The best way I’ve found to fight my anxiety is with a pair of knitting needles.
When I decided this past summer to move into my own apartment after years of living with roommates, my anxiety took over completely.
“Idiot,” it hissed after I signed a lease on a beautiful little place in a not-quite-nice area. “How the fuck do you think you’re ready for this? You can’t afford it, it’s not safe, you’ll regret it, you chose wrong.” Really, what it translated to was this: I hated not knowing the future, not being able to chart the edges of my life and promise myself it would all be OK. One day, shortly before I moved, I stayed home from work because I had such a strong panic attack that I threw up mucus all over my sheets. I put the sheets in the bathtub, called my mom, and then, in order to stave off another wave of nausea, began knitting a mustard-yellow sweater.
My knitting predates my anxiety by about a decade. I learned when I was 6, making washcloths and coasters and doll blankets (which are actually all pretty much the same thing) and years later moving on to lace cardigans, Mad Men-style dresses, and a lifetime supply of mismatched mittens. Those began in 2008, the summer after high school, and the only time in my semi-adult life I’ve been truly unemployed and truly depressed. I was competing for part-time jobs at Victoria’s Secret and Sephora against people who had degrees in fashion merchandising. I felt formless and invisible, so I spent those three months waiting for my high school boyfriend to get out of his lifeguarding job. I would then pick fights with him and stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning watching cartoons alone on my ancient laptop. And even though I was over the moon about college, which I’d be starting in upstate New York in the fall, the present muck of it all made me feel nothing if not useless. I had nothing concrete to point at to prove that I was doing OK; I was claustrophobic and tense, all of a sudden scared of driving and blindingly angry (at the world but mostly at myself) that nobody wanted to give me a job, that nobody seemed to be able to see me.
About a month into this listless, lightless summer, I pulled out my knitting needles. I’d never really gotten past that first washcloth-shaped phase, occasionally making things that kind of looked like hats or sweaters but not quite a garment anyone would actually wear. I couldn’t read patterns and that alone felt like it walled me out from all the knowledge and inspiration floating around on the internet, among people much more skilled than me who knew how to speak that secret language.
Knitting, then, became my task. During one of those nights of cartoons I started to pore over books and YouTube videos, figuring out what it meant to seam a shoulder or turn a heel. I knitted my first real sweater, a bright-yellow cropped cardigan I don’t think I’ve ever worn, in a blurred week of near-insomnia. It didn’t matter that the sleeves were too bulky or that the buttonholes didn’t line up — here was something that was 100% mine, that seven days prior had been nothing but a pile of exceedingly raw materials. Nobody had asked me to knit or had given me permission; I just did it, and that power was enough to propel me into a summer of unbridled, fibery productivity. I could, in some small way, stop waiting to be chosen.
Still, over the last few years, my anxiety has expanded and mutated. It gorges itself on mistakes I make at work and feasts on fights with the people I love, anything that makes it look like the happiness I’ve harvested could all of a sudden disappear. My good, logical self tries to wrestle the twisted and bloated version or at least make it listen to reason: You will not be fired, he will not leave you, that had nothing to do with you so please slow your heartbeat. More often than not, these arguments don’t work.
But making things dims the roar. The rhythm of stitches, the steadiness and the solidity of the ever-growing project — these are REAL, the antidote to the made-up apocalyptic extrapolation that is my anxiety’s bread and butter. What’s more, they’re under your control, progressing at exactly the rate and (sometimes) in exactly the manner you choose. Crafting is a lot like sex or yoga, how it shrinks your immediate world down to this cozy, manageable size where all you have to focus on is what’s right in front of you; unlike sex, at the end you get a new pair of socks or a coaster. I can graph my life by the pile of finished (and not-so-finished) knitting projects nestled in the back of my wardrobe: a chunky lace shawl from my first summer interning in New York, a pair of leg warmers from a winter break spent worrying over a test I’d kind of sort of cheated on, a single slipper for an ex (the relationship ended before I could make the second one). They’re all imbued with a certain energy from the period I spent working on them, and that helps me trace how far I’ve come and how far I have left to go. They anchor me.
The moment you know you are a real knitter, for good and for keeps, is when you fix your first mistake. Before that you are a little helpless, seeking out the aid of teachers and internet walk-throughs to take you back to the place before you made the hole, quadrupled the stitches, yanked out the needle. That first summer I learned how to read my knitting, to know which loop had to be repaired in order to create the next one. It’s good practice for what I try to do every day in my non-knitting life, with my therapist and with my family and with myself: Trace the troubles back to their source so I can better know how to fix them. So often my defensiveness or my irrationality spring from that fear of not knowing what’s next, of not being in control of a given situation; so often a gaping hole in a sleeve just needs a little tug a few stitches back.
When I moved into the new apartment, one of the very first things I did was unpack my yarn. It’s arranged in rainbow-ish order on a bookshelf across from my bed, and so when I wake up in the morning it’s often the first thing I see. I like having all those colors around, all that squishy, toasty goodness, but more than that I like the potential of it. What will you be? I wonder of a large pile of marled green wool, three balls of unbleached cotton, a tiny skein of silk picked up at a festival near the college I’ve since graduated. The not knowing isn’t actually so bad. In fact, it could be the best part.