I knit a lot for charity. It’s rare that I knit anything for myself. When I focus on a need that I can help fill–in my very small, but creative way–I get fully immersed in the work to the detriment of all else.
Until recently, I wasn’t aware of just how detrimental my singular focus could be–to me.
On July 12th, I woke up with searing pain in my right hand and wrist. I had had sharp, shooting pain in my wrist–at the base of the top of my hand–before, but it had always been momentary, and would subside fairly quickly. This overwhelming pain was different; it was sharp pain, but constant, and not diminishing.
I wondered if the pain could have been caused by my recent production of a significant quantity of cotton washcloths and fleece blankets for immigrant children taken from their parents. Cotton yarn has no “give,” and can be quite hard on a person’s wrist and hands. And I had been working intensely on the projects…
In the moments of intense pain, it no longer mattered to me why I was feeling the pain–all I wanted was for it to stop. After a bit, I recalled the RICE “diet” for sprains: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. I grabbed my “pea” ice pack from the freezer, wrapped my wrist and the top of my hand in an ACE bandage, and downed an Aleve. I would have to stop knitting for a while. Maybe only a few hours until the Aleve and the ice kicked in.
But nothing diminished the pain. So I called an orthopedist and got an appointment for 5 days in the future.
Despite the pain, did I really Rest, like, NOT KNIT during the 5 day wait? No… I couldn’t stop the one activity that kept me calm, helped me fulfill a role, gave me a purpose, and which I was right in the middle of doing. I kept knitting, but could only knit for short bursts of teeth-gritting time. Rest was done at night, when I slept wearing a dominatrix-like wrist brace. And during the 3 times a day when I iced my hand/wrist impatiently.
My appointment was with an orthopedist at the hospital where I teach knitting to cancer patients and family members affected by cancer. His specialty was not hands, but because the hand doctor was out on maternity leave, I was seeing him. He took x-rays of my hand and wrist and said there wan’t anything wrong with them–as far a bones go. So, no carpal tunnel.
“Please don’t say there is nothing wrong! My hand is killing me! I can’t knit!” I cried. “I can’t teach!”
The doctor looked at me with sympathy. “I think you have tendinitis, so stop wearing that brace, and do a month or so of PT, several times a week. And, here’s a prescription for Prednisone. That ought to do it. We want you back teaching knitting as soon as possible.”
When I went to the hand therapist a week later, she looked at the x-rays, examined my hand, listened to my sob story, and said I needed an MRI. “I think there’s more to your problem than tendinitis. We need to see more than the bones.”
“Can I knit in the meantime?” I asked. She said OK for now. I could exercise and knit until I could get an MRI–as long as I wore the brace during those activities.
But a week later, as soon as she got the MRI results back, she stopped my PT. “You’ve got a torn tendon, which is not such a big deal. It’s this intraosseous cyst in your lower hand that is a bigger issue. I’m not sure how you got it, but for most people, a cyst like that can come from either trauma (like repetitive stress). Or,” she said, looking at me levelly, “age. Whatever I do with PT might be exactly the wrong thing for you because the cyst is in a very critical part of your hand.”
To make this narrative short(er), let’s jump ahead to August 6th, when I saw the well-recommended hand surgeon. He wanted to start conservatively–to leave my hand in total rest (NO knitting, no nothing) for 3-4 weeks, wearing the brace 24/7, and taking Aleve twice a day. If that didn’t work, next up would be a shot of Cortisone into the hand. If that didn’t work, then I would have to have arthroscopic surgery to shave off the cyst.
It has now been 2 weeks without use of my right hand, wearing a thick brace during the hottest, most humid summer in DC. I’ve slid into some sort of nether world of sleepy awake-ness. The days seem incredibly long and rather pointless. I am no longer creating things that will help others, so have lost my connection to the greater world, my raison d’être, my purpose. I am more aware now of how vital creating to benefit others is to my sense of self. When I was able to just do the work, I thought little about how much that production meant to me. The absence of creativity vividly highlights its importance to my existence.
“What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference
you want to make.” — Jane Goodall
Of course I wonder if I could have avoided this injury somehow. Should I have stretched my hands more often? Should I have learned to take rests, to not work 10 hours a day on a project when I’m in production mode? Should I have learned how to knit in another manner, using my right hand less than I do?
The answer to all those questions is, yes. I knew I should take regular stretch breaks. I knew I shouldn’t get so into production, so goal-oriented, that I over-worked myself. And I’ve loftily resisted every suggestion that there are more ergonomic ways to knit than how I’m used to knitting; it seems too hard to have to relearn to knit. It would take too long to master a totally different way of knitting, and I wouldn’t get any of the zone-like peace I attain(ed) while knitting in my familiar “throwing” style.
When I eventually get back to knitting, I will first-of-all try something new: bringing myself into the mindfulness I practice while knitting. I have always been outwardly-focused–how, where, by whom would the objects I make be used? Losing my sense of self to the dance of yarn and needles, the rhythm of stitches. I’m going to try holding onto a tiny portion–a nightlight-sized awareness–of myself, of how my hands feel, how my shoulders feel. Whether my back is straight and supported. If my eyes are getting tired…
This isn’t revolutionary thinking. Just about anyone who writes about knitting cautions knitters about minding their own posture, the way they hold their hands, the yarn, the needles. But the wonderful Betsan Corkhill (who trained as a physiotherapist) is particularly eloquent on the need for “whole health” approaches to knitting. In her book, “Knit for Health and Wellness,” Corkhill describes many ways to improve your posture while knitting–especially how you sit–so that you can avoid repetitive strain injuries. “You can minimize the risk of developing pain in your hands or repetitive strain injury if you adopt a good sitting posture and pace your knitting.”
It’s not revolutionary thinking, but thinking of myself–of my body–while knitting will be an upheaval for me. I can already feel the resistance to change stirring in me. A flare of anger that I don’t see why I have to ruin the way I was knitting. A “woe is me” cry that I will have to “waste a lot of time” learning to sit differently, learning to take breaks and do stretches. But I know that the changes will take me less time than the cumulative weeks, days and hours I’ll be spending in the brace, NOT knitting at all, and being/feeling utterly useless!
“Self-care is not a luxury, it is a necessity to maintain our own health and well-being. Caring for self is not self-indulgence… It is self-preservation for ourselves
and those we serve.” — Florence Nightengale
I’m not sure why I’m so resistant to changing the manner in which I can be of service to people. However I manage to do something for others, I will be doing what my soul desires. No matter, really, if I’m sitting differently, or taking more time for stretch breaks, I’ll still be making hats for NICU babies, teaching cancer patients to knit, making soft blankets for immigrant children separated from their parents, and catnip mice for shelter cats. The road will be different, but the destination will be the same one I’ve been moving towards for a while now.
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”