Who We Are: Sewing with a Mental Illness

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.