Logged onto one of my Facebook groups one day—a group called Knitting for Peace—and found a plea from Joanne Pearl, a clinical supervisor at Odyssey House, an outpatient substance abuse facility in the South Bronx:
I have started a knitting/crochet group to teach healthy leisure skills. My folks love it. I am writing as I have run out of supplies. I am hoping you can all dig into your stashes and donate those odds and ends you know you will not be using. I am also looking for needles.
Well, it just so happens that I have a HUGE “stash”—of yarn, and lots of knitting needles. Aside from my own yarn, we had cleaned out my father’s house after he died in 2007 and I’d found a bunch of unfinished crochet projects my mother had left when she died in 1999. I don’t crochet and neither does my sister, and, unable to consign them to the landfill since my mother had started them with her own hands, I’d been holding them until the right opportunity presented itself.
I sent them in a big box to Joanne.
Later we talked about her work teaching recovering addicts to knit and crochet…
G: What are the drugs the women you’ve worked with have used most?
Joanne: In outpatient, by far the biggest is cannabis, because in the community it’s just seen as so socially acceptable. Then cocaine, alcohol, heroin. … When they come in saying that smoking cannabis isn’t really drug-use, I just nod and say, “OK … And while you were smoking that cannabis, did you lose your job? Did you fail to graduate from high school? How many goals did you abandon while you were smoking?”
G: When did you first start working with people struggling with addiction?
Joanne: I was a non-academic dean at a liberal arts college in Westchester County in the late 1990s, when heroin was making a resurgence in New York—it was even on Wall Street. At my school, we had the poorest of the poor to very wealthy students. And I learned that individuals are stunted in personal development because of drug use.
G: How did you come up with the idea of using crafts to help people recover?
Joanne: I was working in inner-city Yonkers, at an outpatient day-rehab for women and children. That was where I started the crafts. The director there was a very “crafty” woman and she was open to the idea.
Boredom is the hugest trigger for relapse and drug-use: “I’m bored, I don’t know how to fill up my time.” When addicts are bored, the first thing they think of is going to a bar and getting drunk, finding their drug of choice, or going to a club, which means they have to spend money. They don’t have healthy leisure skills. They don’t think about watching a movie, talking with friends, reading, or just taking a walk. They haven’t learned to develop that alone-time. They don’t want to think or feel. Boredom comes on very quickly in those recovering from addiction—in a matter of five or 10 minutes.
G: What do the women you work with like about knitting and crochet?
Joanne: One beautiful thing—knitting and crafting is something you can do by yourself. Around here, there are like ten 99-cent stores where you can pick up some yarn and needles—so it’s not cost-prohibitive. It can be a lifelong skill.
It can include all age-groups. I had two girls here of 8 and 10 [relatives of a recovering addict]. They came to me one day: “Miss Joanne, what are those sticks and balls of string?”
G: So there’s something healing about making things and being creative…
Joanne: It teaches them to be patient. There’s a woman who graduated several years ago who keeps coming back to show me what she’s made. She’s learn to turn her mistakes into design elements, and she’s actually designing her own garments now. She says, “I never feel alone or bored—when I start feeling bad, I put on my shawl and my hat and I pick up my needles, and I feel better.”
It also becomes a forum where therapy goes on. It frees up the mind so they can speak. They talk about their remorse over losing a child, or past domestic violence or sexual abuse. They offer each other support. It’s a magical tool.
My mother’s unfinished projects have gone to Amanda, a 60-year-old recovering addict who came to Odyssey House after residential treatment. “She’s a crocheter,” Joanne says. “She always came to the group, even when it wasn’t too stable.” I can’t think of a better person to finish my mother’s work.
Visit Odyssey House’s website
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