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Jigsaw Puzzle Therapy

            I finally got my Covid vaccine booster a few weeks ago. I’d been putting it off, first because I didn’t think I qualified, then because it was unclear if I should get one, and then because I was worried about how my body would react to a third shot (Mom had a bad reaction to her booster shot back in September). My plan was to wait for winter break, so that I could rest afterwards and not worry about having to do battle with, I mean teach, my students. But then Omicron came along, and the doctors on TV who’d been questioning the morality of getting third shots in the United States while poorer countries still weren’t getting their first shots suddenly did a one eighty and said that we should go out and get our boosters, yesterday. And, of course, by that time all of the appointments had been taken, by other adults getting boosters and by the kids getting their first and second shots. But then my synagogue magically sent out an email about a booster clinic happening at a local college, and I found an appointment right away, and since the boosters were now half the regular dose, instead of the full dose Mom got in September, the only side effect I experienced was pain in my arm at the site of vaccination for two days.

“Two days without enough scratchies. Harrumph.”

            And yet, once that anxiety was out of the way, I was still anxious. Very anxious. So it wasn’t just Covid, or Omicron, causing my anxiety, it was more than that. At around the same time, I realized that I was not up to thinking about New Year’s resolutions this year, because I’m still struggling with the ones from years past: trying to get my writing on track, working on Intuitive Eating, trying to figure out better ways to deal with my health, etc. I was actually offered a good part time job as a social worker, by someone I really respect, and I couldn’t take it because two full days at work would wipe me out for the next two weeks. It’s become clear to me that I am an even slower turtle than ever, and that that’s where the anxiety is coming from.

            But I can’t fix my health issues all of a sudden, or become someone who makes changes at the speed of light, and I realized that what I still need to work on most is how to accept where I’m at, and respect my own pace, without letting the anxiety overwhelm me.

            One thing that’s been working for me lately is jigsaw puzzle therapy: whenever I feel anxious about all of the things I haven’t done yet, or feel so confused and discombobulated that I can’t even figure out what I’m feeling, I work on a jigsaw puzzle. I like everything about jigsaw puzzles: the sorting, matching the colors and patterns, the image gradually appearing in front of me like magic, the sense of accomplishment, and then the chance to start over from the beginning and do the whole thing again.

           I used to have piles of jigsaw puzzles in the old apartment, because they helped untie the knots that kept me locked in place. I was so thrilled when I was able to give those puzzles away, because I’d found other things that helped even more: like knitting and baking and cooking, and eventually going back to school. But lately, I’ve needed my jigsaw puzzles again. They don’t require a lot of physical effort, and they don’t inspire too much self-criticism; they just activate the analytical and visual parts of my brain and help me slow down my thoughts to a more reasonable pace, so that I can try to deal with them one by one.         

“Hmm. One toy at a time? Interesting idea.”

   And knowing that I have jigsaw puzzle therapy available whenever I need it makes it easier for me to test my boundaries in other ways, with more baking (a Mille Crepe cake that took all day to make and came out sort of Meh), and more outings (HMart, the Korean market, was a mushroom bonanza!), and more essays delving into the past, bit by bit.

            I’m looking forward to a time when I won’t need quite so much Jigsaw puzzle therapy to help me through each day, but until then I’m happy to have something that works for me (and, conveniently, pairs so well with binging on Christmas movies!).

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Jigsaw Puzzles


I used to have boxes and boxes of jigsaw puzzles. I was an addict. I would sit in my chair in front of the TV, with a piece of cardboard on my lap, and sift through the puzzle pieces; sorting shapes and colors, and finding patterns in the chaos. I used the box tops from discarded puzzles to help me sort puzzle pieces into categories, and I would “watch” TV for hours, with the comforting voices going on in the background as most of my attention was focused on fitting the pieces together.

Blue puzzle pieces

Blue puzzle pieces

My standard jigsaw puzzles are the 1000 piece puzzles. I used to have some 750s but they went too fast. Anything bigger than 1000 pieces, though, ends up being too big for my puzzle board.

Puzzle, resting.

Puzzle, resting.

The jigsaw puzzles were an obsession, but a calming one. I never glued them to a backing and framed them on the walls. In fact, I especially liked dismantling and redoing the same puzzles, time after time, seeing how much faster I could do it as I learned the particular code of each puzzle.

Each puzzle maker has a different idea about the thickness and stiffness of the puzzle pieces, the sizes and shapes, the complexity of the color. Being able to differentiate between three shades of light blue was satisfying. And I think this accomplished something. I think it helped me rewire my brain, but I can’t prove that.

I started doing jigsaw puzzles in my late teens. I vaguely remember a picture of Golden Retriever puppies and a barrel of apples. I would put a puzzle board down on the floor of my bedroom and stay up all night, sorting pieces and putting things together, instead of sleeping. It was a step up from coloring books, which I had dabbled in for a while too.

My dog at the time, Dina, was not a fan of the puzzles. She would walk through the open boxes of puzzle pieces and turn them over “accidentally.” If she was really annoyed, or maybe lonely, she would stretch out on top of the puzzle and ask for scratchies. She didn’t understand why I was up all night, but she liked the company. Often, she would fall asleep on my bed while I sat on the floor, watching CNN and doing puzzles.

Once we moved to the other apartment in my early twenties, I didn’t have a TV in my bedroom anymore. We watched TV together in our tiny living room, me and Mom and Dina. I couldn’t fit the puzzle board on the floor anymore, and there was certainly no room for a puzzle table in there, so I balanced the board on my lap.

Dina was only a lap dog when there was thunder and lightning. The rest of the time she would stretch out on the floor, hanging her head into the hallway for extra room. The only time she disrupted the puzzles was when I stored the board on a shelf under the TV, and she knocked it with her hip as she passed by.

Dina guarding a puzzle

Dina guarding a puzzle

She seemed to understand my need for the puzzles. As long as I remembered to take her out for walks, very long walks, my puzzle time was okay with her. And it was better than fidgeting with scissors, which I also did when I needed something to do with my hands; inevitably, I mishandled the scissors (tiny silver nail scissors, but still) and they flew across the room, dangerously close to her head.

Post -puzzle walking

Post -puzzle walking

When Cricket came along, she wanted to help with the puzzles. I could no longer rest the open box tops on the floor or on a chair, or else she would slap them with her paw and turn the whole box over, or she would chew the side of the box until the pieces leaked out from the corner, or she would just jump up on my lap and push everything else to the floor in a rage. Laps belong to Cricket. She was even more insistent on that when she was little. She thought I should spend three hours scratching her instead of doing puzzles or anything else. She was jealous and impatient, and if I stuck to my plans, she would sit on Grandma’s lap and glare at me.

Grumpy Cricket

Grumpy Cricket

I always think of the Curious George story where the doctor takes an x-ray and finds the wooden puzzle piece inside of the monkey. I’m sure Cricket has swallowed a few puzzle pieces over the years but they are small and made of paper and she probably pooped them out easily enough.

I’ve been struggling with my eyesight lately. The eye doctor diagnosed me with Convergence Insufficiency that she thinks resulted from whatever neurological problems I’ve been having recently. I’ve always struggled somewhat with computer screens and 3D movies and fast food menu boards, but now I see faces doubled or moving around inexplicably and I struggle to read text on a screen.

I started doing jigsaw puzzles again recently, maybe to fight against the blurriness and double vision, or maybe just to return to the company of an old friend. When I take out the puzzle board, Butterfly sits in front of the puzzle and waits, assuming there is hidden food on the board, and if she waits long enough she will get some. Eventually she gives up, and stretches out on the floor next to Cricket, and they both listen to the tap tap of puzzle pieces on the board and fall contentedly to sleep.

Butterfly and Cricket, waiting.

Butterfly and Cricket, waiting.