The Great Chair Adventure: Part 2

Craft, Making and Depression

As part of the great chair adventure, I am going to talk about the Windsor Chair Making course I did in early 2020 out in Clevedon, run by Forgotten Arts. Taught by Richard Hare, this course introduced me to a number of new tools, concepts, and skills to learn. It was hugely instructive, and fun. But it was also at a point when I was still in the grips of my clinical depression, and the inter-action between the learning of a new set of skills, craft, and the depression, has been thought provoking. Unfortunately, I didn’t write up any reflections on this at the time, despite this being a great learning experience that brought with it a new set of skills, tool knowledges and appreciations. I was still very much in recovery mode from depression during this course, but on top of this there was the commute to the course location out on the very edges of Auckland at Clevedon, which made for long days, and some background thinking about a grant application, which made for an intellectual pre-occupation when away from the work site, all of which really wasn’t conducive to writing up a detailed reflection on the day’s activities in the evening (something I managed to do with the shoe making.) Still, much was learnt, they are lessons that resonate, and I suspect will abide with me, and I will try to capture the results in a few posts. 

Out under the tree in Clevedon, where the riving, drawknife work, and turning was done.

But, before I even begin to get into the discussion about the hand work, tools, etc, I need to talk a little bit about my depression.

I was very firmly in the grip of clinical depression during the week of this course. Yet despite this, during that week with wood and tools, in the countryside with a quiet unforced fellowship of fellow learners, my suffering was eased. The depression was still very much there. I felt the preoccupations of my depression, the inward turning obsessions that depression brings. I was still on serious anti-depressants, and I still had the anhedonia, the lack of enjoyment in things. However, I didn’t have the serious emotional breakdowns that were part of my world either side of this time. In the weeks leading up to the course, and the weeks subsequently, these emotional breakdowns, moments of complete collapse, were common. These events are a complete paralysis, an inability to cope with an onslaught of grief, anxiety, futility, incapacity, self-doubt and a dozen other flavours of down that leaves me paralyzed and unable to speak, sobbing and broken. I can’t move. I can’t function. I can’t really think. I can’t even speak coherently, and at best I can force out a repeated “I can’t”. All I can do is feel, and all I can feel is emotional pain. This is the rock bottom of my disease as I experience it, the lowest point in the ebbs and flows of my illness. I had these episodes a couple of times a week, if not daily, in the months either side of the week of this course. 

But not during the week of this course. 

And there were gaps elsewhere in the disease; gaps in the anhedonia, gaps in the pre-occupations, gaps where I could see a future with some kind of hope in it. Moments of pleasure in what was a desert of none. So, while I was ill during this course, there was an easing, a moment of space of sorts. So, what was going on?

A return to shell building

Now some of these gaps and easing of the disease might be due to a retrogressive suppression; a return to a holding back of the depressive state that leads to the subsequent collapse. So rather than a rolling back of the depression, a healing, it is a move to an earlier stage, when the emotions of depression are suppressed, and held at bay, when emotional energy is used to build a social facing shell of competence and capability. This suppression is one of the things that depressives can end up doing: they build a shell that hides the underlying heaving anxiety and emotional turmoil. 

To explain a bit further, we all do this sort of thing, this shell building, at some point in our lives. People do a public talk or presentation, a jangle of nerves and anxieties, and a friend says “you didn’t look nervous.” It all looks fine from the outside. We project confidence, we act competently, we do the task in front of us, despite a roiling underlying turmoil, or tension. 

But note, we often come away from such moments exhausted; relieved, but exhausted. Its tiring doing these things, maintaining this front, while a frazzle of nerves. I remember putting together post-graduate retreats, that involved organising transport, accommodation, food, talks, etc, and the stresses and strains of people depending on your organisation (plus putting together one’s own talk). But despite the tensions, I probably looked reasonably calm from the outside. Mostly. 

 But with that tension and stress came a moment of overwhelming relief and release once I felt it was finally all happening, and there was nothing left to do but let it happen. Oh, blessed relief, the falling away of the built-up stresses. To cap it off, the great night’s sleep I would have recovering the from emotional and mental exhaustion. Also the celebratory drink. 

For people suffering from depression, that relief and moment of release never really comes. It might come in little bits, but it never completely releases all the stress. The stress and strain becomes cumulative, and never lets up. Over days, weeks, months, and even years, it all adds up, and is never relieved. All the while a tiring projection of competence is presented, along with a maintenance of social niceties, all hiding a seething mass of concerns, anxieties and self-doubt underneath. 

This is what makes the eventual collapse so debilitating. Over the long term, the maintenance of this shell ends up draining any reserves of emotional resilience that someone suffering might have, and it empties them. Depression is a hollowing out. In the build up to full depressive collapse this constant emptying of emotional reserves also re-wires your brain to this self-preserving front, while behind it the self-confidence and capability is emptied out. Doubt, misery, and pain build this shell. Moreover, someone suffering from depression can manage this with a smile, and up to a point, with an almost normal functionality. Depression isn’t a sadness: depression is a protective state. Social niceties and a semblance of normality are part of the armour depression provides.

So, during this course of chair making, it is possible that I slipped a little into this state of things, this protective shell of apparent competence, while draining away some precious reserves of emotional resilience that I had built up over the previous months. A projection of capability for the complete strangers I was dealing with on this course.

I do think this was part of it, at least some of the time. I don’t think that at that point of my illness I could just go take up a career or a full-time hobby of furniture making and all would be well. I have been through too much therapy, effort, and healing since then to think that I was ready to throw in my lot with making things as a past-time and that I would be healed. No, this retrogression to a suppressive, protective crypto-functional state was a part of what was going on. But just a part. 

During my time chair making it was noticeably easier to slip into this protective state, and less draining. The shell needed less maintenance, to the point where there were gaps. I learnt things. Most importantly, I felt things that were positive. Stuff was allowed in. I felt moments of justified self-confidence; the evidence of that self-belief was before me in my achievements, the results of my actions. It is not like the depression went away. It is just that its oscillations might have been at a less destructive frequency; shifted down perhaps. 

Manual Activity and Depression.

For many people this feels right. Craft, handwork, and making heals. Manual activity and handwork have been part of the “common-sense” pop-psychology first-aid kit for depression for a long time. The idea of reducing stress through some kind of making –be it baking or needle work, paper folding or woodworking, or any kind of craft or manual activity– is common. It is a cultural folk wisdom, although I am not sure how cross cultural that folk wisdom is (and it would be interesting to find out.) So, we might think that chair-making fitted this pattern; a manual activity, handwork, and a sense of accomplishment and completion that brings agency in the midst of a disease that strips agency, and brings completion and success when the disease brings only a focus on things that are broken and unfinished. 

Maybe. 

This idea of mindful activity through making feels just a little too much like common sense and folk wisdom, and my training makes me suspicious about that common-sense; it feels a bit like story telling without some clearer mechanism. What’s more, there is too much cultural history behind the idea of ‘crafting to heal’, so that heightens my suspicion. To put this in context, lots of common sense gets undermined a little by closer scrutiny. For a good collection of what this entails check out (Kahneman, 2011) “Thinking Fast and Slow”

I am not sure that the deep underlying damage of depression is necessarily healed by manual activity. I suspect its ameliorated and soothed, which is something to be enormously grateful for, but I am not sure it heals per se. I suspect manual crafts provide a kind of distraction, and one that is suitably embodied, flowing, and mindful that it gives time to regain reserves. In general, it diverts rather than re-makes, even if diversion allows space for re-making. That said, maybe it is just a diversion, but so what; the space it offers is a healing one, so go with what works. 

But that raises questions. If it is just a mindful distraction, can we get that mindful distraction using other strategies, like running or yoga, obsessive stamp collecting or video games? The pop cultural answer is typically yes to running and yoga, these activities are good for us, but it balks a bit at video games, and perhaps even pauses a little at obsessive collecting. Does it have to be something we do with our hands, or be embodied, or something made, and accomplished, to get the full benefit? Is completion the benefit provider?

I think there is more here than a general distractive mindfulness and productive re-wiring. I think that skill, and the deployment of skill, plays a crucial role. But I am not sure how it plays a role, and I think it is not as well understood as we might think. After all, these things do work for video games, and video games are enormously good at providing feedback through achievements, good enough to addict people. Video games have clear results, and accomplishments. One can complete a level, beat the boss baddy, ‘clock’ a game, complete it. It requires skill, and there is an attainable mastery. So is video game mastery as healing as craft mastery in the face of depression? And if not, why not, and what is the underlying difference? And if its that little endorphin rush of success and feedback, why isn’t social media healing? Little accomplishments and moments of pleasure? How about eliciting some clicks? 

Moreover, sometimes craft and making isn’t that fulfilling. Lots of craft tasks are unexciting, or repetitive. To be a commercial maker is to mass produce, but even the hobbyist will find boring repetitive tasks within a craft project. For full time professionals, elements of a craft can become just another chore. One of the things that emerges from discussions of craft, and making, is the need for new challenges in the face of the repetitiveness of making. The constant reproduction of a single item for sale has to take on an element of tedium, surely? Craftspeople like Curtis Buchanan often talk about the challenges of their raw materials, and how each piece ends up being different because of the this. So how important is that to the craft as healing component? The constant challenge?

Craft also has a social component too; the quiet thrill of pride when people admire the product of your labours. But again, some communities will respond both positively and negatively to the outcomes of your activities. Some people just don’t understand what you have achieved. I have some pretty complicated lithographs on my walls that rarely get a passing comment. Moreover, the comparison to social media attention raises its head again. 

One aspect of craft that might separate it from alternatives is that it might tap into memories. I noted in my first post on chairmaking that woodworking and design are to some extent tied to memories of my childhood, and in particular to memories of my engaged and shared times with my father. For some of us as least, the return to a craft, or a making activity, might well be a return to an activity subtly connected to our sense of self. It would be interesting to know what kind of craft worked for different people, and what memories it evokes. The thought here is that if we are exposed to a craft activity during our formative years –and note the use of the word formative here– and that craft is associated with a shared, secure, time of learning, that a return to that activity might shift us back to that settled state. So in a sense I remember who I was, and in so doing, I remember who I am perhaps? I can’t help thinking that the mini baking boom during Covid19 lockdowns fit this pattern. It returns us to a point of learning, security, and safety. But I am not sure, and I am not sure this fits all experiences of craft as healing. I was learning, and doing things I had never done before, during the Windsor Chair making. There weren’t that many memories being evoked by these new tools; quite the opposite in most cases. My woodworking had primarily been straight edge, working with dried, machined lumber. This greenwood working, despite moments of comfort, was entirely new.

So, craft as “healing” is I think problematic. It can slip into distractions and diversions, but then it is a bit like an absorbing video game with its challenges and reward. It can be evocative of memory, of a safe childhood and security, but that doesn’t make sense of learning new skills, of mindful activities in general. As an instinctive pluralist, who thinks that any simple one-way causal arrow explanation in the social or cognitive sciences is probably wrong, I suspect there are complex interactions at play here. There needs to be feedback loops, multiple channels of flow, and a plausible functional account before I get too invested in an answer. 

This is the first post about the intersection between craft and making, that also explores depression and wellbeing. It is unlikely to be the last. 

I don’t have anything like answers.

1 Comment

  1. I enjoyed reading your exploration of ideas, Ben. You’ve got a wonderful writing style. I’ve never used ‘craft’ or such like as healing from my depressive illnesses; so I can’t add to your ideas in that regard. However, I totally agree that there will be much more complexity and individualism in each persons healing journey than common sense can provide. Thanks for your thoughts!

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