Stitching myself back together

Mal | Art Therapy | Thursday, January 29th, 2009

Like a persnickety teenager, I go through phases when it comes to my art-making. Sure, I’ve always written and kept journals, but began cycling through wildly variant media and techniques in the autumn of 2000. At that time I lived in Boston, was severely and profoundly depressed, and discovered a community pottery studio only 2 blocks from my house.

Pottery phase

I was not an artist or even really a crafter at that time. I was just lost. In that deep winter of loneliness, depression, and depression, the process of centering the earthy clay on a wheel, of cleaning and trimming it, and of offering it up to the temperamental Kiln God miraculously alleviated my suffering. It was then that I knew I wanted to become an art therapist.


The pottery phase lasted for a couple of years, and was followed by watercolor, bookbinding, art journals, and other art forms — each of which served a unique and powerful psychological purpose. I cycle through these phases organically, letting them come and go as they may, on the belief that the art itself has power to change and heal me in ways that I can’t understand and should not try to control.

After three months of fighting with my insurance company, in November of 2008 I was finally scheduled for surgery to remove my diseased gallbladder. These days, gallbladder surgery is a simple, laproscopic, same-day and outpatient surgery. Some people even call it a “procedure,” not a surgery. By that time, I had been so sick for so long that a one-day inconvenience hardly felt worthy of major concern.


But before the surgery was scheduled, I had already felt myself shifting into a new phase of making. Around October, I began to stitch like crazy. Whether it was embroidery or sewing or quilting, I just couldn’t get enough of fabric and thread and seams and needles. I handmade all of my Christmas gifts, embellished clothing and household linens, and endlessly researched textile techniques online.


When the time came for my surgery, there were complications on the operating table and suddenly my simple, same-day procedure turned into a 2-week hospital stay. It was almost a week before I could even pick up a pen and begin to document the events in my ever-present art journals.

Yo yo wreath

When I was released to go home, the first thing I wanted to do was sew. I had to sew something… anything. I started handstitching yo-yos while propped up on pillows. I made dozens and dozens of yo-yos. In practical terms, stitching is something that can be done from bed. It is the perfect recovery art, in that way. But, the glide of the fabric between my fingers, the repetitive up-down of the needle, the knotting and gathering, all combined to bring me peace. I could breathe. I stopped panicking at every twinge and twitter. The cloth — like the blankets and pillows and nightgowns and warm, wet washcloths of the hospital — was so nurturing. So healing. So comforting.

But, more than that — it’s as though I am metaphorically stitching myself back together. Healing myself inside and out. I stitch and stitch. Embroidery seems to soothe like nothing else.


It’s funny — Alica wrote today about embroidery and a similar phenomenon that occurred with her when she was hospitalized after an accident. Jenny, too, dove into yo-yos at a time when she needed to find peace.

I believe in the power of art to heal us, if we let it. Right now, I am stitching.


  1. I hope you feel better now. Reading your post was a kind of deja-vu for me, because hoping from craft to craft, obsessing with it (especially in times of downs) and keeping it all in a journal sounds kind of familiar (even though mine doesn’t look so pretty). 14 years ago I broke my spin and after I could walk and sit again I had the urge to create something, anything that isn’t broken.
    Anyway, what I really wanted to say is: thank you for stopping by my blog and your drawings look amazing!

    Comment by Miss Behave — 31 January 2009 @ 12:52 pm

  2. I do feel much better now, thanks. I work in a hospital so I truly believe in the healing power of art, but it’s really wonderful to hear from so many people who have gone through similar experiences. Thanks for commenting.

    Comment by mal — 1 February 2009 @ 12:23 pm

  3. Hi. You left a comment on one of my flickr photos. Thanks. I found your blog via your flickr page. Art therapy sounds like a rewarding and fascinating career. I’m sorry your procedure turned into something so complicated. I’m glad you are feeling better now. My own recent laparoscopic surgery went very well, but it has left me feeling a bit fragile, both physically and emotionally. Time will heal.

    I’ve been stitching regularly for many years now. I do believe taking up cross stitch saved my sanity at a trying time in my life. I was in graduate school and having a miserable time. I had moved far away from all of my family and friends, and my boyfriend, to attend this school. My fellowship was demanding, my class load was demanding, my roommate was impossible to live with, and I was horribly lonely. I had done a few small cross stitch kits when I was in high school, but hadn’t done one for years. Suddenly I was obsessed with the desire to create something again, something that wasn’t school-related, and that would keep me busy when loneliness consumed me. That was 20 years ago, and I’ve been stitching ever since, expanding my techniques, trying new things. It really has been a form of therapy. When my mother-in-law was sick with cancer and dying, I’d sit in doctors’ waiting rooms and at her hospital bedside, crocheting away. I noticed a lot of patients in the waiting rooms knitting and crocheting, too. It’s definitely therapeutic to keep your hands and mind busy with a steady rhythm to create a beautiful thing.

    Comment by besomom — 3 March 2009 @ 6:14 am

  4. @besomom: Thank you for sharing your experience. I think that kind of thing is more common than we think! Something about those repetitive hand crafts really can distract and soothe us — something vital at times of personal crisis.

    Comment by Mal — 3 March 2009 @ 8:16 am

  5. I love to stitch and needless to say am thrilled to read that you are an art therapist. My stitching has gotten me through so many peaks and valleys and now has given me the most wonderful life. I think of stitching as meditation and know that when I am stitching I am closer to my center then at any other time in my life. I hope you are feeling better!

    Comment by debraann — 14 March 2009 @ 5:33 pm

  6. Thanks for your kind words, DebraAnn. I love to read about others using artwork to help them through difficult times. I’d love to read more and will pop over to your blog.

    Comment by Mal — 14 March 2009 @ 6:01 pm

  7. [...] a lot of art about my own body last year before, during, and after surgery. I even wrote about it here and here. As an art therapist who works in a hospital, I’m always interested in [...]

    Pingback by Roundup: Anatomical Art (Therapy) | turning*turning — 26 April 2009 @ 9:36 am

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