Knitting and its therapeutic benefits


Knitted ladybirds for an amazing friend of mine. Many thanks to the pattern from Stitch London Blog.

Things have been kind of busy round here. Easter was supposed to be days of writing, knitting and seeing family, and instead I got sick (not, you and I both relieved to know, the shitty illness, but a bog-standard cold). And then life stuff took over for a few weeks, which is what happens, but I have missed writing, and realised I need to carve out time for it. And also that it’s ok if I don’t write for a couple of weeks so I shouldn’t beat myself up about it. Plus I wanted to finish a knitting project, and knitting has been therapy over the past few years. Writing and knitting, both creative activities and ones that require very little in the way of equipment or space, and inexpensive too.

I learnt to knit from my paternal grandmother, and still have a memory of sitting in her living room on a sofa patiently, and badly, making a scarf under her supervision. I don’t recall exactly how I felt as I knitted, or attempted an approximation of knitting, and I don’t think I’d have been more than 7 or 8, but mostly my memory is being happy spending time with my gran and making something. I remember a blue knitted jumper she made me which was one of my favourite items of clothing. Handmade items are made with love, made for a particular person in mind, and that love and care radiates from whatever that item is.

It was many, many years after that time on the sofa that I picked up knitting again, and I forget what entirely inspired me to re-learn. I knew I wanted to do something creative, that could occupy my hands, that might be useful in some way, and the memory of knitting stayed with me. Not the memory of how to knit though, aside from it requiring knitting needles and wool (yarn, people, yarn. As I now know. Wool is yarn, but not all yarn is wool). I bought such items and ‘Knitting for Dummies’ – yes, it exists – and set about trying to teach my fingers to repeat the stitches I’d learnt to make decades before. Unfortunately all that happened were incredibly tight stitches, holding such tension on the needles that it was a physical effort to knit into them, and rather than creative relief, it was mainly creative frustration that resulted. And so while I prefer to learn by myself, I knew I needed to find a teacher. It’s the kind of skill that is best learnt watching someone.

And so the needles and the yarn sat around for a while as I procrastinated about how to find a teacher (one of my strengths, procrastination), veering from being too busy to fit in classes when they were running, to why would I think I’d be any good at it, and back again. Until I needed a distraction, and knitting came to me as a possible solution. The distraction was needed when Original Acquaintance announced his depression, and started to ever so slightly withdraw, and the slow creeping pain of not hearing from him was a hole that I needed to fill. Knitting became therapy, and it is heartening several years later to be reading about how this form of creativity has helped others and provided the same relief to many people in the same way it did for me. Knitting allows my hands and my mind to be occupied, the latter being the most important. It requires attention to be paid to the task at hand, looping yarn round needles, counting stitches, following a pattern, counting rows. You can’t do that if you are thinking about anything except the knitting. The knitting itself isn’t a difficult thing to concentrate on, it doesn’t cause you stress (unpicking 6 rows because you went wrong is annoying, but you pick yourself up and start over), it doesn’t hurt you (I’ve stabbed myself with a sewing needle a few times, but I can live with that without it causing me sleepless nights), and when you have finished, you have a beautiful thing that you, and only you, have created. Despite whatever was keeping you awake once you finished the knitting, whatever you had felt during the day before you got home and picked up the yarn, there was something lovely and special, and an achievement when very little felt like it was worth doing.

And it inspires such wonder – ‘you’re so clever’ is one of the most frequent compliments you receive – especially on trains, as I am unashamed to pull out my knitting, mainly on trips to the south west of England, when you catch someone across the aisle looking across to watch, flicking their eyes back to the other direction when I look up, because, y’know we’re British, and that wouldn’t do. And I smile and go back to the knitting, not caring if someone is looking because they’re watching the craft, not staring because they’re judging me (which is my usual and wholly unjustified fear, and is, you are safe to believe, utterly insane and somewhat egotistical if you think about it.) And it inspires joy and calm, and I feel peaceful when I do knit.

It has been up and down, my relationship with knitting over the past few years. It was truly my therapy for about 3 years as I tried to deal with the grief of Original Acquaintance’s disappearance, and it was only when I couldn’t even find the energy to knit (its other advantage, you don’t need much in the way of physical fitness to pick up some knitting needles) that I started to realise that maybe something else was going to be needed. For several months I didn’t knit, I think partly because I was so tired that once I got home, it was a relief to do absolutely nothing, and partly because I knew that everything I had been trying to keep at bay was no longer staying away by knitting. But it has returned as my good mental health has, and while sometimes I can go several months without knitting, I feel so much more positive about myself when I pick something up and start again on a project. An excellent friend gave me The Mindfulness in Knitting (by Rachael Matthews) for a very recent birthday and I read the first 2 chapters with pleasure sat out on my balcony in sunshine (sunshine is also very therapeutic). That also sounds more glamorous than it is, but in London any outside space is a joy. And I am far from the only person to think knitting is therapeutic.

The picture with this blog is the project I was aiming to finish, for another incredible friend and her school class (I told you there might be pictures of knitting at some point). My next creative skill to master is crocheting. That only requires one hook, so even less equipment… 

If the thing you’ve been using to hold stuff at bay isn’t helping at the minute, then links to help are in About. And if you’re a knitter or some other crafter, whether you share what you do or not, hold your head up high, and be proud of yourself, especially when it shows you light.

For the love of reading

I live in stories. From a time I can’t remember except as brief glimpses of a blurred snapshot I have lived in stories. And been the heroine. Jo of Little Women, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Anne Shirley, Nancy Drew, What Katy Did, Pollyanna… I read and re-read and dreamed and retold the stories with me in the centre (mainly as Laura Ingalls Wilder. Why I thought living on a prairie in the 19th century would be marvellous I don’t know. But I wanted to). And it never occurred to me that the oh-so-romantic Katy recovering from a terrible fall and paralysis did happen to me. Sure, not a fall, and not paralysis, but life-threatening and months of recovery. Not as splendid as in What Katy Did though, languishing on a chaise-longue… (and I cannot remember if there was a chaise-longue, but did I mention I’m a romantic?)

For some, a lot, most of my life I’ve wondered did all the stories I read when I was a child lead me to have such a romantic view of what I thought my life would be that I ruined any hope of that romance. The happy stories that always resulted in the girl characters becoming women who then had husbands and families, and despite the occasional life-threatening disaster, always ended up healthy and well. But then I starting thinking differently about these girls who became women with husbands and families. Those characters in those stories were and are good (not too good, even with Pollyanna in the mix), witty, kind and loving girls and women. Many of the stories I read were from the 19th and early 20th centuries featured women who, if the stories followed them from childhood, fell in love and married. 

And there will have been many arguments that these stories provided few role models to girls reading them except to set up the expectation that what women did was get married and have families. Now in one sense, that was what women did do when those stories were written. But women wrote those stories, so women were also female authors as role models. All those characters already mentioned and more – Jo March, Laura Ingalls Wilder, What Katy Did, the Abbey School women, the Chalet School girls and women, Anne Shirley (if I wasn’t going to be Laura, Anne was a close second) – were strong, imaginative and creative. And the girls and women they wrote about married for love, with men who were not necessarily perfect but who loved the women they married, treating them with respect and care. And for many of the series I read, the men were not the centre of attention, and often on the periphery, but they were mindful of the women who supported, cared for, advised their sisters, friends, children and family. Those women who were all sisters, friends, daughters before being wives, and very clearly remained as such. So perhaps what I took away from those stories was that women are central to family, society and their communities, and are equals to men in contributing to that society.

Which, when you think about it, provides bloody good role models for men and women. And I’d much rather my romantic view of life too. 

If you fancy some reading nostalgia, all of those books can be tracked down one way or another – give your local library some support for starters. And if reading, or something otherwise life-distracting isn’t helping at the moment, links to help in About.

Sometimes, the drugs do work

Something else about depression. How it is treated. One of the most excellent therapies is talking and sadly talking is not very sexy as far as finding money to fund it goes. There are millions spent on sexy research to develop drugs-based treatment, a much more attractive proposition to governments providing a health service because a) drugs companies can bear the costs and b) drugs companies like making money. A drugs company won’t make a lot of money from promoting talking for 30 minutes a day to pharmacists and GPs.

There are other ways to treat depression. You can, as the euphemism goes, self-medicate. Come on. Self-medicate? That’s taking drugs. Only not ones that drug companies have spent lots of sexy research money on. They don’t have to even be legal drugs if you self-medicate. Plus it doesn’t really treat the depression so much as make you forget, for many hours or even days at a time if you’re really committed to the self-medication, that you are a living, breathing human being with depression. Staying in bed for several days, only getting out to go to the loo, waiting for it to pass (because it will) is a less risky treatment than self-medication, but if you have to leave the house because you will lose your job, or your children need taking to school, or you cannot live with the people you are sharing your home with and have no means of moving elsewhere, then self-medication can be very attractive. Or you can kill yourself. Admittedly, depending on one’s perspective that’s less treatment, more final solution, but at least your own hell is done. And depression has done its job, taken you to the point where you believe its lies and abuse, because it’s your head telling you all that and why would you – you – lie to yourself?

Actual medication is never an easy subject where mental health is concerned. I was never anti-medication. I never believed in medication in isolation either. I urged a very sick friend to consider it when she was adamantly refusing because of fear of turning into a zombified being. I saw others take medication and improve their stability levels just enough to manage coping with basic day-to-day tasks that provided some chinks of light. I had friends who swore by it, and confessed they didn’t know how they’d manage without it. And when it came down to it, when I knew finally that I was ill, I knew I would be prescribed medication. Self-medication hadn’t worked (don’t get excited, I’m really not a risk-taker, so we’re only talking alcohol). Creativity as a distraction had stopped working (but as a therapy, really effective, and another post for another day). Sleep worked but only because it was the only thing I could do that was effective in stopping me doing anything else.

Let’s have a story: How I fell in love with the drugs.

I was prescribed 20mg of citalopram a day. After I picked up the first prescription I read the side-effects. There’s a lot but I know enough to understand that there are several categories and the ones that most people experience were the ones to consider. Not that I didn’t worry about all the others. I didn’t start taking the medication straight away because I had an essay to write and I did not want to be experiencing the side-effects while undertaking intellectual activity of that minor magnitude. Also the advice was that if you were about to do something significant requiring consciousness, you should probably put off starting to take the medication until that was out of the way. It was about 3-4 weeks after first seeing my GP and having the drugs in my hands before I started to take them.

I chose to take them about 10pm at night. I cried every night before I took them, and I cried afterwards. I hated that I was having to take drugs to fix this illness. I hated that my body was being subjected to something that made me nauseous and dehydrated, and that I didn’t even know whether it would work. I was afraid I’d feel nothing if I took the drugs. And then about four months in, I found something out that made me almost run home to take the pill because I was so relieved that I had this way of coping with what would have been unimaginable days of sleeplessness and misery.

The story involves an Acquaintance, and for a change not the Original Acquaintance (although anti-depressants would have been a help there, but that’s a WHOLE other story). So all I will say is that what I felt on that day was betrayed. If I had not been ill, and recovering from that illness, there’s every possibility that it would not have been so impactful. Emotions are slippery things, making us euphoric in one moment, and devastated the next. But what I know is that when I got home that night I did not cry before I took the drugs, nor after, and I haven’t since. What I realised was that although they did make be dehydrated, and although they occasionally still made me nauseous, and they certainly make me forgetful, what they also did was provide emotional stability. Everything that had been in my head before I starting taking the drugs was still there, but the drugs stopped everything rattling around in it ALL THE TIME. They gave my mind some space to stop thinking about everything ALL THE TIME. And they were the sole thing that I knew would enable me to get up the day after that horrid day. And I did. 

What that life event has also led to is an incredible amount of work on forgiveness. I like to think I am generally a very forgiving person (I forgave the Original Acquaintance for their behaviour a very long time ago), but it turns out, not so much given the right circumstances. Or circumstance, as it’s only the one that I’ve struggled with over forgiveness. I hope I’m nearly there, because the energy and anger that not forgiving consumes is life-sapping too. And to be clear, I’m talking about me and my circumstance only. I know there are life events after which forgiveness would be a very, very hard thing to do. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale triggered a lifelong musing on asking for forgiveness and the giving of forgiveness without being asked. Again, another topic, but that book remains one of the most incredible works of (not so much) fiction I’ve ever read, and there are threads throughout it that have stayed with me since I was 17. The act of forgiveness being one.

Upshot: the anti-depressants have worked for me. But not on their own. I have found a fantastic counsellor, I have a tremendously supportive employer, and a family and friendship network who have offered nothing but love and care. And I have worked bloody hard on self-care as not being selfish, and realising that I don’t have to help everyone because I will admit that very occasionally, it’s all right to help yourself…

As always take care, and if you need help, links are in About.

In which I have been thinking (god help you all)…

I don’t really know what I would have chosen for my second post, and this might not be the one I would have selected from some that I have lined up but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking (to anyone reading this who knows me, this will not come as a surprise, and for anyone who doesn’t but knows someone who does a lot of thinking, you may realise what this involves) about how to write about life, and I’ve done even more thinking this week. I imagine it can be deeply frustrating sometimes if you live with someone who thinks A LOT about things, but you’ll be getting the benefit of some very carefully considered decisions, ideas and opinions. Even if it takes 2 months to get to them…

Back to the particular topic of my recent thinking. It included why people might think I have bad mental health, and what people think causes bad mental health. I’m not a scientist (though I have the privilege of working with many), so it would be impossible for me to go down that road, and there’s plenty of literature available to try and help people understand if there are biological, chemical, psychological and many other -icals causes. I don’t blame anyone or anything in particular for my bad mental health, not least because I don’t actually know how long my mental health has been bad. I think I might have have episodes of what I know now to be depression long before I acknowledged that the reason I felt so terrible was because of depression, but those could have been times when I felt sad and a bit unhappy, but not depressed. There’s a difference, by the way (and what’s really hard once you know you suffer from depression is recognising that feeling sad occasionally is not the heralding of another episode). If you really put me on the spot, and please, try not to, because I detest being put on the spot – for understanding why, see the paragraph on thinking a lot and you will probably draw the correct conclusion – I do know that the first time I can say ‘oh that was depression’ was 6 years ago, 3 years before I got a diagnosis, and when, ironically, I had fallen in love. That’s a whole other story in which Original Acquaintance, who had been on the edges of my life for years before the falling in love thing, is likely to appear in future, but on the other Acquaintances front, you’ll get no more. Some of the others I’m lucky enough to still have in my life, which is all anyone needs to know.

I also know that when things eventually collapsed around me, it was in a very large part because, although I thought the counsellor I saw at the time was insane for saying so, I had been strong. To unpack that*, please read Depressive Illness: the curse of the strong by Tim Cantopher (if you want to buy a copy, the link is to Hive who support local bookshops – just saying). It is simply an excellent book, short, un-taxing, and describes the type of depression I have suffered from, and is the type of depression that I can write about here because I know what that is.

And I suspect I may come back to this again, but please don’t think that bad mental health is a consequence of a bad childhood. Or certainly that mine might have been. I have Matt Haig to thank for assuring me in his book Reasons to stay alive that I am not the only person to think ‘but I can’t have bad mental health, my childhood was great’. So you’ll be barking up the wrong tree if you think you’re going to get my teenage diary. Sorry! (Actually, I’m not. My teenage diary starts with a picture of Phillip Schofield sellotaped to the back of the front cover – please don’t judge me, nor on the use of the word unpack earlier*- and mostly catalogues how I didn’t like high school. Not revolutionary. I should say that I didn’t like school not because I didn’t like learning – I love learning! – but more that there were simply too many people in one place which as an introvert, so not my thing. Primary and middle school, whole other story – I adored primary school.)

Lastly for today, I know about a vast number of other mental health illness but I haven’t experienced those; regardless of that if you have any type of mental health illness, know that you are not alone, that you are loved and take it one minute, hour and day at a time. Might be the best advice I can give. Links to help are in About.