• Dr. D

Knitting Her Way to Abstinence

Conditions were right for becoming addicted

Ms. C developed a drug problem when the conditions were right. Drugs were everywhere around her. Her significant other used and introduced her to crack. Her two sisters were jailed heroin addicts. Then her father died of alcoholic liver disease. The stage was set.


Ms. C was addressing the medical student who was working with me that month. “I seen what it does to folks and their lives. But it seemed like I couldn't help myself. Guess you could say I was born into the wrong crowd.”


Ms. C was also a born teacher. When she was there I gave her the floor.


“I was blessed, though,” Ms C went on. “I seen where my life was going, seen what it was doing to my kids and the Lord told me to change. And that was the day I prayed and asked Him for help, and He sent me here. It’s been fifteen months, two weeks and three days since I used anything. So with His help and this lady here,” she gestured toward me, “I’m heading right again.”


How to stay clean and sober

“What do you do to stay sober?” the student asked.


Ms. C nodded. “Honey, I’m glad you asked,” she said, ”‘cause it ain’t easy.” She continued. “I go to a meeting everyday that I can,” she said, referring to the “Anonymous” meetings: Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, etc.

“The grandkids aren’t in school on the weekend so I can’t go then, but I do the rest of the days while they’re gone. I come here once a month and talk to this lady. And I pray to the Lord every day to give me strength.”


I explained a bit about Ms. C’s life to fill in the gaps. I wanted the student to get as much information as she could about the crack-using lifestyle and what makes abstinence hard, but I also didn’t want to use up all of Ms. C’s monthly visit for teaching. After all, these meetings were to help her. I didn’t want to lose sight of that.


“Ms. C has custody of her three grandkids, her daughter’s children,” I explained. I turned to Ms. C. “When does she get out?”


“Be another fifteen months,” she said.


“Her daughter is in prison for drug dealing and Ms. C took in the kids rather than have them put into the system,” I said, referring to the child welfare system. “The kids have been kind of difficult. The oldest boy is eight and acting out at school and the younger two are following his lead. The place they live in is small. And she was having a really hard time at night trying not to think about using. She can’t watch TV because the kids sleep on the floor in the living room and it would keep them awake. She doesn't like to read much. So we had to come up with some way to fill her time during those long evenings.”


An alternative to drugs

Ms. C explained the idea of “craving,” that sudden and excruciating desire to use again, even though it had been over a year since the last time she’d gotten high. Sometimes the longing to use was so intense that it blocked out everything else. You didn’t think about the consequences of using. You didn’t think about the puking, the gut aches, the chills and depression of coming down from whatever it was you were using. You only thought about how wonderful and freeing getting high would be. She talked about how great her risk of relapsing was: no non-using friends, poverty, the grind of once again having to parent young, angry children.


Ms. C paused here to let everything sink in. She’d given this talk before so I didn’t interrupt her. She’d get to the point eventually and the student was listening politely, shaking her head at appropriate intervals in the story.


Ms. C resumed. "So I come to the clinic for help before I relapsed." She always stressed the word before, noting again how long she’d been clean, "...and that’s when we met. I had to have something else to do after the kids was in bed. I mean, besides using.


"And we did come up with something, didn't we?" I asked Ms. C, who nodded. “Let’s see what you’ve got. “


Knitting her sober future

With that I got up from my desk, grabbed a chair, put it next to Ms. C and sat down. We huddled together, so close our shoulders touched. At the same time, she grabbed the paper bag she'd brought with her and dragged out a two foot long, red fabric she was knitting, still on the needles.

Next she pulled out a ball of yarn attached to the fabric and put everything in her lap. Holding the knitting needles, she began.


“I’m making a scarf, a muffler. For a while it looked like I was doing good,” I nodded agreement. “But it’s getting wider and wider now.” She stretched out the fabric to its full length and width and laid it across our laps. “See? it’s an inch wider here than it was at the beginning. If I keep going until it’s all done, it’ll be six inches wider between the top and the bottom.”


I took the knitting from her, looking along the rows. “You’ve added stitches here and here,” I showed her.


She couldn’t see what I was pointing to, so I ran my finger along first one row, then another, showing how she had knitted into loops between some stitches making the fabric wider.

“You could rip out the rows to where you added the first stitch,” I told her. “But that’s quite a ways to go.” I could see that the first extra stitch was almost at the beginning.


I looked again at the knitting before us. “If you want everything to be just right we need to rip it all out.” I knew that for some people anything less than perfect is unacceptable. However, I also knew that sometimes it’s okay to disguise a mistake and thought this might be one of them. I didn’t want her to be discouraged by an apparent lack of progress. “You know,” I continued, ”this thing is going to be at least six feet long when you’re finished, right?


She nodded.

“You could just take out the extra stitches very gradually as you knit until it’s back to the number you started with, and your eye probably won’t see it if you space it out over four more feet.”


“Don’t get it, sugar,” came the response.


I demonstrated, taking one stitch out toward the edge of the row where the eye wouldn’t be drawn to it. “This is a heavy yarn so you only added a few stitches. If we take out one stitch every nine or ten rows your eyes won’t really catch the difference.” I held it up for her to see.


“Is that what you’d do?" She asked me.


In honesty, I shook my head. “No, but I knit faster than you do. The next one you do will be perfect because now you know what to look for.”


She nodded at that. “Yeah. I got to see it working,"she agreed. Ms C took back the needles and started to knit slowly and with some intensity.


What the student learned

I was trying to keep one eye on the medical student. I was amused to think that what she was seeing must look like two old friends at a knitting bee rather than a reformed crack addict and the head of a university treatment program.


The young woman looked mystified.


Sometimes the forty five minute sessions I have with patients can drag. Not with Ms. C though. Time flew while I showed her how to avoid similar mistakes, brought out a pair of mittens I was making at the time, and encouraged her to continue what she was doing.


Soon it was just the student and me again.


She quizzed me about what she’d just seen. I asked her if it bothered her for me to spend time that way. Very slowly, considering for a moment she said, “I guess it’s kind of occupational therapy in a way,” was her response. “She needs something for her, something that will hold her attention and that she can get good at. I think that’s pretty cool.”


Seconds passed before the student said anything more.


Then, “So, do you think you could maybe teach me to knit?”



Image of drug works by: webking

Image of holding hands by: fizkes

Image of hands knitting by: DenisKa

Image of knitting mittens by: JurijTeplouh