It's not everyday one is asked to present a keynote, but this one was special.
I was asked to speak at the British Knitting and Crochet Awards about why I wrote Knit and Nibble, and although parts of my talk are funny, I decided to talk about my depression, and how knitting saved my life.
Pour yourself a cuppa, have a read and share it with others.
I’m James. You may not know me, but knitting saved my life. It was not an easy road. Nor was it easy to walk into a yarn shop.
One day, at the age of 35, I woke up and could not move - could not get out of bed. I was not lazy, I just could not move.
I was diagnosed with a severe depressive episode.
What? Life loving me?
This did not make any sense. Things had bottled up, one thing after another and then the final snap came…
It was too much to bear.
Fear, anxiety, a catatonic physical state, panic, black. Very black.
If you have not been through a mid-life crisis, take note, make it spectacular, because when you fall, it needs to be memorable. Mine was, like me, fabulous. So much so some of it even played out on Prime Time TV. Talk about a press release that made it all the way to pay-for-view TV!
Meanwhile, while I was breaking, I was also breaking the mould. I have never done things normally, and this was no different. I lost the sports car and opted for the older model in the form of Dr. Thomas: who may not look so good in a bikini, but does look great in a raglan!
I used to think people with depression needed to have a good kick-up-the-bum and get on with life. That was until it arrived with me. My head was the deepest black, I had no energy, the depth of sadness in my head was too much to bear.
I could not sleep.
All I could do every day to calm my anxiety was to stay in bed and watch Netflix. I spent a year in bed, I could not get out, Thomas loved me through it and as a Dr himself, he was aware I was acutely ill.
I was conscious I was wasting my life. I was a distant shadow of myself, my life was wasting away and I did not know what to do, or have the energy to do it. I felt no reward, at least if we lived in Dr Thomas’ native Germany I would be rewarded with the title of Frau Dr.
Instead I was lumbered with the title of Dr’s wife.
The old boys club is an inherent cruelty of the UK and more business is carried out at the dinner table than in the board room. I was thankful I studied for an MA in Home Economics and used to work in the Good Housekeeping Institute - menopausal monthly as we called it, the non-defined gender roles of today’s society saved the day.
I had been very successful, I was the only Westerner to present food TV in China. At the height of my career I was getting about 100 million viewers a week on my TV shows. I worked freelance and AGA cookers and myself had a very long relationship. I had the privilege of launching AGA all over the world, and was the man who brought AGA and Rangemaster to China.
Dr Thomas is a senior Consultant Physician in a large teaching hospital in London. Thomas meditates for 3 hours a day, every day. I assure you ‘There are 3 of us in this marriage, and it’s a little bit crowded’! But his dedication to the practice of mindfulness, is a blessing and shows its fruits in our lives, both together and separate.
He’s the only NHS consultant that operates a mindfulness clinic to treat chronic illness and pain. His in-patients are geriatrics, out-patients are related to autonomics - that’s faints and blackouts to you and me. His hours are so long and demanding. Thomas sends his apologies tonight that he cannot be with us, instead representing him is his ward Sister, Suzanne O’Neill.
In my illness Suzanne would come and see me at home after her shift on the ward. In her Southern Irish brogue she taught me to knit with that Irish ward-Sister no-nonsense approach:
‘stick the right one into the loop on the left, wrap the yarn over, then pull it off’
Sister O’Neill knows about knitting and wellness, handing a ball of yarn to a demented patient can stop the screams of anguish as they are hospitalised while re-living their fears. Dr Thomas says that we all must confront our fears to move on. Suzanne, thank you, on behalf of Dr Thomas and myself. People like you make the NHS what it is, a treasure we must protect in the UK and encourage therapeutic knitting into treatments.
Holding 2 knitting needles in-front of me gave me support, it allowed a barrier between myself and someone else - A safety net - to get better.
Betsan Corkhill, in your book of Knitting and Wellness, thank you for giving Dr Thomas and me the text for clinical recovery. Dame Hilary, your work with Knit for Peace and the culmination of professional and medical articles Knit for Peace published allowed Thomas and I to read every one and form the basis academically for my recovery.
I don’t remember why I started to knit, but I found 2 chopsticks and a piece of string, watched YouTube to learn how to cast on. Before I knew it I had created a knitted something or other.
I showed it to Thomas and he said ‘let’s get ze wool ja’.
I started to knit a jumper on 12mm needles in beige Alpaca - itchy thing.
The resulting product is somewhat shapeless, but will live as a trophy to my health for many years, albeit at the back of my wardrobe. Why do moths never eat the ugly items?
I remember putting that misshapen article of clothing on my body, looking in the mirror and for the first time, in so long feeling proud of me again. I thirsted for colour in so many ways. My first knitted garment allowed me to love myself again, I felt human. A deeply precious and intimate feeling.
I saw this again recently, watching my new born niece - Beth, hold an octopus my Mum had knit for her allowing Beth to hold onto it’s green tentacles - akin to the umbilical cord she only a few hours ago was separated from, love flows through knitting needles, its therapeutic for all.
I phoned my Mum one day saying my head was like a metal box, and the hammers inside the box won’t stop. Northern Irish Mum’s are great ladies, within a few hours Mum was in Peckham - the posh part. We started to talk, I started to get better.
We went to John Lewis.
Mum knit the ribs, I did the stocking stitch, Dr Thomas put it in a boil wash.
I had to start again, both with that boiled washed item and my career. You see, the tablets were kicking in. I was getting better, A ‘Drs wife’ on antidepressants, stereo-types are harsh.
I’m proud to say, I’m better, I’m off the tablets and I wake up at 6am every day and have a purpose again.
How did I get better?
Knitting is changing.
The sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
And it's not:
To be in this room today with my heroes is a testimony to love. You loved me and helped me through my illness with your written words and colours.
Debbie Bliss, your recent struggles gave me strength and showed me that stitches can be picked up again, even if others drop them.
Kate Davies, your story on your website about having a stroke at 36 has made you a hero in our home and, you gave me the strength to overcome.
As I said earlier, love flows through knitting needles.
I produced a book in colour, developed knitting accessories that are not feminine, jumpers that were fitted and not baggy, recipes to nibble at knitting club with games to play with yarn.
Knit and Nibble is a book of joy, intro by Dr Thomas about how knitting is a form of mindfulness and the visuals are stunning. The title of the most innovative book in the world at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards was bestowed upon my work. I cried with tears full of colour for the first time in years.
My thanks to Sirdar. Who worked with me to make everything a reality. The professionalism and dedication of your team is something to be treasured. Vision, reality and colour is what I was presented with. Having a life in colour again has allowed a new career.
Knit Pro - love you, not only for your support on my book, but your love and charity work. The profits of this company go to abused women in India, providing a job, a home, food, education, schooling, transport and food for their children.
Love flows through knitting needles.
So Knit and Nibble - well, it's a book and brand full of joy aimed at male knitters.
Why men? Well, there is a gap in the market.
A huge one.
My knitting group that I started in Peckham a year ago has about 140 members, 50% male when we meet on alternate Tuesday nights. The status quo of knitting patterns and the different stitches is present in my group, but does the industry leave people behind? Pattern images are inherently heterosexual 2.4 children, Anglo-saxon when 1 in 4 school children according to the BBC are of Black and other ethnic origins.
It’s not easy for a man to walk into a yarn shop.
He’s confronted by everything he’s not.
Don’t get me wrong, the staff are great, the visuals, no.
Knit and Nibble is my come back. It’s gone global.
Every day I give my thanks.
Competitions and Awards celebrate the best in the industry - know that by the voice of the knitters and crochet enthusiasts of Britain - you are winners. Your hard work and dedication has paid off and thank you Let’s Knit Magazine and Aceville Publications for celebrating the best of the craft to the masses.
28,000 votes is nothing to be sniffed at. That’s people who take their time to vote for you. Your customers, your loyal followers and the people who support you. People who believe in you. But more importantly, they evangelise about you on your behalf.
Perhaps the role of a Dr’s wife is the same as a Vicars wife, perhaps that’s why knitting is so femininely orientated as the “wife” has more to carry that society appreciates and the inner strength required to carry the other half who deals with life and death and every cut and bruise in-between comes from those knitted stitches?
My dreams, I can have them again, my hopes, are becoming reality.
Yarndale, I will be there soon.
I am James McIntosh, I am well, I am back and it is because of you, all of you that I am here.
Stitches are life, knitting patterns the manual.
Knitting patterns are lifestyles, not commodities.
Knitters are fabulous. Knitters produce a hug.
The sum of the parts of knitting make you whole.
A stitch in time, saved my mind. I call it Knititation.
I’m going to leave you with a private confession:
I don't know how to crochet.
Thank you for loving me, you are winners.
I am James McIntosh and I knit and Nibble celebrating life’s patterns, recipes and games.