'Crocheting helped me beat depression'

Joan Aoko in her wedding dress. PHOTO | FELIX BOYD

What you need to know:

  • Two months after the wedding, her life took a terrible turn.
  • "Sometimes I would lose interest in everything, but I didn't understand what was wrong with me," Joan says.

  • Joan was depressed and had anxiety attacks. In mid-December, 2019 Joan experienced her first panic attack.

In October 2019 Joan Aoko got married to the man of her dreams. The day, could not have been more special as she had crotched her own wedding dress.

"Yes! I crocheted my own wedding dress," Joan, 28, announces excitedly. "I was promoting my brand and wanted to show the world that matrimonial dresses don't have to be the traditional type." It took her two months to yarn the dress. "I wanted something luxurious, and the thread I needed wasn't available locally. I imported it from Turkey."

The love for the crotchet hook came early for Joan. As a little girl growing up in Makongeni, Thika, she would sit and watch her mother work with crochet and rolls of yarn. "She worked fast and as the hours went by and threads unspooled from the roll, items of magic would appear: table covers, seat covers; beautiful pieces, some with tassels hanging onto the edges," she praises her mother's skill.

To Joan, that her mother would spend hours bobbing and weaving yarn could only mean one important thing: the craft was a study in love.

"I learned how to crochet at the age of nine," the third born in a family of three, says "My first item was a set porch. My mother made amazing vitambaas (covers) and this really inspired me to try and learn the craft."

But as Joan grew up, life happened. Other interests took centre stage, and as technology set-in crocheting became an out-of-touch skill.

She was coming into womanhood and joined Maseno University in 2012 to study International Relations and Diplomacy, and her mind was miles away from a life of a needle and thread.

But at the very back of her mind, she still thought about making beautiful designs. "I could feel the tug," she says. "I even carried my yarn and hooks to work and I would use my lunch break crocheting." After she graduated in 2015, Joan worked for the County government of Kisumu and later with a non-governmental organisation.

In 2016, she made a resolution to get back to her passion. "I thought I would be honouring my mother. It is my mom who'd inspired me and taught me to crochet and by continuing the work she loved, I was and still am, keeping her legacy alive." Her mother passed on in 2014 a year before Joan graduated.

Keeping the legacy would, later on, save Joan's life. Meanwhile, her wedding was set for October 2019. She wanted to make the day special, and what better way than to rock a wedding dress of her own crafting. Many thought it was stunning, she says.

Then the worst happened. Two months after the wedding, her life took a terrible turn. At the time business was picking up and new orders were streaming in. She was also in marital bliss.

"Sometimes I would lose interest in everything, but I didn't understand what was wrong with me," Joan says.

Joan was depressed and had anxiety attacks.

In mid-December, 2019 Joan experienced her first panic attack. "It's like I was running mad, shaking, having shortness of breath," Joan recounts her experience. "I was suicidal, a state of helplessness….I would cry the whole day."

She couldn't crochet anymore.

"My husband didn't know what to do about it," Joan says. "It is something he had never encountered."

It was a chance encounter and discussion with an old friend that helped Joan turn things around. "She was going through the same, and encouraged me to seek medical attention," says Joan.

A psychiatrist diagnosed Joan with depression and anxiety disorder and put her on medication. Years of pent up stress resulting from conflicts within her extended family had simply exploded. And while the medicine helped her regain her footing, it was an old hobby that would tie the loose ends and pull her from the ledge: CROCHETING.

To live again

Once again Joan picked up hook and yarn. "Crocheting as a therapy calms the mind and reduces (significantly) the restlessness from negative thoughts," Joan says. Repetition of the craft releases serotonin-also called 'the happy chemical' that serves as a natural antidepressant.

Joan says she is in a much happier place in life. She speaks fondly of her husband, Innocent Bwire. "He has been my number one supporter," she says. "He was there during my nocturnal panic attacks. At work, he worried about my welfare and would call to check on me."

Joan weaned off medication a month ago. She is the founder of the Crochet Club of Kenya-a community of crocheting enthusiasts, a group with a membership of over 20,000 from around the country.

"We offer each other support and reach out to the community (through donations)," says Joan, adding that many in the group suffer from an assortment of mental illnesses.

Her life experiences, especially her mental health issues led her to establish "The Joheartyarns" group which incorporates a YouTube channel where she offers crocheting tutorials. The group recently broadened to include mental health awareness.

In 2015, Joan started her business with Sh700. She laughs about those small beginnings. "I am in the process of establishing a shop in Nairobi's CBD. I get most of my customers currently through Instagram and Facebook," she says. She specialises in crocheted swimwear, beachwear, and sandals. "I have added bridal dresses to my offerings," she says. Joan also supplies different types of imported yarn for the local market.

"Right now I am in a good place in my life," Joan says. "I avoid anything that might trigger my mind in the wrong direction."