Who We Are: Brain Fog

This spring we asked, “How does coping with a traumatic brain injury or health-related brain fog affect your sewing?”, and boy did you have answers! We have already shared posts on “Coping with Acquired Brain Injury” and “Every Brain is Different“, and here is our third instalment.

A sewist from North Carolina in the USA says,

Multiple sclerosis affects any area of my life that involves concentration, memory (both long and short-term), multi-tasking and energy. These are some of the invisible symptoms of MS. Aside from issues with balance and coordination, I don’t have any visible symptoms, such as trouble walking. Sewing my own clothes is an activity I find hugely rewarding. I have always enjoyed activities that turn a mess into something organized (washing dishes and mowing grass). As an introvert, my batteries are recharged when I am alone in my sewing room.

Since my MS diagnosis, I find that I need complete quiet to lay out my pattern pieces, cut the fabric, read the directions, or pin pieces together. Otherwise, I make mistakes or feel very anxious. My ‘slow sewing’ is excessively slow. Though I sew every weekend, I average about one garment a month. I am too brain-tired after work to sew in the evenings during the week. I love to listen to podcasts in my sewing room, but I have to pause them when I need to think. My memory lets me down repeatedly; I can’t remember what patterns I own, what clothing items I already have, what is in my fabric stash (despite it being relatively small), or how to do various techniques. My most useful tool is my cell phone camera! I take pictures of my clothes, my patterns, my fabric, ideas for future makes, etc. It is a stand-in for my memory. The second-best tool is the bookmark feature in my internet browser. I save links for all sorts of helpful information.

Despite these issues, sewing is the perfect hobby for me. No matter how complex the pattern, essentially, I am only doing one thing at a time. Cut on this line. Sew this edge to that edge. Iron this seam open. Not like cooking, which requires an abundance of multi-tasking skills. The outcome is unique garments that will last for years.

A shot of a woman's face peeping up behind a pair of blue glasses. Perching on her head is a budgerigar.

Thandi says,

Fibromyalgia is a pain amplification disorder. Your brain misreads signals from your body and interprets them as pain signals. Things that aren’t supposed to be painful are, and things that are already painful are worse. There are many, many symptoms and not everyone will experience fibro in the same way, but the most common ones, apart from the chronic musculoskeletal pain, are extreme fatigue, ‘fibro fog’ or ‘brain fog’, and mood disorders. On an average day something hurts (probably a joint or three), I can’t stop sleeping, I don’t remember what I did an hour ago or how the washing machine works, and all of it makes me terribly anxious. I had to  give up my other crafts, crochet and embroidery, because of the pain that is caused by fine, repetitive motions.

But then I discovered sewing and it changed everything. I had a creative outlet that wasn’t only fibro-friendly, but it was therapeutic in ways I did not anticipate. There are certainly challenges involved in sewing with a pain disorder, but I have found some simple solutions to making the most of my sewing time:

  1. Use a rotary cutter and save your hands from heavy shears or the awkward open-close movement of using any scissors. But beware – fibro fog means taking extra care with those razor-sharp blades. I have the scars and the doctor’s bills to prove it.
  2. Getting a machine with a stop/start button means that on bad joint days you don’t have to use your pedal.
  3. Sew straight seams on foggy days or when the hand pain is bad. You don’t need to think about what you’re doing, you can just let the hum of your machine soothe you while still being productive.
  4. Have that big, complicated project cut, interfaced, and ready for the days when you’re feeling sharp. There is no point in trying to make a neat button up shirt or a coat when you keep calling the fridge a lawnmower and you put your shoes on the wrong feet (when this happens don’t forget to laugh, laughter is the best thing for fibro).
  5. Replace your seam rippers as often as possible. You are going to French seam something the wrong way around or put a sleeve in inside out, so make sure you have a sharp unpicker to avoid even more frustration. And remember: you don’t need to have cognitive defects or chronic exhaustion to mess up a finish or cut something out in the wrong direction. Everyone makes mistakes when they sew, so don’t beat your mushy brain up about it.

Sewing is one of the few activities that gives me purpose and focus on hard days. I can sew for my body’s needs (elastic waists forever), hack patterns to make more comfortable clothes, choose natural fibres so that it’s easier to regulate my body temperature (it has a mind of its own), and feel productive and able when everything else makes me feel tired and weak. Contrary to the slogans on stickers, sewing is not therapy, but it is therapeutic. I have created a loving relationship with my body by making clothing that fits and by learning to love the body I have rather than constantly wishing I had a different one. I stay on top of my disorder with medication to control the mood disorders that trigger my fibro, support from my family, and my beautiful Elna.

I’m a curvy sewist grad student living in South Africa with my husband and our five birds. You can find me, and my birds, on Instagram at @thandiwh.

Isn’t it fascinating to walk a mile (or at least a step) in someone else’s shoes? When we started the Who We Are series two years ago, I thought I knew what kind of responses we would get… but it turns out that how we think, sew, and experience the sewing community is more diverse than I ever realised. Thank you to everyone who has shared their experiences here and in our other posts. Please share your own experiences below!