The Story of My Heart

Sitting here with my coffee and laptop, preparing to open my heart to you, I have to admit that it’s kind of hard to know exactly where to start. How do you put what feels like a thousand lifetimes into 2,500 words? So taking lead from one of my favorite saints, St. Therese, the story I will share with you today is not so much the story of where I’ve been and what I’ve been through, as much as it is the story of my heart. The story of a broken heart, a heart overcome with fear, a “feeling worthless” heart finally discovering her value and her worth.

It’s the story of a God who loves so intensely and is so very gentle with a soul that’s running hurt hard and fast in the opposite direction. It’s about a God who pursues and a heart that finds her home safely in His love.

To give a little background, I’m number six out of ten girls (yes–I have nine sisters). I’ve often told people I’m the “top of the bottom half,” as I held out all 10 fingers and wiggled the thumb of my right hand.

From the ages of 6 – 13, I grew up fairly isolated in a small community in North Texas called “Prayer Town,” comprised of one square mile of land housing three families and a group of Catholic nuns.

As a little girl, even though I was surrounded by love, I often felt very unlovable. I was a high need child and was constantly getting overwhelmed, throwing tantrums with arms and legs flailing, head banging, and screaming at the top of my lungs. I had to be rocked to sleep through the age of 6 and wet the bed until I was 12.

I had so much energy that I would climb to the top of the Texas cottonwood trees and swing from the branches, having no clue why my mom would practically lose her mind at my recklessness. I’d take a scythe and completely clear a field of grass, pretending like I was back in the days of Ruth and Boaz.

With all that energy, constantly intense in everything I did, and every day throwing wild tantrums, from an early age I experienced various forms of rejection. Spankings for being “out of control and defiant” and sisters begging mom not to leave me with them because they couldn’t handle me. On top of all the intensity, I was socially awkward and struggled with understanding how to connect with others. As a natural consequence of this, I had no real friends.

I get it… I was a lot to handle. I spent much of my life like a bull in a china cabinet, struggling to read others, not respecting boundaries and not understanding why friends (when I finally did find some) would get upset or completely reject me and kick me out of their life.

I was so clueless. The rejection hurt intensely. I’d cry myself to sleep at times just wondering what was wrong with me, wondering why people would reach a point where they simply couldn’t stand being around me. I loved with everything I had, so I couldn’t comprehend what was happening. Even as a little girl, the lie that I wasn’t enough began to creep in… and the fear that I’d never be considered lovable took root in my heart.

At the age of 13, we moved from Prayer Town to a nearby small 400-person town called Hartley, Texas. My mother was overwhelmed with the move, so we were all registered at the local public school for the year, where many of us would have been otherwise homeschooled, as we had been from the beginning.

That year was rough. Looking back, I wish I could hug that 13-year-old girl with the permed hair and pimply face, so hidden from the world up until then, and extremely socially awkward to boot. It was a hard year. I was never accepted, and I can’t say that I blame the other kids. I was, for lack of a better word, weird.

It’s important to share here that through much of the first 40 years of my life, inside my heart, this is who I was. The permed hair, pimply-faced girl who was unacceptable, unlovable, and most definitely… not enough.

Over the years, that fear of rejection compounded as I experienced more lost friendships, misunderstandings and crashed my way through china cabinet after china cabinet.

I reached a point in my life where I cared so much about what other people thought, that it affected me for days and sometimes weeks when something unkind was said, or when I misunderstood someone’s actions and took things personally.

Thank God for his mercy and His grace, for through all of this He protected my heart by giving the most amazing husband, who cherishes and loves me unconditionally. Trent has loved me through some very hard times – postpartum depression and anxiety, marriage struggles, my extreme intensity, and in a very real way, he has truly been Christ’s hands, feet, and heart in my life. God also gifted me with sweet friends throughout this journey who have spoken life to me, have loved me through the hard and have reminded me that yes, I am enough, and yes, I am lovable.

Isn’t it awesome how one simple decision can completely change the course of your life? I’ll never forget the morning, seven years ago, when my life began to change. I was 36 years old, laying in bed heart-broken, mind overwhelmed with interior conversations, trying to figure out why two more friends had walked away. I didn’t understand it. I was so sad, so heavy… it felt like every cell in my body was hurting.

I remember laying there with my sweet girls on my mind thinking, “I don’t want this for them.” I didn’t know if it was possible to not care about the opinions of others or what they thought. I didn’t know if it was possible to stop being so afraid of rejection, but something a mentor had said came to mind that morning, and I hit a point where I was willing to try anything if my life could change.

If you WANT something different, you have to DO something different.”

That morning I began my journey to healing and restoration. It’s the day I decided to begin to fight for ME. It’s the day I decided to kick fear in the booty and to choose to live fearlessly. That morning, I began to learn, to seek understanding, and to grow.

In Saint Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue,
God the Father talks about the three powers of the soul – memory, understanding and will.

My friend, I can’t emphasize enough how it’s these three powers that have helped me to overcome so many things. Using my memory to really focus on all the blessings that God has put into my life and the ways he has protected me over the years, rewiring my brain from years of negative thinking. Using the gift of understanding to learn and grow. To seek to understand myself, my personality, my weaknesses and failures, my strengths. To seek to understand others, why they act the way they do, what drives them, what is their love language? What can I learn from them? Using my will to decide to change, to decide to take whatever steps it would take to find healing and wholeness.

In seeking to understand myself and others, I received some very important answers that helped open my eyes to areas I needed to grow. It helped me to understand some of the boundaries I crossed that I had no clue I had even crossed. It helped me to have compassion for the many broken relationships and friendships. It inspired me to pray for each one. To ask God to send blessings and to undo the knots that my brokenness had caused in the lives of others.

Like the beat of the ocean, healing came in waves. I was so excited about the newfound freedom I was experiencing, so I decided to write a book about fear and pave the way for other women. Right around the time my book was set to be published, I was invited to participate in the Mrs. Virginia pageant. It seemed like an amazing opportunity to have a platform to share with other women the lessons I had learned and shared in my new book, so after praying about it, my husband and I decided that this was the next right step.

I turned in the final edits to my book the night that the Mrs. Virginia pageant kicked off. I was so excited. I was 6 months postpartum and in the best shape of my life, everything was aligning, and I was 100% positive that God had me on this path, because I was supposed to use this platform to share with women how to live a bold and fearless life.

It’s funny how we might hit these points in our life where we think we’ve arrived. Everything’s going great, we’ve overcome big things… we have indeed arrived. That’s where I thought I was. I had overcome. I had found healing and freedom. And regarding the Mrs. Virginia pageant, I had won the most support on social media. I had the most people coming to support me. I felt in my heart that I was going to win this pageant which would enable me to share with women how to let go of their fear and Live Fearlessly. Lives were going to change. It was so exciting!

As I stood there on the stage the last night of the pageant, waiting for them to call the final 6 contestants, I smiled brightly, readying myself to take on the final round. I held my breath as they called the last finalist, but to my surprise, my name wasn’t called. We were told no matter what to keep smiling, so as it began to sink in, I stood there smiling before this large crowd of people.

Suddenly I wasn’t standing there in my beautiful royal blue gown. I was instead that pimply-faced 8th grader with the permed hair. Smile plastered on my face for everyone to see, the arrows came hard and fast:

“You’re not pretty enough. You’re not popular enough. You’re not beautiful enough. You’re not skinny enough. You’re not… You’re not… You’re not…”

I walked off the stage with the rest of the girls, and as I left the public eye, I just kept whispering under my breath, “It doesn’t mean I’m not enough. It doesn’t mean I’m not enough….”

I made my way to the back room, all the while whispering under my breath. I crumpled to the floor, holding my face in my hands, tears flowing freely, all the while saying… “It doesn’t mean I’m not enough.”

Looking back, I can see that God used this opportunity to open up an old wound that was festering deep inside, knowing that it was finally time to begin the healing process.

I was blindsided. Here I thought I had already overcome this fear of not being enough, so I was not expecting to be hit like this. Looking back, I can see that God used this opportunity to open up an old wound that was festering deep inside, knowing that it was finally time to begin the healing process.

This began a three-year journey. A deeper journey of inner healing, restoration, and an invitation to a deeper and more personal relationship with Christ.

When I was 40 years old, I received some important answers as to why my childhood was so hard. I had a not-so-great experience that really shook me to my core. So I called my husband and said, “Trent… something is different about me. I’m not like everyone else and I want to find out why.”

A few weeks later, I felt like I was given a new pair of glasses and could SEE for the first time. I discovered that I have sensory processing disorder (also known as SPD), mostly sensory-seeking. Everything began to make sense. The tantrums as a child, chewing pens until there was nothing left of them, constant intense energy, intensity with others, not reading social queues, melting down when overwhelmed and friends getting frustrated with me constantly being “too much.”

I began to see why people would get upset with me, or why I was too much for some people. I’d have these moments of clarity where I would look back on certain memories and suddenly be filled with shame and embarrassment for myself and some of my past actions. I remember crying, wishing I could melt into the floor and disappear. I could see it clearly. I was irrevocably broken.

A few weeks after discovering my diagnosis, I was at a Christian business conference. During one of the praise and worship sessions, I was in the back holding a friend’s baby, eyes closed, praying fervently. I remember saying this to God, “ Lord, you are all-powerful. You can heal all things. I beg you… please heal me of this sensory processing disorder.”

I wanted so desperately to be “normal.” To me, that looked a lot like deeper friendships, love, and being enough.

I’ll never forget the words I heard whispered into my heart next. I stood there feeling naked and exposed – so vulnerable. Immediately after I prayed for God to heal me of the sensory-processing disorder, I heard Him clearly say, “But then you wouldn’t be my Michelle.”

Wait, what?

He called me by name. He called me, “my Michelle.”

I spent so much of my life running away from myself. The lies I spoke over myself… “you’re ugly… you’re fat… you’re weird… you’re broken… you’re unlovable… I hate my life.” And here He was whispering to my broken heart… “my Michelle… I love you. YOU are enough. YOU are perfect as you are.”

For the first time in my life, I began to love that 13-year-old girl, her permed hair, pimples, insecurities, all of her. As I began to love the person God created, I also began to feel a new strength rising from within. In the couple of years since, God has transformed my heart as I’ve undergone an intense reconversion, a deeper desire for Him, and a drawing of my heart into His.

Some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in the past seven years:

Seek understanding.

Gratitude always.

I can do hard things.

I am enough.

I am an overcomer.

I am not my past.

I am lovable.

I know my value and I know my worth.

I have everything I need.

God is ever faithful.

He’s got this.

I now carry myself with a new confidence founded on trust and faith in Christ. And I’ve learned that when He calls us to step out into the deep, He gives us everything we need. We do not need to constantly look to others for validation, but as we turn our eyes to Him the Holy Spirit will lead the way.

And in answer to the woman who wondered if it was possible to be free, if it was possible to not care about what other people think…

The answer is YES! 100% YES!!!

In Christ, in His unspeakable love, we can do all things. When we come to know His unfailing love and we seek to understand that love, then we come to see how very much He cherishes us, and what we find is that the opinions of others no longer matter. It’s Christ alone that matters.

Michelle hillaert

The most beautiful thing is that when we finally see God’s inexhaustible love, we know he loves others that same way, and we can’t help but love those around us as He loves them.

The heart’s cry is no longer about not being enough, or about not being lovable, or about feeling unseen… it becomes incredibly lost in the all-consuming fire of His love. And the desire is no longer for the approval of others, but for Christ alone.

Today, this is where I sit. Grateful. Grateful for God’s mercy, for his forgiveness, and for His incredible unspeakable, inexhaustible, unfailing, unconditional LOVE.

About Author

Michelle Hillaert brings more than 25 years of experience in roles relating to technology and communications to GIVEN. With an undergraduate degree in Communication Arts from Franciscan University of Steubenville, her portfolio includes emergency management, web, application and graphic design, marketing and social media management, podcasting, and online consulting. In her previous employment, Michelle played a major role in the development and improvement of internal systems as well as the development and expansion of the Quality Management System. She also managed processes and communication with stakeholders in major application builds of state-run programs. In addition to this work, Michelle has dedicated herself to helping women live their full potential as a doula, life and fitness coach, motivational speaker and author. Having four daughters, nine sisters, and having journeyed with many women over the years, Michelle has experienced first-hand how as women, we often hesitate to respond with our gifts because we don’t recognize that we are uniquely gifted and that the world – especially those we encounter on a daily basis – needs us to share these gifts. In light of this, she has a passion and proven capacity for flourishing young women in the Church through mentoring and leadership development. Michelle has found that transformation often happens in those quiet moments of prayer and reading the works of the saints, such as the “Dialogue” by St. Catherine of Siena and makes daily reading and continual growth an essential part of her day. Outside of work, Michelle has been married for over 23 years to her husband, Trent. They reside in Front Royal, Virginia and together have six children, 2 in college and four still at home, along with three dogs, a cat and 27 chickens. She is a soccer mom and singer who loves leading praise and worship. “It’s only when we truly know how unspeakably much we are loved by our Father and how He is constantly pursuing us – even in those moments when we’re running in the opposite direction – that we can come to understand that our identity lies in His love. With this knowledge, we are able to step out in confidence and as inspired by St. Pope John Paul II, live fearlessly.”

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