North Texas Daily

Road to Recovery

Road to Recovery

August 15
10:34 2013

After breaking free from mental illness, James Michell is ready to give back.

By Renee Hansen/Senior Staff

Strapped to a cold chair, he felt like the buckles were fastening tighter and tighter, restraining his whole body from moving an inch. He knew the direction the wheels were pointed and where he was headed – he’d been there before. But it seemed that with every visit, the time of his solitary confinement grew longer and longer.

Alumnus James Michell remembers the four and a half months spent at North Texas State Hospital in Wichita Falls vividly, from the less-than-savory sack lunches to the feel of the sharpened plastic knife against his neck by one of his abrasive fellow patients.

“It was one of the worst times in my life,” Michell said.

In 2008, he admitted himself into Trinity Springs State Hospital where he spent a month and a half before transferring to North Texas State Hospital. Living with 60 other men and women, he acted out in fear of his life, which often sent him into solitary confinement for hours.

His time at the mental facility was one of the most difficult in his life but one thought kept pushing him through: “I’m not going to end up a number in here.”

All before the age of 30, Michell was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, dystonia – a form of Parkinson’s disease – underwent brain surgery and struggled through a divorce.

But today, he is a completely different man.

Beginnings

Raised by a preaching father and caring mother, Michell spent much of his early life in Orange County, Calif. where he experimented with drugs and “found solace” in gang affiliation. After realizing he couldn’t live that way anymore, Michell moved with his family in 1998 to Tyler, Texas. His troubles still followed him.

For the next two years, Michell said he “suffered in silence,” referring to the period before his diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Pent up stress and anxiety, mixed with his lack of seeking help, sent him into a tailspin that resulted in a suicide attempt. During his stay at a nearby hospital, he was inspired to change his life.

Initially fearful as a girl approached him, he realized she meant to console him. She saw his shoeless feet, brought him socks and simply said, “It’s going to be OK.”

Her charitable acts and kindness sparked a desire to help others who struggled with similar afflictions.

He enrolled in Tyler Junior College where he pursued a counseling degree, hoping to find relief in routine. He and his family moved again in 2002, this time to Arlington. In 2003, he enrolled in the rehabilition studies program at UNT, a subject close to his heart. Michell realized he had the advantage of life experience in this field, and found it easy to connect with others in the program.

Mental health

While adjusting to a new city and a new school, Michell met a woman he would marry in 2005. His son, a honeymoon baby, was born later that year, but then came the kicker – a diagnosis of dystonia. Stress flooded back into Michell’s life and his marriage didn’t last.

In 2007, he powered through a tedious, seven-and-a-half hour brain surgery, the entirety of which he was completely awake, to ease the tension of his dystonia. While Michell said this surgery was worth the risk and has benefited him in the long run, the strain from the separation and missing his son caused him to get very sick, prompting his stint at two mental hospitals.

During the time of Michell’s silent suffering, his mother Louise Michell remembered attributing his change in demeanor to just the stress of college, until he sought the help of a counselor who played an integral role in discerning between the real problems.

“The knowledge he gained, enabled him to be courageous as he stepped forward, not only for himself but for others,” she said.

Louise said she and her husband both went to some of their son’s counseling sessions because they felt it was important to also understand his problems.

A new path

In the 18 months Michell spent with the counselor, she began to see improvement in him when he realized that “I have a problem, but it doesn’t have me.”

Since then, Michell has settled into a routine and gradually the fear of interaction from his stay at the mental health facility has begun to dissipate.

“I had to make the decision to start walking around and get back into society,” he said.

He started writing his own curriculum for recovery, and has since written two books, “Acts of Recovery” and “Recovery is Motion,” which are both used by programs that help readers get back on their feet and fit back into everyday life.

During his time at UNT, Michell also worked various jobs in the rehabilitation field, including his time as a vendor for the Texas Department of Assistive Rehabilitative Services where he did vocational adjustment training, job placement and interview coaching.

Dr. Linda Holloway, a professor in the department of Rehabilitation, Social Work and Addic tions, first met Michell at a training seminar that was in relation to Tarrant County’s DARS and similar programs. They later built a professional relationship when he was in one of her classes, and then they kept in contact as she helped edit his book.

She remembered him as a highly driven student, committed to making life better for others with psychiatric disabilities.

“I think his disability has made him more empathetic about others who face similar barriers,” Holloway said.

She also added that he was determined to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, which serves as the inspiration for his books.

Moving forward

The curriculum in “Recovery is Motion” has picked up interest from various areas, especially after he attended a mental health conference in Philadelphia last September, which Michell said is first in the nation for mental health funding.

The book emphasizes communication and focuses on both the technical language that the therapists would know, as well as the more “chit chat,” slang lingo.

“Recovery is Motion,” his most recent book,  was just released in February. Despite struggling for the last 10 years fighting mental health issues, raising a son, writing two books and taking full class loads, Michell walked across the Coliseum stage to claim his UNT diploma in May.

Throughout his years of dedication and hard work, his four-year relationship with Meredith Schultz culminated in their engagement within recent months. The pair met online and he feels she has given him an understanding of other people’s hearts and being able to trust in the future as they walk through life together.

“She goes through what I go through, even though she doesn’t have the disease,” Michell said.

Schultz understands there are times when he just needs to be alone, and while she admitted it took some time until she stopped feeling offended, it’s something she “is more than happy to deal with.”

“He’s the best father to his son and my daughters, they just can’t wait to see him,” she said. “I feel very, very comfortable knowing that he will be in their lives forever.”

At 36, Michell finally feels like he can move forward with his life. He will attend Rutgers University for graduate school in psychiatric rehabilitation, and was also awarded by the state with licensure as a chemical dependency counselor intern.

With his head high, Michell continues to live his life, free from bondage. His experiences have made him who he is, and he leads by example through what he has overcome. Now, he said he has one goal.

“Give back.”

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