From the school of hard knocks, Michelle finally finds a degree of purpose in her life

Published:16 December 2019

Bachelor of Psychological Science graduate Michelle Johnson.

When Michelle Johnson counsels high school kids, she can draw on her own experiences of a troubled childhood, marriage breakdown, homelessness, mental illness and overcoming problems with drugs and alcohol. She also has a freshly-minted Bachelor of Psychological Science from CQUniversity, which is testament to her endurance and resolve.

CONTENT WARNING: This story discusses mental illness and drugs and alcohol addiction. If you or anyone you know needs help: Lifeline on 13 11 14, Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36, Headspace on 1800 650 890. If you're in immediate danger, call 000.

Michelle completed high school in the Hawkesbury region and initially went to teachers' college to pursue a Bachelor of Education.

However, her dysfunctional home life was echoed as she developed her own issues with drugs and alcohol.

"The new environment at college and lack of support and very little money meant I only lasted around six months and attempted suicide at one point, before coming home with my tail between my legs.

"I then got a job at the Commonwealth Bank and thought I would go to Uni through support from the Bank and had my application sorted for a Finance degree before finding I was pregnant with twins.

"So my life was on hold again. At this stage I had gotten sober and was doing better in life. I ended up having four children and a beautiful marriage, a big home and a career in the bank.

"I thought that was going to be my niche and then I had a back injury and had to retire early from work and was basically depressed and home-bound but I thought I could finally go to Uni."

Michelle says she contacted CQUniversity and thought Psychology would be a good path to follow.

"At that stage I was living in Calliope. I got accepted and it was all great and then my marriage collapsed and everything went south and I was going to withdraw again from Uni but I thought instead I would just drop the units down.

"I got in my car and drove 2000 kilometres back to Sydney with my little laptop and was basically homeless for all of 2017, living with friends and couch-surfing and getting WiFi when I could and putting in my assignments.

"I rented a little place and started getting good marks, distinctions and high distinctions, but there was a lot of trauma and suffering from the marriage breakdown and I was diagnosed with bipolar and multiple personality disorders, so that made sense as to why I was so up and down and everywhere.

"But after my various false starts, I knew I was smart enough and I have eventually graduated, despite the fact that life's circumstances drew me away so many times."

Michelle says the flexibility of online studies was key to success at CQUniversity.

"You can watch a video lecture in your pajamas as I have done most days of my degree," she says.

"In my manic stages it was hard to write an essay because you can't just sit with it and focus. However, when I was experiencing a low, sometimes the only thing that got me out of bed was knowing I had Uni to do. It absolutely has saved my life in the past three years."

Michelle is now part of the well-being team at a local high school in Sydney's west, and is extending her hours to become full-time in 2020.

"It's absolutely what I've always wanted myself when I was a teen ... someone to be on my side and have my back and see through my bullshit and help me out. I'm able to do that for the kids, drawing on my lived experiences.

"The kids find me so relatable because I have stories that match their own and I'm in a position now to really help them. The kids give me that energy and make me smile ... I really love it."