99 Problems

Published on May 17th, 2018 | by Marissa Korbel


Renegade MUTHA: Janelle Hanchett Talks About How She’s JUST HAPPY TO BE HERE with Marissa Korbel

I first heard Janelle Hanchett as a guest on the One Bad Mother podcast, speaking about her four children and her blog, Renegade Mothering. At the time, I was losing my mind trying to take care of my one baby. I could not imagine going through this four times, let alone with other children underfoot. And I hadn’t written a word in over a year. I was impressed at her multitasking, her energy, and her creativity. Like so many others, I fell in love with her writing voice—which, I later learned is just her voice—funny, smart, sarcastic, and never seems to take herself too seriously.

I’m Just Happy to Be Here is exactly the memoir readers of Renegade Mothering will enjoy. Janelle traces her trajectory though early motherhood, active addiction, and finally, a hard-fought recovery through a twelve-step program. She’s inspiring without being sickly sweet; fierce and straightforward, and I read her memoir so quickly, I had to go back and take notes.

Janelle spoke with me recently from her home in Sacramento, California, where she lives and writes. – Marissa Korbel

MUTHA: I think one of the things that’s unique or particular to your story is the way that you navigated your addiction and then your recovery with your children. Was that challenging to write about? Did you talk to your children about that before you wrote about them?

JANELLE: I didn’t just because I’m not sure what I would say. It was difficult because I wanted to write this book about motherhood and addiction. I see a big hole in the way that we talk about motherhood and addiction. It seems like the story goes that a woman is an addict. Then she is saved through the love of her children. She sees the positive pregnancy test and she’s rocketed into sobriety, or she looks at those newborn toes and is permanently altered and never drinks again. I think that is absolutely wonderful, obviously, but as a mother who went down to the bottom after having children, and was not able to get sober even after they were gone from me for two years, I really felt like we need to talk about the fact that love is not necessarily enough to cure the disease of addiction. And that it isn’t necessarily that we don’t love our kids. I really believed that story needed to be told, and it was impossible for me to tell that story without talking about my children, because you know, how do you write motherhood without mentioning your kids?

MUTHA: You can’t, right.

JANELLE: All of those questions of how to navigate the privacy of others while also being true to the story were very, very difficult. What I tried to do was only include the stories and the moments that I felt were absolutely critical for the book and the story.

MUTHA: The challenge of memoir writing, I think, is seeing what belongs to you, and is your story, and then what is someone else’s.

JANELLE: Exactly, and I tried to be really ruthless with making sure that I stayed in the space where I bumped up against the people in my world without careening over into their side. I was trying to tell my story and the truth of that story as I saw it while interrogating and questioning my own perception. I’m not necessarily right. That’s just how I saw it.

In doing so, I hoped to write really compassionately and have a multifaceted way that I addressed people. I had to just trust that.

MUTHA: The adults that you write about including your husband, your mother, your grandmother, you really do a great job of giving them all the human complication of moral ambiguity in places.

JANELLE: Absolutely.

MUTHA: Like not always good and not always bad. You do the same with yourself. I’m tempted to say you’re hardest on yourself but I wonder if that’s a ruthless sort of integrity or investigation. Does that sound accurate?

JANELLE: That is exactly what my goal was, thank you. Yes. I love hearing that because it means I was successful and that meant a lot to me. I was constantly trying to give others the benefit of the doubt and always question and interrogate my own perception and own the limitations. And as an addict, I was so immature and judgmental and self centered for such a huge portion of my life.

MUTHA: I am not an addict, but I have had them around me. Many, many around me. I thought you captured that particular self-centeredness of addicts, especially when they’re active, that is so hard to break through.

JANELLE: And tolerate in others. We’re just intolerable. I wasn’t going to shy away from that because my goal in writing this book was not to get sympathy. It wasn’t to have people say, “Oh, poor you.”

And that’s not a judgment either on other addiction memoirs. I just knew that wasn’t the book I wanted to write. I definitely cringed, particularly the parts in rehab, because I was just such an asshole. It was just unbearable. I’m writing it now, nine years sober, with my sober eyes and I’m like, “Oh, fuck. This stuff.” I just kept reminding myself. I had a mantra, you know. I’d say to myself, “Well, Janelle, you’re either going to write the truth or you’re not.”

MUTHA: That’s a good mantra.

JANELLE: I really repeated that to myself a lot, every time I got scared and every time I felt like a fool and thought people are going to hate me. That mantra would realign me again to what I was doing.

MUTHA: Do you think that not living up to that cultural expectation that a woman would be saved by her family’s love drove you deeper? Like was there more shame and more guilt because you were being neglectful or because you weren’t doing this caretaking mom role the way that our society asks of women?

JANELLE: Yeah, I think it did. That story confused me. I couldn’t understand if the love of my children was supposed to get me sober, if that was supposed to be enough, why wasn’t it working for me?  Because I knew I loved my children, and I kept trying to have that be enough. And when people came at me with, “Well, don’t you want to be a mother? Don’t you want to be with your children? Don’t you want to be sober for your children,” I would look at them and cry. Like, “Yes, of course I do.” Then I would find myself drinking again. It wasn’t until somebody explained to me, “Actually, once you have crossed the line into a certain point of alcoholism and addiction, it doesn’t give a fuck about how you feel about your children.” It will kill you. It doesn’t give a fuck about how you want to live, either.

Why is love not working? The conclusion for the addict becomes, “I must be morally bankrupt. I must not be capable of love if love is supposed to fix me.”

MUTHA: So if the narrative that you were given around love and addiction didn’t play out, you’re left with well, then what the fuck is wrong with me?

JANELLE: Exactly, what is wrong with me. When someone explained to me that addiction is a disease of the mind and body that doesn’t care who you care about because your brain is sick and it can’t see straight, it can’t weigh in that moment how you feel about your children or the pros and cons, and your brain has been rewired into addiction. Then I was able to make a little progress.

And I do want to say that the reason that that narrative bothered me so much was not so much from needing people to understand me, but the first time I read a blog post that said, “I was a terrible alcoholic and then I saw those two positive lines, you know, the lines on my pregnancy test and I cleaned up my act and never drank again,” I would just think about the children of alcoholics who didn’t get sober. And the conclusion that they must draw, which would be, I guess, my mother didn’t love me enough. That ripped my fucking heart out. I remember just crying thinking about that. I wanted to just say, “Maybe your mother loved you. Maybe she didn’t. I’m not here to judge mother’s love here. I’m certainly not here to justify or make excuses or glorify any of it in any way, but I would like to complicate that. It is a possibility that she loved you and couldn’t get sober.”

MUTHA: How do you navigate what I see as the mommy/wine culture. Everything about motherhood, the answer is wine, so how do you deal with that as a sober mom?

JANELLE: Well, to be really honest with you, I don’t mind when people drink around me. Most of my friends drink. My husband and I love to go hear music, and usually it’s in bars. My husband is also sober, so that’s convenient. To put it really bluntly, I’m really fucking bored by it. I think it’s a worn out thing. I get it’s a joke, whatever, like oh, motherhood is hard. Let’s go drink wine.

MUTHA: But is it a joke? It is a cliché and it’s weirdly become so common, like more and more women… There was a study in 2016 that showed women’s drinking increasing across the board. Binge drinking for women has increased, too. You take all of the pressures that women are struggling with, and then you compound that with motherhood and then now it’s like, “oh, ha ha, it’s so funny. Mommy can’t talk to you because she’s drinking her special mommy juice.”

JANELLE:  If we take the joke part aside, or if we look at it seriously about what it’s saying, there are very real issues of misogyny. We fucking hate mothers in America and mothers are expected to balance it all. We’re expected to work, take care of the house, be skinny, be beautiful, be perfect. If we’re blotting out the misery of our existence with alcohol, I think we should ask ourselves why. If the only way we can tolerate our lives is to drink, I think we should perhaps interrogate that a little rather than laugh at it.

MUTHA: Well, you captured that impossible expectation so well early in your book. I was getting so mad on your behalf because … You and your husband were both active addicts, and you’re both working. But you’re going to work, you’re coming home, you’re doing the dishes, you’re taking care of the baby and he’s like, on the couch.

JANELLE: Right, yeah. I know. When I was pregnant, he was 19. I was 21. We’d known each other three months. He went from his parents’ house to my house. He didn’t really know how to be a grownup or a father, even though he was always very loving and very kind. I did all the fucking housework. I had a job. I did everything. It was an incredibly unfair division of labor and I was going nuts. I used my daily booze to hold my life together. It sort of blotted out this intolerable, overwhelming existence. So it isn’t funny. I’m with you. And it’s not a new narrative. Think about that Rolling Stones song, Mother’s Little Helper about speed and mothers. Mothers blotting out the reality of their fucked up lives because of misogyny and the patriarchy? That’s an old, old thing.

It does make you wonder why is this something that we all accept as reality and why do we promote it instead of investigating it or changing it?

MUTHA: Right, why is this job so bad that you have to be drinking or high to do it?

JANELLE: Why are we not questioning the institutions that have made motherhood what it is?

MUTHA: Yes. You brought up patriarchy and misogyny. I’m curious: How did your feminism come to you, and when?

JANELLE: Well, so I grew up in the Mormon church, but also sort of half out. Half my family was not Mormon. My mother was in the Mormon church but. She was a single mother, who definitely had us listening to other music, and had us doing things outside of the church. We never fully fit. Both my parents were Republican. I remember being in college as an undergrad and taking a gender class or something and arguing with the professor who was saying that motherhood is not biological, like mothering instincts are not biological. I argued with her. I was so pissed. What do you mean they’re not biological?

I definitely didn’t grow up with a feminist… well, it’s sort of complicated. I didn’t grow up with a distinct radical feminist left, but I had parents who questioned everything. My mother was a huge natural birth advocate and was in the La Leche League. She was constantly questioning the institution of birth and the way mothers are treated in the hospitals. That sort of thing happened a lot. I think my feminism was really established, as sad as this is, in grad school because I studied with a rather radical professor who introduced me to queer and Marxist and feminist theory. That was when I really started understanding the construct of gender and the role of the patriarchy and how those power structures are formed. I think that was when I became rather rabid.

It took education for me. It took actual education.

MUTHA: I think that’s most people. It’s not a viewpoint, even though it is part of the cultural mainstream, it’s not a viewpoint that’s really part of your average womanhood. You have to be kind of a dissenter. There’s the part in the book where you’re talking, I think, to a psychiatrist and they are diagnosing you with different personality disorders, PTSD, and maybe bipolar. And you also say, “Yeah, but I am also an active coke addict.” So where did you land with that? How did those diagnoses work for you once you became sober, and now nine years in?

JANELLE: I was trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with me because I couldn’t stop drinking. I could see that I couldn’t stop drinking. That reality was not lost on me, so I sort of started  exploring what the hell’s wrong with me. Why can’t I stop drinking? I went into psychiatry seeking an answer for why I couldn’t quit. I gathered quite a few diagnoses, as you observed. They diagnosed me borderline, chronic depression, bipolar, but all while I was a coke addict which I really never understood because I was like, “No, no. I’m a cocaine addict. Of course I have mood swings.”


JANELLE: That was very bizarre, but they gave me all the pills anyway. I took them because I wanted to be better. Then a couple of them said PTSD from sexual abuse as a child, which I didn’t really go into in the book because for legal reasons, actually. Talk about misogyny and sexism. It wasn’t my legal team’s fault. They were trying to protect me, but it just says a lot when they were like, “Well, your abuser will probably come after you.”

MUTHA: Oh, God, I’m sorry.

JANELLE: Yeah, so I hinted at it, but it was very indirect. They never said, “You have PTSD because …” After I got sober, I did feel borderline. I believe that that was the only real diagnosis. I mean, depression, yeah okay, of course off and on. I still do have some seasonal depression that I’m able to manage because it is seasonal and I expect it.

Once I got sober, I went off all medication. I no longer qualify as borderline, either. I don’t have enough personality symptoms to even have that personality disorder, which I think is pretty fascinating. I don’t think I have a diagnosis other than alcoholism recovery.

MUTHA: You struggled with postpartum depression with the children you had in the book. Did that come back with any of your subsequent pregnancies?

JANELLE: No. I didn’t have medication or depression.

MUTHA: When you got to twelve steps, and that seems to be the program that worked for you in the end, did you struggle at all with how at the beginning of the book, you saw yourself as individual and special. Did you struggle with that concept of the repetitiveness of alcoholism?

JANELLE: It was very difficult for me until I reached that ontological bottom that I described. My teacher, Good News Jack, used to say, “We’re all in various stages of my case is different.” That’s one of the things that addicts hold onto, or that I did at least: this idea that you don’t know me. If you knew my life, you would understand why I live this way. That became an instantaneous, impenetrable border to help because you can’t penetrate that. If you’re coming at me with solutions and I’m sitting there going, “Well, you don’t understand me,” you can’t help me. Therefore, I get to keep living the way I’m living. That defense was smashed when I got desperate enough.

MUTHA: Do you feel like it was that you were at the right place or do you feel like it was the twelve steps particularly, or do you feel like it was the confluence of both things?

JANELLE: I had been going to meetings for two years and couldn’t get sober. It was an internal shift. The meetings were always the same. I changed. That was very clear to me because I was going to the same meeting hall for two years. It was also confluence. Jack just happened to be sitting outside and heard me telling my story to somebody and offered his help to me. That was just luck, I suppose, that I just happened to have this teacher come along who could really speak to me in a very unique way.

A lot of people would have met Jack, and his message would not have resonated with them because he was very harsh. He was very direct. I needed that because I was very egotistical. I was a know-it-all. I was super self centered. I needed somebody to bust through that ego and not bullshit me or cater to what I wanted to hear. That’s, of course, not a universal story.

I’ll never fully understand how I got so lucky, and how that worked out. There was an internal shift where I ran out of ideas for what to do about my alcoholism and I knew I was dying. I had tried everything I could think of to combat the problem and it all failed. Then I became open to other ideas.

MUTHA: I wish you all the success with the book. I know a lot of people will be helped by it and also a lot of people will enjoy it because it’s very funny. That’s not always true with these kinds of books. Congratulations, because it’s very funny.

JANELLE:  Thank you. Well, I had to. I had to write humor in there. It’s fucking funny, the whole thing. Alcoholism is not funny. It’s very serious, but it’s also fucking funny. I mean just we got to laugh at ourselves.

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About the Author

Marissa Korbel’s writing has been published by Harper’s Bazaar, The Manifest-Station, and The Rumpus, where she writes essays monthly for her column, The Thread. She works as a staff attorney for a nonprofit in Portland, Oregon, where she lives with her partner and their toddler.

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