Heart to Heart: Reader's Story
We've been chatting to Sam from SJ Bastable Wood Craft & Design about his struggles with mental health and how crochet has helped his recovery.
Can you tell us a little bit about your experiences with mental health?
I've struggled with depression and anxiety throughout my life since my early teens, culminating in a breakdown about 5 years ago when my partner left me without warning or explanation. My mental health deteriorated rapidly to the point where even the simplest daily tasks were impossible. I locked myself away in my apartment, unable to cope with life. Not only did I lose my partner, I lost my job, my home and my friends. It was as if every part of 'me' had left and all that remained was a shell. My creativity and motivation disappeared completely. It's one of the most difficult and painful experiences I've ever had to deal with.
When did you first discover crochet helped you?
It was quite unexpected, really. My therapist at the time happened to find a leaflet for a local Mental Health Arts Centre, START in Salford, which helps people living with a wide range of conditions and disabilities to get some escape time and build social and creative skills. She referred me to the programme due to my interest in music, design and all sorts of other creative things.
I couldn't even speak to people back then, or make much eye contact. She took me along and sat with me for the first two hour session and tour of the facilities. It took a few months before I felt more comfortable and I eventually went to two sessions per week for 18 months. That was where I first got the idea to start crochet. It was a recommendation from another attendee and one of the tutors.
I went online, did a quick search on Facebook and found Crochet Beginners Group, run by (my now friend) Alexandra Crawford, a mental health nurse working in the NHS. She set up the group to share stories and support each other through tough times. I joined, got involved, started practicing stitches and eventually got asked to admin for the group. It's sort of soared from there. I still admin for the group whenever possible and we're now at well over 90k members worldwide. The group, has been a lifeline of support for me and I've really made some wonderful friends from it all.
Can you describe how crocheting helped with your anxiety and depression?
Difficult to put into words, really. It gives me a sense of calm. I can get lost in my own project if I want to, or (now that I'm a bit more experienced) I can make something great whilst watching TV or chatting to people.
It's an escape from the stresses of life, a social activity and a creative output that I can pick up and put down whenever I need to. That's one of the key things. It didn't have to be worked on constantly. There was no complex setup or clean-up to do it. You just pick it up and away you go. Perfect when you only get brief spells of motivation and struggle to focus on things for too long due to the many issues buzzing around your head.
Most importantly for me, it's helped me regain my creativity and motivation when I felt like they had disappeared forever. It was also the community aspect too. The people keep you going. They may live on the other side of the country or even the other side of the world, but we all come together through shared experiences and love for creative arts. We chat about our projects and our experiences, as well as helping each other confront our fears and resolve those troubling worries, or even just hear that we're not alone in all of this. That's sometimes all you need: A voice to tell you you're ok and help you through the lows.
You've now set up your own wood craft business, how did this come about?
The business grew out of being involved in crochet and the community on Crochet Beginners Group. I was slowly regaining creative thoughts and was enjoying art, crafts and music again, like I had before. My sense of self was returning and I've always loved making things. It was also a way of controlling my recovery. I've had some really bad experiences with employers over the years, most notably with the most recent one around the time of my breakdown. Every time I thought about going back into work, I had flashbacks to the horrible treatment I received disclosing my mental health and it wasn't something I was ready to face, nor should I have to. I did some thinking and planning and decided that if I was going back to work, it had to be on my terms. It was driving me crazy being stuck in four walls all the time. People always say "Oh I'd love to be able to have all that time off to do what I want" but they don't realise that mental health is like a job in itself: It's exhausting and draining. It doesn't allow you to do anything you want to do. Crochet was my only way off switching off from the constant buzz of self doubt, worry and rumination. It's been hard work. Setting up a business alone is a real struggle, but weighed up against the prospect of being forced into a job with the same stigma issues and constant battles to stay mentally stable, self employment was the only thing that made sense.
Do you feel more optimistic now about what the future has in store?
Yes and No, but mostly yes. It's a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I'm worlds away from the person I was five years ago and I'm really feeling like I'm on the right track at the moment, but I won't kid myself that it's going to be an easy ride.
I had my final group therapy session recently after 2 years of weekly appointments and it's been difficult to come to terms with the idea that this support network, however small, will no longer be there for me to air my worries and get advice. It's hard not to make connections with people in those situations, when you're presenting the darkest and most emotive parts of your inner self to each other on a weekly basis. I'll certainly miss a lot of them and will always be wondering how they're getting on, but I also feel like I'm ready to face the world again.
It's safe to say that getting help was the best thing I ever did. The business is going steady so far and despite a lot of challenges, I've managed to overcome them. I'll just be happy if I can maintain stability and keep a comfortable wage coming in. Whatever happens, at least I can say I tried and that's what matters. I'm doing something I love: What more could I ask for.
Finally, what advice would you give to readers who identify with your story and are looking for ways to help?
Now, there's a question. It's something that crops up in many a conversation with friends and family who are battling their own mental health issues. I don't think even I know the answer fully. You've just got to take things at your own pace. Know your limitations and try not to push yourself too much. We can all be our own worst critics, myself included! No matter how desolate and empty the future seems, there is always someone who is willing to step up and support you with whatever you're going through.
Never measure yourself against other people's progress, either: You're not them and they're not you. Talking helps a lot, however painful and awkward it might feel at first.
I hated it in the beginning, but now I realise the strong aversions I had to opening up were actually the things that were holding me back. These sorts of scars take a long time to heal, so don't expect over-night 'cures'. Focus on the things that really matter, things that give you respite, people that keep you calm. There's enough going on in life to deal with, without added pressure from outside sources. Don't be afraid to step back and give yourself room to breathe... Most importantly: Know that you're not alone.