My introduction to machine sewing began at age 9, sitting at the kitchen table with my mom. Before I attempted sewing on my own, I regularly watched my mother sew. I became mesmerized by the rhythmic motion of of the needle and the deft movements of my mother’s capable hands. These happy memories are precious to me because they represent the rare moments when my mother was calm and patient with me. She truly seemed to be enjoying my company as her student. Despite being very ill with bipolar disorder throughout my childhood and early adulthood, she was always able to teach — both at the school where she was employed and at home with me at the sewing machine.
Like many diseases that are poorly understood, bipolar disorder affects different people differently. My mother expressed rage, sometimes violent — and always directed at me. She was suspicious of my motives, even as a child; inappropriate with personal information; and often tried to turn me against people I loved. She could also be deeply sad or depressed. Many were the days I found her “resting her eyes” on the couch, or crying unexpectedly. It is no small thing that she and I could play and learn together around sewing projects, fabric shopping, and discussing the attributes of various patterns. I could enjoy my mother’s attention then, and I relished in it.
As I grew older, I began to show signs of bipolar disorder, although I did not recognize it in myself. I had boundless creative energy, needing little sleep or food, and was sewing every spare moment of the day. I was ambitious and extroverted, sewing for everybody who asked and staging elaborate fashion shows featuring my work. After several active weeks or months I then cycled the other way, crying uncontrollably at the slightest provocation and trying to combat inappropriate anger and resentment. After years of these alternately enjoyable and unbearable cycles I have finally found some relief, working with a team of mental health experts and daily medication.
Throughout it all there has been sewing. Research shows that sewing lowers the heart rate and is a calming influence for anxiety. I find that to be absolutely true. At my machine, I am truly present. My tendency to drift off into my thoughts is replaced with intense concentration, a respite from a restless brain. Lately, I have unexpectedly benefited from the supportive sewing community I am part of on Instagram. Living with mental illness often means hiding. Trying to hide a mental illness from the world — friends, coworkers and family — is to experience a kind of isolation that can have a devastating negative effect on a person with a mental illness. When I “outed” myself as having bipolar disorder in an Instagram post (and subsequent posts) I finally experienced a belonging and freedom that I have craved for a long time. I have received so many positive responses from a variety of sewers, some with a mental illness and many who have relationships with someone who has a mental illness. When I publicly discuss my experience with bipolar disorder, these sewers and followers provide a healing medicine in the form of comments and likes, and I take it willingly.
Cris Wood teaches beginning machine sewing to children and adults, working with absolute beginners and more experienced sewers. Cris aims to encourage creativity while developing a practical skill that will last a lifetime. She can be scheduled through her website at Chris Wood and you can follow her own creative journey on Instagram at @criswoodsews.
I’m so glad to hear that the sewing community has been open and supportive! It seems like there has been such a huge change is hope knowledgable and open the general public is about mental health, and that can only be a good thing! You wrote beautifully and clearly about your experiences – thank you for sharing!
(Apologies, too – yesterday we accidentally had this post set not to allow comments, so we are sorry for anyone who wanted to reply to Cris!)
I am so glad you have found treatment that helps you. I have severe unipolar depression (ie. the lows without the highs) and it took eight years of trying to find a combination of meds that worked for me. The first time I tried to sew something after that, I was astounded at how easy it was! You rationally know that you’re ill and that it makes things difficult, but when it’s not something that is visible or measurable it’s so easy to underestimate the impact. And if we underestimate the impact on ourselves then what chance do other people have of ‘getting it’?!
We do have a looong way to go in our understanding of mental illness, both scientifically and socially, but I am so grateful for the progress that has already been made. The more we talk about it and the more we normalise it now, the better chance we give to future generations, so I applaud your ability to step forward and write this post <3
As someone who is a big fan of your IG, I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks so much for sharing x
Well, here’s another “me too” comment: Not only do I have a mental illness, several of my acquaintances – coworkers, friends and family – have them as well. Honestly, humans have mental illnesses to about the same degree as they have physical illnesses. That is, nearly everyone suffers some form of mental illness some of the time, whether they care to admit it or not. Unfortunately, some people suffer chronic illness which is not so much cured as managed. When we’re talking about rheumatoid arthritis, no one blames the sufferer. When we talk about depression, bipolar disorder or other long lasting mental conditions, society is less understanding overall. Still, I think society is changing, and I’m encouraged that the response from the sewing community to your sharing has been so positive. Thanks for being beprave and speaking your truth.
Cris, thank you for sharing your story. Personally I really appreciate reading about topics like living with mental illness to try and gain some perspective – as its something that isn’t obvious it is easy to overlook, for example in situations like working with colleagues who seem not themselves for an extended period of time. Its great to hear that you found treatment that works for you, and what a wonderful thing to do to teach the next generation how to sew!
Thank you for sharing your story with all of us. Like with many illnesses that are “unseen” like diabetes, for example, people can hide in plain sight and go unnoticed or cared about. I am speaking from personal experience. But, have a cast on, or use a walker all of a sudden and that causes awareness. One thing I have learned over a lifetime of coping with many illnesses is compassion can overcome any discomfort. Kindness can change someones day. And consistency is a game changer. I love how you said, “there was always sewing”. Our words, actions and best does matter. On any given day, if we just try to do that, our life is so much better! <3
Thanks for sharing! I have bipolar I but diagnosed much later in life. I’m getting back into sewing again but have to be mindful of my rhythm–how much time to spend, etc. I remember being manic, spending 16+ hours sewing and driving my family around the bend. I enjoy it more now.
Hi Cris thank you for sharing your story. I too was diagnosed with Bipolar 1. I left my job and my husband and I downsized our house so I would not have to work any more as I struggled with the illness. I felt lost without work. It took me some time to overcome the anxiety and joined a beginners quilt making class as I liked sewing. I have been part of a sit and sew group ever since about 3 years now. I have felt sewing has been a great healer in the aspect of socialising with other sewers and learning how to make different household items. When I was first diagnosed I thought I would never be able to do anything. I am now really well and feel excited about what lies ahead. I taught my daughter to sew and she loves it and I gave her my sewing machine and upgraded myself. You are doing a wonderful thing teaching sewing. It is a great skill. I have been sewing for Days For Girls charity as part of a group and love the social interaction and sewing for others. Anyway just wanted to say that it is great to hear how others find sewing has helped with mental illness.
Mental illness are poorly understood. Thank you for sharing & Keep going!!!! You are brave 😌