How doing ceramics helped me heal from a breakup

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Videos: Getty

Six months into the pandemic and 19 months after I quit drinking, I found myself obsessed with a “situation.” I turned into the person I thought they or they needed me to be in order for it to work. I spent hours on my phone, scrolling through Instagram, waiting for that person to text so we can make plans. I spent even more hours talking about “where I think it’s going” with my friends, keeping a detailed record in my head of who I talked to and whether they made me happy or not. and who I could FaceTime next.

“You have to find a hobby,” my friend Natalie told me. “You have too much free time.”

Reluctantly, I had to admit she was right – or maybe she just wanted me to stop telling her about it. Anyway, I decided to try something that would literally occupy my hands: ceramics. I had “failed” a few years earlier after trying to learn how to make ceramics on the lathe and was the only person in the class who didn’t make a single pot. It’s just not for me, I consoled myself, finally abandoning the course package I had already purchased. I felt guilty for the money I had spent but I was too ashamed to show up after having accumulated all these absences.

Yet somewhere between my spiral of shame and my complete surrender, there was a sense of calm I felt on the wheel. I liked the fact that you had to concentrate and not look at my phone. It was exactly what I needed: a place to get out of my own thoughts. Plus, the repetitive tasks meant I just had to focus my attention on what was in front of me. Not what happened in the past or what might happen in the future.

I returned to that same studio where I learned that wheel throwing (forming clay on a spinning disc) was still not for me. It forced me to be too precise, too disciplined. A sudden move could off-center your pot. Instead of calming my brain, it turned up the volume, leaving me on edge as I internally screamed at myself to be perfect. But building by hand, I learned, was different. With hand construction, I was able to form clay with my hands, creating any weird, wonky shape I wanted. Every mistake, every crack, every bump gave character to the piece. I had already tried to be “perfect” for someone else, to make them change their behavior, and it didn’t work. I didn’t want to be perfect anymore.

My first attempt at a piece was a vase. I wanted to see how high I could build it. I rolled up a bunch of spools (cylinder-shaped strips of clay) and set them aside to start building. One by one I stacked them on top of each other, shuffling each coil together. I added more and more, furiously trying to build and finish the room in one go. Halfway through, I could see it getting more and more wobbly, the weight of each spool like a piece of Jenga, but I didn’t care. I kept adding. Plop. The room sagged, collapsing on itself. I realized that the self-push approach didn’t work when it came to clay. Once I understood that it was necessary to be gentle with myself, to take things one step at a time, I wanted to continue.

I tried again. This time, I figured I’d work as long as I wanted, then cover the piece with plastic when I got too tired to continue working on it later. I built the base and came back the following week…to find that I hadn’t covered it properly and it had dried out. Instead of throwing it away, I built above the dry room, slowly adding coils. It created mass, but gave it character. Reel by reel, I stopped when my arms could no longer reach the top. “Wow, I’ve never even built that high,” said another studio member. Needed handles. So I added two very thin handles. By the time I got to the top of the rim the clay was so thin it started to crack. A good place to stop, I thought.

A few weeks later, I created an Instagram account for my ceramics and posted a photo of this first vase. It looked lumpy and off center; the rim was cracked, the handles had cracked in the firing process and I never glazed it. I posted the photo with the comment: “Pre-glaze” *vase emoji.* It got 14 likes, but who’s counting.

In ceramic, it’s all about patience. Clay is relentless, never acting the way you want or expect. If the clay is too wet, it will crumble. If the clay is too dry, it will crack. In the middle of every room, I think, It will never come together. But I go on and finally the form – well, a shape – takes shape. I could start making a pot and end up with a lantern. A vase that is too shallow? A dog bowl. Clay, like humans, has memory. If I get mad and rip a piece off, even if I try to cover it, when I pull it, that seam is there.

I always felt calmer and more in touch with my body after leaving the studio. My obsession with the relationship and its eventual demise slowly faded, mostly because I spent less time obsessing and scrolling through my phone (I was covered in clay). Creating something, albeit wonky, gave me distance between my thoughts and my actions. Instead of obsessively checking likes on Instagram, I followed a bunch of ceramics and watched clay building ASMR videos. My spirals of text were quickly replaced with photos of my pieces and encouraging responses from my friends: “We love to see it”.

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