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
  • Mary Beth

    Thank you, thank you. I’m listening.

  • Andrea

    I feel you and I see you… We always come back, I´ve been wandering around some obscure places as well lately, trying to make sense of everything, I haven´t lost myself, but I lost my son, and everything stopped making sense… I am back now, I am here and I am enjoying this shit show called life more than ever. I am glad you are here, I can feel how hard you are fighting… You are not alone, I am holding your hand, many of us are holding each other hands, to wherever life will lead us. Oh, and I got myself a third cat FFS!

  • Melanie

    It’s so good to hear your voice again. As always, thank you for sharing the raw thoughts that are hard to put into words. You do that beautifully. Keep healing, keep being kind to yourself. You’ll find yourself again. My sister is dealing with something similar and these are the words I’d want someone to remind her of regularly.

  • Julie

    The battle may be lonely but you are not alone. Many of us will encounter eachother at different times in those dark, empty, obscure corners. We see you and you see us. Keep coming back, we all need you and each other.

  • Katie L

    My heart goes out to Janelle, and I miss you.

  • Diana

    I don’t have words of wisdom, just that I can relate and I love you from afar. I was lost most of my childhood and observed myself walking through life from a perch up in the corner of the ceiling. I didn’t know that living from that place was not “normal” until I was 20. Since then I have come and gone several times, with lots of therapy, and many kinds fucking personal growth work. Your Mac reminds me of my husband. Crane operator with work worn hands, magic with our babies, loved me well. He died at the beginning of COVID. Since then I have come and gone almost daily. Traveling mercies to you and me and all of us.

  • Lindsay

    Janelle,
    Something similar happened to me in 2021 and I fully believe it was a result of overfunctioning for 2 decades, being an asshole to myself, and prioritizing all the wrong shit. Literal shut down of all systems. It was the scariest fucking thing ever. It gave me new found compassion for people with mental health struggles who we tell to just pull themselves together. This is not on the menu during times like this. It’s a caccoon or chrysalis from which we hopefully re-emerge, but not unscathed. I’ve been wondering how you are, suspecting some shit was going down. All the best to you.

    • Jennifer

      I had my own shut down in 2003. It was definitely years in the making and it took a couple of years to come back. I stopped accepting the unacceptable finally so that’s something. I am now a Recovery Coach because I worked too hard for my experience and this is how I make it make sense. I reach back for the others drowning in this ocean so they can find a boat. Wishing you love and healing as you find your own boat. Recovery is weird.

    • Suzanne

      So sorry to hear what you are going through. I found it relatable in some ways & I believe we do need to share more about struggles like this. They are real. Thank you for sharing. I have enjoyed your writing over the years

  • Paige

    It’s good to hear from you. I’m glad to know you’re clawing your way back. You matter in this world.

  • Lorain

    I almost got in our car and drove to…… nowhere. I only stopped because I could not move. I hate that you are going through this, and I feel both grateful and distressed that you have shared it.I don’t know what is happening now. To anybody.

  • Emily

    I’m sending you so much love. I’ve experienced something very similar a few months ago and I’m slowly coming back to myself now. Be gentle with yourself, keep fighting.

  • Kari

    Fuck. I get it. Depersonalization is scary “AF” (as the kids say” and sometimes all we can do is post pet photos. (Did I mention we have two dogs, four cats, a beta fish and a bearded dragon?)
    The body remembers and it sucks. And by you posting this it made me understand/remember why I went through my own little bout if depersonalization/depression a few weeks ago because although we forget our bodies are more than happy to slap us upside the brain and say “HA I DID NOT FORGET.”

    You are loved, as are the photos of your pets.

  • Anneke Gaul

    Thank you for explaining some things here that I now recognize because of your words, around “the internal life is all life is”. Helpful and also hopeful in a strange way. Much love to you and all of us here in our struggles for life.

  • Ruth

    Waving in the gloom. Glad to see you again through the chink in the clouds. Its a tricky world to negotiate at the moment if you’re not a complete arsehole, and there’s a big crowd of us in various stages of dissociation just to get through the painfulness. Not listening to the news, shutting down to a small circle of people people we can trust, just trying to deal with the things we actually have any control over and letting go of the other stuff.

    May you be surrounded with love and lifted back into your body which is worthy of all the love. May you feel the sharp pricks of joy and sadness and all of the things again, and may you have a magical sky hook lift that heavy head back onto your shoulders

    Much love Janelle, you’re not an arsehole, which is why it all hurts too much sometimes to feel it all. Here’s to kitten floof to keep the gloom at bay. Xx

  • Amy

    I don’t think you write for kudos, but wanted to respond anyways and thank you for your amazing post, and for how you described dissociative processes, and some of the struggles you’ve had that have gotten you to present day. As a clinician, I try to tell clients that when trauma shows up, it’s sometimes because the brain recognizes enough good strategies and resources have been put in motion that it can bring you down/back/into whatever it is that’s at the root of things and is confident you can go through and come out the other side. I dunno if that’s how you experience it yet, but it’s what I’ve learned about trauma. But it’s fuckin scary shit, to be sure. I’m glad you’ve got support and got help, and that you share it with others like this; I hope the sharing is also helping you. All kitten and puppy and child and Dutch life pictures always welcomed and encouraged; I love it over there! And if you happen to meet a lovely woman named Sanne Bloemers, tell her I said hi. 🙂

  • Virginia Tauseef

    I love your posts because you keep it real. I understand where you are at because once I was diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety and I was in a fog for about 2 years. I came back but the darn things pop up when I least expect it. All we can do is take it one day at a time and hope for the best. Keep hanging in there. You are stronger than you think. It does get better, I promise.

  • Nicholena

    Oh Janelle besides the adorableness of your floof photos so please kerp those coming you are still an inspiration and deep well of experience that helps us all feel better about maybe, just maybe dealing with life!

  • Ellen

    Janelle I am so so sorry you are dealing with this, and I am beyond grateful you are sharing with us and finding a way to write while you are getting reoriented. Stress is REAL and weird and elusive and the water we swim in and it can be so hard to address and mitigate and come out of. I have my own journey with that. Lots of love to you and your family and to Mac for his support of you, and esp. to you for always coming back, and showing us how and that we can, too.

  • Elizabeth

    “I must believe it’s all leading somewhere”
    I know, I know – me, too. Got to hang onto that belief (knowing?) that it’s an unfolding journey and that even times like this are . . . uh . . . important? (not fun, not nice, not blessed dammit – but important). Thank you for speaking so clearly, like a bell ringing through this fog. Keep going. Keep going.

  • Hadley Rose

    ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

  • Peggy

    We love you. Thank you for coming back. I hope you stay.

  • Katy

    Thank you for letting me know I’m not alone. You described so close to how I’ve been feeling but have not been able put into words. Even the getting sober cake walk. This is a wild time. I’ll be sharing your words in therapy this week. You have helped me by writing and sharing the hard fucking truths. Your words have verbalized so much for me over these last 13 years. I appreciate you and hope you get all the grace and peace we all deserve. Sending

  • Laurie

    One therapist told me, in the midst of a major depression/anxiety spinout, “at the very least, be as kind to yourself as you would be to any stranger’s child.” And why is that so hard? I try every day; sometimes I can do it.
    Be as kind to yourself as you can.

  • Sarah

    I have missed your stories, and the photos of George and Arlo (and Rocket, Mac and Ava – but especially George and Arlo). Wishing you the best as you continue to take life on life’s terms. Sending you warm thoughts and virtual hugs.

  • Jessica

    Thank you for being you. Sending love

  • Miranda

    This hits so close to home. I know DP/DR very well, and it’s some scary shit. My own “nervous breakdown” (as I’ve been calling it, because it was my nervous system just noping the fuck out) happened in August, and sometimes I fear I will never return to my previous capacity again. For me, the reason for all this has been autistic burnout. Living in a neurotypical world my whole life, undiagnosed, unrecognized (until 3 years ago), and unsupported/unaccommodated. It caused C-PTSD. I’ve experienced several bouts of burnout, but this one has been next level. At one point, I couldn’t figure out how to stand up and leave a room, my brain just couldn’t make it happen. Communicating has been so much more difficult, like my thoughts/ideas are an amorphous blob that I can’t grab onto or organize, much less translate into words.

    I remember you posting a few years ago that someone suggested you might be autistic, and you were not happy about it, and I get that. I’m not saying I think you are, but I feel like it would be really shitty of me to not mention it seems worth looking into. And maybe you have. I only know the tiny bits you share. But for me, figuring it out saved my life and brought me to my community. And if nothing else, maybe someone else resonates with my comment, and maybe it could help them to figure out why.

    So many fucking wonderful and talented people are autistic. The #actuallyautistic hashtag on Instagram, Yo Samdy Sam on YouTube, and the book Unmasking Autism by Dr. Devon Price have all been invaluable resources.

    Sending so much of the good stuff to you, Janelle. Feel free to toss my thoughts straight out the window if you’d like to; maybe they’re garbage! Either way, you’re not alone in any of this.

  • Heidi

    Thank you for your honesty. I hope (pray?) both of our brains feel safe enough to return to us…

  • Julie Hickey

    Thank you for sharing this deeply raw and personal story. Sending you strength from Davis, CA.

  • Rachel Smith

    I’m so glad you’re back, and so very sorry for what you’ve been through. I hope you find this is the start of your way back to feeling better.

    I’m not sure if you’re aware of Anna Spargo Ryan (a brilliant Australian author who writes a lot about mental health). I’ve just finished her memoir. A lot of what you said above, what you’ve been going through, has been her experience too, so I thought I’d just share if you wanted to track her down. The book is called A Kind of Magic.

    Big big hugs to you, and here’s to better days ahead. xx

  • Kathy

    Wrapping you in love, Janelle. You are a sacred being. I love you and am grateful for all you create, infuse, digest. Take your time and love yourself. You are precious.

  • Niki

    Words like yours are what the world needs. We see you.

    I don’t know if you’ve read the book by Colleen Hoover, “It Ends With Us” but, reading that book gave me an appreciation for people in domestic violence situations. I naively thought, “why don’t they just leave?” Until reading her words I didn’t grasp the physiological hold DV takes; as someone who’d never been in that situation. I needed her words to be a better person. Similarly, until someone like yourself can articulate the innermost feelings and thoughts of a situation many will go though life wondering why someone can’t just “push through”. I commend your bravery sharing, and am glad you’re here. Thank you, and I’m sending all my love.

  • Dee

    It has happened to my sister three times. It is terrifying to watch someone you love walk through and I can only imagine more terrifying to experience. You write about it so well ❤

  • Donna

    Thank you for taking time out of your first normal for a while to share with us. I truly appreciate you and the effort you take to share the things most would hide but some need to hear.

  • Jennifer

    Thank you for sharing. I love your pet pictures. Especially the new fluffball kitty.

  • Jessica

    Any foray into the depths is mental illness is so incredibly humbling. It makes me so incredibly grateful for each day that just feels normal. This too shall pass and you will get through it. I highly recommend l the book ‘The wild edge of sorrow, rituals of renewal and the sacred work of grief’ by Frances Weller. May it shine a light on the dark places for you. Sending strength and love your way.

  • Renee’

    My heart really hurts for you Janelle. I went through something like that but was “drugged” just enough to be able to function in everyday life. I wish I could hug you to help you through this! You will make it. You are so strong and you have been so very missed! Just tell us what you are going through and we will be hear listening……

  • Tabatha

    Read Jenny Lawson. No joke. I am sending you so much love