Coping by the Layers, Honorable Mention, 21st Annual Essay Contest

by Abigail Clary

I would not have considered myself to be an artist as a child. Toddlerhood was marked by hastily scribbled drawings. Childhood into the preteen years brought school projects that showcased clashing colors. I found it difficult to sit and focus on creative projects in general. Then, when the kidney injury I had at birth suddenly progressed into kidney disease during high school, life altered unexpectedly. Now I had to not only deal with the physical symptoms of fatigue and rapid weight loss that lowered my energy levels but with emotional struggles as well. Panic attacks, anxiety, and fear over what the future held became part of daily life. Counseling and focusing on school and work helped over the years, but more recently, I turned to a creative endeavor called iris folding to help me cope.

Iris folding is a style of art that I discovered at a local library program in December 2019. The art form consists of folding many small, two-inch strips of paper lengthwise and then layering and taping them in a spiral pattern around a shape, such as a flower or star, that has been cut into a piece of cardstock. The “iris” refers to the center of the spiral, which looks like the iris of a camera lens. These paper-folded creations can then be used to make cards and decorations. The first project I made was a holiday card, and despite not having much interest in art prior to this, I was hooked! It looked nice, was easy to do, and after making a few more projects, iris folding became a good coping mechanism for dealing with kidney disease.

One of the primary ways I use iris folding to help me cope is by letting my mind fully engage in it. Even though it has been 13 years since I was diagnosed with kidney disease, I still experience anxiety while waiting for lab results or determining treatment options – something that I think many kidney patients can relate to. Each iris-folded project typically uses 15 to 30 strips of folded paper, which gives the process a repetitive rhythm and has a calming effect on my anxiety. In addition, the projects only take one hour to complete but require tremendous focus during that time. This helps block the levels of stress I feel and gives me something more positive to think about.

Besides having a calming effect, iris folding gives me a sense of control, which is an important aspect of the coping process. With kidney disease, I have control over my treatments and medical decisions. However, I don’t have the power to make the illness go away, and that’s hard to come to terms with. With iris folding, I have complete control. Everything, from the shape I want (hearts and flowers are my favorites!) to the type of paper I use for each craft (I prefer magazine pages and origami paper), is my decision. Most iris folding projects come with a pattern to follow, but if I want to embellish it or make my own pattern instead, I can. This kind of control is empowering and helps me realize that even though kidney disease affects many areas of my life, I can still control the vast majority of it.

Most importantly, the crafts I make help give me an identity beyond having kidney disease. These iris-folded creations become cards that I give to family and friends. They are also used to adorn the walls of the sixth-grade classroom in which I teach. The pleasure I get from making them and receiving positive feedback helps both me and others remember that I’m not just a kidney patient trying to hold off a transplant; I’m also someone who can make something creative out of materials I recycle. This is important for my mental health and ability to cope. As much as I know that kidney disease is part of my life, it’s good to have an escape.

Iris folding may not be the creative outlet for everyone, but having some form of creativity is important for every kidney patient. Yes, it can be intimidating to persist with familiar creative pursuits and even more daunting to try something new. However, as I have found by trying and enjoying iris folding, the effects creativity has as a coping method are immeasurable. My hope is that other kidney patients find their own creative ways to cope, too.


Abigail Clary is a Northern California resident who was diagnosed with Chronic Kidney Disease secondary to an acute kidney injury caused by Coarctation of the Aorta and premature birth. She received her BA in Liberal Studies and teaching credential from Sonoma State University and now works as a special education teacher. In moments of free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and spending time with her twin sister.



Read Abigail’s past essays:

Kidney Troubles, 3rd Place Winning Essay, 20th Annual Essay Contest

Tina’s Gift, 1st Place Winner, 19th Annual Essay Contest

Kidney 411 –Honorable Mention, 17th Annual Essay Contest

Straight-Up Encouragement from “The Body Part” – Honorable Mention 16th Annual Essay Contest

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