Sometimes Anxiety Looks Like Obsession

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 

My husband got me the sewing machine as a Christmas present. I knew how to sew, somewhat, and we were worried I’d have to sew my son’s Christmas pageant costume. And I did. I sewed three magi headpieces, and it was pretty easy.

After that, I cast around for what else might be easy. Pillowcases, I decided. I would make everyone pillowcases. Like, Christmas pillowcases, special ones just for Christmas. And I disappeared into the dining room, where I’d set up my machine. I ironed and French-seamed and ironed and pinned and suddenly I wasn’t freaking out about deadlines or my husband being late coming home or life in general. I was happy, humming along, hiding from the world.

Because I suffer from moderate to severe anxiety, a good part of my life is spent freaking out about details no one else notices, like the clutter on the kitchen table or whether my dog will look stupid at obedience class or if my husband will die a fiery crash on the way home from work at 4:15 on a Tuesday afternoon. I worry that the kids are getting sick; I fret about the flu.

But most of all, I have social anxiety, which extends into digital social anxiety. Facebook triggers me. So does every other type of social media. The news triggers me because I think we’re all going to die in a nuclear holocaust or immigrants are dying of heatstroke in trucks on the border or women are dying by the hands of their abusive husbands. Then there’s #MeToo and all the scumbags whose asses are now totally canceled.

But if I’m sewing, I’m on Facebook. No one is telling me about the latest Donald Trump horribleness or which celebrity we’d discovered had molested underage girls. I could be on Pinterest. For patterns. And you don’t really have to interact with humans on Pinterest if you ignore your notifications.

So I kept at it. My husband graded papers while the kids destroyed the house. They’d been enriched all day homeschooling and going to the park, so what was the big deal? They were happy. I suddenly wasn’t parenting, without a break, from 7 am until 9:30 pm. My drawers were stuffed full of recycled clothing efforts.

I sewed. And sewed. And sewed. Because suddenly I wasn’t scared anymore.

But I knew I was sewing too much. I missed my kids. I felt left out too. My husband would take the kids to the park without me, with the words, “You stay home and sew.” He knew what it was doing for me.

But if it wasn’t sewing, it would be reading. I can tear through a novel in a day, given the motivation, and anxiety certainly gives you the motivation to burrow into a book. My in-laws gifted me a juicy biography for Christmas (my MIL and I share an obsession with the British royals), and I found myself sneaking down to the basement or up to the bedroom to devour depressing details of a royal childhood at Gordonstoun or a raucous love life pre-Diana.

Yes, I ditched my husband with the kids, because they were cooped up and stressing me out — throwing blocks everywhere and whining in someone else’s house, demanding things I couldn’t locate and brawling with someone else’s small dogs while watching a TV I couldn’t operate. I didn’t know the city and couldn’t just drive to Target. I was chewing my cuticles and picking the skin around my thumbs until I found a book and started hiding.

None of this is uncommon. People with anxiety, both medicated and unmedicated — and I am medicated to the gills — find ways to cope. And one of the most common ways to cope is to go all-in on something, perhaps to the detriment of the rest of our lives. In the past, I’ve memorized all of the musical Hamilton, crocheted everything from tiny baby hats to enormous blankets, and obsessively attachment-parented my children. All of these things gave my brain a focus away from the things that triggered it, from the terrors that dropped me to my knees (literally). They stopped me from screaming, because my anxiety often turns into inchoate rage.

But these obsessions often led to overspending too. On yarn, with the crocheting. On books, with the reading. On online shopping. Right now, on “fabric” (read: clothing) from Goodwill that I can upcycle, and trimmings from the actual fabric store. It all adds up.

I do actually miss my kids sometimes. But my oldest wants to learn to sew, so we’re going to start work on the quilt I pieced out from scraps.

It also may prevent me from actually coping. I probably need to deal with some real feelings related to #MeToo. I need to cope with some actual thoughts about having the president we have, and take some real civic action that would make a difference, not sit in a room, with a sunny window and happily humming machine. I need to do some work about why Facebook is such a trigger, especially certain people on Facebook, and figure out how to manage some of that social anxiety instead of sewing, sewing, sewing.

But my machine is there. It’s so shiny, so comforting in its loud hum, its logical progression of stitches. I have pins, an iron. There is order here, even if it doesn’t seem like it, compared to the messiness and fear in the world. And right now, at this point in my life, I need the order. I need the fixation. I need the comfort of a well-made zigzag stitch, the knowledge of when to use what needle when I can’t figure out if a comment on Facebook is funny or weird.

It might not be healthy. But I need this to cope right now, sometimes just to get through the day.

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