Today’s #SameHereHero Michaela I. Fissel-Fryxell (I got to know Michaela through common contacts in the mental health advocacy world, and on our first call we spent over an hour discussing what geeks we are about dissecting how the use of every little word we use can affect how ppl feel about the messages we communicate. After filling her in on our Movement, she excitedly and creatively responded later via email – I’m in, let’s #reclaimcrazy! Her enthusiasm to help others is contagious. And, as you’ll read on, you’ll see she has a gift for not just explaining the X’s and O’s of her battle and ultimate success, but the moment by moment inner monologue she struggled with and how she used it to gain great success. I look forward to having her and her gifts as an official volunteer with our Crazy Movement, and more formally involved in advocacy work with us as we grow!)
“It’s funny how this is where I find myself today, because I can remember not too long ago when I couldn’t sit for longer than 30 seconds before having to get up and flee. Each second was painstakingly devastating. I felt like my skin was on fire, my stomach was exploding through my chest, and I could feel the sweat beading up beneath my underarms. I was a frightened child, moving through life, ready to react to any hint of perceived threat.
People laughed because I startled so easily. I still do at times. I would be sitting in class and there would be a door slammed in the next room over. I would visibly jump. My classmates would laugh, while I tried to hide my tears. No one ever asked what was wrong, and I tried to just join in on the laughter to quickly move on. Little did anyone know the struggles I endured across a span of 2 decades.
Looking back, many of my earliest memories reflect a life of chaos and disorganization. As a survivor of sexual violence that began during my youngest years, I grappled with devastating circumstances that heavily impacted how I showed up in this world. In hindsight, it’s as if the very foundation of my existence was built upon tragedy, and I was conditioned to alleviate my feelings of inadequacy through any means necessary. Distractions were my go to. As you can imagine, during my adolescence I found substances quite satisfying. I engaged in substance use as a means of escape. It was momentary relief – a sense of euphoria that brought me peace of mind.
You see, it wasn’t just my body that felt on edge. The more I had to engage with the world around me using my intellect I also found my thoughts were like razor blades. They were sharp and threatening. The more I attempted to focus on the task at hand, the deeper they cut into my being and left me listless. I was but a passenger in my own body and the victim of my mind. Substances brought liberation.
The dissociation from the struggle experienced through the substance use was merely an illusion and compounded my lack of actual control over the outcomes of my life. I found that the turbulence that was prevalent within the contexts of my life was internalized as a resting state of shame. As I attempted to cope my internalized suffering manifested as externalized self-destructive behaviors. By my graduation from high school was experiencing homeless, an active eating disorder, substance use, and involvement with the criminal justice system.
At 18 I found myself in deep reflection as I considered the years wasted. I had thrown away my high school experience and as I looked around at my peers I realized that I had fallen behind. This made the struggle harder. Comparing my status to those who I had grown up with was just the content my mind needed to kick the hate into overdrive. The thoughts of inadequacy were unstoppable.
I pushed through as best as I could, and as a result of a sense of urgency to be normal, I decided to enroll in community college. This distraction was productive, and allowed me to find intermittent periods of satisfaction that, in hindsight, provided an anchor for the future. I excelled academically and achieved various recognitions. For some reason, this positive reinforcement was dumped into the trash bin of my mind. My mind continued to scream louder, “you aren’t doing well enough, you aren’t trying hard enough, you aren’t good enough, you just aren’t right.”
At 21, I decided that my attempt to harmonize with the fabric of this world was pointless and that I was not destined to be pieced into the design. I was alone in my desperation, and no matter how hard I tried to fit in, I wouldn’t. In a single moment, I made the decision to end my life. By the grace of something higher than I can only imagine, I didn’t succeed. In fact, the opposite occurred. I woke up to the realization that there was something within me that was good enough and worth saving.
Fast forward a decade and I am upon a major milestone in my life. I have lived 10 years longer than I was supposed to. I am grateful.
During this time, I have earned two degrees, completed my graduate studies, and I am an elected official in my local community. I am married with three children, my husband and I just purchased our first home, and I have achieved success professionally. I am happy.
However, the secret of my success is that my happiness isn’t rooted in these milestones – these are just personas that society reinforces to place worthiness and value on people. What I found as a result of my attempt to end my life was an inner sense of knowing that I was already everything that I was struggling to become. I needed to let go and simply just be. With this practice I uncovered happiness. I found the magic that enabled me to achieve goals that were beyond my wildest dreams.
As I speak regularly about my experience of overcoming personally devastating circumstances, I am asked regularly to share the secret of my success. How did I achieve recovery from what was diagnosed a, “serious mental illness”?
It’s an odd question to me because it’s often that people see where I am today, and they are just looking at the outcome. They forget that there was a process. I was the person who had nothing, did nothing, and felt like nothing. I have recognized that people ask this question because they are seeking step by step instructions, often for a loved one. I’m not really sure what to tell them because there isn’t very much for me to offer as a guarantee.
Especially when I have gained such a profound sense of security through the suffering. I have witnessed the outcome of having conditions of worthiness created by forcing people to conform to societal expectations that do not reflect individualistic qualities of character. I had the experience of being told, “if you do this you should feel this,” over and over again. Well, I didn’t feel much of anything professionals told me I should feel using clinical interventions. While the lasting impact of these deeply ingrained beliefs is still a record my mind uses as fodder for trapping me within a state of panic.
I feel the single most important lesson I learned as a result of trying to end my life was the inner sense of knowing that I was already everything that I was struggling to become. As life has continued to bring challenges, as it will always, I have incorporated the following lessons into my life:
Let go of the outcome and engage fully in the process. Engage the pain as a worthy aspect of yourself through which you can draw meaning. A sense of security is achieved in navigating the suffering. Let go of socially constructed conditions of worthiness. You have a purpose in life that is beyond the limits of your mind. Surround yourself with people who hold space for you through non-judgmental dialogue that is grounded in acceptance, love, and encouragement. Adopt curiosity, gratitude, forgiveness, and openness as anchors. You are everything you are supposed to be. You are enough.
To integrate these lessons into the foundation upon which I stand in this world I dedicate time for meditation, yoga, journaling, dialogue, connection, and service on a daily basis. I have found that, with consistency, I continue to release the fear of being vulnerable in my suffering. I may still experience pain, yet I have a stronger sense of knowing that I am capable and worthy of moving through it – so #SameHere and be true to your feelings!