Knitting Your Way Through Anxiety
It has been my personal experience that the things that change your life the most happen very suddenly and are rarely ever planned. This is not a profound observation, but it certainly applies to how anxiety turned my life a little sideways. I will state up front that I do not struggle with anxiety or depression, but my partner does. Before we were married, he was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. He was prescribed some medicine, and we thought that was that. I would say we were young and naïve, but we were also complacent in understanding what something such as struggling with anxiety meant. Then, when we were two-small-kids deep in a new home and my husband was enjoying a budding career, the medicine stopped working.
I did not handle it well.
Things shifted so suddenly that our heads spun as we tried to figure out what our new normal was going to look like. When I say I did not handle it well, I do not mean I shut down or did not support the suffering and struggle my partner was undergoing. I mean I tried to take on everything that had suddenly shifted. There were a lot of responsibilities my husband and I shared that suddenly became just me things. But I wanted so badly to be supermom, “superwife,” super-supportive, and self-sufficient. I kept telling myself that I could lessen the stress on my family by taking on as much as possible and pretending it was easy. After a couple of months of this, it is fair to say I started to feel a little frayed around the edges. Yes, my husband had a mental health issue, but completely ignoring my own mental health was not the answer. How was I going to help my family if I fell apart myself?
As I was living this life change, I was not aware of my struggle to stay afloat. I found it difficult to turn off the worry and stress that I carried regarding what the future held. It was difficult to watch the daily struggle my husband went through to get to work and the mental fatigue I knew he felt when he got home, where two small children and a wife waited for him. I felt guilty that he had the added pressure of being the sole financial support for our family. I will not pretend to understand what it feels like to have severe anxiety, but I know whatever worries I was feeling, my husband felt them even more keenly and was fighting them more fiercely—and that worried me, too. I felt like I was standing next to a monster called Anxiety and could do nothing as it dealt out despair and havoc on my loved ones.
Then, just as the anxiety seemed to take over our lives almost completely, there was another one of those moments—a very small one—that changed my life completely. My husband, who will read anything sitting near him, was flipping through one of my knitting magazines. Out of nowhere, he looked up and said, “I like this sweater. Could you knit me this?”
I was taken completely off-guard. I love knitting, I always have. My husband supports my passion for fiber, but he had never asked me to make something for him before. I was so tickled at the request; of course, there was no question I would make the sweater for him. Even if it was the hardest, wildest sweater, I was going to knit it. Lucky for me, it was not an ugly sweater, but it was heavily cabled. At that point, I knew how to knit a cable, but I had never knitted a sweater covered in cables. The sweater was the beautiful Belfast Cardigan designed by the talented Irina Anikeeva. I immediately bought supplies and got to work.
It was slow going. I could only knit at night after the kids went to bed. The pattern was just complicated enough that I needed to focus on almost every stitch as I made it. With charts spread in front of me, I put on my knit face and got to work. Some nights I only finished one row—maybe not even that—and other nights I impressed myself with finishing almost an inch. With my little cable needle at the ready, I twisted and knitted, purled and held. As I knitted, each stitch seemed to carry away a little bit of my own stress. By the time I was established in my evening knitting groove, the only thing on my mind was the stitch on my needles. I now realize these sessions with my yarn brought me back to the living moment.
Without really being aware of what I was doing, I had introduced meditation into my daily routine. While knitting, there was no regret about what happened or what we might miss out on or worry about what was going to happen next; there was only a blissful focus on the now. I found that I was sleeping better, feeling better, and recognizing my own limitations and coming to terms with them. It also helped me see that not everything needed to be as it was, that changes in our family and how we did things were okay. That particular project, with the motivation of completing a sweater for my husband, acted like a pressure valve for my emotions; each night I was able to release the stress built up during the day and see the beauty grow in both my knitting and my life.
It was not always easy, even after I accidentally found a way to practice meditation through knitting. Just as sometimes you must rip back a few rows when knitting, there were days where we had to rip back a few things in our lives and try again. But as the Belfast Cardigan came to life, the twisting cables and delightful diamonds seemed to represent the progress my husband and I made in redefining a new normal for us in a positive way. When the sweater was finally finished, I saw so much of our struggle and pain in the stitches, but also the hope, perseverance, hard work, and dedication. It was like the cardigan held a secret documentation of our journey. It was such a special gift I was able to give. It also serves as a reminder—each time my husband slips his arms through the sleeves and I watch him head outdoors—that my knitting needles not only created the cardigan, they created a space for me to take care of myself.
Mental health issues are hard for people to talk about. There still seems to be a lot of social stigma around the words “mental illness,” and that is a true tragedy. Given that 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety in any given year, it is very likely you know someone who is directly impacted. Let us reach out to one another, showing kindness and understanding, knowing that people can be struggling with things we cannot readily see. And when we need to remind ourselves to cherish the living moment, let us create space to do so and lose ourselves in some meditative knitting.
Rachel Simmons is a knitter and writer based in Alabama. Header photo is courtesy of Getty Images.