, using all the things I've learned along the way," she says. "It's not about being a wordsmith or highly educated, it's just about being a nice person, and all the people that write to me are asking for is for me to be there. To remind them that they are loved and they're not alone on the days it really feels like they are. It's a privilege to be that person."
And though she hears about so much sadness from strangers in different situations, the project hasn't left her Bickley feeling burdened.
"How I see it is, these people aren't asking me to fix them," she says. "They haven't asked me to make everything better, they're just reaching out for a hug. That's what my letters are doing — they're not fixing the world, but it's going to make it better for a minute or a moment."
These days, Bickley, who now knows she suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, is doing much better when it comes to her health, though she still has good days and bad days. Typically she receives around 30 letters a day, and is able to write about the same amount of responses. She's currently dealing with a large backlog, however, thanks to media attention and the recent publication of her project as a book.
"It's nuts, it's really, really crazy," she says of the response.
And her letters aren't just a one-way form of communication. "I always put my address on the back, just in case that person needs a little bit more help or needs to just write to me again," she says. "I've had a lot of people write back to me to say thank you for helping them through the storm, and that's absolutely fine with me."
She hopes to keep the letters going and has plans for another book, but may need to recruit some help to respond to everyone, as well as to keep the project afloat, since it is now a full-time effort.
"I'm trying to look into funding to find a way to make this my job, something I'll be able to do forever, because the response I've had has just been amazing and I absolutely adore doing it," she says.
"It's so wonderful to receive a handwritten letter, and the more people I can help and get involved, the more little bits of magic can be spread."