Bricken: a story of mental ill health and also of healing

The third chapter in the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Playbook draws on the bricks of Reading for its inspiration. An essay titled Bricks to Knit charts my design process from start to finish, and the chapter culminates in a customisable cowl and instructions and notes for designing your own cowl, based on observing the place where you live. My brick-themed chapter is the result of many countless hours spent walking and watching, and it also charts the journey from the swatch I made in my first book (based on Reading’s brickwork) to the new one, developed for this second book. I imagined – hoped – when I put the chapter together that it would speak to you in your place in the world and particularly to the act of patrolling your neighbourhood and celebrating its moods and textures in knit.

What’s not in the book is the more contextual story of how my obsession with Reading’s brickwork has uplifted me through bouts of mental ill health and that’s what I want to write about today. If you are just here for the pretty pictures and the beautiful brickwork of Reading, I have just the book for you! However, if you are interested in a wider discourse on creativity, disability, mental health and bricks, please draw up a chair and settle in. CW: suicide ideation, mental health issues.

This story does and doesn’t begin with bricks.

I have Depression and Anxiety. I manage these things quite well, thanks to experience, really essential counseling interventions when I need them, and a few cherished friends who have helped me to understand these conditions and to find my way through with them. Still, a few times in my life, the whole bottom has dropped out of my world.

The last time I really remember that happening was in late 2010/early 2011. I had freshly completed my PhD which – as anyone who has undergone that process knows – can be immensely taxing on your mental health. Newly graduated as DOKTOR FELICITY FORD, I was desperate for work and paid opportunities in which to flex my hard-won expertise in The Domestic Soundscape and beyond… presenting everyday sounds to audiences. It was difficult to say no to opportunities, because of the fear of where the next job (and income) would come from… and I was struggling with managing many projects at once. I had not taken the time I needed to recover from the enormous push required to get my PhD completed in time, and there were other problems in my life which compounded my sense of not being where I wanted to be at that point in my life. In everything I’ve read about Depression and Anxiety – and my favourite books have all been written by these amazing people – my favourite explanation is that we come to a state of Depression and Anxiety when real life wears us down and our response ceases to be useful or helpful. It’s not about being sad because something bad happened, it’s about what happens when the stress of that sadness or fear somehow move across into a broken state of mind. At least that is how I understand my own mental health problems. In 2011, I thought I was managing OK until a fateful day at the dentist. I needed a filling, for which I was asked to pay £50 up-front. I paid knowing I’d just caned the absolute limits of my overdraft. I knew I could borrow money if necessary, but I felt deeply humiliated about being in such financial peril at the age of 32. A deep and disproportionate sensation of failure began to sink in. Tears pricked at my eyes and, as I walked home over the hill, staring at my shoes, an unhelpful monologue began to run amok in my head about my terrible life choices; my stupidity in attempting to follow a career as an artist; the horrors of my overfull work schedule and extremely empty bank account; and anger at having to phone various people begging them to action invoices (there is a special place in hell for people who don’t pay freelancers on time). Mark found me in a crumpled heap in our bedroom on the floor many hours later, and all I could say was “there is no point to me and I don’t want to live anymore. I don’t know how to exist, everything is awful. I don’t know how tomorrow happens.” As I got these words out through many tears I could hear that I had lost my perspective, but I honestly did not know where to begin with trying to get it back.

The next day I went to my GP and through great gulps of tears managed to say “I. Think. I. Am. Depressed. Nobody. Pays. Me. Properly. I’m. Working. All. The. Fucking. Time. And. I. Can’t. Even. Afford. A. Fucking. Filling. For. My. Fucking. Teeth.” He smile brightly and said “That would make me depressed, too! I’m going to refer you to talking therapies.”

A couple of days later I found myself in a room in a building with a bright blue and white NHS sign outside staring at two forms. Are you Depressed? Are you Anxious? Do you feel down, depressed or hopeless Not at all, Several days, More than half the days, Nearly every day? Do you feel afraid as if something awful might happen Not at all, Several days, More than half the days, Nearly every day? Do you feel bad about yourself — or that you are a failure or have let yourself or your family down Not at all, Several days, More than half the days, Nearly every day? The lists were amazing.

I am excellent at lists. You cannot juggle all the things I juggle without lists. As I went down, reading and circling, the document in my hands revealed an incredible inventory of symptoms of mental suffering. Seeing it all on the page in black and white starkly clarified why I was feeling so bad: nobody could hold all that in their head and not feel terrible. I realised that nothing in my life was going to work until I could address my state of mind, before trying to tackle anything else… as long as I was thinking about work, career and existential 30-something angst from this place of pain, I would not be able to solve any of my problems at all. I realised everything that had triggered my spiral into Depression and Anxiety was fixable, but not from the vantage point of extreme mental ill-health.

I started talking to Mark more about my mental health, and trying to think about how to care for it. We came up with plans together, he asked me how I was doing, we talked a lot about certain types of thoughts and thought patterns that signalled “I had gone to the bad place”. I started to learn to read my most unhappy thoughts as symptoms of a larger problem, and not to think of them as The Truth. I tried to eat better, to knit a little bit, to spend more time with the cat and with Mark, to take things one step at a time, to get any little piece of pleasure out of each day that I could. I went to and from that NHS building many times through those months, gradually shunting pencilled circles from Nearly every day to Not at all or Several days. On the journey to and from my talking therapies sessions, I began noticing the bricks.

I’d always loved the brickwork of Reading but now, with this thirty-five minute walk and the potential to expand the journey into adjoining streets (especially if the weather was fine), I began a dedicated practice of collecting pictures.

I learnt that if all my thoughts were running towards a tellingly unhelpful monologue of self-beratement and feelings of failure, I could usually manage to gently take myself outside with my SLR and coax myself into looking up. It became a useful self-distraction to seek out a street with an unusual collection of silver grey and cream bricks; to look for diamonds, interesting diapering, Xs or Os, stripes, edges or other joy. It didn’t cost anything for me to take the pictures, to go for walks, and to upload the photos onto my computer when I returned home, later.

I wrote about the bricks on my old blog, but I never wrote about how I’d felt when I took those pictures because, at the time, I wanted to use the bricks to tell a different story. To rebuild myself. To take the comforting, age-old solidity of the buildings and use it to shore up my life at a time when everything felt like it was drifting apart.

The manageable challenge of leaving the house every day to look at bricks in the neighbouring streets helped to draw me out of my head. I stopped looking at my shoes and learnt to look up.

This got me outdoors into daylight, and moving around: helpful tonics for an ailing soul. But, at a deeper level, this simple and achievable daily creative task also started to change the stories I was telling myself about myself, and disrupted the painful loops of thinking that kept Depression and Anxiety alive. The ongoing nature of the Bricks Project was a vital antidote to an ever-changing rosta of discrete pieces of paid work. While I was doing a talk here, a small commission there, looking at this theme, looking at that theme… the bricks provided an artistic point of interest that had no stressy delivery date, or miserable end point (I am always sad when projects come to an end). I love LONG art projects, where there is enough space and opportunity to keep thinking about something richly, in as much depth as I like: there was no deadline on my bricks project and I didn’t have to go anywhere special or spend any money to do it.

Gradually, as I filled up folders with images of well-built and sturdy brick walls, I began to get excited by everything they represented. I liked their permanence and strength as structures; I liked how they represented a sort of comforting ideal of certainty and security “as safe as houses” and I liked their plentiful abundance. It was joyous to discover that nearly every street contained an unusual or inventive patterned detail, laid over a century ago by the folk who built this town and all these houses for the workers that flocked here during the Industrial Revolution.

Who were these people who built these buildings? Who had lived in them? Who else had noticed them? What could their glorious patterning inspire? As I asked and answered these questions, burrowing into the local studies section of Reading Library, and tramping around the streets taking yet more photos of bricks, I began to see myself in a more positive light, as a wonderfully creative and curious sort of person, with an irrepressible sense of wonder and enthusiasm. I no longer felt like the person crying because I could not pay for my own filling but, rather, as an amazing, maverick brick-celebrator of Reading. Traveling to Estonia in 2012 (and still not in the finest of mental health) a new-found friend christened me “the eccentric Englishwoman” – a moniker with which, I confess, I was rather taken. Reading census data about the ironworkers, biscuit factory workers and biscuit men who’d lived in these houses and finding the works of Jane Wright – a world authority on bricks who wrote several books on the subject and curated an exhibition here in the 1970s – filled my head with ideas that pushed out other, less hopeful kinds of thoughts.

I’ve learnt that there is a very strong connection between my mental health and the stories I am telling myself about me. There are some really painful and sad stories that, once I get stuck in them, will quickly spiral into full on Anxiety and Depression. The bricks and the story of the eccentric Englishwoman are happier stories which have given me a different frame and focus and a kinder way in which to view myself. Photographing the bricks was the start of finding some of that lost perspective.

As time has marched on, I’ve found other ways to nurture my mental health.

But for me, the foundation for feeling well is made of sturdy Victorian brick in glorious, cheery patterns. I’ve published two books now, each of which form part of a plan to survive as an artist in a sustainable way, financially; and it’s no coincidence that both of them feature a chapter on Reading’s magnificent brickwork. The modular way in which the cowl in the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Playbook is made speaks, in particular, to walks around this town which, it’s no exaggeration to say, have literally saved my life.

Making art is not, to me, a sort of magical action that takes place in a special setting outside of normal life; rather, it is forged in the crucible of real experience. For me, being an artist is full of resilience and resistance; I think often of an amazing poem from Alice Walker’s beautiful book, Horses make a landscape more beautiful, in which she asks “What is the point of being artists If we cannot save our own life?” What, indeed.

Other people who have had Depression and Anxiety will have found your own deeply personal and special tools for managing these conditions. I say, WHATEVER GETS YOU THROUGH! My solution, when I begin spiralling down into what I think of as “the bad place”, is to try and rebuild myself, brick by brick, walk by walk, stitch by stitch, back up to some sort of tentative joy. I make knitting, sound recordings, images and interpretations of the world around me that resist the pain I’m in; I find creative processes that focus on the joyous potential of everyday life. I use artmaking as a tool for uplift, affirmation and healing… The KNITSONIK System I teach in my classes is the same one I taught myself in order to survive the onslaught of Depression and Anxiety. Yes, it is a practical system for translating everyday life into stranded colourwork and – yes – it is also a system for learning to celebrate life creatively when it feels like there is nothing to celebrate.

I think of all these things as a set of skills that can be passed on from person to person, like candles lighting one another. I have a secret mission to teach everyone how to turn the things you love into something to wear, and a super secret mission (though less so now it’s on the blog!) to share the pleasures of cultivating a love for life, as well.

One of the happiest moments of working on the KNITSONIK Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook was bringing my brother, Ferg, to some of my favourite brick locations in order to photograph my swatch, along with its inspiration source.

His pictures made me cry because I knew he could see the bricks as I saw them, through the lens of my knitting and my little daily walks.

I was really moved by the joy of sharing the bricks with someone who appreciated them immediately, and thrilled when Ferg suggested we get some shots of me just holding my SLR and standing near some of the beautiful bricks of this town. “We need a photo of you holding your SLR, walking near the bricks. ‘Cause that is what you do.”

I felt so witnessed. And it was special to be able to show my brick documenting/knitting artistic process to someone who could really see how much it mattered. Thank you, Ferg!

With this latest book – the Playbook – I feel really happy when I look at the brick-themed chapter. It is the culmination of a creative process of many years laid out just how I wanted it. When I look at it, I feel like I was not rushed with that work at all. I feel like I can remember the mood of uplift and pleasure that attended every brick-photographing walk lying behind each photo… and the beautiful spreads that Nic did give me a feeling of calm, that I was allowed to walk myself back to walkness in my own sweet time. And comfort, because I know that whenever things stop feeling solid again, the bricks will be right here, waiting.

Postscript:

I’ve written a bit here and there on different platforms about the psoriatic arthritis I’ve had since I was 19, but I’ve not talked much about my mental health or its connections with physical pain. Reasons have included the shame and stigma (still) attached to mental health problems; the real fear of becoming an object of pity; the desire not to attract unwanted advice from strangers (please, please read this if you are considering leaving advice in the comments below); and – my biggest fear of all – not having the resources to properly respond to messages from other comrades who are living with The Pain. However, I’ve been so lifted up and helped by the open approach of several women* and their magnificent approach to discussing mental health that I thought I should have a go at sharing my story. In the midst of a massive flare up, I feel my world is shrinking and I need, more than ever, to remember who I am. Writing is awesome for that and I know – because of how I have felt reading other people’s things – that if I share my real stories, they will resonate with someone and be affirming. If you are reading this and thinking YES THAT’S ME TOO then have a massive hug because I am writing this for all of us who are living with The Pain – of both the mental and physical kinds.

*Shout outs to some of the most uplifting and encouraging voices I’ve found online in discussions of mental health, which include my friend Dee, who has written a beautifully frank account of her own journey with depression; my friend Corrie Berry whose instagram story about mental health the other day really pushed me to get this done; my friend Woolly Wormhead whose online presence is life affirming containing, as it does, all the best hat designs and some awesome keeping-it-real content about her mental health; and the ongoing honesty of my wonderful comdrade in wool, Louise Scollay on social media and in the Knit British Podcast. Thank you all for giving me the confidence to share my own story here.

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34 Responses to Bricken: a story of mental ill health and also of healing

  1. sweetea says:

    Thank you for sharing this, sharing your work, and being an encouraging presence in the wool-world. xoxoxo

  2. Dee says:

    Felix… this is beautiful writing. So detailed and so frank and powerful and uplifting. I remember having this conversation with you in your car.
    Mark is brilliant.
    Hugs xxx

  3. Bev says:

    Thanks for this Felix. A massive hug for you too xxx

  4. Heather Smith says:

    At first I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry reading this, instead decided to celebrate the affirmation you sharing this gives to me and so many others, the strength to ackowledge where we are and how to live with that and move on . Thank you Felix xxxxx

  5. Ruth says:

    This is beautiful writing…I came here from seeing your Instagram story today (after having heard you speak at MERL wool night) and being in a wobbly place of my own right now found this helpful to read. I love the brickwork around Reading too. Thank you for sharing your story x

  6. Terry Hickman says:

    Thank you so much. Just seeing “Knitsonik” in my email box gives me a great big smile.

  7. Toni Cook says:

    Thanks for your sharing & pictures & cowl. You & Woolly Wormhead might convert me to color knitting. Not my favorite but I love your brick patterns and her hats.

  8. Mark says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your key message, echoed by Dee. I think every reader will agree : Mark is brilliant xxx

    What may not be immediately apparent is how much you add to my life and everyone who is lucky enough to count you as a friend. By some distance (no offence others, you are lovely too) you are the most provocative, thoughtful, funny, clever, surprising, committed, tasty and amazing person I know. And I know really great people. But they don’t know bricks like you do xxx

  9. Muriel says:

    Thank you Felix for this beautiful, amazing post … !! You and your wonderful Knitsonik System has helped and still help me everyday. I cannot agree more with you when you say “it is also a system for learning to celebrate life creatively when it feels like there is nothing to celebrate”. For me creativity brings life, joy and great friendships, it is a way to survive through the toughest moments of our lives. And I love long artistic projects too ( knitting postcards and swatches is going to last a long time I hope ;-) )
    PS : I agree, Mark is brilliant and so you are ! xxx

  10. Charlotte says:

    Just to say that I always enjoy your blog posts, because they are beautifully written, & full of joyful creativity & community, and never more so than this post. I have been meaning to order the new book since release & will now go home & do so, as not only (as I already knew) will I enjoy the knitting challenge, but it will also remind me to look for creativity, pattern & joy around me every day.

  11. Mousy Brown says:

    Thank you so much for being honest here…I work with teenagers who are stressed and anxious and depressed, who have no idea that this is a normal part of every day for a lot of people. They see images of people being successful and happy and who never admit to anything going wrong and it makes them feel like they are failing. We all need the bravery to be honest and to stop the stigma attached to poor mental health…I’m always telling them that you wouldn’t ignore a broken leg or be ashamed of telling people you have one and need looking after, and that’s how we need to feel about being ‘broken’ mentally too! Thank you so much for being so honest and for keeping the conversation going…such an awesome inspiration to us all!

  12. Helen says:

    Can’t thank you enough for writing this xxx

  13. Nancy says:

    Thank you for sharing. I have learned so much from you about the joy and peace that can come from closely observing my environment and translating it into a personal artistic response.

  14. Nancy says:

    Thank you for sharing. I have learned so much from you about the joy and peace that can come from closely observing my environment and translating it into a personal artistic response.

  15. Peggy Martin says:

    Felix, than you so much for writing this! This is just what I needed to see to help start lifting myself out of Depression and Anxiety. I too know the litany of thoughts that brings one down and keeps one there. Your story and bricks have renewed my strength to look up and move forward. Bless you!

  16. Anita says:

    I read every word you just wrote and I love the way you put words down on paper. I knew about Knitsonic but when you were on Fruity Knitting with your clever songs, I really started to pay attention to your work and messages. I will not forget this particular blog, in case I need it someday, or a loved one. Thank you so very much for speaking out.

  17. Cheryl says:

    Thank you so much for this. I am looking out at my own brick delights, my old brick garden wall and behind that William Wood House, what used to be Sudbury Grammar School for Boys- fine Victorian brickwork! You are an inspiration. I’ve just finished reassuring my line manager aka the Bishop that I am really fine, honest, well, fine with not being completely fine. Shine on and be gentle with yourself.

  18. Christina Nunn says:

    Thank you. x

  19. M says:

    You are completely brilliant – powerful writing here. Thank you !

  20. Lucy Ovington says:

    Wow Felix, that is some amazingly evocative writing. I work with people whose mental health is often, at best, fragile. We try to find some minute way to look at life differently, however long the at takes and sometimes even the act of making conversation is too hard. Your description was beautiful, sad, hopeful and painful. I am sad that you have been so low but glad you have found places, people and objects to help you find greater meaning even in dark places. It is hard to talk about mental ill health and i for one am grateful to hear about and break the stigma. Thank you. I will put your incite to good use, I promise.

  21. Ella says:

    You write so beautifully, thank you!
    I’ve have on/off anxiety – and at times it has also been linked to financial situations. The poverty/mental health link makes me feel political! And the undervaluing of arts, and issues faced by people with health problems and disabilities. I hope that things improve politically and socially.
    I love the idea of rebuilding with bricks. I also love the idea of translating the world around us to colourwork as a meditative and calming activity to get the brain doing something construction and logical but also creative – this is all so much perfection! You are very clever! And generous to share your work and thoughts.

  22. Kate says:

    Thank you for this beautiful post. I think it is a superpower to see such beauty in everyday objects and translate that into such amazing knitting patterns. And to enable us to see the world through your eyes.

    I have also suffered depression and anxiety and you describe it so well (no, I’m not sad about something in particular, there isn’t one thing that caused it). I too have found knitting and walking to be healing and you really capture their therapeutic value.

    Thank you. I feel a lot better now, but writing like this really makes me feel heard.

  23. This is incredible. I need to read it again and really savour it. When I read ‘I need to remember who I am’, I wondered if you knew that you are a joy bringer. Even just thinking about your work brings me a deep kind of happiness. And for that, so many thanks x

  24. Patricia says:

    Wonderfully written warm with no seld pity. It is a piece I am going to save and go back to. I too have chronic pain and its awful but knitting and crochet have helped me so much.x

  25. Administration says:

    I so appreciate your support and feel the same when I see “Terry Hickman” in my comments box :)

  26. Administration says:

    I cried quite a bit while writing it! But they were the happy tears. It’s good to find your own voice in these things, I reckon. Thanks for reading my words and witnessing my story.

  27. Administration says:

    Greetings, fellow READINGITE! The MERL wool late was tremendous, so glad you were there too. May your wobbly place be helped by solid bricks and sturdy foundations, and here’s hoping you can draw strength and joy from the glorious brickwork of our town xxx

  28. Administration says:

    Chronic pain IS awful, I send you solidarity hugs and am happy you have found some solace in knitting and crochet. Thank you for your kind words about my post – I’m so happy it resonated with you.

  29. Administration says:

    What a lovely message Joanna, thank you so much <3

  30. Administration says:

    Thank you for your very kind words. I have gone back and forth for years about whether or not to open up about mental health, but decided in the end to share my story precisely because I have felt heard when reading other people’s stories – like you describe – and I think the more we all talk about it, the less stigmatised it will become. Thanks for adding your own voice here in the comments.

  31. Administration says:

    Hey, Ella! Thanks for your lovely kind comments. YES – poverty/mental health and the chronic undervaluing of the arts are things we definitely need to get political about! And support for people with disabilities and long-term health problems!! I really feel you on the anxiety; it can be so difficult and exhausting to manage and is definitely not helped by worrying about money or feeling underpaid. Big hugs! <3

  32. Administration says:

    Sending you many hugs for the journey up and forward xxx

  33. Susan Hayes says:

    Thank you for this Felix. I have depression and anxiety too. There are days when I can barely lift my head from the pillow. I find that knitting helps sooth me, especially a complicated pattern. There is less room in my head for the crappy thoughts. Caitlin Moran wrote something which made me pause – that you would never be as nasty and vile to another person as you are to yourself when in the depths of depression. I do wish that someone could take out my brain, wash all the scummy thoughts away and then put it back all shiny and new. But in the absence of such a miracle, I struggle on. Thank you once again. And thank you for the hug x

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