Knitting my way to normalcy


photo by Jessica Wilder

2X2 ribbing on a hat that coincides with the stress of scholarship applications

My anxiety has this habit of creeping up on me; it’s like a stubborn child that doesn’t ever want to let go of a piggyback ride, so the arms just get tighter around my neck, and my throat starts to constrict. Sometimes I will go through periods where this demon will remain dormant for a little bit, letting me live life without the ball and chain dragging me down. Then, it will come back and perch itself up on my shoulder and whisper in my ear all the things that could go wrong with any situation.

“You’ll stutter like you always do, and people will think you’re weird.”

“You’re only in line for a refill? Everyone else behind you needs to order, guess who looks like the biggest jerk in the room.”

“You need to call for an appointment? Make sure you have your stupid script with you because we both know something will come up that you weren’t prepared for.”

“Someone asked for your opinion? Keep your trap shut, your response will just force everyone to judge what comes out of your mouth, and it doesn’t matter anyway.”

I wish I could say that most of the time I don’t believe this invisible being when it talks trash to me. It has this alluring way of convincing me that it’s right, that I am someone who should just remain invisible except for the dreaded spotlight that it puts on me when I am in a certain situation. I can barely remember the days when anxiety didn’t dictate my life. According to my mom, I was the cutest little girl who was the definition of a social butterfly. We lived in Texas and there was no such thing as Publix in that area; the Tom Thumb was where everyone did their shopping. It was such an outing for me to be a “big girl” and take my mom’s hand while we walked through the sliding doors to get weekly groceries. Mom would place me up in the little child seat and weave up and down the aisles. I don’t remember this, but apparently when we would go into the produce corner I would point out the big tomatoes and cucumbers and say, “Look, Mommy, it’s Bob and Larry!” I was just the little girl with my hair pulled up in a whale spout on the top of my head pointing at vegetables and telling everyone that passed by, “Hi, my name’s Jessica. What’s yours?” I would make small talk with the lady looking at my favorite foods, selling her on the idea of putting it in her cart. Mom would just look on with a huge smile and laugh along with everyone else at the fact that this little girl didn’t have a care in the world. She didn’t hesitate to talk to anyone, always found an excuse to flash a grin to show off her teeth. She didn’t care what people thought of her because being a little kid, even the most embarrassing thing can look cute. Now, I am quiet in the store. I avoid eye contact with everyone but if I happen to lock a gaze, I try my best to make a smile come out. I have to mentally prepare myself for the entire process from walking in to walking out and everything in between. I would probably be described in my classes as a quiet girl who never talks unless if a friend of hers is in the room; she gets her work done and everything all without a peep. Though, my journalism and teaching classes would probably disagree completely since they can’t seem to get me to hush up.

Being a senior in high school, I’ve danced with my anxiety for almost five years now, the problem beginning the summer before freshman year. It’s a lot harder to deal with my anxiety this year because of the huge “to-do” list that is always hypothetically handed out on the first day of school for seniors. Bombarded with all of these goals like maybe taking the SAT or ACT again for a better score, getting into college, a last chance to get your GPA up, scholarship applications, figuring out housing, graduation plans, etc. Such an extensive list makes my brain hurt and my anxiety take the reins, and the worst part is that I don’t really do a lot to stop it.

“You need to figure all of this out, missy. How could you possibly be ready for this?” it is perched on my shoulder while I look at housing plans for Kennesaw State. The loose translation is: “we both know you are scared about the future because it’s new territory that you aren’t comfortable with.”

“Oh, don’t you worry. I will be coming right along with you. Did you honestly think you could leave me in the dust?”

One thing my anxiety doesn’t know is that my knitting waltz has swept me away since I was ten. I am forever grateful for my grandmother and I being bored one day while she was visiting. We were just sick of watching golf on TV so we decided to go to Michael’s and pick up a new set of knitting needles and this mustard yellow skein of yarn. Of course, the first project that any novice knitter tries first is a potholder, scarf, or baby blanket. Basically anything that is a square because getting too fancy with it on the first try might just end in tears. I made this scarf, no fringe, too wide for my neck and extremely short with mistakes all through out. Spoiler alert, I still have it under my bed in my knitting basket, neatly folded and beautifully twisted with random holes.

The sad thing is, after I finished that little scarf, I kept my knitting needles hostage in my knitting basket. I figured it was something that I couldn’t exactly do on the regular because I had no money for yarn and no ideas. This was before my brain had its meltdown and decided that worrying about what others think of me should push out my knowledge of how to do a garter or purl stitch. Everything that my grandma had taught me had been evicted and replaced with sweaty palms, red cheeks, and the harsh demon perched on my shoulder. I’m almost ashamed to say that I never really made the effort to try to get back into knitting until I got to high school, even when I hit some sort of anxiety trough in sophomore year where I didn’t even want to leave my house sometimes. My knitting needles were still waiting patiently, hiding underneath my first scarf, and I still didn’t go to them for relief.

Junior year was tough. I had way too many anxiety episodes than I would care to admit. I started feeling the pressure of the being perched on my shoulder or choking my neck with a long piggy back ride. Every day I would go to school and feel like there was a constant spotlight on me, like everything I was doing was being carefully watched. It was like walking on eggshells, except I knew they would all break under my feet. It was my first year taking AP courses and I wasn’t doing as well as I had hoped. The high standards I set for myself just crumbled to pieces, I felt like such a failure in those classes. I was surrounded by people who, I thought, were much smarter than me and kept thinking that they must believe I am just some random girl who waved into the hardest courses for kicks and giggles. I would keep praying that those teachers wouldn’t call on me to answer anything because the classmates I had would see my stuttering and stumbling over practical English to a question that made no sense to me. I felt small and stupid, inferior to those around me who seemed to know everything about what it took to write an AP Lang essay or what the heck a DBQ meant in AP US History. I didn’t feel like the girl I wanted to be, only a mere shell or a mouse afraid of its own shadow. What I was giving out to other people was not how I wanted them to see me but I couldn’t figure out a way to reign in the anxiety and let my true, uncaged personality come through.

That was when I finally took up refuge in my knitting needles once again. I Googled so many tutorials to remind me exactly how to long tail cast on, how to purl, garter, seed stitch, the basics. I came up with my own pattern for a blanket; cast on 168 stitches, do seed stitch for the border, go up about three inches and then garter for the body continuing with the seed for the border all the way around. What I started noticing was that my problem was that I felt like I wasn’t making progress in my, what I call, “non-knitting” life. Knitting was my way of blocking out the rest of the world because I was doing something that I could take one stitch at a time. While looking at the whole pattern might be overwhelming, it can be broken down because all one has to do is just follow instructions. It was my way of unwinding at the end of the day because the knitting angel would welcome me with open arms, shooing away the anxiety demon on my shoulder for a while. For the first time in a long time it felt like I could do something freely, no matter what situation I was in I could pull out my knitting needles and have my world be muted with the sound of aluminum needles looping and weaving yarn.

This year put my knitting angel to the test; it had to figure out a way to battle a new kind of mental breakdown. All of the questions running through my head for a mental “senior checklist” became overwhelming. Everyone asking me the same textbook questions over and over, making me feel like I had to have my whole life figured out because god forbid if someone asked me where I want to go to school or what I want to major in and I said, “I don’t know”. My knitting needles have never been so fierce in making projects before. Now they are the first things I pull out when I get stressed or anxious. My little knitting angel calms my episodes when it reminds me how far my project has come or how the sound of my yarn ball in my knitting basket is a strange comfort, an antidote to the toxic worries circling my head on a constant loop like that special effect in A Beautiful Mind. My knitting needles and the projects I have conquered are real; a record of my progress not only in knitting, but in anxiety. I could show anyone a knitting project and each row has a different story to tell. Maybe that cast on row was after I had a mental scream when the waiter got my order wrong but I was the one too embarrassed to correct him. The fringe on that Harry Potter house scarf was right before a big presentation and I sat on my bedroom floor for 45 minutes with a crochet hook, weaving ends in and out, and it made my back stiff and sore but my mind felt the pressure being slowly lifted. That moment that I complete a project, I am able to look at what I have created and am immediately reminded of the knitting angel’s encouragement. That project that I can physically hold in my hands, show to other people, make up a pattern for, it all leads back to letting my ball and chain go and putting the yarn ball and needles on my anxiety.

I try to not let the fear of the unknown scare me, because that’s what anxiety is. I concentrate so much on the negative outcomes that I sometimes forget something positive can happen from it. So, when that positive thing happens, I tend to get a shock value from it. Almost like an English teacher who makes a grammar mistake even though they claim to be a grammar expert. With my knitting needles, I have accepted and even embraced the idea of the unknown in my future. It’s easier for me now to deal with episodes, I don’t beat myself up about them anymore. I used to believe that if I had an episode that I was taking forty steps back, maybe even moving in the negatives when it comes to progress. Now, I deal with them as they come, knowing that there will be some amazing days where I can get up, go through a drive thru with no hesitation or tell someone what I am really thinking without worrying about any sort of outcome. As long as I have my anxiety weapons in my fingers and a ball of yarn in my lap, I can tame my anxiety one stitch at a time.