By Rachael Herron
I have an addictive personality. I get addicted to doing things. Years ago, I had to disallow myself to put even a single game on my smartphone. I felt physically incapable of not opening Dots or Words With Friends. It’s the same reason I turned off all notifications on my phone, too—I simply couldn’t not look when my phone told me I had a new email or Facebook or Twitter response. I’d try to sit on my hands and not open the app, but I was fighting a losing battle—I’d usually only manage to resist thirty seconds or so.
So knitting suits me perfectly. It’s fiddly, it’s never-ending, it’s a light challenge but not too much of one, and there’s always a little more to do.
It’s a good addiction.
Even more: knitting has saved my life.
See, I don’t just get addicted to doing things, but I also get addicted to the bad stuff. The stuff your parents warned you about.
When I was 29, I knew I had to quit cigarettes. I loved everything about smoking (except the way my clothes smelled). Writers have a romantic image of pecking away at the keyboard as blue-white smoke drifts in curls above their heads, symbolizing the inspiration flowing.
In reality? I couldn’t afford to smoke—both literally because I was broke, and figuratively because I’d had weak lungs my whole life. Smoking sent me into chronic bronchitis with two bouts of pneumonia and pleurisy.
I tried desperately to quit, failing over and over. Finally, I used the fact that I had to get all four wisdom teeth out and wouldn’t be able to smoke and would be under the influence of Vicodin for three days to get over those first few terrible days.
And I picked up my knitting as soon as the Vicodin wore off.
I’d been a knitter since the age of five, but I waxed and waned in enthusiasm. Sometimes it was all I did, and then I’d go a year without yarn in my hands. But when I quit smoking, I told myself that no matter how broke I was, I could afford to buy myself whatever yarn I wanted as long as I wasn’t buying cigarettes. This was 2001, which was fortuitous, because the knitting internet was about to explode, and I was front and center for the formation of our new electronic universe.
Where I’d used to keep my cigarettes in my purse, I kept sock yarn. Instead of going out for smoke breaks at work, I’d go out to the parking lot and cast judgment on my still-smoking coworkers as I cast on for another sweater.
When I thought I have to smoke or I’ll die, I’d change the thought to: I don’t want to die I’ll knit, instead. Knit harder. Knit faster.
I knitted for my life, very literally.
That was sixteen years ago.
And this year? Knitting is saving my life again.
I don’t mind telling you this, because crafters are my chosen family: I realized I was an alcoholic this year.
It was a stunning realization—it was what I’d feared all my life, and suddenly, it had happened. I’d always been a person who could (and liked to) handle her liquor, but in the course of a grief-stricken year of loss, I felt the alcoholic switch in my brain flip from off to on. Simple as that, I woke up one morning and I was bottomless. I couldn’t drink enough. I couldn’t get enough of anything but especially alcohol. I didn’t know it could happen like that (it can).
I journaled for months, trying to think my way out of it. I bargained. I wept. I denied.
Then I admitted it in my journal. I am an alcoholic.
Less than three hours after I wrote that for the first time, I went to a support group in a cold sweat and a full panic. I listened to people speak about their own addictions. I admitted to mine. People were nice to me.
And I was coming out of my skin. The only refrain running through my misfiring brain was I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I swiveled around, looking for a way out.
Then I saw her.
In the back row sat a woman who looked a little like me. Prematurely white hair. Glasses. A cute bomber jacket. And a lap full of knitting. It looked like some kind of blanket, but honestly, I didn’t spend much time looking at her work—I was looking at her face. Her expression was peaceful. Serene. She looked if she were in the place she needed to be. And I thought, Knitting. Yes.
I went home and I pulled out some cobwebby cashmere I’d been hoarding for a rainy day. I cast on for a shawl named Shaelyn, an easy lace pattern I’ve knit many times. I sat on the couch and cast on as I concentrated on breathing into my stomach. Slow, easy breaths. I called a best friend (also an accomplished knitter) who’s been sober a long time. I slid yarn across my needles, stitch by stitch. And slowly, something eased in my heart.
I went back to the same support group the next day. I brought my knitting. It made being there easier, a place to focus my gaze when I didn’t know where to look or what to think.
Every time I wanted to leave my body or open a wine bottle, I sat down and knitted for a while, even if I didn’t feel like it, even if I didn’t think I had time.
And it got better, so much better than I could have imagined. I’m now the one sitting in meetings and knitting, laughing with the friends I’ve made there. I wake up every morning clearheaded. I sleep a thousand times better than I ever have. Best of all, I’m present in my life which is pretty dang magical.
I’m not over the hump—I know I never will be. I’ve got less than a year of sobriety, and recovery will be something I consciously participate in for the rest of my life. Luckily, I’ll have my knitting with me. In the time I’ve been sober, I’ve made three pairs of socks, three shawls, two sweaters, and a blanket.
Most days, both the knitting and the sobriety feel easy. Other days, both go squirrely on me, and I have to sit and focus. I take deep breaths, and I look closely at each stitch slipping from one needle to the other. But I hold my knitting loosely. I don’t take it too seriously. I keep breathing, and every stitch I slip is another non-verbal prayer. May I be as useful as this garment will someday be.
One stitch and one day at a time, I’m moving forward into my joyous, expansive life, my arms full of yarn and heart full of gratitude.
Rachael Herron is the bestselling author of Splinters of Light, the Cypress Hollow series, and the memoir A Life in Stitches. She's a proud New Zealander as well as an American, and she wishes she could knit and play ukulele at the same time.