At my knit’s end: How knitting helped me control my anxiety

Off the Beat

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It all began in late August when I returned to UC Berkeley for my final year and realized that I hadn’t packed any scarves. And I’m a scarf person.

That first week was particularly cold in the East Bay, so I thought, “What the heck? If you want a scarf, make one.” A couple of days later, I began what would be my first big knitting project in years: a lace scarf worked in pink wool on U.S. size 9 needles. I never expected that my favorite childhood hobby would turn into a crucial component of my anxiety management.

I learned to knit the same year I learned to read. In kindergarten, a classmate’s mom held after-school crafting lessons on the outdoor lunch tables at my public elementary school. Immediately, I was hooked.

At first, I made amorphous spaghetti monsters riddled with holes that seemed to grow and shrink of their own volition. But, in time, I improved, embarking on a mission to make scarves for all of my stuffed animals I recall being especially proud of one for Godiva, a teddy bear that was permanently wearing what I thought were earmuffs but were actually headphones.

By high school, I was making socks, skirts and hats. At one point, I went through a phase when I knit stuffed animals, most notably a periwinkle stegosaurus I made while watching back-to-back episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Then, knitting was just a hobby. A fun, albeit labor-intensive way to give gifts with a personal flair.

I stopped knitting at a time when I also stopped doing a lot of things that I loved. High school wasn’t just a time for knitting dinosaurs — it was also when I experienced the onset of what would later be diagnosed as a severe anxiety disorder. Most people couldn’t tell, but behind closed doors, I was waging a silent war against myself.

As seasons tumbled into one another, I developed unhealthy coping mechanisms that ranged from biting my nails to more serious self-harm. During severe panic attacks, often in class, I would pinch and pick at my hands or dig my nails into my palms when I felt anxious.

Fast forward to syllabus week of my final fall semester at UC Berkeley. Back-to-school stress has historically left me with abused nails and mutilated cuticles, but by bringing my knitting into class, my hands were kept busy, and those bad habits were kept at bay. Knitting in lectures in between taking notes didn’t require any extra thought, and if anything, I was probably more engaged in class than usual (I didn’t check my phone once, not even for the time).

As I learned about the Framers’ constitutional intentions for presidential selection, I’d knit four, move the yarn forward, slip slip knit and knit two together. In the next class, when I learned about consumer society in the 1890s, I’d knit five, slip one, knit two together and pass the slipped stitch over. As the weeks went by, so too went three scarves and five hats.

I can’t count the number of times people asked me if I was in the knitting DeCal, and unwilling at the time to divulge the intimate details of my mental health to a stranger, unlike now, I would tell them I had, “Like, a lot of Hanukkah gifts to make,” or something.

And to be fair, I did give a lot of what I made away as holiday presents. But I kept some of it for myself. My projects were more than just pretty accessories or manifestations of my spare time — they were proof of my progress and tangible affirmations of my commitment to self-improvement.

My semester of constant knitting taught me a lot about myself (and a lot of new stitches), but most of all, it inspired me to look for more creative solutions to my everyday mental health issues.

Don’t get me wrong, knitting doesn’t serve as a substitute for therapy or medication for me, and a trip to Michaels is not a cure-all, no matter how soothing it might be. But for those who aren’t familiar with anxiety disorders or other mental health problems, they are often unpredictable, involuntary and seriously debilitating. So any solution, even a minor one, can feel like a victory.

In my case, one of the best ways to fight the chaos in my head was to try working with it. That creative approach to solving mental health problems could mean different things for everyone, whether it’s taking your hair straightener with you to class so you can be sure you turned it off, doing a silly dance every morning to get you out of bed, running laps while studying to stay focused or bringing your knitting to lectures to prevent anxious habits as I do.

Determined to start my final semester off on a good note, I started my most ambitious project to date last week: a top-down raglan sweater, with plans to make a variety of other items in class over the next few months.

I’m not sure what this semester will throw at me, but as long as I have my knitting in hand, I feel like I can make it through.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.