Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent a good amount of time reflecting on the Sewing For Self-Care: Your Story series. I didn’t have may goals when I created the first call for posts. I had seen and experienced the gap that exists in conversations about sewing and its relationship to mental health, and I hoped that creating this forum for discussion would go some way towards filling that hole. Although we use the term ‘self-care’ often and with increasing fervor, I found that it was being used increasingly to escape the need for real, honest discussions about mental illness. The sincerity and openness of the bloggers who have participated in the series has gone a long way – I believe – in redirecting the conversation to one that confronts very real and truly multidimensional experiences.
Something I didn’t foresee in starting the series, however, was the amount of learning I would do. Reading the posts submitted to me has opened my eyes to a world of stories that I wouldn’t otherwise have encountered. The fact that these stories are in the words of the people living them just adds to the power of the education we’re all undergoing as readers. Today’s post – written by Elena from Vintage Sewing Machines Blog – is a testament to the educational power of people choosing to tell their stories with courage and openness. Her experiences with bipolar and her use of sewing to establish a sense of “normality” is enlightening, to say the least. I have learnt an incredible amount from my personal exchanges with Elena, as well as from the truly amazing story that she’s written for us today.
With that, I’ll stop hijacking the post and will hand over to Elena…
*If you would like to contribute your own story to the Sewing For Self-Care: Your Story series, details can be found at the end of this post.*
I’ve been thinking a while about Laura’s call for stories on sewing for self-care. It’s a personal subject – how do I even begin to tell it?
I have a long story – a life long one, in fact, having been born with an active bipolar disorder. I am 48, but it is only in recent years that some form of medication became available for my particular variant, and even that does not remove the symptoms but only softens them. Thank Goodness for that though! I am not complaining – last 6 years were bliss. 🙂
So, without any help, pharmaceutical or from a therapist, I had to find my own ways of dealing with life. I’ve worked all my life, I still do. Work full time, and for twenty years also studied in the evenings. So the effects of bipolar disorder had to be managed, yes, but mostly hidden from everyone else – appearances must be normal, or anyhow close to normal, since no one wants to have a colleague with mental health issues. It is only in recent years that the stigma started lifting a little, but only just. If you want to lead a normal life without everyone treating you as if you were “fragile”, mental illness has to be hidden. I figured it out at the age of five – not the bit about mental illness of course, but the bit about hiding what you feel. You learn the rules of social behaviour and then you act accordingly. No one needs to know what you feel inside.
A very good psychiatrist told me a long time ago: “I don’t have a medicine to give you. You have an artistic personality and you need to learn to live with it. Do artistic things – that helps.”
So, all of you bipolar people: we have artistic personalities! Huzzah! 😀
I’ve been doing all things textile since before I can remember 🙂 so following the doctor’s advice wasn’t hard. But sewing only started to have an impact on my bipolar when I consciously included it into my daily routine as a mandatory activity. It pushes back the waves, creating islands of time shielded from the roaring ocean of conflicting emotions – my everyday “normality”.
So yes, to me sewing is vital.
Mania is not euphoria
In a nutshell, bipolar disorder makes your general emotional state swing between periods of depression and mania. It is the background mood – you still get the usual emotions on top of it. The length of each period is roughly the same, so your life goes through regular phases, for some people it’s 3-4 months each, for others it’s only days, and sometimes it can be as long as several years.
Depressive phases are easy to understand – you feel sad and everything looks worse than it is, this is very similar to a regular depression. Manic phases are more complicated, and usually far from pleasant. You don’t get elevated moods – the dominant emotions are anger, irritation and frustration, not euphoria, as many people think. So you’re generally swinging between depression and aggression…
My phases are short – just a week each, so at least I always know that no matter how bad it is, it will be all over within a week. 🙂 Always look for the silver lining. :-))
When mania is really bad, I can only sleep 3-4 hours a day (or not at all when I was younger), so you’d think there is a lot of time but you are so conflicted that you don’t get anything accomplished unless you get organised. But you can’t get organised because your thoughts are racing and jumping all over the place, so you yourself literally start racing around the room… The only solution is to have a plan prepared and waiting, such as needing to clean 5 bathrooms, make 25 identical T-shirts or wind 30 balls of wool. 🙂 Not too involved – your brain is in overdrive. (NOT to write another chapter for your PhD thesis – bad, bad idea!!) This frantic work slows you down, and there comes your chance to do some creative work and make new plans, both for depressions and manias. This is when you get very out-of-the-box ideas – very creative. Not always wise, but creative.
During a depression you can’t think straight because your brain is too slow. So you need a plan to follow, such as drafting a difficult pattern or sewing that said pattern using some slippery satin or something. A real challenge. It must be tactile to bind you with reality – it is incredibly easy to slip into a dream world – after all, any reality is only in your perception, it is always subjective. But, as someone said, if the dragon is still blazing fire after you’ve woken up, call the Fire Brigade because it’s the real one (probably your cooker). So, doing complex tactile things helps to separate real dragons from imaginary ones and stimulates the brain and winds it up a bit, so you become functional again which automatically improves your mood. Win-win. 🙂
And what about sewing?
I don’t just sew for the sake of doing it – the process is extremely important but it must lead to a good result. Or at least it must serve as a lesson so that the next attempt would yield a good result. A good result being a garment that feels nice, fits me perfectly and looks a treat – all three aspects are equally important.
I sew clothes because I like my clothes to fit and be comfortable – not too hot and not too cold, so made of natural materials, and unfortunately such things are not being stocked at our stores. (Someone said that our cotton fields got contaminated with polyestritis – it certainly looks that way in the shops!) So I make my own.
Wearing well-fitting clothes that suit the weather, your mood and the occasion gives you an instant boost of confidence which is very important when your emotional state is a bit shaky – and you don’t need to have bipolar to know it! (And wearing polyester that makes you all clammy and sweaty with the corresponding aroma does the opposite.)
I started making my own clothes back in school, learning from my mum – she used to copy patterns from magazines. They fitted well enough – they fitted my mother far better than they fitted me though! I got so fed up with endless fittings and alterations during sewing that I went to college and took on a complete professional training in bespoke pattern cutting and tailoring with couture techniques. No more alterations! 😀
Those three years, and getting my tailor’s diploma in the end, was the most empowering experience of my life! I possess an essential life skill – making clothes – and with it I shall survive anywhere, endure anything – even a Marsian invasion (and won’t they need clothes too?). 😉
Every garment I make, for myself or for others, I make to the best of my ability, and still every time I learn something new. Sewing has endless variations of fabrics and patterns, colours and textures, finishing techniques, embellishing, embroidery, knitting and crochet too – and I am not sewing for theatre, this is all for every day! I like to sew everyday clothes and make them less everyday.
The more reason to have calming grounding tactile textiles to sew and knit every day!
Thank you so much to Elena for writing such an insightful and thought-provoking post! It truly is a testament to the incredible impact of sewing and creative outlets on our mental health. Be sure to check out her blog – Vintage Sewing Machines Blog – for more amazing content!
If you are interested in contributing a post to Sewing For Self-Care: Your Story, please get in touch! You can email me – firstname.lastname@example.org – or contact me via any of the social media outlets linked in the side bar. If you would like to see more information about the series, be sure to check out my original introduction post!