I learned to crochet when I was committed to a state institution during the turn of the millennium. It was a soothing activity, feeling the gritty acrylic yarn hastening its way between my middle and ring finger while I gripped the hooked needle and plunged, wrapped, twisted and pulled. Eventually it was like breathing. Then about every tenth stitch, I’d bring the project up, pull out more yarn and readjust it lightly on my lap like a sigh before continuing.
Only two activities took place in the doldrums of the common room where we spent hours waiting between groups, appointments and visits. Patients with money played on their Nintendo GameBoy’s and the rest of us had to content ourselves with learning to crochet.
It is also where I started DBT therapy. It was the first time they were using only DBT as the method of treating ALL the patients in the “Crisis Unit.” We did mindfulness meditations three times a day – noticing our breath while imagining ourselves as a rock thrown into a river and tumbling along with the current at the bottom.
Our classes were DBT Lessons in mindfulness, radical acceptance and many other skills. I didn’t mind. I only wished they would also teach it to the nurses. The only thing they knew about DBT was how to use it against us as a weapon. If they didn’t like what we did, they would say, “Use your DBT skills” or “You’re not being very mindful!”
I remember one day we had a guest speaker. Several of us had smuggled in our crochet projects to work on while he spoke. He was an East Indian man, a Buddhist who was raised on the principles of mindfulness. Early in his speech, he said, “I notice that some of you are crocheting.”
Immediately we dropped our needles and tried to hide the yarn. But the man laughed and said, “No please, continue what you are doing. I think it is wonderful!”
The nurses were very confused and patients with projects, even the ones who hadn’t pulled them out before, began the ritual of wrapping yarn around a stick as if they were collectively engaged in stringing together a complex magical spell.
The man continued. “I want to tell you a story about a time when I was giving a lecture. There was an older woman in the front row who stood out from all the rest by her excitement and attentive listening. As I spoke about mindfulness and enlightenment she would nod her head up and down, keen with understanding. At last when I was done, I was happy to see her come and speak to me. She said, ‘Sir, I knew exactly what you were talking about.’ I told her I could see that by her enthusiasm. She said, ‘Well I know it because I crochet!’”
We all laughed.
“Crocheting is an activity of mindfulness,” he said, “When you crochet, by patiently focusing on your twisted fibers, you free your mind from thoughts and become open to what is real right here in this moment.”
I had a feeling he was right and I also began noticing that the act of crocheting would bring back memories of everywhere I was while crocheting, as if the fiber itself contained a living record of its own experience.
I stayed in that place long enough to crochet a throw blanket for my teenage son, Eric, who always appreciated it much more than most things I gave him. That was a surprise since my crochet stitches were very inconsistent. He didn’t seem to mind so, a few months later, I used soft cashmere yarns to crochet a slightly lumpy scarf for him. He kept it around his neck sometimes even when it was not cold.
When I began to learn DBT, I always thought it was to help me to cope with the worst of my life that was behind me. But I found that life could always bring new surprises so I ended up continuing to participate in three more outpatient DBT groups. It helped me in 2005 when I had a traumatic brain injury. Until then, I had been a writer and when I lost the focus to continue, I became a fiber artist. Maybe it related back to those earlier days associated with DBT and crocheting.
No one knows for sure, but all of it – that kinesthetic feel for fiber and the practice of mindfulness and other DBT skills would all come to be tested on January 6, 2013 when I got a phone call at 7pm.
Eric had been living in Hawaii for the last nine months after a painful divorce. He had gone there to “find himself.” His father lived on the opposite side of the island. It was his father, James, who was calling.
He said flat out, “Eric is dead. He drowned today during a storm.”
How does a mother hear those words? I literally fell off my chair onto the floor yelling, “No, no, no!”
How could that be? Eric was a strong swimmer but the storm had come on suddenly. The Coast Guard, rescue boats and helicopters were out all over the islands. Eric, seeing that his friend, Andy, was in trouble ran into the ocean. As he approached Andy, a rip tide pulled him under and carried him out to sea where the people on shore could just barely see him.
When he surfaced, I was later told, he was gasping for air. Some people watching from shore saw him wave. They did not understand his wave was signaling that he was not okay. A well-known surfer and athlete, Matt, was already out on the sea on the only rescue board provided at this beach where people did not ordinarily swim. Eric was a friend and when he saw him in trouble in the distance, tried to swim toward him. But the waves were pounding as high as twenty feet and it was difficult to track anything.
Eric saw nothing at all – not the people on shore, not the surfer, not even the cliff promontory that jutted out south of his position. For over a half an hour he was lost and alone in a stormy ocean surrounded by unforgiving water. Water – swelling around him. Water – sometimes raining down from above. Water – spraying over him from the choppy seas. What went through his mind? How frightening that time must have been. How I wish he did not have to face it alone. How I hope my love was somehow present.
A man named Jussi, whom Eric had never met, watched the drama from a cliff. Jussi had lost his eleven-year-old son under similar circumstances twenty years earlier. He would later tell me that he could see Eric struggling at first, then he calmed down and turned on his back, knees and elbows slightly bent and relaxed so he could float on the surface. He appeared peaceful, Jussi assured me, and to be awaiting rescue.
Jussi felt certain that Matt would make it on time so he left to call 911 from the emergency phone and returned so he could direct the helicopters when they arrived. Matt was a little more than a minute away when Jussi thought he saw Eric smile and take it all in. All of it. The entire ocean. The whole universe. Smiling like a proud owner, he seemed to bring it all into himself as he floated. Then three large waves tumbled over Eric and Jussi had trouble tracking him. The third wave was almost large enough to crash, turning Eric’s body over as he sank into the watery depths.
Matt saw it only 15 seconds away, sped up, climbed on the board and dove into the ocean. He surfaced with Eric’s body, trying to pull him onto the small, unsteady board. A massive wave knocked them both off and sent them tumbling into the churning brine. Matt struggled to the surface and grabbed the board for just a few seconds before diving again. Lungs burning from lack of oxygen, he dove yet another time until the helicopter arrived. He tried to indicate the place where Eric went down, but they shouted at him that it was too late. Matt slumped down onto the board following the surf home.
Jussi turned to his right and saw, sitting on a branch protruding from the cliff, a Hawaiian Hawk, an ‘Io, staring intently at the spot where Eric disappeared. While the wind blew heavily, not a feather moved on the proud bird. Suddenly, the hawk screeched loudly and soared into the heavens. I imagine Eric’s body as a gift to the sea and the ‘Io triumphantly heralding the return of his soul back to its source.
For three days, the Coast Guard searched for Eric’s body. It was never found. The Islanders say he is with Pele, the volcano Goddess. Eric was just twenty-nine years old.
There is no grave site, no ashes. There is only one huge Pacific Ocean.
And so I breathe. There are days when I am living not just day at a time; I live breath-to-breath. If this tragedy had happened before I learned about DBT, I’m almost certain I would not have survived it. Eric and I were too close.
During the first six months after he died, I was broken. I knew what a broken heart meant because it was a physical sensation. The DBT phrase, “radical acceptance” just isn’t big enough to describe what it was like to surrender my son to the sea. I cried and I let grief flow through me as if the entire ocean was blasting its way through my veins.
I experienced exactly what mindfulness is all about. It is literal grounding. Feeling the ground under my feet. Feeling my arms at my side. Becoming aware and involved in every single task. Now I am eating. I am aware I am eating.
Unexpectedly, many other skills also made sense: turning the mind, distracting. I can go back, as well, to the kinesthetic sensation of the crochet hook and the yarn slipping, sometimes burning through my fingers. I notice it. I really want to notice it.
I waited a few months until Eric’s father was in town to go with him to Eric’s last residence in Minnesota where his belongings were stored. The guys from the house, Mark and Dave, were friendly, laid back and reminded me a lot of Eric.They handed us one box, like the kind you get a ream of papers in, with his rubix cubes, special rocks, feathers and photos from Eric’s life. I looked at them in disbelief.
“This is all?” I asked. For James, he said it was enough; but he lived in a hut on the big island and carried his meager possessions in a backpack.
Dave blushed. “Well, everything meaningful.”
“You don’t understand,” I said. “I am his mother. I want everything. I want every thing he ever touched, thought about, wore, stood next to, handled or even toyed with.”
“Really?” But of course these young men in their mid-twenties who hadn’t yet married or had families couldn’t understand. They had no clue what it was like to carry a child in your body for nine months, bring him into the world, worry about his every unsteady moment, his state of mind, his happiness, and his ups and downs. They had no idea what it was like to set aside your own dreams and life pursuits to protect and provide for someone else, for your offspring, your legacy, or so it was supposed to be.
“Please,” I begged. “Let me have it all.”
Then I recognized the quilt on the back of their couch. “Did you know that was the first quilt I ever made?” I said pointing. They stood so I could remove the blanket from behind them.
“Oh that?” Mark said.
“Yeah. It’s the first time I made a quilt using squares. I made it out of wool that I felted from wool sweaters. As you can see, I still needed a lot of practice,” I pointed out a spot where it was starting to fall apart. “But Eric always liked the things I made by hand.”
“I can understand,” Dave said, “we didn’t mean any disrespect. We just didn’t know.”
I knew that. They brought out the storage bins from the closet. Dave was doubtful, “as you can see, it’s just old computer equipment and this one has nothing but books and CDs. We thought it was junk that you wouldn’t want.”
“I’ll take it home with me anyway. I have a van and maybe you missed something,” I didn’t want to make him feel bad.
I asked for his clothes, but they had already thrown them away. I guess I couldn’t blame them since Eric left everything he had sitting in laundry baskets, even the African-themed collage vest that I had spent hundreds of hours piecing together with motifs that matched his personality.
We packed it all in the van, but before I made the hour-long drive home, I asked to use the bathroom. Thank goodness because there on the bathroom floor, a little wet and dirty was the blanket I had crocheted for Eric so many years earlier while listening to an Indian man teach me about mindfulness.
A few months later, I received an email from Eric’s ex-wife. She said she heard I was upset that I had none of Eric’s clothing and that while cleaning out a closet she came across a ratty old stinky scarf that he used to wear all the time. She said it was disgusting but asked if I wanted it anyway.
“Yes, please,” I responded.
When the package arrived, tears poured down my face as I picked it up and held it in my hands, smiling at my clumsy stitches. It was ripe with body odors, his body odors. I held it to my face and breathed him in, flooded with memories of our all-too-short time together.
There are things that I want to forget and things that I want to remember, but I don’t always get to choose. I don’t want to feel the pain of grief and though less frequent, it is still intense. I try to preserve the smell in his scarf, but it is fading. Still, I can rub those soft fibers between my fingers and appreciate sharing his life.
Now, as the time passes from his last day, I notice these days more clearly. Mindfulness is about being fully alive; completely noticing the moment. Everything in life will pass away one day. I have to be the one to take the risk to live and feel and be mindful of all that is good and true about this moment right here, right now. Eric taught me that. Before I die, I will live.
Mental Health Resources
Making DBT skills second nature takes practice. Use these flashcards on their page, download your own to print out, or purchase our pre-made set from our shop. Read More
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