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Sewing with depression (16 practical tricks and tips)

Look, we’ve all read about how activities such as sewing ease depression, right? Well that’s all delightful apart from one shrieking klaxon of a problem: no one ever tells us how to sew when we actually have depression. In fact, telling us to cross stitch when we can barely wash is like telling Boris Johnson to stop being a mop-headed mix of privilege, self-obsession and unencumbered twattery. It just doesn’t work. And if there was one thing I learned during my breakdown, it was how the reality of sewing with depression is waaaaay different to any other type of sewing. That’s why I’ve written this guide in time for World Suicide Prevention day on Sept 10. It won’t show you how to recreate Dior’s latest collection but it will make sewing feel more realistic than ridiculous.

Keep it fun

What I mean is, only create if it gives you teeny flickers of relief, hope or mental space. Don’t demand epiphanies and revelations while sewing with depression. Just try to feel a little less shitty than you did an hour ago. That might come from the potential of a project, a small feeling of achievement or a brief respite from the swirling thoughts. They’re all steps forward and what will keep you going on the days when it all feels – and excuse the technical term – as if a pig has shat in your head.

Accept mistakes

Or, don’t attach meaning to the screw-ups. During my depressions I thought I made mistakes because I was a bad person. A messed-up seam would lead to the urge to jump off a bridge. So, write on a piece of paper “mistakes are how I learn” and Sellotape it to your project. More than that, try to imagine ‘couldn’t master whip stitch’ being written on your death certificate. I mean, that’s no way to go, right?

Keep it close

One trick to sewing with depression is to always have your project easily to hand. If you pack it away after each sesh one of two things will happen: you’ll either never get it out, because that feels too overwhelming, or, you’ll forget what you’ve achieved and convince yourself that you’re a shitbag.

By leaving your work out on a table or the floor next to your fave seat you’ll be reminded to give it a go and it’ll involve minimum faffage.

Find pride

Christ, pride is hard to find when you are depressed. It IS there, though. The trick is in attaching it to new goals rather than the ones you had when you were well. Instead of being proud of, say, getting promotion be proud of buying a packet of needles or looking at thread colours on the t’web. Sewing with depression means recalibrating your expectations and appreciating them. Seriously, applaud yourself if all you’ve done is briefly imagine a future project while dozing in front Judge Rinder.

Make something ugly

I shit you not. Deliberate ugliness relieves the pressure of creating beauty, especially when you feel devoid of beauty yourself. So empty the recycling bin and randomly glue together the plastic and paper instead. Tip out a scrap bag and staple together what you find. Even better, do it while knowing that it’ll go in the bin when you’re done. It’ll help free up your creative mind and, at worst, will have distracted you from your wild thoughts from an hour.

Measure your progress

Find a jar, a bowl, a saucepan… anything, something in which you can store your achievements. Then, each time you make any move on your project write it on a scrap of paper and save it. On my bad days I’ll write notes that read, say, “looked at pins” and they are just as valid as the notes that read “finished a dress”. It means that when you’re convinced you’re useless you’ll have a tangible reminder that you’ve done something.

Work in stages

For me, sewing with depression means being overwhelmed at even threading a needle. The truth is, though, that the overwhelm is waaaaay worse than the reality. So Conjugal Kraken taught me this: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. When you feel terror at the start of a project tell yourself that you’ll only sew in ten minute stages, allowing yourself to abandon the project at any point. And you know what? You’ll rarely stop because that ten mins is enough to cut through the anxiety. And even if you DO stop, you’ve still done something. Win win, right?

Break down tasks

For the love of God, don’t look at the project in its entirety. It’ll send you even further over the edge. Instead, do what I do: break it down into basic tasks. I’ll chose a pattern on one day, open it on another day, cut out it out on yet another day and so on until, suddenly, I’m sewing with depression. Not only does this remove the overwhelm but it builds up the sense of hope and potential which can be boggling empowering.

Don’t finish

I learned this as a writer and I apply it to sewing with depression too: always leave your work unfinished because it’s easier to come back to. So, stop halfway through that line of stitching. It means that when sew again you won’t have the angst of not knowing where to start because it’ll be obvious. Even when well I never leave my embroidery without loading my needle and making the first stitch of the next part because it’s easier to pick up again.

Go online

The idea of leaving the house might make you feel as if you’re building a ladder to the moon. Get what you need online instead. Online haberdashers and fabric stores like this one are easy to use and you can buy dress patterns online as well as find thousands of free projects and templates. You can do it all from your bed if you want to and it doesn’t mean having a meltdown because you have to brush your hair (which I have done. Several times).

Don’t work in a vacuum

Remind yourself why you’re sewing with depression. It’s not because you want an ultra-professional looking quilt but it’s because you want to ease your mind. The point of this to make yourself feel better and the sewing is just a means of doing that. Seriously, if I were a plumber I’d be saying this about U-bends. So, if tacking stitches alone are what keep you cool then tack the shit out of a dishrag. You can keep the competitive stitching for when you are better, ‘kay?

Don’t do anything

Because there are days when lifting pins really is too much. You wouldn’t scream at a Tour de France cyclist for pulling out with a broken shoulder so don’t do the same to yourself when all your mind needs is sleep. As depressives we beat ourselves up when we do something (because it’s not perfect enough) yet beat ourselves up when we don’t do anything at all (because this means we’re useless). The result? We’re fucked. Well that idea can get in the sea, right?

Tell people

You have enough going on in your noggin without keeping this project secret. There’s a key to telling people though. Make sure they’ll praise you when you work on it yet won’t badger you to make progress. You need their support, not their pressure. It’s hard to tell the two apart sometimes but it’s a distinction that could stand between you and progress.

Never say ‘should’

Like, EV-ER. It’s a bastard word, formed in a broiling crucible from those well known chemical elements of Guilt, Finger Wagging and Arse-Bastard.

Savour potential

During recovery from my breakdown, I’d feel such excitement from just looking at fabric that this would get me out of bed for days afterwards. So try to find a project that has the same effect on you, however subtly. Don’t focus on following trends. The point of this is for you to make what YOU want, not what fashion dictates. Seriously, if you want to stitch a long, beige turd then stitch away.

Come to Kraken Kreations

The KK Facebook page is a hive of mental health support from some of the most inspirational and badass women you’ll ever know (as well as the very rare and brave male visitor). I’m happy to offer any advice for sewing with depression and even if you just want to lurk you’ll find something to keep you smiling and hanging on in there. See, that’s already one good thing that’s come from sewing with depression: meeting your new tribe. Now, write that on your paper, stick it in your jar and start stitching your recovery. The Kraken has decreed it!

Get help

I know what it’s like to have suicidal depression as well as PND and PTSD and have written about them extensively. I also know that getting help is part of recovery. See your GP or health visitor or check out online help like this and this and if you feel suicidal right now call this number for The Samaritans from any kind of phone: 116 123.