Finding My Inner Piece: How Puzzles Ease My Anxiety
It’s very calming, very methodical, very good if, say, someone you love has died, but you know the world cannot stop, and you can’t either.
like I’m trying to smuggle rare songbirds through airport security.
To ward off my feelings of worthlessness, I do things to feel Productive. I organize, alphabetize, collate. At stretches—some lasting just days, others, years—I reorganize my bookshelves by last name and genre, by hardback and paperback, by color. My Goodreads challenge is at sixty—perfectly calibrated to a little over a book a week. Some days I love the structure, and other days I beat myself with the cudgel of the challenge until I fantasize about jumping to the back cover and striking it from my to-do list.
Assemble a certain puzzle and the tears come unbidden.
In “Always Be Optimizing,” an essay in Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino writes that “it’s very easy, under conditions of artificial but continually escalating obligation, to find yourself organizing your life around practices you find ridiculous and possibly indefensible.” Tolentino is writing, specifically, about the ways in which becoming the “perfect” woman require a ballet of consumption and denial, where “the things you like get used against you,” thanks to the dehumanizing demands of late-stage capitalism. But her analysis also captures the universal millennial pressure of perpetual self-improvement to the point of exhaustion. I feel this in the tortured cognitive gymnastics I perform whenever I’m confronted with stretches of free time. Hobbies are how I exert control over the channels and deltas of my life. They are a way to avoid being lonely. They quiet things, at least for a while.
For better or worse, you can’t really do this with puzzles. A puzzle is an analgesic of last resort, a hobby that cannot be monetized, for which mastery doesn’t confer any inherent value beyond your own enjoyment. I buy puzzles from thrift stores for a dollar; finish them to see if there are any missing pieces. If there are, I donate them back. If they’re complete, I hold onto them until I inevitably lose a piece, and then I donate them back. No one wants the puzzles after they’ve been solved.
But every activity holds within it a kernel of obsession, the desire to attack it with a kind of perfection that sometimes poisons the very enjoyment of the hobby—to gamify to the point where the very idea of pleasure is lost. I didn’t drink coffee until 2017. I didn’t want to spend money on it until I had the time and resources to invest in learning how to make it perfectly. Now I own a conical burr grinder, three pour-overs, a French press. I went from having no knowledge of coffee-making to understanding so many of its variables: the coarseness of the grind, the type and freshness of the roast, the temperature of the water and its consistency across each pour, the shape of the pour over—how many openings at the bottom, how big, what bevels are in the side.
After my boyfriend abruptly moved away, going back home to the east coast to recover from burnout, I filled my apartment with plants. I ferreted succulent cuttings from the neighborhood, bought old colanders from Goodwill for making artful arrangements. From succulents, I moved onto more finicky subjects. I started with pothos, the primordial-looking vine that thrives on neglect, propagating it in a jug of water, cutting off lengths, selling them. With my first freelance check—after paying rent, groceries, other incidentals—I bought a mass cane. Then came a snake plant, a light green philodendron, all carried home on the subway, unwieldy in my arms. The bright green plastic planter cracking under the pressure of my grip as I struggled to find the fulcrum points in my body that would simultaneously anchor the plant to me, and me to the ground.
By the summer I’d amassed fourteen more plants—fiddle leaf fig, monstera, pilea, hoya, prayer plant, sansevieria, rizzle sizzle, bird’s nest fern, poinsettia, rubber tree, African mask, clivia, aloe, two breeds of orchid. I can tell you all about them—their light preferences, soil needs, watering schedule. I feel the soil for dryness, gently turn some of them to rotisserie their leaves in the sunlight, but only in small increments so the leaves don’t wilt before finding the light again. I’ve even found a way to monetize these skills, selling a set of trees I’d purchased for fifty dollars apiece for $250 total on Craigslist. The lonelier I became, the more obsessively I filled my home. And the more I invested time and money into the hobby, the more I felt like I needed to achieve mastery of the subject.
The puzzle is 515 pieces and they are all the exact same shape and size. This is not hyperbole. Its name is “Lost in a Jigsaw,” which sounds really goofy, and the general idea is that putting it together also requires you to solve a maze. There is no image on the box to guide you––the maze is both challenge and guide.
It probably sounds masochistic, but there’s a methodology—the angle is isometric and some of the walls are made of bricks or cobblestones, though most of it is hedge. Gargoyles only really face one direction, bubbles always float up, feet should always point towards you. Each section of maze amounts to a nine-piece square—a three by three—with clear entry and exit points. After completing the edges and squares, you use the process of elimination to figure out where each square goes—like solving a Sudoku.
I’m definitely a masochist.
It’s a beautiful day when I open the box. I’m sitting in my apartment in Los Angeles, on a floor pouf that I named “the cheese wheel,” and doing the puzzle on the coffee table. I made the pouf myself, with foam inserts and cloth that I purchased from downtown LA’s fabric district. (One of my favorite things about being the daughter of an immigrant is how, whenever someone compliments me on something, I immediately tell them how cheap it was.)
“Lost in a Jigsaw” is the puzzle I did repeatedly half a year into my boyfriend’s absence, after my plants made my bedroom too difficult to navigate. I’m assembling it again because he finally came back to LA and I want to imbue it with a new memory, to etch the feeling of his return onto its pieces. Though puzzling resists most of my self-imposed optimization, I still find ways to make it feel useful by deliberately pairing it with good memories to overwrite the bad. I do this with music too—like forcing myself to listen to old songs during better times, to enjoy Hozier’s eponymous album as the score to a road trip, instead of the breakup soundtrack it initially was.
Puzzles can evoke a stronger memory than I could have preserved on my own. Here’s my favorite moment that’s locked into “Lost In a Jigsaw”: It’s a beautiful day. I can feel a narrow trail of warmth between my shoulder blades. The pieces are spread out on a low coffee table with smooth, round brass studs, and curved legs. Mom and I are sorting, lounging on a sun-bleached Persian rug. She’s the one who taught me to do puzzles, to love puzzles, to treat puzzles like a goddamn lifestyle.
This is the San Dimas home I grew up in, and this is the last puzzle I remember doing before we packed everything into boxes and moved to San Francisco. I had never lived in a city before and the puzzle later distracted me from the terror and unassailable noise of city living. I could not imagine anything further from the home I grew up in—the home that could fit a pool with a diving board, even though I’d stopped using it when I learned a family of black widows had made their nest in it. Have you ever jumped on a diving board and watched dozens of black widows sprout out? Their bodies glided across its surface in multiple wriggling clumps, set off by the board’s spring back the moment I went airborne. They were the last thing I saw before being fully submerged into the icy water of the deep end.
Of the three all-nighters I’ve pulled in my life, two were because of puzzles. The first was in high school. My friends had piled into the living room of my family’s suburban home. What was meant to be an after-school hangout turned into twenty-four hours of continuous shared space. I had always associated sleepovers with a distinct discomfort, an invitation into a kind of inner life that I didn’t want anyone to see. But they’d found the puzzle I’d been working on, and—to my surprise—rather than making fun of me, we set to finishing it.
The second time was in college, at the end of my tailspin of grief from my grandmother’s sudden passing, a phase where I spent more hours working minimum wage jobs than I did attending class and had a post-it with “action before motivation” tacked on the wall above my desk.
That fall break, a best friend and I were both stranded on campus, boxed in by snow. I tried to believe I’d sequestered myself for my own recovery, but truthfully, I lacked the energy to make any plans. I learned that she also loved puzzles, so we bought one together. As we poured the newly opened puzzle on the table, I discovered I was intensely allergic to “puzzle dust,” those loose cardboard particles powdering the box. It didn’t matter. I always have to finish projects. She had the same problem, which made us terrible enablers.
I can’t recall what we were assembling, which is unusual for me, but I remember the feeling of crunching through the snow with the puzzle box, giddy in a sheepish way. I remember the white table in our shared living room, which she had sanded and painted herself. I remember her hair tied into a little topknot, and her tendency to wear loose sweaters and pull her sweatpants up over her boobs when she was in a weird mood, and the way she kept throwing the tissue box at me because I couldn’t stop sneezing. I had loved her from the first semester of college, but I loved her more completely than ever in that moment.
The puzzle is 1,000 pieces. It’s another Charles Wysocki, of course, though I don’t remember which one. My hands are trembling. I sort the pieces into piles based on color and texture. I begin with the edges. I slide the first two pieces together. Before I’m fully cognizant of why, I feel a quickness of breath, an utter terror. I pack the pieces back into the box slowly, methodically. Slide it back into the back of the closet. Turn the light off. Close the door.
I can’t recall what we were assembling . . . but I remember the feeling of crunching through the snow with the puzzle box, giddy in a sheepish way.
The anxieties gradually organize themselves. I’m in college again, the corridors somehow inscrutable even after spending four years there. I’m getting that call again, the one where I had about five minutes to say my last words. Sometimes I dream about my grandmother’s house, the last time she was alive, a Christmas four years ago to celebrate an effective trial drug just weeks before its sudden failure. An eternity of childhood holidays spent in the company of raucous family, vanishing in an instant.
In the future, I’ll have better coping methods. I’ll cede control; I’ll stop destroying the things I love by clinging to them as life rafts. But the distance between knowing something to be true and actually following through on it still feels insurmountable—especially when I could conceivably jump from one hobby to another forever, learning to master it, like a bleakly infinite game of Whack-a-Mole. Even now, I’ve turned puzzles back into industry through the writing of this essay. It’s a scab I know I should stop picking at, no matter how quickly I tell myself the baby skin must be growing underneath—translucent, pink, repeatedly breaking under my probing.
I just want to be able to do this Wysocki puzzle again. Maybe, in time. Like everything in my collection, I’ve always really liked it.
Nicole Clark is an LA-based culture writer and editor covering identity, entertainment, communities, and mental health. Previously, Nicole worked as a culture writer and critic at VICE. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Vox, New York Magazine, Salon, San Francisco Chronicle, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. You can find her on Twitter or Instagram at @nicalexiac.