Mitra Jouhari contemplates her work stress

My work was giving me panic attacks. So I started making crooked vases.

A lump of clay and zero at stake was just what I needed.

Want to share this essay? Yay! Use this link

I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, a calm person. I jokingly described myself as laid-back to a friend recently and she laughed so hard she cried. Like, okay, I get it. I’m tightly wound. I love a good list, I’m not afraid of a follow-up email, I check my alarm multiple times before going to bed to make sure I didn’t forget to turn it on… you get it. I’m a pressure cooker, and I need an outlet or something will burst. 

My creative outlet used to be comedy. I fell backward into it two weeks into my first year of college, and it didn’t take long for comedy to consume me. Then I dropped out of school and followed my stupid heart all the way to New York, where I spent every day doing random day jobs for approximately two cents an hour and every night gulping down well drinks and doing poorly attended comedy shows in rotting basements. It was heaven. Soon enough, I turned that hobby into full-time writing work and never looked back. Why would I? My dream came true! I did it! My hobby was my passion which became my life which became work which then… became my life. My whole life was about work. Wait… huh?! Hold on…

I loved work. Like… a lot. As a result, it got really hard for me to power down. I was having panic attacks and found myself spinning out constantly. Those moments scared me. What was happening to me? I used to be so… fun and dumb. I don’t want to sound ungrateful—I loved what I did. But the way I did it changed very quickly—my fun little hobby was shapeshifting into my livelihood. It’s hard to stay “pure” and “punk” when you’re trying to keep insurance so you can get physical therapy for your lame-ass corporate-ass carpal tunnel. What happened to the carefree comedy slut who was pouring beer on her head in a basement to an audience of four people at an 11 p.m. show while dead rats literally fell out of the ceiling? Where did that maniac go? I miss her. Kinda. But all jokes aside, X years into my career I realized I had crossed the line from unbridled creative hunger into all-consuming workaholism and that I was sick with anxiety.

I wish that realization hit me in a charming and/or sophisticated way, but unfortunately, it appeared in one of the least dignified ways imaginable: on the toilet. So bleak, right? It was the middle of a work day, and I fully shit blood. Not from like, a horrible wound or an undiagnosed terrible illness… from, as my doctor later informed me, STRESS. I looked down at a toilet full of blood, and then, just like… went back to work, because I didn’t want anyone to get mad at me for slacking off. 

…What the fuck!?!

I had become so wrapped up in my work that it was tearing up my insides. Writing used to be the thing that nourished me, but outside forces had started to warp the one thing that made me feel in touch with myself. I wasn’t making room for creativity for creativity’s sake, and I wasn’t carving out time for my own rest and relaxation. I needed to blow off steam or I was going to fully blow up. Or, at the very least, shit out all my internal organs while on the clock at work.  For the first time in a while, I wanted some space. I needed to make something for myself where the stakes were zero. 

Translation: My dumb ass signed up for a pottery class.

Mitra molding a cup

I decided to try pottery for three reasons: One, because I found ceramics really beautiful. Two, because I am a deeply, horribly bad visual artist, so it seemed like a funny thing to do. Sort of an inside joke with myself: paying money to learn how to desecrate a stunning art form. And three (this one’s really important) because there was a pottery studio across the street from my house so if I blew off class out of shame or laziness it would be an extremely embarrassing waste of money. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t need people seeing the disfigured lumps of trash I was going to pay real human money to make. I just wanted to find something that took my mind off everything I was supposed to be doing, and allowed me to just… be present. Yuck!!

Push the clay, pull the clay. Focus, breathe, pull, and… wait a second, did I just make a CUP!!??!?

On the first day of class, I sat at the potter’s wheel and promised to give it my all even though it wouldn’t get me anything. I put my hands to the clay, focused on the task at hand, and interacted with the material in front of me. Push down, react to the clay. Drizzle it with water, push with my knuckle and fingertips with enough force to move but not enough to tear. Gently pull the walls of the clay up. Wet the clay, repeat. Wet the clay, all repeat. Mess it up, try again. Focus, focus, focus. Push the clay, pull the clay. Focus, breathe, pull, and… wait a second, did I just make a CUP!!??!? Weird, sort of lopsided, totally ugly, but technically a CUP?! With my BARE HANDS? OH MY GOD!!! I looked at what I had made and felt such relief and pride. 

Don’t get me wrong, I sucked at it. And that piece of trash I made, in all honesty, was not even usable as a cup. But I made something, and all I did for two straight hours was think about that cup. My hands, a lump of clay, and nothing else. The piece might have been ugly, but the experience of making it was beautiful. I’m not about to say my stress is gone, but this has given me the creative outlet I so desperately needed to unwind and just… play. I’ll be churning out my hideous vases until the pottery police stop me. And if anyone reading this wants to buy four thousand demented little cups, please feel free to reach out—my garage is getting a little full.

Meet Our Contributors

Mitra Jouhari is a writer and comedian. She is one-third of the Three Busy Debras on Adult Swim, which she co-writes, co-executive produces, and co-stars in. She has written for Big Mouth, Human Resources, High Maintenance, The President Show, Miracle Workers, and more. She has appeared in Search Party, The Big Sick, Broad City, Miracle Workers, Big Mouth, and other cool stuff. For Prism, Mitra wrote about how she rediscovered her sense of play through pottery classes. 

What was your most vivid memory of playing as a child?

All the fun in my backyard in Ohio. We would make a slip and slide out of tarps and dish soap in the summer and sled down the hill in the winter. I cried when trees got cut down because they were a part of the family to me. We gardened and ate the food we grew. The yard was everything—it was the best.

Khaila Carr is an artist whose work is influenced by color, dreams, dogs, comix, love, sex, fantasy, psychedelia, animation, and her Filipino American heritage. She graduated with a BFA in Illustration and Fine Arts from the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio. When Khaila’s not drawing, she’s either hanging out with her corgi or enjoying an iced matcha latte. Probably both! For Prism, Khaila illustrated the Play essay.

What’s something fun you discovered this year?

I learned how to roller-skate! I grew up attending the rink as a kid, but could never actually skate unless I was holding onto those carpeted walls for dear life. Now I can roll around and jump over small stuff; truly living my roller-girl dreams!!! It’s such a fun hobby and a great way to get outside/stay active after working from home for over a year :)