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Why knitting is so important for my mental health

Knit, knit, purl, purl, knit, knit, purl, purl. Those repeated, rhythmic patterns quelled my rising heart rate and kept my hands from shaking. Counting every single stitch I constructed on the needle formed the perfect hole in my brain, one where the light shined through and managed to keep me sane.

In July 2013, I was drowning in the abyss of mental illness. Even after I left the hospital, a series of life events seemed to keep pulling me deeper into a dark tunnel, with no conceivable end in sight. I was always a nervous child, chewing on my fingernails, twirling my hair repeatedly, and struggling with trichotillomania before I even turned 10. As an adult, my habits quickly devolved into such incapacitating anxiety that I would lay in a dark room for days at a time, only leaving the house in sweatpants to feed myself — a portrait I’m sure many recognize.

wool in head
Katie Edwards/Getty Images

So, I decided to try a variety of things to manage my anxiety.

A few therapists, some meditation and deep breathing, changes to my diet, and even some experimental self-medicating to help me function more normally from week to week. Addiction runs rampant in my family, so taking prescription medication always seemed unappealing to me. Of course, for some, it works wonders; in fact, I have many friends and family whose lives have dramatically improved through a combination of medication and therapy to manage their particular ailments. It’s a deeply personal choice, one that each person is entitled to make for themselves.

A couple of bad years can add up quickly though, crushing even the best of mental health warriors. I was desperate to feel better, but nothing ever seemed to soothe the persistent gnawing at my mind.

Failed treatment method after failed treatment method left me feeling more frustrated than I had before ever stepping foot inside a therapist’s office.

For those of us suffering from mental ailments, it’s unbearably difficult to explain how it feels to be inside your brain for just one day. Some days, my mind is an endless loop, where I begin to worry about the outcome of a particular event or circumstance, break down all of the aspects about my worry, and then finally come to a perfectly logical, reasonable conclusion. However, when I should be hitting the end of that loop, bringing it to a screeching halt, I instead whiz right past the designated exit ramp, only to get caught on the loop once more. So, I tentatively went about my days, constantly feeling like a taut, frayed string that was about to snap at any moment.

Susanne Alfredsson / EyeEm via Getty Images

One day in early 2014, I stopped by a craft store.

I can’t remember what I needed, but something drew me over to the yarn section in a terribly lit corner of the shop. I had a couple of friends who were knitters in high school, and they taught me how to make a hat on a circular loom. I made one hat with it, and never returned to textiles again.

I lingered in the aisle, entranced by all the colors, sizes, and textures. I decided, in that moment, that I was going to teach myself how to knit. How hard could it be? I had the internet to assist me in the endeavor, and I was fairly confident that it only took one type of stitch to make a scarf. It had to be relatively straightforward, right? I quickly grabbed a big ball of cheap blue yarn and two knitting needles that seemed to be about the right size to help me achieve my goal.

As soon as I arrived home, I pulled out my freshly bought treats and set out to work. That first afternoon — and well into the evening — it took me over three hours to figure out how to even cast the yarn onto a needle and knit two full rows. I must have started and re-started a dozen times, mystified as to how to get the yarn to loop around the needle just so or get my stitches even and tight. My fingertips felt unbelievably raw and tender to the touch. But, I had successfully mastered a basic knit stitch.

More importantly, I spent those hours of my day dynamically engrossed in an activity — not fixated on how generally anxious I felt.

As psychologists would say, I was experiencing “flow” for the first time in years. I distinctly remember holding my purple needles up to the light, gleaming with pride at the skill I had just taught myself.

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