By Gordon Nary
Gordon: When did you join Our Lady of the Mountains Parish and approximately how many people does your parish serve?
Michelle: We’ve been at Our Lady of the Mountains for almost 15 years. It started as a mission church, a tornado had destroyed most of it when we first began attending. Now it serves 500 or more families.
Gordon: You have a large family, What are the names and ages of your children?
Michelle: My children range from the ages of 23 down to 8. Michael is 23, a front-end manager for a grocery store, Rachel is 22 and is graduating with a degree in writing. Lauren is 20 and is enrolled in an accounting degree and wants to work overseas. Joseph is 18 and in his first year as a music education major in Cello. He has been a principle cellist for several concerts and plays in a number of wedding and church services for pay. Nicholas is 16 and is home schooled. Matthew is 14 and wants to be a diesel mechanic. Jack (John Paul) is 12 and enjoys Minecraft. Margaret is 11 and loves all things art and music. Clare is our baby, 8 years old; I had her at 44, she is simply in love with God and the Church.
Gordon: You had a challenging childhood. Could you share with our readers some of the difficulties that you endured?
Michelle: I was adopted. My parents had severe difficulties with addictions and mental illness, my oldest brother, adopted a year before me died at 3 after a prolonged battle with leukemia. My father’s family has a long history of sexual abuse, two were convicted of those crimes. My father died unexpectedly when I was 14. In spite of all those challenges, I continued to make good choices and thrived in school. I obtained a number of scholarships and put myself through college.
After marriage, I had to make the choice not to expose my children to that family. Despite the abuse I survived, I managed to continue to make mostly good choices and start a new life, grace is the only explanation for my ability to leave.
I ended up marrying a very kind, stable and awesome man, who although he is not Catholic, lives out the principles of our faith better than me. He is an amazing father and husband for 29 years now.
I had a profound reversion experience during the pregnancy of my third child and came back into the fullness of the faith. I feel blessed to belong to the Catholic church, that God continued to call me back.
Gordon: You are an associate licensed counselor and provide counseling services for adolescents through adults, couples and families. How and when are people referred to you for counseling?
Michelle: I graduated with a BS in computer science and was quite successful. When my father’s first family member was convicted, I decided to enter counseling. I realized that I had a calling to work with people, in a way to use my suffering to accompany others in their healing. I had a long stay at home with children after we moved to another state, and 1 ½ years ago, I returned to the counseling field.
I work with families who have experienced extreme poverty and have very few resources. These young people have become involved in the court system either by substance abuse charges, truancy or other criminal behavior. I get to work as a counselor with them and their families. I feel like I get to be an instrument to bring the love of God to them. I love my clients and the agency I work for.
Gordon: What are some of the more common challenges that adolescents have when they are referred to you?
Michelle: They do not understand the strengths and goodness that are in them. They do not understand their dignity as a human being. They have very few thoughts of the future as their lives are often filled with simply getting through the day. Many are contemplating dropping out of school. Part of being involved in the court system is they are required to keep attending school. I work very hard to help them understand that education can be a way to a better life. The housing system is quite limited in these rural areas.
Gordon: I understand that you are you are beginning a small private practice serving Catholic families where faith can play a part of the work. Please share with our readers an overview of how faith can be therapeutic.
Michelle: As I said before, I believe that through my small cooperation, God’s love I pray, flows through me to my clients. Working with Catholic families, we can talk about faith issues, trusting that I understand and support their belief system. It’s a respite, especially for those of us living in the deep south. I work out of an understanding of their dignity as human beings created in the image and likeness of God. I believe that grace allows us to say yes to God. I also have room to understand as people work out their relationship with God and the Church. I am not a spiritual director. But I continue to work to form myself as a Catholic, deepening my understanding of my faith, continuing to read, attend mass and receive the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist. I also belong to an organization, Catholic Psychotherapists Association to support me in my work.
I also have been studying the effects of trauma and how to heal from complex trauma. Research is showing the plasticity of the brain in repairing itself, and what I find so wonderful and full of hope, is that relationships are a key to healing. It fits my faith, most of our trauma we experience is within the context of relationships (parent / child, husband / wife) and the source of healing is relationships. I think God then “shows up” in those relationships to permit healing. We have things called mirror neurons – absolutely fascinating, and again, I believe it demonstrates how God works in the world.
Gordon: There are some that believe that comic book heroes can be influential models for the young. Do you have any thoughts about this?
Michelle: I often use comic books and current roles in tv shows and movies to connect to clients. There is a book out now, From Star Wars to Superman: Christ Figures in Science Fiction and Superhero Films that is a fun resource for delving in to the subject. Comic books are often a resource for my clients, especially since the Marvel Universe is ever present in movies and tv shows. I ask about what super hero powers they would like. I think comic books can help impart hope to clients, a way out of their situations. I work to find positive attributes that clients might want to model. I think though some current comic books are rather dark and depict some of the ills of our society and lack of faith and hope in the future.
Gordon: I interviewed Jim Papandrea who wrote From Star Wars to Superman: Christ Figures in Science Fiction and Superhero Films. I know that he will be pleased to know how is book is being used. You and I are both sci-fi fans. Who is your favorite sci-fi author and why?
Michelle: Oh, I am old school – Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. I tend to enjoy “hard science fiction.” It’s been a pleasure in the past couple of years to read new science fiction that reflects that techie, science-based kind of writing like Andy Weir in “The Martian.” I also enjoyed “Ender’s Game” and “Ender’s Shadow” – would it be ethical to use children to defeat a menace to civilization?
Gordon: What is your favorite sci-fi film and why?
Michelle: I am a self-professed nerd and learner. In my state, at 62 (I’m not that old) you can attend university classes for free. So I have a bucket list of classes I want to take including differential equations and the study of linguistics. So, my favorite new science fiction movie is “Arrival.” It’s based on a great short story, “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. My suggestion is to watch the movie first, and if you are nerdy enough to really want a better grasp of the linguistics that underlie the movie, read the short story. And, then if you are seriously a nerd, I enjoyed the book (a very accessible read to the non-scholar) “The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language” by Steven Pinker. I think it gives a picture of how God wires our brains for language.
And, again, nerd that I am, I loved “The Martian.” Yes, it was filled with details, but I loved all the details. If you read the book, at the end, he includes the scientific basis for all the premises he uses in the book. I found that deeply satisfying.
Gordon: Thank you for a beautiful interview. Your love of the people for whom you care is a reflection of God's infinite love for all of us.