There’s a bumper sticker that says, I knit so I don’t kill people. A more genteel way to put it is, I knit to stay sane. (For knitting, as always, you may substitute any craft you practice, particularly to mastery.)
I once attended a knit night at a yarn shop and asked if there was a connection between knitting and sanity or at least the act of imposing a rational order upon an incoherent mind, and a woman wearing a beautiful sweater (her work, of course), told me, “I think every one of us has a strong streak of the obsessive-compulsive.”
I don’t have obsessive-compulsive disorder, but I do have a streak of both obsessions and compulsions and I found myself deliberately using knitting to satisfy that streak. When I feel the need to do something over and over again, I pick up my knitting. When I feel my attention wandering from my writing, I pick up my knitting to refocus my mind. The necessity I feel to do things right, perfect, has led to me making garments that look right and fit me well. Something that could have been very damaging to me, especially during very difficult times, has now become a useful skill, a source of beauty and satisfaction.
I am not suggesting that dealing with mental illness is so easy, it’s not: when the organ that is causing the problems is also the organ responsible for resolving those problems, it can be horrendously difficult. People with OCD, for example, often recognize their behaviors and thoughts as irrational and are extremely distressed by them. That does not mean that they can control their obsessions and compulsions, much less expunge them.
Yet much therapy for mental illness involves sufferers learning to change and control their thoughts and emotions, to strengthen their intellects so that they can master the weird and self-destructive thoughts and emotions we all have. This is because most of what is called mental illness is not a genuine illness deeply rooted in brain chemistry and physiology, such as schizophrenia, for whom medication can be a lifeline. Psychoactive medication can also be extremely helpful in stabilizing a person’s emotions so that they can function—and even live. However, much of mental illness, particularly depression, is not an organic problem, per se. It is a problem of living.
The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 1 in 10 American adults suffers from depression, with a higher incidence of major depression in those who are
- persons 45-64 years of age
- blacks, Hispanics, non-Hispanic persons of other races or multiple races
- persons with less than a high school education
- those previously married
- individuals unable to work or unemployed
- persons without health insurance coverage
We may be sure that underrepresented in those suffering from major depression are people with a secure and stable life with interesting satisfying work that they know will not vanish when a corporate board somewhere decides that profits—to be swallowed up in the CEO’s salary—are more important than the human beings all profits depend upon. We may be sure that those underrepresented amongst those suffering from major depression are not those who experience racism and not those who experience sexual violence, for which they are also belittled and blamed. The suicides of people like James Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense—who was in fact emotionally shattered when President Truman asked for his resignation when it became clear that Forrestal was suffering severe depression caused by the operational fatigue known to be quite common during World War Two—are actually rather rare. Forrestal had the friends and the means to continue to lead a life of extraordinary accomplishment and satisfaction. He apparently lost a long-term battle with his demons and could no longer bear to live with them. This does not apply to the rise in suicide rates that does with recession and economic hardship, the suffering caused by austerity: these suicides are the refusal of human beings to live in the degradation that deemed their lot by the greedy and the cruel.
Freud famously described depression as anger turned inward and it is: the anger of being required to live far too small a life, the anger of feeling your society doesn’t need your energy, your talent, even your spending power, much less for you to live a complete life in which you contribute to your society. Depression is turning inward the absolutely justified anger of our society wanting us to be so much less than we could and should be. And depression is also shame for the state to which we have been reduced. And while there appears to be a strong genetic component to obsessive compulsion and OCD itself, these behaviors are also a horribly perverse, destructive twisting of the human need to control our lives.
Indeed, the misslabelling of tens of millions of Americans as mentally ill when their behavior is an absolutely reasonable response to the conditions under which we are forced to live is reminiscent of Soviet-era psychiatric abuse of dissidents. The singular difference is that dissidents were arrested and forcibly confined and forcibly drugged and otherwise tortured by the KGB. Of course, conditioning help upon ingestion of psychoactive drugs is coercive in itself, and some segments of society, most notably the military, use mental illness to stigmatize, marginalize and eliminate from professional and human consideration, those who are crime victims, particularly sex crime victims. Generally speaking, however, Americans are so unwilling to engage the socio-economic—which is to say the political—roots of much of what they are told is their private, personal mental illness that they accept these definitions. We have been told for so long that America is Number One, the freest and best place in the world to live, and any change in the status quo will put us on a fast track to Soviet-style economic totalitarianism that many of us, especially those terrified of losing what little they have, still believe it. While many more Americans are starting to realize this is a big, fat lie, many of us have lost our ability to create serious, alternative political movements and socio-economic standards: we comfort ourselves with drugs and alcohol, porn and learned helplessness.
Knitting—or any other craft practiced to mastery—is not a cure, per se, for America’s profound social and economic problems and the willful failure of our politics to create a workable future. Knitting, like other crafts practiced to mastery, is, however, a means to that end, just like psychoactive drugs when used appropriately under careful supervision, save people’s lives and help them function while they do the hard work of reasserting control over their own thoughts. It is a means to an end. However, knitting does something no psychoactive drug can do.
At the end of a project, you have something worthy of you. When you produce something beautiful, whether it is an intricate shawl or the simplest pullover, carefully fitted and finished, you are making a statement of your own worth. For the masters of the universe who currently rule us, virtually all of them sociopaths who cannot stop gorging themselves while others go hungry, their net worth is their money. And so they display it by buying and wearing things they do not have the slightest understanding of how to actually make: yachts and bespoke suits, watches whose movements are feats of aesthetic engineering.
For the knitter, too, to wear her work is also to display her net worth. Every well-executed, well-made garment or accessory represents intellect and perseverance and aesthetic sensibilities, as well as—often—the taming of demons in the service of creation.
As for all those who say, this thing is too beautiful for a hefalump like me to wear (a sentiment that is shockingly common), I can only say, Big Food wants you to be fat just as Big Pharma wants you to be drugged. It is time to apply your intellect and rationality, your sense of aesthetics and your discipline—all abundantly displayed in your work—to your body. You deserve to wear with pride your beautiful work, to display it appropriately.
This is not sufficient for a political movement, but being proud of our work, and the minds and bodies that created our work, is a necessary place to start. Until we conceive of ourselves as deserving a politics worthy of us, we cannot begin to create those politics.