Nessa is a woman in her thirties who started dealing with depression in high school. She later learned that the depression was linked to Multiple Sclerosis. Although she’s been dealing with the problem for over fifteen years, it can flare up again at any time. For example, she recently tried a new MS treatment that had disastrous mental health consequences. Crochet played an instrumental role in helping her to cope with what was otherwise a very traumatic health experience.
Nessa shares her story here in her own words:
“My journey with depression began in 1992 when I was 16 years old and in high school in the U.S. I believe now, almost 20 years later, that this was my first symptom and sign that in a few years I was to develop Multiple Sclerosis. MS is a neurological condition that causes the body’s immune system to attack its own nervous system leaving it scarred and causing progressive disability. Depression in MS is now recognized as not only a reaction to being diagnosed with a chronic condition, but as a direct symptom of the condition, a result of various changes and damage to one’s brain and nervous system.
Not knowing the damage that my own body was physically wracking on my brain, no medical advice was sought. I was not diagnosed as having depression by a medical professional until I was 21, so I went unsupported by counselors or medication and knew that I would have to find my own ways to cope with life. My personal interests as a musician were often more a source of feelings of failure to me than a useful tool for combating the depression that was making life so difficult. I moved my University studies from America to the UK in an attempt to change something in my life that might alter the downward spiral I felt I was on. I decided to remain abroad and the UK is still my home today.
In 1996, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis after several attacks of severe symptoms and the revealing of clear clinical evidence on my MRI brain scan. My medical diagnosis of depression came in 1997 and with these two diagnoses I began on my long and difficult journey of self-discovery, recovery and a continuous rewriting of my life along with the ebb and flow of each condition. Finding the best way to live at every stage of this journey has had to be a proactive process of trial and error and of self-discovery and self-understanding.
My experience of depression has decided and dictated the way that I have lived my life over the past 20 years and in ways I would not have chosen for myself. Depression and MS have been so intertwined at times that it has become difficult to understand whether one is affecting me or the other. Both have created hurdles and setbacks, and the cycle of setback to failure to depression to setback to failure, and so on, has been nearly impossible to break free from. Depression breathes lies to the person who possesses it, holding them back and telling them that they cannot do things and that they are worthless. Learning that these are lies, regardless of the feeling of their truth, and learning how to counter the lies over the years has, in a way, metaphorically led me home. The people who had never lied to me were my family. Of course, they had made mistakes, but they had never lied to me, unlike my own brain and body. What was important to them? What got them through the trials they had known? And there had been many trials.
This journey of self-discovery has led me, emotionally if not physically, back to my roots and my family many times. Being separated by 4,000 miles and by the death of many who were instrumental in influencing me in my childhood has, I believe, strengthened my connection to the skills and crafts that were often the backbone of the identities of so many women, not only in my own family, but of the women who represented the character and feeling of the entire Place that made me “Me”. Sewing, quilting, and crochet were an American way of life and surrounded me when I was growing up and had seeped into my own character and make up. My mother’s sewing table was home to me. I had no idea how to use it myself, but I could rely on it being there, along with my mother, and her needles, thread, fabrics and yarn.
When I was young, I didn’t like the look of crochet. It stood for tacky toilet paper cozies or old-fashioned doilies. It was something that my mother, my aunt and my grandma did, and I was trying, at that young age, to stand independently separate from my family and make my own identity. So I never learned how to do it. In my mind it would not be a useful tool in the life that I was planning for myself, a life in the workplace, in the city, in fashionable social circles. This is what I imagined for myself. But younger than I could have imagined were these dreams picked apart by illness, by depression, by disability. And when my dreams of career and success were picked apart until there was barely anything left of them, the memory of my mother, my grandmother and the sewing and craft table remained.
After nearly two decades of feeling different to the rest of the world, of having job after job fail, all ideas of an actual career shattered, of having my physical and emotional identity shift on me over and over again, I became drawn to the stitching that never shifted, to the one thing that had never changed in all of my life, despite the losses. The one thing that had never changed was my family. I decided to find my identity in them and in home, despite death and distance. I decided to learn the skills my mother knew, and knew that once I had learned, there would be at least one thing that illness could not take away from me. I knew that regardless of the lies of failure and worthlessness that I was hearing, regardless of the loss of mobility and balance and eyesight, I could create. I could create and give and no lie would make me believe that creating and giving was worthless. It was concrete, it was tactile; it was full of meaning and delved right down to the root of my identity. The things that I began to create were more than their physical selves. I could give something that stood for a piece of me to the people who meant the most to me. In the midst of all of this feeling useless and a failure, I could create something good and useful and beautiful and skillful, and it gave me meaning.
So I learned how to crochet and I began to stitch. And I began to create. I could see my physical accomplishments accumulating and I could not deny that they were good. I would learn a pattern and spend hour after hour just playing out my life, one stitch at a time, moving forward. The act of learning how to just complete the stitch I was on, not looking too far ahead and not looking back, felt like it was teaching me a new way to live my life. Just one stitch, one moment, at a time, not allowing the huge overall pattern to overwhelm me, but to just keep going, and it would come to completion. Have faith that I would get there and I would … but not if I skipped ahead and started thinking about a later stage of the pattern, which would make me forget how to complete the stitches I was making now.
And when I would sit and stitch square after square for a blanket or row after row for a scarf, it was almost as if I was helping my brain to relearn how to use its broken and scattered neurological pathways. The repetition of 3 double crochet, chain 2, 3 double crochet, chain 1… it was soothing, methodical and meditative. The colors and feel of the yarn made me feel like I was home and that I fit once again and the pleasant click of my favorite red, aluminum hook against my wedding ring as I hook the yarn that weaves through my fingers is audible, tactile and grounding. There is no room for worry, for grieving, for regret, for analyzing when I focus on one stitch at a time. The process of healing takes precedence.”
When I interviewed Nessa for Crochet Saved My Life she had just gone through another transition in her health. In August 2011 her MS went into relapse. After a rough period, she regained much of her function but was not been able to resume walking at that time. As a result, she had to learn to adjust to life in a wheelchair. She reiterates that crochet gives her something to cling to as she deals with this new adjustment.
Nessa has a terrific blog project going called The Courageous Creative. Check it out!