Psychiatric Nurse and 5th Generation Fiber Artist Paula White Shares How Crafting Heals

by Kathryn on September 2, 2013 · 1 comment

in Crochet Health

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Paula White is a 42-year-old African American woman living near Chicago who has worked as a registered nurse for more than a decade. She is also a fiber artist … actually she is a fifth generation textile artist! She enjoys crochet, knitting, quilting and weaving. In this article she shares her family history of crafting, how the fiber arts helped her deal with domestic violence and improved her personal health and how she has seen crafting help her patients including those dealing with major psychiatric issues. Her story is amazing and inspiring, so I hope you’ll read on …

Crafting Since She Was in the Womb

I asked Paula about the experience of growing up in a home filled with fiber artists. Here is what she shared:

“Both my maternal grandmother and my maternal great grandmother made a beautiful Single Irish Chain baby quilt for me when my mother was 7 months pregnant with me so as far as I am concerned, my future as a fiber artist was preordained! My relatives were into knitting, quilting and crochet. I do all of these crafts and have also done a little weaving.

When I was growing up, I usually watched my family make things. Sometimes, I would help them by picking out colors or helping cut things. When I was a child growing up in Chicago, my mother and I would stay up all night on Saturday nights, cooking dinner for Sunday after church and making crafts. We always made crafts during Christmas for charities.

I have family scattered throughout the country, but most of my family lives in Arkansas so there were many times that we would pack up the car and head down South to see our relatives. When my parents moved to Chicago, my family made what we called “migration quilts” or “migration afghans.” They were made for good luck. We slept under these quilts and afghans in the car on the way there and on the way back. When we went into my grandparents’ house, it was not at all unusual to see my family sitting around a quilting frame, making quilts and/or sitting around a table, knitting and doing crochet. Sometimes, they would sit outside and do these activities.

When we stayed there overnight, I slept under afghans and quilts my maternal grandmother and great grandmother made respectively for my mother when she was a child. You know how there are people who don’t get along with their mothers-in-law? Well, my maternal great grandmother and my maternal grandmother lived together and did fiber arts together. I never heard them argue or fight. They were too busy with their fiber arts! It wasn’t at all unusual to me. I thought it was a way of life. I knew from the very beginning that when I grew up, I would do the exact same thing.”

Living a Multicraftual Life

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So often we talk about people who just crochet or only knit and that’s totally fine but there are a lot of people who enjoy multiple crafts and I loved hearing more about this from Paula. She shared:

I collect yarn. I collect fabric. I collect knitting needles and crochet hooks. I know that for publishing purposes publishers and editors often like to see clear lines of demarcation between knitters, quilters and those who crochet and weave, but the truth of the matter is that the people I have been related to or friends with just participate in many fiber arts and other crafts with joyful glee.

At the quilting bees I have attended, it is not at all unusual to see people quilting, weaving, knitting and doing crochet. I have even knitted and done crochet at quilting bees myself. Fifteen minutes from my house is this place called Art4Soul where people meet to do fiber arts and ceramics. There is another place in Chicago called Flourish Studios where fiber artists meet up in circles doing whatever they want to work on. To me, this is not at all unusual. I grew up seeing people who were passionate about crafts all around. I still see that as an adult. I am passionate as well. I just plain love it!

I really do love all fiber arts; I just do! I have nothing but profound admiration and respect for anyone who participates in any craft. I can’t say I have a favorite. I do a lot of quilting, but I am about to make a prayer shawl for myself with some yarn I bought a little while back. I attend writing conferences and those rooms gets a little cold, so I wanted to make a prayer shawl for myself because I thought it would be a comforting gesture. I feel we crafters and writers need all the support we can get!”

Crafting To Survive and Thrive

When White talks about needing all of the support we can get, she’s not just talking about crafters and writers (although she does mean that and emphasize it) but she also knows that all individuals need support at different times of life. She knows this from her work as a nurse and also because crafting helped her get through her own difficult experiences.

“When I was working and going to school, it was difficult to sustain my fiber arts activities. I worked in high school. I worked in college. I have an undergraduate degree in English. I have a graduate degree in creative writing. I have an associate degree in nursing. I was trying to educate myself as well as work and manage my own psychological crisis with therapy and counseling. When I don’t engage in the fiber arts, I do become depressed and anxious. Eventually I had to learn that crafting is a large part of self care for me, like eating, sleeping, exercise or going to the doctor, so I try very hard to get around to it every day.

Fiber arts helped me through a major crisis. Let me make it clear that the vast majority of my family have been warm and kind. However, this is not true of everyone in my family. I was raped by a cousin from the age of seven until the age of ten. My parents left me with family members they thought they could trust. Sadly, this part of my family did not engage in fiber arts! I had an eating disorder from the age of sixteen until the age of seventeen.

At the age of eighteen, I went into a psychiatric unit for one week for suicidal ideation. I was diagnosed with depression and PTSD: flashbacks, nightmares, body memories. After my discharge, I went into an abusive marriage for thirteen years. I had been in individual and group counseling for years. I also read self help books. Things dramatically changed when I went into extensive trauma therapy, EMDR therapy. All of this was paid for out of pocket because my job benefits would only cover ten sessions. I needed more than ten sessions.

I went into family counseling with my parents. I also picked up fiber arts again. For almost two years, we had family counseling on Mondays. I finally told my parents everything that had happened while they were at work when I was a child. This seemed to help a lot. My parents were extremely supportive. They had always called often and had a desire to see me, but we saw each other a lot throughout family counseling.

I had individual counseling on Thursdays. On Fridays, after work, my parents and I would meet at their home, cook, eat and I would engage in some type of fiber arts with my mom. Fiber arts was a lot more than a continuation of a family tradition. It was a coping mechanism. My mother knew this. My mother gave me fiber arts books. She also gave me her scraps stash. I made picture quilts featuring pictures of the supportive people in my family. My family loves the crafts I make.

I would sleep under the migration quilts and migration afghans my family made earlier in my life during this period of extensive trauma counseling and family therapy. I felt as if I were receiving additional safety and support from the quilts, even though the people who made them were no longer alive. It was a profoundly healing experience that I spent a lot of money trying to write out in graduate school, but I still don’t have the words for it. All I have is my profound happiness.

Eventually, I ended my abusive marriage and I took quilting, knitting and crochet classes. I attended fiber arts circles. There were so many people who were going through so many issues, but they seemed to come out on top. For example, the actress Lisa Edelstein from the television show House disclosed that even she was in an abusive relationship. She joined a knitting circle and came right out. When I started going to fiber arts circles, I met a woman who had been in a 34 year abusive marriage, filed for divorce and went into domestic violence counseling. She took fiber arts classes. She learned how to quilt, knit, crochet and weave. She attended lots of fiber arts conferences and taught me a lot about fiber arts.

During the time that after I ended my abusive marriage, I also enrolled in domestic violence counseling where I was exposed to the “lethality assessment”. This is a 50 item assessment alerting you to the fact that you maybe in a relationship where your partner may kill you. If you have more than three check marks, they strongly advise you to leave. I had 18. My maternal great grandmother had also been in an abusive relationship when she was alive; she ended the relationship and did a lot of fiber arts and what her example taught me was that fiber arts are very healing activities to engage in through a crisis.”

Paula has shared her story previously as a personal essay in the book The Woman I’ve Become: 27 Women Share Their True Journeys From Toxic Relationships to Self Empowerment Psychiatric Nurse and 5th Generation Fiber Artist Paula White Shares How Crafting Heals edited by Patricia La Pointe.

Crafting in a Hospital Setting

“I have also worked as a psychiatric nurse. I noticed that my patients who were involved in crafts were discharged sooner. They seemed to need less of their PRNs (“as-needed” medication) especially those dealing with anxiety. They didn’t seem to relapse back into the system. There are a lot of people who go in and out of the psychiatric system like a revolving door. I noticed that the crafters were not like that. They stuck to their treatment and fiber arts was a part of that treatment.

Typically, the crafters were one of the easiest groups of patients to treat. They knew if they wanted their crafts they had to agree to treatment, so they did. I noticed they wanted to be productive and not destructive. They just needed some support and direction back to what honored their true nature: fiber arts. Upon discharge, they figured out that crafting was better than being in a facility, so they tended to stay out of the system by engaging in their crafts. Many of the crafters I saw had been exposed to crafts in some way or another before being admitted as psychiatric patients, but again, the families were supportive and knew that this is something they needed. They would talk to the doctors. The doctors would approve of it, but they had to be watched closely.

I never had a challenge trying to get fiber arts into the psychiatric setting. Generally, the families would tell the doctors how important it was for the patient. The doctors would write orders for them to have their supplies. We had to watch them and have them “contract for safety.” In other words, make them promise they wouldn’t cut themselves with scissors or hang themselves with fabric or yarn. My managers actually made the suggestion to have a fiber arts group on the floor. Although I am not an art therapist, I was asked to teach the group because they knew I was passionate about fiber arts. I wanted to but then I was accepted to graduate school. Some of the other nurses were also into crafts and I hope that they at least tried to carry out this idea.

You have to also remember that the fiber arts were a big part of occupational therapy treatment at one point, but then it was phased out. Why? I don’t know. I think it was shifted to art therapists. Our staff was into meditation, yoga, etc. They would teach classes and again, during the days that the patients had their meditation and yoga classes, I observed that they didn’t need PRNs.

I have also seen mental health professionals benefit from crafting. I had a coworker who had gone to AA. She had been sober for four months. She said she had started to go to the gym and avoid anyone she knew who drank. Still, she was having a difficult time with being by herself and not drinking. One day, she saw me making crafts on a break. When she told me all of this, I gave her a bunch of supplies. Well, she ran off to the races! Her sister worked with us and asked me, “What did you do to her?!” I told her, “I gave her some crafting supplies.” She said, “I have never in my life seen her so happy!” Her sister stayed sober and happy with her crafts.

Why Do Fiber Arts Heal?

I am always interested in learning more about why each person who has experienced the benefits of crafting believes that crafts are healing. Here’s what Paula had to say about that:

“I have been trying to answer this question myself: Why are the crafts healing? I think crafts build confidence.

They also focus the mind. The mind can take a mini-vacation from whatever issue was perplexing for a moment. When your attention is diverted back, what was perplexing becomes so simple: “Should I stay with that abusive guy? No. I should actually break up with that abusive guy, do my crafts and find a decent guy who will treat me right.” … “What should I do with that yarn? Make a prayer shawl.” … “I am feeling depressed. What do I do? Go into individual counseling and take some crafting classes.” … “Should I go back to graduate school? Yes!” The answers come while crafting.

You know how to triumph over adversity. You experience that every day when you pick up your supplies and decide to engage in your craft instead of anything else that is destructive to your well being.

This is what I think about all the crafts: Just do it! You know your life was worse when you weren’t engaging in your craft and how much better your life has gotten because you now know what you must do to lift yourself up. Find what works and stick with it. If you are going through a crisis and engaging in crafts, your life can and will change.

Were you inspired by any part of Paula’s story? Would you like to share your story?

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1 comments
Kat Jackson
Kat Jackson

That's such an amazing story. I really appreciate that Paula has shared it with us.

In my deepest days of depression, having a craft project on the go - even something tiny - was an activity to look forward to. Just sewing on one button was an achievement, and kept my mind active when I felt like I was living at the bottom of a well. I've just taken up crochet (in addition to sewing), and it's such a calming activity.

Again, thanks for sharing this :-)

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