The Body Keeps the Score, and it will Fucking Win

by Janelle Hanchett

I mostly just post photos of my pets.

When did I become this person? Unclear.  Am I embarrassed of it? Probably.

I think back fondly to the time when I had stunning cultural analyses to share, every day, all day, endlessly, impressing at least myself with my witty responses to whatever I needed to be witty about. I’d share articles I had read that angered or enlightened me. I’d post them with a recap. I’d have things to say. I’d believe those things were worth saying. I’d wait for the world to respond.

Now it’s kitten, puppy, dog, puppy, kitten, all the animals. Kitten in a ball. Puppy on the ground. Me, vaguely delighted. Unsure when I became that person.

Untrue. I know exactly when I became that person: I became that person when my mental health quite literally collapsed this summer.

I didn’t wake up one day to Mental Collapse, as if it were on the agenda. It had been building for a few years, maybe a couple of decades if we’re really gonna get technical, but around June I started writing things in my journal like “I feel really, really strange,” and “I can’t access my thoughts.” “There is something terribly wrong with me.”

Look, there was a time in the not too distant past when if you told me “My mental health doesn’t allow me to engage beyond cat photos,” I would have told you to grow the hell up. I would have tried to hide my eye roll and I would have failed. I would have asked myself what kind of delicate rose petal backs away from life because they truly cannot engage. As if that’s a thing!

But my life has been a series of lessons on things I’m wrong about, and I was wrong about that. My deep belief that powering through is always an option could be in part why I find myself here now; not only the universe’s way to level that which must be leveled, but because it shows how little I understood the power of the brain to remove one’s capacity to function in the world.

It is possible to collapse. It is also possible, if you ignore your body’s signs for long enough, that your brain can shut down. There will be no “powering through.” There will be only a powering down.

They really should rename that book “The Body Keeps the Score, and it will Fucking Win.”

You can only run for so long.

As an aside, this if the first time I’ve been able to write this many words in a very long time, so please celebrate with me.

Also, IN MY FUCKING DEFENSE, have you seen my animals? They are very cute. There are four now. It’s a long story.

Whatever, I want to talk about the most boring, overused word ever. Stress.

“Stress” is one of those things I heard about for so long for so many years by doctors and wellness people (puke, stop) and People Who Know Shit that I categorically denied it as a thing that mattered. If you’re having trouble following that logic, join the club. I’m simply reporting the facts here.

It’s almost like it becomes white noise, the whir of a fan, the hum of a dryer. It’s so constant you don’t notice it anymore.

No but seriously: Stress kills, stress makes you sick, stress causes cancer, stress atrophies your hippocampus, stress hurts your back,

stress

stress

stress

stress

fuck you.

All life is stress, ya assholes. “Reduce stress.” Like how? Get rid of my kids? Stop earning money? Live in a different country (this applies to both my time in the US on account of its shithole country status, and here in The Netherlands on account of it not being my shithole country).

But here’s what happened, reader: I had a mental break in the form of my brain simply checking the fuck out. It went full dissociation on me. Yes, I have a mental health diagnosis that I’m not going to go into now that makes me more susceptible to dissociation from chronic stress and anxiety, but y’all—damn.

I spent a week at an inpatient mental health facility, and then my brain left my body. I developed dissociative anxiety disorders called depersonalization and derealization. Apparently the treatment was “too much for me.” lol understatement.

It is very hard to explain but it essentially felt like I was outside of my body. When I would talk to people, it was like somebody else was talking from inside of me. I had no idea where the voice was coming from. I couldn’t trace its source. I knew intellectually that I was standing on a street talking to Mac, but what it felt like was somebody else was inside of me talking to Mac. I realize this makes no sense. Try being the one feeling it.

And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, please consider yourself “blessed.” Or something.

The world around me felt like a video game. Like there was this 100-foot wall between us. I could see through it; I knew I was in the world. But I would look at cars coming down the street and not understand how close they were to me. Would I get hit? I was unable to judge distances. Lights and sounds became sudden and disconnected. I got so afraid of how I felt, how foreign the world became, I didn’t leave my house for two full weeks. As in, I did not step outside. That made it worse.

There were no decipherable thoughts in my brain. Or, perhaps better said, thoughts would pop up but I couldn’t find the source of them, or follow them, or develop them. Friends it’s so, so weird.

I could not work or write for more than an hour on my very best days. Hence the cat photos. And if you’re my friend, the lack of communication.

My vision was blurry. Sometimes my head would fall backwards, and my eyes fall shut from the weight and dizziness of the heavy ass head and empty brain. When I say literally could not engage, I mean literally.

Before I had a name for what was happening to me, I began genuinely fearing that I was going insane and may hurt someone. I wondered if this is what it felt like before a psychotic break. I began panicking multiple times a day, thinking if I didn’t get out of this, I couldn’t stay alive. I began to understand why people sometimes end their own lives when they receive a diagnosis of early dementia or other degenerative brain diseases. I didn’t want to die, but I would not live my life like that: No thoughts, no memory, no ability to think, no joy, no connection, no nothing.

I told Mac this as if it were a mere statement of fact. But honestly, the idea that I may STAY like that, and according to the internet forums on depersonalization and derealization, “almost everybody” stays like that. I DO NOT RECOMMEND INTERNET FORUMS. (Why don’t we learn? Why do we always go back?)

But my therapist flatly told me, over and over: You will not stay like this. This is your brain thinking it’s protecting you. If you reduce stress and anxiety, you will teach your brain that it’s safe to “return,” and you will come back. I had to trust her. And what she was saying made sense.

At least it made more sense than, “And one day, your brain left, and it never returned, and then you died.”

This started in earnest in July. It is now November. I had my first mostly “normal” day four days ago. And now, I’m writing to you. By this evening, I may be gone again.

But I will come back. I will always keep coming back.

I’m not sure why exactly I’m writing to you. I guess I have a few things to say. One, I’ve missed you.

I’ve missed myself. I miss the me that had something to say to you, the person that wanted to chat and rant and engage and hang out.

I want to say that sometimes people really are struggling that much, and it doesn’t mean they’ve just moved to Europe and found peace and now just post pictures of the cat’s toe fluff.

It doesn’t mean they don’t care about social and political issues. It doesn’t mean they aren’t scraping the cell walls with everything they’ve got to claw their way back to you. I think we need to go easier on each other. I think we need to stop projecting our shit onto others as if our individual lives are universal.

Am I kinder? Am I a life coach now? Why is life always trying to make me nicer? WHOSE IDEAS WAS THIS.

I also understand now, all the way to my bones, that the internal life is all life is. There’s nothing else. All this external shit, it’s window dressing. Some sprinkles. Who I am, what I am, what makes this life a wild and vibrant thing, comes from within me. I am the one who jumps into a river in Spain and makes it mean something. I am the one who synthesizes and creates from the beauty and pain around me. It’s possible to have it all washed into neutrality, to walk through it like a Marvel robot—and it’s death.

In a way I feel a love and compassion for myself (puke) for the first time– feeling, after all, that I’d give just about anything to experience that asshole again. Why was I so hard on her?

To think and create and desire. To contemplate and grow confused and seek to understand. To follow a train of thought for hours, to write for more hours, to remember yesterday, last week, what I read this morning. To move through the world with a sense of self and personality and my feet on this fucked-up, broken ground.

I begged to return no matter how hard it was. I begged to move through the world again as the person I was quite awful to. Perhaps only those who’ve been through this will understand how I can talk about myself in third person. But if you’ve ever had your Self ripped from you, reduced to a zombie walking through the world through a thick fog of numb, empty distance, with no ability to access the part of you that lives and creates and feels, you will understand what I’m saying here.

We are, to put it bluntly, no matter how fucked up, better than nothing.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I must believe it’s all leading somewhere. Over the years a lot of you have been quite worried about me, probably able to see what I couldn’t see myself. Slow down, settle down, calm down. I couldn’t, though, you understand. Because when I did, I would find myself here.

Whatever I’m going through is the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced. It somehow makes getting sober look like a cakewalk. Perhaps what I’m living through now is getting to the bottom of why I ran straight to whiskey as my main life hack. Perhaps this is the scorecard finalized. I guess it all led me here. And I’ll find myself on a new ground, made just for me, no longer running, and that much more alive.

Until then,

38 Comments | Posted in mental health mental non health | November 5, 2022

Anyone else failing to find their way back into the world?

by Janelle Hanchett

I think I’ve forgotten how to be in the world. I am not special. I did not experience some uniquely bad pandemic experience, but I suppose the conditions are a bit unique in that I moved to a new country 6 months before it started. 

I was just coming out of the complete and total numb-fog of wandering around a strange place and wondering how the fuck to buy baking powder  when the pandemic began. I was just beginning to feel a little ground beneath my feet when we were all sent home to our bread making and toilet-paper hoarding, and, somehow, Tiger King. 

I had no friends. I have no family here. I was living in a house in a more suburban area (read: boring to the depths of my soul). And it was cold, as usual. And my eldest child was in America. 

I put on my pajamas and caved into myself. 

For two years I’ve existed in this country that feels like a snow globe: Beautiful to look at, wholly removed from my reality. Something I can look at, hold in my hands, appreciate for what it is, but remains eternally closed off from me. I sure as shit can’t join it.

I hear a lot of expats and immigrants talk about this in The Netherlands. How they never feel a part of the country, whether or not they Speak Dutch, whether or not their spouse is Dutch, whether or not they have a job here. 

I could speculate for 9 hours on why that may be but I don’t see the point. It is what it is. I am not alone in feeling this. But goddamn it makes it worse, I think, to have moved just before or in the middle of the pandemic. I say this not to have difficulty Olympics—I decidedly LOSE—but rather as a point of hope. As in, perhaps it will get better. Maybe I will one day walk out of my house and sit in a favorite spot that feels like mine. 

And yet I wonder if we can all to some extent relate to the feeling of having been reset in an irrevocable way. Like it all blew the fuck up and you can take away the masks and social distancing and mandatory testing but you can’t bring back the way it was. Do we even want it back?

I am not one of the people who feels afraid to “return to normal” and I am definitely not a person who wants to wear an N95 for the rest of my life. No, I do not believe it is an invasion of my deep personal liberty. No, I do not want to wear them forever. Yes, I like human life better without masks, social distancing, QR codes and 750 pages of forms to travel one country to my right.

But what’s fucking with me isn’t any of that. It’s this feeling that I can’t access whatever it was I had before. Like I’ve gone so far inward at this point, pulled so deeply into a life of moving from my bedroom to the kitchen to the office to the couch to the kitchen to the bedroom just to do it all again the next day that I—like it? 

No. 

Or maybe I do. 

I get lonely. Really fucking lonely. And bored. I want a life and friends and places to go and favorite cafes and theater and music. I want to get excited about something. It isn’t just the depression I was fighting. 

It’s some sense that I’ve lost touch entirely with the life I had built and decided was meaningful. The routines and ways of being that brought purpose to my daily life. I’ve been stripped down to me and not much else and I can’t seem to find a path back to you. 

To the world. To community. 

It’s a dark place in my mind sometimes. Every time I walk into the light of this world—the weird, vibrant life around me—a bit of that darkness is illuminated. I don’t feel particularly healthy. I feel contracted and suffocating. 

But I don’t want to take a step out of this house either. It lost its appeal somehow. 

I survived the loneliness by moving straight into the solitude. That wasn’t my idea. My best friend told me to do that. I’ve read more books than I have in years. Written more words (although not on the blog). But I’ve also played more stupid games on my phone than ever before, stared at too many walls, concentrated in ten minute intervals. Life has demanded I learn to look inward for what I need. When I do, I’m not sure I like what I find. 

Are they going to tell us how to reenter? Are they going to instruct us how to get back out there the way they told us how to survive “covid brain” at home? Will there be helpful guides for what the fuck to do as we watch our kids race into the world without a thought, and we miss them a little, feel a little left behind, as the mother on the couch again. Or the office. Or some place we’ve never been at all? 

They took it all away after telling us for generations what life was about, what it all meant. Those of us who survived got a glimpse of those lies, the fragility of that house of cards. 

Moving from a pandemic straight into war.

What is the point, truly, of reentry. Is there even anything out there I need? Why build it all back up again? 

I don’t have anything particularly helpful to say. Sometimes it’s better not to try. If anything, I’m grateful that our delusions were smashed, that maybe we see what they offered was a thin invention that offered distraction, a lot of money for billionaires, and something to do until there’s nothing to do. 

Yesterday my kids and the neighborhood kids spent all afternoon preparing a funeral for a dead bird they found in the little community playground. They dug a grave and placed stones around it. Made a cross from sticks. Gathered flowers for the grave. Invited all the parents out. They sang some songs, offered eulogies, the tweens too dramatic and silly. One boy played his guitar. At the end, one of the dads said, “cake and coffee!”, which is an after-funeral Dutch tradition, I guess. 

He was joking but I had just made a cake. I went inside to get it. We passed it around and ate around the grave of the buried bird. I thought about Ukraine, these children, their children, the little bird in the ground. 

I’m glad it got what it deserved, a tiny world around it, caring that it died. Honoring a life we wouldn’t have noticed at all if we hadn’t stopped for a second, looked around, thought about the way it flew.

 

Beautiful snow globe bike world I’m so grateful for! Now just to find where I belong–or accept that I don’t.

 


Writers & Artists: 

I am leading two incredible writing retreats in July.

I realize this is a strange thing to write after the post you just read. And yet, something I know more than anything else: We keep living as long as we can, and, in the words of Toni Morrison, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language.”

And of course, you don’t have to come to a writing retreat in Spain to do that. But, if you can, well.

“When Artists Get to Work” is July 3-9, 2022 and blends a traditional artist residency with the workshops and discussion of a retreat. There will be five incredible artists & writers in residence there and it’s open to writers and artists of any genre (and of course, those who do both!). It will take place in a 15th-century farmhouse in Lleida, Spain. (4 of 8 spots left)

“Craft Enables Art” is July 13-19, 2022 and is designed for writers. We’re going to a 10th-century castle in the Girona region of Spain. This is my more traditional annual retreat focusing on craft, process, and the creation of a sustainable writing practice. (4 of 12 spots left)

Tomorrow, March 15, and 10:30am PST/ 1:30pm EST, I’m holding a Zoom chat/ informational meeting about the retreats. If you’re interested in learning more, concerned about passports, travel, refunds in the case of disaster, or just what we do there all day and the vibe of these events, join us. Here’s a Facebook event link.

Or email me for Zoom info.

 

 

17 Comments | Posted in Netherlands, Uncategorized, writing | March 13, 2022

Oh, hi. It’s been a while.

by Janelle Hanchett

Check it out. We aren’t ending 2021 on that last post I wrote.

I didn’t mean to leave us there for so long, but, to be frank, my blog was the last of my concerns. It isn’t that I didn’t care, or don’t care, it’s that my life was stripped to the bare minimum. Stay alive. Don’t drink. Get through the day. Sorta.

And I had nothing to say. I said it all on the day I said I couldn’t seem to will my legs to move.

And because I was empty. I write from the inside, you know? Interests, curiosity, concern, joy, rage. What do you pull from when there’s nothing but blank space?

How do you weave a string of words into meaning when you can’t find any?

It all sounds rather dramatic unless you’ve been there. I felt I had been entirely hollowed out. It will be a long, long time before I understand what happened in this depression.

I have been writing. I’ve been writing long, wandering essays that may take shape someday, and I’ve been writing non-essays that probably have more hope. I’ve been writing in my journal, in notes on my phone. I’ve been reading. I’ve been praying. I’ve been wondering how it was that I felt like myself again though I know exactly when it was.

See? This is good news. I AM SO MUCH BETTER. Do you know how long that depression lasted? Almost two years. From September 2019 to July 2021. I know this because I keep a journal. And yes, because the end was really that clear. Really that defined.

I’m sharing this part because I seem to hear less about depression that lasts for a long time but does, eventually, go away, or shift into something new. Something tolerable. It’s almost like it becomes integrated. I am not talking about resigning oneself to meaninglessness and pain, but rather that the pain and meaninglessness seem to have done their job, and they leave.

 

There is an appropriate, enlightened way to talk about depression and what I just said is not it.

The idea that pain may have a purpose, that it’s doing something vital and unique to itself—as in, no other source could teach me what that pain taught me–that I may have, as a person, needed it—I can already hear the internet telling me I’m dangerous and toxic and misinformed.

Whoever decides the parameters of these conversations seems to have made clear that the only story we are supposed to tell is “Depression is a chemical illness and we need medication.” And it ends there.

The thing is, I agree with this statement. I knew it was true then and I know it now. And it didn’t bother me. What bothered me was that there didn’t seem to be anything past that.

The idea seems to be that we are supposed to accept the endless pursuit of new and better pills as the correct and awakened method for treating depression and expressed deviation from that is dangerous.

My problem was that the pills didn’t do much for me.

That’s not true. The medicine brought me from non-functional to Vaguely Functioning—and that, if you think about it, is a fucking big deal.

But those pills were my last frontier and last hope, so when my mood stayed as dark as a Dutch January I almost felt—worse? As in, final hope gone. Because where do you go after you’ve played your last hand?

Have I used enough cliches or shall I press on?

Yes, I could change pills. And we were talking about that. But the last time I had an intense clinical depression (when sober enough to differentiate that from regular old alcoholism), I got on Zoloft and was a new human. I went from just on the edge of “postpartum psychosis” to a job, regular exercise, moving houses, and a new life that felt satisfying and real.

The pills this time made me able to get dressed before noon sometimes and stop thinking that if I killed myself my children would be happier.

That’s a damn low bar.

The idea that my sole job in that condition was to find new and different and better pills, many of which I have already taken, many of which have already given me the worst withdrawals I’ve ever had—harder than cocaine, opiates, or alcohol (I’m looking at you, Effexor!)—with some of the most awful side effects including, but not limited to: hallucinations (my favorite was when snake scales slowly crawled up my boobs), gaining 70 pounds in 3 months, cold sweats, insomnia, memory loss, and the total inability to have sex—well, perhaps you can forgive me if LET’S LAUNCH DOWN A PSYCH MED ROAD was not my singular, most joyful approach.

Plus, my life’s circumstances were new and intense. I couldn’t imagine the depression wasn’t at least in part circumstantial: new country, pandemic, first time away from my home, family, friends. I knew I needed help. I knew it had passed the point of “I’ll just take more walks and eat better.” But I also never felt comfortable with “my brain just needs chemical balancing” as a solution.

While trying to figure out what to do with all of this, I started seeing an acupuncturist who is, now stay with me here, a healer. Yes, I said healer. An actual healer. Not one of these assholes who enjoys the sound of her own voice so much she’s convinced she’s a shaman–but like, one of those people who has an indescribable energy of seeing.

Welcome to the new Janelle. She says things like “healer” and “indescribable energy of seeing.” Whatever. I ate my encapsulated placenta. I’ve always been like this. You’ve probably just been in denial.

Anywho, he began telling me things I did not enjoy hearing but that resonated with me on a level that’s hard to describe. I would lie face down with needles in my butt while he said words, and tears would fall out of my eyes and drip through the little face hole.

Bit of an awkward awakening.

I’d tell you all the things he said but that’s a longer story and longer piece of writing because it’s very personal, and delicate, and because I don’t want you to think I am declaring that a person can be healed from clinical depression with well-placed needles and words. Or maybe they can? I don’t fucking know and I ain’t giving medical advice and I’m not your life coach. I am merely recounting my life here.

I will tell you that one of the things we found together was that I was standing between two worlds, unwilling to accept a new way of being, a new relationship to home, work, family, friends—and unwilling to let go of the old one. I was liminal as fuck.

Fighting. Resisting. Clinging. Very, very confused.

We talked about the soul needing to learn some shit as we move through life. I SAID SOUL AND I MEANT IT.

At the same time he’s doing his thing my therapist starts hitting me with “Janelle, if you want to get through this you have to actually feel things,” if you can imagine that shit.

You think you know a person then one day they’re telling you to stop numbing yourself with a cell phone addiction.

I like to write true things as jokes to avoid real emotion. Wait.

Let’s change the subject. GODDAMNIT.

So between needle guy talking about how some egos die harder than others, the Dutch therapist telling me to “actually feel things,” and my own restlessness, I was beginning to suspect that I, in fact, was going through some sort of bullshit growth I never asked for.

Then the therapist is giving me assignments like “The next time you’re feeling vulnerable and sad try to let Mac hug you for fifteen seconds without stiffening like a board.”

Have we rounded the fucking bend here?

The thing to do when feeling vulnerable is to signal to all loved ones in the vicinity that if they come any closer you’ll eat their face off with your bare hands.

I’m good at feelings.

Look, if I’m really fucked, I put my forehead against my dog’s forehead and cry, or tell him about it. This action was, in fact, what made me realize I have never in my life been able to accept comfort from a human being.

What kind of bullshit news is that? I regularly go to my dog for comfort, even physical comfort, and the thought of doing that with a human is incomprehensible. Apparently, though, some people accept hugs when they’re sad, or kind words, or back-patting, or some other weird demonstration of “support.”

I started wondering if this was the part of me that needed to die. (Ya fuckin think?)

Alright enough therapy hour. The point is I started searching with my whole self, as if my life depended on it, for what all this pain was about. I started asking a simple question, and I don’t even know who I was asking: What do you want me to learn from this?

I developed a rabid obsession with reading about depression and melancholy through the ages and through religions and histories: St. John of the Cross’s dark night of the soul, Jung’s alchemic processes of internal transformation, beginning with nigredo, the Greek mythology’s descent into the underworld. Shit, I even hit up Keats’s melancholy.

I wanted to learn what I needed to learn. I felt the world or universe or god was trying to teach me something and I could not find it. There’s a line in my book that says “I didn’t want the pain gone. I wanted it to mean something.”

What kind of new bottom is quoting yourself?

Whatever. Between that and soul growth there’s nothing left anyway.

I guess what I’m saying is I know that sometimes I have to suffer a whole lot before I can get someplace new. I’ve lived that once. Why did I think it wouldn’t happen in sobriety? Why did I think my Self wouldn’t need some serious changing? And why, perhaps most importantly, would I ever think that losing everything that made me feel connected, human, and safe (new country, hi), then finding myself cut off from the ability to create new connections, friends, home, delusions of safety (pandemic)—why did I not suspect this might take me down to the bones?

“I have a feeling you think this is going to pass on its own.” Damn that needle guy.

Check it out, once again: I don’t know what you need to do for your depression. What I knew, or at least suspected, what I felt deep in my blood, was that something was happening to me and I couldn’t just pill it away. I absolutely needed that medication. I am grateful for it and I think there’s a decent chance it saved my life. It definitely saved my sobriety (I was about five minutes from drinking, because it’s a slightly slower way for me to kill myself and everything I love).

But I KNEW this wasn’t going to pass without me doing something. I could feel myself stripped of everything that gave meaning to my life, and I couldn’t create new shit, and I couldn’t find anything in myself. To survive, I had to believe that what I was going through had some meaning, that if I could face it, and face it squarely, and integrate whatever truth existed deep in it, that I would find what I needed.

And the truth is, folks, the process I’m describing up there is in fact a very, very old process, but we sure as hell don’t talk about it. Someday I will talk about it. Someday when we have more time.

**

I don’t think I was off the plane in San Francisco for ten minutes before I felt that sprawling gray lift out of my body.

Maybe it was the warmth (read: Satan’s armpit) of California summer. Maybe it was my beloved state’s trees and mountains and crystal blue of the lakes. Maybe it was the smell of Tahoe pines. Maybe it was Bodega Bay fog.

Maybe it was seeing friends I love with whom nothing is forced. Who I’ve known for years. Who tell it to me straight. Who know it all, already.

Maybe it was being around my own culture and people even though I low-key hate them both. Americans don’t exactly, as a whole, make me swell with pride, as we ban books we don’t like and abortions we don’t like and sing our bullshit country songs of sequin patriotism while waving flags in the faces of hungry kids and wondering what the problem is.

But we are more, of course we are, and for better or worse, I am American.

Maybe it was the fact that people understood me and I didn’t have to work at it and I had a sense of humor again because there was no language barrier blocking sarcasm and understatement comprehension.

Maybe it was going home.

It was definitely going home.

I don’t think we’re aware of how many tiny moments of human connection are created through language and shared culture. Until they’re gone. I don’t think we understand what it feels like to sit effortlessly with a friend over coffee, until it’s mostly gone.

I am misunderstood in my daily life as often as I worry about being misunderstood. I find myself purposely refusing to have real conversations with people around me because it’s just too hard. It’s too much effort for too little return. We still aren’t going to know each other. We still aren’t going to connect. I will leave this conversation wondering how many times my humor didn’t translate.

And over my time here, compounded by lockdown after lockdown, my world got smaller and smaller and lonelier and lonelier until it was just me, on the couch, wondering if there was ever a person in the meat sack of my body, writing to you about depression.

But I see now that it had to get small, to get me down to the bones. To get me relying on nothing because nothing is there. To get me stripped down to the person who can’t receive a single hug when she’s afraid and heartbroken. To get me to let go of the lifetime of defense, rage, and self-delusion that had me convinced I could go it alone.

It doesn’t work, ya know. It doesn’t work.

 

I’m not fixed. But I’m closer to a freer, truer self than I’ve ever been.I don’t know why the depression lifted out of my body when I went to California. It felt like I suddenly remembered who I was. “Oh, right,” my whole self seemed to say, “I’m a person. I have a home and friends and a sense of humor and roots way down into the ground.”

I felt a lightness for the first time in years. An energy. A silliness. And a looming dread that the second I went back to the Netherlands it would all go away again.

But it didn’t. By the end of my month in California, I wanted to return. I missed it. I missed our little life here. My kids started saying, “I want to go home,” which was really something.

I remember riding my bike in the sun after returning and noticing that the same lightness existed. I remember a sense of gratitude so deep it gave me chills. I remember feeling like I will never understand how it feels that some things are one day removed from me, not beaten to death, not talked away with a therapist, not diluted with a pill.

I needed it all to get well. I needed the pills and I needed the needles and needle-guy truth and I needed the therapist’s terrible ideas about normal human connection and goddamn I definitely needed the miracle that is my dog.

In a way, I came back to California and felt the arms of old friends and family and the trees and ground give me that fucking hug my therapist insisted I learn to accept.

I didn’t see it coming. I’m not sure what will come next. But I see again, I get what I need, and I am just happy to be here. DAMNIT.

Happy fucking New Year, friends. Here we are. Here we are.

my mom took this picture of me the other day in Amsterdam and it struck me how genuinely happy I look

51 Comments | Posted in mental health mental non health | December 31, 2021

This is what I wanted to read in my depression.

by Janelle Hanchett

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a real depression. Two decades, actually. I had forgotten how physical it is. How it pulls your body into the ground, deep into some sort of mud, turns it into a massive thing you’re dragging around. Hollowed out, but somehow so heavy.

It crept up on me, I suppose, the need to sit for ten minutes after showering. I’d sit on my bed, naked, the towel around my head, thinking about getting dressed, knowing it was the next step of my life, wondering how or when it began to feel impossible. I’d wait for the strength.

It never came, but I’d do it anyway. My whole life became a process of waiting for the next task I couldn’t avoid, watching the clock tick by and wishing it wouldn’t.

Somebody had to get my kids from school. Somebody had to shower and get me dressed so when Mac came home I wouldn’t still be sitting there, not dressed. I’d do the dishes to make it look like I had accomplished something. I would send an email or two. Some days I’d send twenty, apologize twenty times, try to set it all up again.

I’d give myself immensely pathetic pep talks, always the same words: “You can do it, Janelle. Come on.” I’d say it out loud. I’d force my body up. I’d yell at myself. COME ON. DO IT.

And I would. But nothing changed. I’d watch hours pass by, days, weeks, and me still sitting there on the goddamn bed—metaphorically, you understand–waiting for some will, believing myself less and less able to do it.

 

Life was right there. I could see it, but I couldn’t touch it, and it certainly couldn’t touch me.

So instead I stared at it, remembered what it used to offer, scanned every crevice for some indication that I was alive.

It all sounds so dramatic when you talk about it. Self-pitying. Syrup emotion. Even while writing this I want to tell myself to shut the fuck up.

Depression talk is boring, unless you’re in it.

And that’s why I’m writing this. In case you’re in it. I wanted so badly for somebody to see me in that state, in that ground-down, useless place. I found myself looking everywhere for somebody talking about the sitting-on-your-bed-for-ten-minutes thing, staring at a wall as if it could help you, or giving up hope that the wall had anything to offer, growing ever more silent because it’s all so strange.

But I mean that quite literally, the part about looking for something that reminded me that I was alive—as in, something to touch the part of me that felt alive. The part that experiences something. A desire, a spark of interest.

It wasn’t the sadness so much that killed me but the absence of feeling. Like my whole life was rolling out and it was all the same–today, tomorrow, the next day. I’d feel hopelessness, a permeating regret I couldn’t define, and a sadness that felt like meaninglessness. And not a single change on the horizon.

I wrote some notes in my phone once:

It isn’t that I can’t do the things I used to do. It’s that it won’t mean anything to me.

I can write to you on Facebook a funny story. Show you some beautiful architecture. But after I post it I’ll wonder why I do things like that, and I will feel confused. I’ll respond to you. I’ll excuse myself for not responding. I’ll use out-of-date laughing emojis. I’ll meet you for coffee. I’ll teach a writing workshop. I’ll talk to you on the phone. I’ll pick you up from school. I’ll write you an essay. I will definitely make you laugh.

But it won’t mean a single thing.

I wasn’t asking for joy. I was asking for things to mean something again, for it to be a little less hard.

 

One morning I listened to an interview with a pastor who had been committed to an institution for depression. He said he understands why people commit suicide.

He said it is because they want rest.

My head fell in final recognition. Gratitude.

Rest. Yes.

I wasn’t suicidal. But I would have given anything for some relief from whatever it was inside of me that wouldn’t budge. Just staunchly refused. It looked at me and laughed. “You’ll never beat me,” it said.

And I never did, but I walked through life anyway.

I understand why women “in the old days” used to “take to their beds.” Simply stop.

I’m not moving, they said. It beat me.

They wanted rest.

I could see running out of steam, when an eternal rest is, at least, rest.

 

It’s obvious now, looking back, that things weren’t right, at all, but I was playing “Is this depression or regular pandemic life?” with the rest of the world. Before that I engaged in endless rounds of “Is this depression or I just moved to a new country?” I was dying for answers.

But everything I’d ever used to figure such things out–my feelings, intellect, will, even, yes, my God—had left me at some point. It was just me, hanging out, reading what other people had to say about it on the internet.

And no matter how many times the world told me this or that, that it’s normal or not normal, seasonal or chronic, depression or regular lockdown life or pandemic burnout—I wanted to find the answers within myself, because that is where I’ve always gone, and that is where I know things, really know things.

To find out if I need help or not, if it will pass or not. How to fix it. How to get through it.

But the singularly consistent feature of this depression was feeling disembodied–fragmented, a head on an alien body.

What I’m saying is I looked inward and found nothing at all.

Past the nothing was an urge to pick up my phone to play a very stupid game. Some history forever replaying. A craving for a cigarette. A recollection of food in the house I could eat.

 

I’m speaking of this in the past tense, as something having come and gone, and I suppose, in a way, that’s true.

The day came when it didn’t matter anymore if it was circumstantial or clinical. I couldn’t go on like that. I would have returned to drugs and alcohol if I thought it would work for even a moment. My brain started telling me about how we could make this end. I imagined lying down and never getting up again. I felt myself really slipping away.

And it all became extremely simple. I just needed, help.

I’m seeing a psychiatrist and psychologist now, and I went on a medication that gave me back some energy. I get up earlier. I take a shower without much trouble at all. It’s such a difference I had three neighbors say “Oh, you’re up so early!” when they saw me outside before 9am.

I am silly with my kids again. I sit at the table after dinner and talk with the family. Tasks don’t feel so impossible. Sometimes I really feel like doing things. The thoughts don’t replay so fucking endlessly. They are less intrusive, less despairing, less creatively destructive (and yet also somehow unbelievably boring).

But mostly I feel flatlined. It isn’t, shall we say, the life I’d like to be living, the internal self I aim for. It is, however, what it is. You’re welcome for that stunning insight.

 

I don’t feel “fixed.” I don’t feel “back to myself.” I am made uncomfortable by the idea that a special cocktail of medication will return me to some glorious equilibrium of pre-fucked self.

I consider perhaps that the “self” has altered irrevocably.

I consider the sun coming back. I consider the end of the pandemic. I consider the way my dog would sit by me and stare at me and jump on my bed and put his paw on my chest. I truly do not believe he was away from me for more than ten minutes during any of this. He’s here right now at this very moment.

I consider the way Mac asked me so often if I was okay, and how he looked at me just the same as he looked at me two decades ago. We didn’t know what to do then, either.

I consider how writing left me but here I am, in words.

That’s strange, isn’t it? That here we still are.

There wasn’t a time when I was completely gone. I know that because every time I sat on that bed searching the wall or life or myself for something to hold onto, something to lighten up or enlighten this fucking world, there was a part of me insisting it existed—otherwise, why look? With zero evidence some part of me saw all the way through to a life I couldn’t touch, reached forever for some rest, right here, with you.

I’m not saying I was strong. That I achieved something. What I’m saying is it gives me some hope. What I’m saying is she may become more than a sad pep talk at 1pm. What I’m saying is I wasn’t abandoned. What I’m saying is maybe you aren’t either.

If you know the dark, you know what I mean. I hope I’ve found you there.

 

He’ll wait as long as it takes. 

49 Comments | Posted in mental health mental non health | May 10, 2021

Breaking: They aren’t “regressing.” They’re kids in a blown-up world.

by Janelle Hanchett

“Kids have regressed in innumerable ways since the pandemic began. Lately, we’ve been noticing that our kids (and our friends’ kids) don’t want to be left alone in a room. Codependency? Maybe. Irrational fear? Totally possible. Have you experienced this with your own kids (who should be “over” this stage in their lives) and if so, have you handled it with any success?”

-Huffington Post Parents on Facebook

Wow. This is absolutely rich coming from a bunch of people who bought all the flour and yeast in a five-mile radius within two weeks of the pandemic so they could obsessively bake their own bread for no apparent reason. We’re three seconds from grinding our own wheat as if it were 1830, nobody knows why, but we’re all on board because it feels right, so fuck it. This may be the end. “Irrational fear?” Nah, totally normal adult pandemic response.

The well-adjusted, non-regressing contingent of society is hoarding fourteen packs of toilet paper for a family of four as if water doesn’t exist but our kids are “codependent” because they want more hugs while everyone talks about disease, dying, and trying not to kill grandma.

Within a month we’re pouring 2pm cocktails, Tiger King, and middle-aged TikTok into the emotional void of our lives but find it concerning that our kids want to sleep on our floor and don’t seem too interested in Zoom math.

Truly cannot imagine why a child would want to find some comfort in their parents, one of the few things that have (sort of) remained the same after being cut off from every other source of routine, stability, and comfort in their lives.

How truly fucking odd.

Let’s be concerned.

My social media feeds are full of articles about how brain fog, inability to concentrate, and anxiety are totally normal–we even refer to it as “pandemic brain”–but apparently we can’t figure out why the hell our two-year-old isn’t on board with potty training.

What is it with our need to frame our children’s natural, reasonable responses as some sort of pathology? First of all, fuck anyone adding one more thing to our pandemic-worry list of bullshit. Fuck them secondly for a disingenuous framing of a non-problem as a “problem” so we can click on their articles that will then solve it for us.

To be clear, ASKING FOR MORE HUGS IS MY ACTUAL MENTAL HEALTH GOAL.

I yearn for the day when rather than turn to carbs or my phone to remove my brain or find myself yelling at a family member for existing, I turn to that family and say, “Can we snuggle? I’m scared.”

Oh, god. A shudder went up my body just thinking about saying those words with my actual mouth, letting people know that I’m a human being with actual needs who relies on people around her. As if I am, in fact, vulnerable, and cannot always find the strength within myself to power through to a better day, which I also suspect will never come.

Alright, I’m being hyperbolic, but am I?

Incidentally, HuffPost published an article a couple of weeks after their bullshit post letting parents know that this “regression” is normal. Because of course it fucking is. But they had to, first, lay the foundation of “worry,” rile us up just enough that we start wondering what’s weird or not weird or if our kids are “codependent” as our families navigate a once-in-100-year pandemic.

Look, my kids are in a country where they’re learning a second language, and they’re now both behind in reading. They were pulled out for three months of the language immersion school they were in, and then they lost months of regular Dutch school.  Zoom calls aren’t the same. They are squarely behind in their reading of Dutch.

But it’s okay. What the hell else is going to happen? What else can I expect? Aren’t we all given a bit of a Free Pass to Loser at this point? I know like three adults who claim to be functioning at full capacity and judging from their Facebook feeds I’m pretty sure two of them are lying.

How can we excuse and accept just about every iteration of physical, mental, and emotional deterioration among adults yet somehow expect kids to “keep on their studies,” continue unabated in their quest for independence, and stand proud and alone as if nothing has happened?

 

This is why I’ve always been skeptical about what they (the media, “experts”) say about raising kids. They pathologize our children so they can sell us shit to fix what they invented. They create “solutions” for problems that are often created by societal systems that do not allow us to be parents in a “normal” way, which varies by culture anyway and nobody can really define. See, for example, no paid federal maternity leave and the “need” for sleep training, weaning, etc.

I am not knocking sleep training—well, I’m definitely knocking some forms of sleep training–or weaning. What I’m knocking is the idea that we need to adopt their “tried and true” methods of parenting, which we can access for $19.99 on Amazon, that just happen to align perfectly with the patriarchal, capitalist way of being. Or a lot of clicks for them.

I’m sure it’s mere coincidence.

I believe, generally speaking, that we have at least some intuitive capacity to raise the kids our bodies produce. The alternative seems like a rather serious evolutionary error. Of course, judging from that gold Trump statue, clearly there are some serious evolutionary errors.

No but seriously, imagine being an animal that birthed a matching baby animal and was then like I HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO FEED THIS FUCKING THING. We’d have been gone eons ago. I highly doubt cavewomen were sitting there contemplating how often they should nurse their young, or whether or not they should carry the fucker.

“Honey,” she asks, “Should I put this thing down to not spoil it? What does your mother say? IS THERE A WALL PAINTING EXPLAINING HOW MUCH HOLDING IS TOO MUCH HOLDING?”

The idea that I need books and essays and “experts” to guide me in providing every step of basic care to my offspring—including hug quantity during a pandemic–strikes me as ridiculous.

Yes, I needed my mom to help me learn to breastfeed my babies. Yes, I asked my midwives a million questions and my friends and mother even more as my kids grew. No, I do not need you to tell me that it’s normal that my kid wants to sit on my lap while the world blows up.

Can’t we trust ourselves a bit? Our kids? Our families? Have we grown so disconnected from our children and their humanity, and our ability to respond to that humanity, that we see their need for extra closeness during an apparent existential crisis as “a potential cause for worry?”

It’s sad, and it’s nonsense, and if there’s ever a time when we can just settle into giving these little humans extra time and affection, trusting that they probably know what we all need better than their Tiger-King-sourdough parents, goddamn it’s now.

And isn’t it beautiful that we can still do that for our kids. We can just be there, and it can be enough. Someday, it won’t be. Someday, they won’t even ask. Someday, they’ll be the adult staring at the wall, phone in hand, looking at a child brave and clear enough to say, “Hey, Mama? Can I sit with you? I haven’t touched your body all day.”

My 6-year-old said that to me the other day. I took a picture to remember our shared regression. And how to be a human.