Today, I’m introducing you to an incredible woman with a unique perspective on depression. As a neuropsychologist who treated her patients in this area for years, Dr. Michelle Bengtson suddenly came face to face with her own depression. Her own battle with depression, along with the freedom she found, now informs the way that she cares for others. I cannot wait to read her book, “Hope Prevails” (and her upcoming book about anxiety). But for now, I’m so thankful for her willingness to share her story with us in this interview.
This is Dr. Michelle’s Freedom Story.
I’m so glad to have you here, Dr. Michelle! Before we get into your story, I want to know some of the fun stuff! Tell me about where you are from, what you love to do, and anything else that will give us a little slice into your life!
I grew up in what we affectionately call “The Mitten,” a.k.a. the frozen tundra of Michigan. I moved to Florida when I was a sophomore in college, and met my husband there at church. We have been married 31 years and have a son who is a sophomore in college training to be a pilot, and a son who is a sophomore in high school running cross country and track.
I’ve known since I was a little girl that I wanted to be a writer, but I took a detour from that dream and first became a Board Certified Clinical Neuropsychologist, and have spent 30 years working in the mental health field, which has served as fodder for my writing.
When I’m not at my private practice, writing, or speaking, my favorite place to be is at the beach or on a boat on the water. I used to love to cook and bake, back when I had lots of time to read cookbooks, and prepare at a leisurely pace, but motherhood and working full time has lessened that interest.
I’ve always been a dog lover. My oldest son has a Shetland sheepdog. My youngest son has a rescue Pomeranian mix that we rehabbed in order to save his life after he was hit by a car and left for dead. I have a 3-year old sweet little 4-pound Pomeranian we named Selah.
I love those facts! The beach is a favorite of mine too, and I can’t wait to hear more about your perspective on mental health. Galatians 5:1 is a key verse for our FREEDOM STORIES. It says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Therefore, do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” What was the old yoke under which you were living? What was that slavery like for you?
There were a couple of old yokes I lived under. The first and most pronounced throughout my life was perfectionism. This only really came to light and I only really started to find freedom from that yoke about 6 years ago when I was deathly ill. At that time, God made it so clear to me that nothing I did would make Him love me less, and nothing I did would make Him love me more.
The second yoke that I lived under for significant periods of my life was depression. The most severe was about 6 years ago, when I became so physically ill. Having been in mental health for so many years, I thought I had all the answers. So I did all the things I had recommended that my patients do for over two decades (i.e. therapy, medication, diet, exercise, rest, etc.) All those things helped but they were insufficient to eradicate the depression. It was only then that God taught me that if I didn’t deal with the spiritual roots of disease, it was like putting a bandaid on an infection and hoping it would get better. Everything changed from then on.
What were some of the old narratives you absorbed?
One of the biggest ones was the idea that I believed I had to be perfect for others and for God to love me. When trials hit, I jumped into action, doing more. I kept trying to do enough to be lovable, to be found worthy.
Another one of the narratives that I believed was that I “was joy-immune.” When suffering from depression, I looked at so many others who seemed joyful and thought that could never, would never be me because I had tried everything I was taught in school and everything I recommended to patients, yet joy seemed like an intangible in a Christmas carol.
I can relate to that. It’s a really hopeless feeling, and I imagine that was so hard for you as a doctor trying to practice what you preached but not seeing results.
What was the turning point? Was there a rock bottom or a point that you realized that you could not live like that any longer?
The turning point for both the perfectionism and the depression were the same. It came when I was deathly ill, on bed-rest, and unable to do anything but sleep, read, watch sermons on line, and listen to praise and worship music 24/7. I came to the place where if that was going to be my life, I wasn’t sure I wanted to live. I thought that if I could no longer be the doctor, what worth did I have. It was during that time that I spent so immersed in the word, that God showed me He loved me regardless, and that I had been believing lies about myself that were not consistent with His word.
What changed from there? (What actions did you take, truths did you discover, or community did you connect with to help you find freedom)?
I started paying attention to my thoughts (like the idea that I was joy-immune) and checking to see if they agreed with what God said in Scripture. If they did not, then I recognized them for the lie they were and refuted them with the truth in Scripture (like the verse, “although weeping may last for the night, His joy comes in the morning”). It all began with one Scripture that I scribbled on a post-it note and hung from my home IV. And then when God gave me another truth to refute another lie, I wrote that on a post-it note and put it on my bathroom mirror. Every time I saw those post-it notes, I recited them out loud because “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” By the end, I had over 100 scriptures on post-it notes everywhere from my light switch to the dashboard of my car.
What a powerful image with all of the post-it notes. Talk about visible reminders of Truth!
Tell me about your life of freedom. What does it look like for you now?
Learning to refute the lies with God’s truth changed everything for me. It helped heal my body physically and mentally. It changed how I guide patients in my own private practice. It changed how I interacted with my children, my husband, my family and my friends. I still strive to do my best, but I don’t beat myself up when I fail. Instead, I recognize that Jesus came BECAUSE of my imperfection. If I had been perfect, I’d have no need for a perfect Savior. It allows me to extend more grace to others as well.
Do you still wrestle with those old struggles? What do you do on those days to fight for your freedom?
Sure I still struggle, because the enemy always returns to our weakest points. But I struggle much less than I used to. I have a few friends who have permission to speak truth into my life. Every once in a while, one will bring to my attention an area that they perceive I might be believing a lie, and encourage me to seek the truth.
Are there any key scriptures, quotes, or books that have been helpful for you on your journey into freedom?
My life verse is Jeremiah 29:11, and the cornerstone for my first two books (“Hope Prevails: Insights From a Doctor’s Personal Journey Through Depression” and the “Hope Prevails Bible Study”), which says, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord. “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans for a future and a hope.” This verse has carried me through my husband having been diagnosed with three different kinds of cancer, through job loss, through my son going off to college, and my own cancer diagnosis. As long as He is still on His throne, #HopePrevails!
I love that hashtag– I’ll have to start using it as a reminder to myself too. I also really can’t wait to read your book! Okay, last, because I am a big believer that gratitude lists help us remain present and fight our battles, tell me three things you’re grateful for right now.
I am grateful that God sees and knows our needs even before we do, and has brought praying Christian brothers and sisters along to pray me through treatment for cancer. I am grateful that God never wastes our pain, and in fact, works all things together for our good and for His glory. I am grateful that God has given me the opportunity to speak and write about the trials I have faced and overcome with His help, in order to help others on their journey—that, to me, is beauty for ashes.
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Dr. Michelle Bengtson is an international speaker, and the author of the bestselling, award winning “Hope Prevails: Insights From A Doctor’s Personal Journey Through Depression” and the award winning companion “Hope Prevails Bible Study” and the soon to be released “Breaking Anxiety’s Grip: How to Reclaim the Peace God Promises” (Sept 2019). She has been a neuropsychologist for more than twenty years, and is now in private practice in Southlake, Texas where she evaluates, diagnoses, and treats children and adults with a variety of medical and mental health disorders. This doctor knows pain and despair firsthand and combines her professional expertise and personal experience with her faith to address her patients’ issues, both for those who suffer and the ones who care for them.
Using sound practical tools, she affirms worth and encourages faith. Dr. Bengtson offers hope as a key to unlock joy and relief—even in the middle of the storm. She and her husband of thirty years have two teenage sons and reside in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. She blogs regularly on her own site: www.DrMichelleBengtson.com.
What a gift to know this friend, and to share her words with you here. Alexis and I went to college together (I remember the sweet coffee shop she shares about well!), and her friendship has been such a blessing over the years. Alexis practices gratitude, rest, and intentional friendships so beautifully, and the freedom she’s found in these rhythms inspires me greatly in my own life and family. I wish all of you could know this sweet friend in real life, but for now, I want to introduce you to her through her gentle, gracious, life-giving words.
This is Alexis’s Freedom Story.
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I muscled my way into my twenties bound by the tyranny of the urgent. Productivity was my driver, and I’d stay up late into the night to complete projects, study for tests, pour for hours over the perfect paper, grade, etc. After the day was done, I’d often lay in bed repeating back to myself conversations I’d had or presentations I’d given, picking them apart and giving them over to a loud and nasty inner critic.
Having grown up in a family culture committed to productivity, REST had become a bad word. We never actually said it, but overarchingly we knew: to whom much is given, much is expected. Stillness, amusement, stopping to do something for the sake of pure enjoyment – was simply NOT an efficient or fruitful use of time. So we just never did it. There was always a project to be done, a mission to be on, a purpose to be served.
There is a quote I’ve come to love from one of my favorite authors, Wayne Muller, that says:
“Without rest …we miss the compass points that would show us where to go. We bypass the nourishment that would give us succor. We miss the quiet that would give us wisdom. We miss the joy and love born of effortless delight. Poisoned by this hypnotic belief that good things come only through unceasing determination and tireless effort, we can never truly rest. And for want of rest, our lives are in danger.”
Before I dive too deep here, let me say there were many incredible elements of my upbringing. So many sweet staples of life I look back on now and relish: real and raw conversations regularly around the dinner table; parents who loved each other and loved Jesus deeply; a commitment to learning and growth and knowing our own personalities well enough so as to lead well in whatever sphere we were in.
But the space and time afforded for rest, for turning off for a bit and just re-creating, was never quite granted. At least not without an awareness of what we were leaving behind.
This constant awareness of the need to do more rooted itself down deep in my wiring, and, as Timothy Keller puts it in his sermon on Work and Rest, established an eternal inner murmur that I just couldn’t shake.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm them and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1
It wasn’t until early in my senior year of college that the Lord began to liberate me from this bondage of busyness and the tyranny of production.
Saturday morning afforded the perfect moment to escape from life as usual. No deadlines haunted my calendar for that following afternoon and rarely were any coffee dates scheduled before 2:00 on a Senior’s Saturday. As the campus had yet to wake, I would make my way silently out my dorm room doors, slide into my little blue Volvo and take the windy backroads up the Cape Ann coastline, relishing every rogue drop of rain on my windshield and the sweet stillness of life around me.
My destination was a corner table at The Bean and Leaf, a dreamy little coffee shop that sat directly on the water in Rockport. The Bean offered a delicious trifecta of space, time and the perfect vanilla latte, making it my personal sanctuary and the perfect place to get lost in reflection. And that is exactly what I’d come for. I’d pop on my headphones, spread the miniature library I’d brought with me out on the table and just … be … still.
Organically, over a period of months, this deadline-less and dreamy practice became a regular Saturday morning rhythm. It seemed to offer the ideal space in time to escape from all things urgent, to set aside all things back-lit and buzzing and allow my head and heart to strike a chord together that they just couldn’t reach during the busyness of the week. And although, at the time, I didn’t understand what it was exactly I was doing, everything in me craved this end of the week, early morning retreat away.
I didn’t realize at the time that this abandoning of normally scheduled life, this pause in creating to let the Lord re-create me, would become an enormously freeing rhythm. This coming away from the muchness and many-ness and busyness of daily life to create space for doing nothing was remaking me. This creation of a sanctuary in time for remembering and taking delight in the greater things was allowing the Lord to nourish me in a way I hadn’t experienced before, renewing me body and soul.
Late in my Senior year, as I was introduced to beautiful concept of Sabbath, these Saturday morning escapes began to make sense.
“Sabbath is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creating to the master of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.” Abraham Joshua Heschel
This weekly, intentional, rhythmic practice of Sabbath rest showed itself to be not simply an abandonment of responsibilities, but rather space to order and make sense of them. More than simply the absence of work or a day to catch up on latest projects or errands, it became a consecrated period of time to listen to what was most deeply nourishing and true, directing my attention to the grace that sustains and orders all of life. It became a life-giving rhythm I both enjoyed and desperately needed.
Ten years out from those little coffee shop escapes in Rockport, Saturday mornings continue to carry the sweetness of Sabbath. I’ll wake slowly, light my favorite candle and prop a little stack of books I’ve wanted to dive into onto my corner of the couch. Turning the water on for coffee, I’ll open the blinds and take my time prepping the french press, giving a bit more attention than normal to the pour over process. I’ll look back over my prayer journal from the week, letting the Lord pull threads and themes I didn’t catch in the craziness. And as time and space settle, so often He will note for me things to take with me into the coming week, and the things I need to leave behind.
The setting has changed, but the premise and the promise have not. Disconnecting from the urgent, attuning my soul to the things of God, and letting him renew my hope for the future.
Rest. Remembering. Renewal.
Mark Buchanan, in His life-shaping work called The Rest of God, says:
The essence of the Sabbath Heart is paying attention. It is being fully present, wholly awake in each moment. It is the trained ability to inhabit our own existence without remainder, so that even the simplest things – the in and out of our own breathing, the coolness of times on our bare feet, the way wind sculpts clouds – gain the force of discovery and revelation.
True attentiveness burns away the layers of indifferent and ennui and distraction – and reveals what’s hidden beneath: the staggering surprise and infinite variety of every last little thing.
The space my soul’s been given through this sacred practice has done so much more than free me from the bondage of production. Though the weeks are full and the deep sense of purpose in our days is always to be cultivated, I’ve tasted such sweetness in their abandonment to recognize the giver and sustainer of all good work in the first place. The ache for rest is no longer something I long for in vain, but something I look forward to at the end of every week.
And Jesus, who IS our Sabbath rest, beautifully comes with us out of this practice and into each moment of the week, granting us His sacred presence through the spirit regardless of what day it is. However this ancient practice of taking one day out of seven that allows us to recognize His goodness and power over all things is truly transformative. The gift of unhurried wonder – the nourishing of an emergence – is a treasure to simply receive and relish.
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Alexis is a thirty something letter-lover from NY. Next to great writing and dark coffee, her life is daily energized by the things beneath the surface. She relishes moments of moving past surface level niceties to the raw and the real truths that shape our days. However beautiful, intricate and messy it all might be, nothing makes her heart happier than going there.
She’s a firm believer that knowing what you stand for and where your heart beats hardest is a fantastic way to show up in the world. For her – naming and celebrating people, moments and the gratitude-worthy details of the day to day is a calling – and her greatest joy comes in helping others make space to do the same.
Currently, she is delving deep in those moments in Birmingham, AL where she runs her leadership consulting and soul coaching business, leading others in identifying their personal mission, vision and purpose, knowing themselves to lead themselves and cultivating life-giving rhythms of work and rest.
In a world of curated feeds and presenting our best selves, I love meeting people like Michelle. When one person is willing to show their mess and be real, it opens the doors for others to say, “what a relief. Me too.” This is the power of vulnerability. Michelle’s story doesn’t just show the mess though- it shows Christ’s power in our weakness, and is a true picture of redemption.
This is Michelle’s Freedom Story.
By the time God saved me I had, let’s just say, “lived a lot of life.” There was a lot that I had done wrong and very little that I had gotten right. Despite my honest efforts at being “good” I failed. Sometimes I wish things had been different in my life. I often fall into the trap of believing that if I got it all right then, everything would turn out just as it was supposed to.
You see, I carried the weight of that burden on my shoulders when it was something that I was never meant to bear on my own.
It’s a destructive lie.
I never saw a girl good enough for Jesus when I looked in the mirror. Not to mention, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the possibility of who He might be or what He could want from me. Still, I believed the enemy who whispered, “God doesn’t want what you bring to the table.”
If we get real for a second, most of us have heard the same whisper. We question our value in God’s eyes; we begin to believe we might be too much of a blemished case for Him to handle. I believed what the enemy fed me, have you? He has made us question our value and worth in the eyes of the One who created us. Satan’s cunning attempts made me fail to see the massive need that lingered within my soul. The lies that became woven within me became my reflection on the outside.
Insecurities ruled my appearance and behavior, lack of trust poised me for trouble, and fears led to long, sleepless nights. The truth was, I was broken. I partied for approval, sought self-worth in artificial relationships, and used addiction to cover up the horrible disaster that was churning inside. I craved attention for all the wrong reasons, sought affection to fill voids, and searched for affirmation of my worth from the world, the same society which told me I wasn’t beautiful enough and convinced me eating disorders would fix my weight. I was lost, miserable, and fatally wounded by sin.
I was mistreated, devalued and made fun of. I kept secrets from people who loved me. I was helpless and hopeless. When I was nineteen, God’s grace provided a way out. Choosing to follow Jesus shattered the lies Satan let dangle over my head. The grip of the enemy on our lives can be tight, but the power of the Gospel is stronger. The Gospel can break chains we didn’t even know we had. His grace sheds light on the greatest darkness we carry.
God loves to use a mess for His glory. You see, only God can turn your worst moments into a testimony of grace. Striving for perfection only leads to brokenness and chaos – a mess looking for grace finds redemption in the Gospel. Like that old, worn piece of furniture we keep refinishing because to us it is priceless, God sees us as more than the mess we are. We are worth refinishing into something beautiful.
When God saved me I was at my rock bottom place, the one where you have to choose to live, choose to believe that there is something better. I believed it, but I knew that I wasn’t going to find it within myself. I tried so hard to figure it out on my own until a neighbor shared something life-changing. She said, “God saved me, and He loves you.”
It was like one of those moments in the movies when the music plays, and the lead character has a revelation of some kind. Except mine was minus the music, and it took God a couple of days to open my eyes to this truth that I was loved and pursued by a holy God.
No matter what I tried, there was no getting away from what God was doing in my life. This rock bottom girl was being chased by a loving, faithful, and gracious God.
The world tells us if we are good enough, kind enough, and don’t mess up than we are enough for God. But, the Gospel says, I am broken and without hope, that I am not enough and will never be enough without Jesus Christ.
In a world that says we are enough, God says only Jesus is.
My life was a mess and sometimes still is. I was so burdened carrying the weight of all my mess ups that I failed to see the healing that was right in front of me. Upon accepting Christ I was no longer defined by my messes and mistakes, I was defined by a Holy God. God who placed a stamp of approval on me through Jesus.
2 Corinthians 5:17 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
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Michelle is a wife and mom of three. She has written several small Bible studies and writes regularly on her blog www.displayinggrace.com. Her goal above all else is to encourage women to thrive in their walks with Jesus and share the beautiful Gospel of Christ. When she isn’t writing or teaching Michelle loves reading, spending time with her family, creating art, and drinking coffee.
P.S. Want to read more Freedom Stories? Check out 20+ stories of other inspiring women like Michelle here. [And thank you to Olia Gozha with the Unsplash community for the beautiful flower images].
To the one struggling in silence…I wrote you a letter today.
I wrote it to myself, too- for the girl years ago who used to hide her sadness. Who was afraid to be seen. Who thought people would only love her if she showed her happy, put-together life.
This letter is a reminder to us both of the One who sees us, knows us, and loves us, even in our hurt.
Hello my dear,
Oh, friend. I know you feel alone in your hurt, your pain, your sadness. How I wish I could scoop up your heart in a big hug and tell you that I see you. I wish I could bring you your favorite flowers right now, or sit with you at a coffee shop over big mugs of our favorite tea or coffee. I’ve been where you are, and I know you’re hurting deeply, quietly. And I wish I could help you know that you are not alone.
But, the truth is, I don’t know why you’re hurting. You’ve gotten so good at holding it all inside. Can we take a few minutes to just breathe, to just be still, and to start letting those walls down?
Here’s what I know about you, sweet friend. You don’t want to suffer in silence or hiding anymore. So, I want to whisper words of hope and encouragement to you right now.
While I do not know the details of your hurt, we have a heavenly father who knows the depths of our hearts. In Psalm 139, the psalmist reminds us of how deeply God knows us:You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.Throughout the course of this Psalm, David lists these ways that God knows us intimately and deeply:
- Thoughts (v. 2, 23)
- Actions (v. 2-4)
- Words (v. 4)
- Our location (v. 7-10)
- Body (v. 13-15)
- Soul (before we were formed into bodies; v. 16)
- All the days of our lives (what is to come; v. 16)
- Heart (v. 23)
- All of our ways (v. 3)
Not only does God SEE us (even when we try to hide), KNOW us (every single aspect of our lives), but He also LOVES us fully and unconditionally.
You don’t have to hide from God. He can see you anyway, sweet friend. Let down those walls and tell Him about your pain. Cry out to Him with those struggles. He can handle it. He is the One who holds your anguish and your tears in His hands. He is the One who grieves with you. The One who pursues you even when you try to hide in the dark. He is the One who will never leave you or forsake you.
I’m praying for you today– that you would remember that you are not alone. I am praying that the God who comforts will be close to you, and that you would remember that you can tell Him anything. Praying for the healing work to begin as you bring your struggles, pain, and grief into the light. God sees you and knows you in this hard season, my friend. And more than anything, He loves you.
What a beautiful gift to share this writer and storyteller with you. Crystal’s encouraging words and honesty about the power of forgiveness have catalyzed me to look at some areas where I might still be holding on to unforgiveness. Her book How to Pray for Someone Who Hurt You, released this year, really helped me to let go of a particular hurt from the past. Savor her story over a cup of tea or coffee, and I pray that her words and the Truths she shares would help soften your heart or encourage you if past hurts still linger.
Here is Crystal’s Freedom Story.
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Sometimes you know what you need to do, without having a clue how to really do it. That’s how I felt several years ago when I found myself in some pretty messy conflicts that left my family divided. Having grown up in the church, I knew that I was called to forgive, but when pressed, I really didn’t have a clue how to go about it.
I had heard multiple sermons on the power of forgiveness, and I was familiar with the words of Jesus in Matthew 18 about forgiving from the heart. But, how could I actually do this when my heart felt bruised, confused, and angry?
I’ll be honest, I felt ill-equipped.
The call to forgive seemed overwhelming, sometimes impossible. How was I to ever find freedom from the emotions that I felt? How was I going to break away from the painful arguments that were on repeat in my mind? How was I going to overcome the depression that seemed to cycle endlessly?
I didn’t have the answers to those questions, but God did. He reminded me of Colossians 3:12-15, and I love this wording from The Message;
So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it. Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness. Let the Word of Christ—the Message—have the run of the house. Give it plenty of room in your lives.
The NIV says, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful (Col. 3:15).”
I looked at my own little world, and I looked at what the Bible said. My world seemed splattered with resentment, entitlement, and fear. Yet there were Paul’s words, divinely telling me that I was made for more -that I was called to peace.
Stop and consider this with me- Jesus, in his kindness, has called each of us to peace.
This is when things changed. I accepted that I was called to peace, but I knew that peace would only come by a deliberate decision to choose love, even when I didn’t feel like it. What was I willing to do to experience this peace that I was called to?
Was I willing to be humble?
Was I willing to let go of my perceived ‘right’ to an apology?
Was I willing to lose an argument?
Was I willing to respond to rudeness with kindness?
Could I have enough self-control to not respond in retaliation?
Could I let go of the urge to ‘punish’ somehow?
Was I willing to do the hard work and forgive?
It took me a while to unwind and process all of these things, but I knew that I was miserable and that I could only be free to follow my own calling and be the kind of mom/friend/spouse/professional that I wanted to be if I was able to move out of this bondage of resentment and into the peace of Christ.
Freedom meant choosing the path of forgiveness, no matter how hard it was, or how long it took.
For me, forgiveness meant facing the pain and working through it, not around it. It meant dealing with my emotions, my expectations, and my fears; one by one until every wound had been healed. It meant reading these verses from Colossians over and over again until they were deep in my bones, and it meant going slow; offering prayerful, calculated, holy-spirit filled responses instead of knee-jerk reactions. Forgiveness meant redefining what it meant to love one another after conflict, and it meant loving in ways that seemed unnatural and out of my comfort zone.
All of these brought me steps closer to the peace of Jesus, but what impacted me the most was choosing not to dwell on what was offensive. After I had worked through the pain and processed my own brokenness, I needed to let go of what had happened and lay it down at the feet of Jesus. It is in this surrendered, self-controlled space that I felt I had truly forgiven. There was no need to keep rehashing the conflict in my mind, to do so would only keep me in bondage. I could choose to dwell on all that was messy and hurtful, or I could again, listen to the words of Paul. “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me- put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you (Philippians 3:8-9).”
Friends, loved by God, let us not be prisoners of our broken pasts. Let us not be defined by our messy histories. Let us not give any more mental space to the things that bind us. Let us forgive and choose the peace of God. Let us choose to dwell on how we are loved by God and cherished by Him. Let us choose to dwell on His kindness, His ability to redeem, and His forgiveness. Let us allow our souls to breathe afresh in the goodness of God and when we do the world will not recognize us by our brokenness, for what will be seen is a beautiful life restored by a loving God, and He will be glorified.
Here is the beautiful promise of God; He is a God of Peace, and He is with you. He has called you to walk with Him and become like Him, and you are called to peace. This peace is found by forgiving others, just as we have been forgiven, and by living lives of love.
Praying you experience the peace of God today, as you forgive completely, from the heart.
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Crystal McGowen is a non-clinical Christian counselor and Soul Care provider based in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not hiking in the PNW with her husband and two girls, she enjoys writing, experimenting with watercolors, and exploring food carts.
Crystal believes that every women’s story has the potential to impact the Kingdom of God in dramatic ways and that all of us have a story to share. She seeks to equip women to live vibrant lives that are emotionally healthy and spiritually mature by offering online forgiveness coaching and soul care appointments.
P.S. Want more stories of hope? Here’s where you can find 20+ other Freedom Stories from women who have found freedom through Christ and authentic community.
All the World’s a Stage: Shape Shifter
When I was in elementary school, I was painfully shy. I was tall, skinny, clumsy, smart, and awkward. I didn’t like getting the answers wrong in class so I didn’t raise my hand unless I was 110% sure of the answer. I often looked at the other girls in my class and wondered how to be more confident, pretty, and popular like them. I wanted to be like them, not like nerdy, quiet me.
Then, I discovered summer theatre camp. We got the chance to step into new roles and characters different from our own, everyday-life selves. There were a lot of kids there like me- quirky, shy, lonely, or loud, silly, and unique. As we rehearsed our parts and learned our lines, tried on costumes and stepped under the bright, hot stage lights, we literally “became” our characters. I entered the world of fairy tales and had so much fun blending into the forest as a bright and happy pink flower. In a jungle, I became a strong and sure-footed elephant. In a kingdom far away, I became a beloved princess rescued by her prince charming. Over about fifteen years in theatre, I played characters that were brash, hilarious, provocative, complex, moody, sly, witty, demure, or intelligent. With each wig and set change, these characters allowed me to transform into whatever was required of my role.
In real life, I was also learning how to shape shift. I worried so much about what others thought of me, that I adjusted myself to fit into the “world” of characters in any given scene. If the environment was stressful or argumentative, I did my best to diffuse the situation with a peace-making attitude. If the room was full of outgoing and confident individuals, I played strong and confident. In academic settings, I could be the studious, try-hard perfectionist. At social gatherings, I adapted myself to be more outgoing and fun than I naturally felt. In romantic relationships, I molded myself to meet the needs, desires, and requests of a significant other, letting go of my own needs to make sure the other person stayed happy with me.
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Suddenly Aware: People-Based Identity
“Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” –Galatians 1:10
Six years ago, I faced a new kind of shift in my life. As I stepped through the doors of a recovery meeting to “help” another person, I became painfully aware of my own unhealthiness. Over the next few weeks of attending those recovery meetings, a desperate need for change grew inside of me. If I wanted to live a life of freedom, peace, and one that was glorifying to Christ, I knew that I needed to let go of my people pleasing. I slowly confronted the habits I’d developed over the years through a world based on people-pleasing:
- I lost my sense of personal identity. When I built my life around the presumed needs or personalities around me, it was difficult to have a firm sense of who I was on my own. When I had too much time by myself, I panicked. What did I like to do? Where did I want to eat? What brought me joy? I didn’t know how to answer these questions unless I had someone else to answer for me. It was just easier for me to always be around people, so that I didn’t have to think for myself or assert my needs or opinions.
- I used empathy as an unhealthy tool. Because I am empathetic, I often feel or can sense the emotions of those around me. As a people pleaser, I learned how to read what the other person needed, and I attempted to be whatever they needed at the time. While I can now see that empathy is a gift when handled properly, the unhealthy management of this gift caused me to take on situations or problems that were not mine to solve. It also caused me to make assumptions that were not always correct. At the very worst, my people pleasing and empathy created ulterior motivations for my service and acts of care for others (“if I do this for them, they won’t be mad anymore,” or “if I take care of this for them, they will owe me/take care of me later”). Yuck.
- I had poor to zero boundaries. I often lost my own voice or strength as I tuned into what the other person wanted from me. I lacked the assertion to stand up for myself, and stayed in unhealthy situations too long. I didn’t always know where the other person ended and I began, so I stayed in those situations to bring encouragement, to help, or to show love. The word “no” was not in my vocabulary. I often said yes out of obligation (and then later resented my yeses). I absorbed the narrative that most things were my fault or my responsibility to fix.
- I was good at wearing masks. Because I only wanted others to see the version of Heather that was easy to get along with, happy, and helpful, I denied or pushed down any emotions that I considered negative. Just like in my theatre days, I grew skilled in my ability to wear masks. But instead of physical costumes or stage make-up, these were behavior masks I wore in real life. I put on masks of happiness and laughter, even if inside I was hurting or struggling with depression. I wore masks of achievement and busyness to cover up my sense of insecurity. I chose masks of forgiveness and peace-keeping, even if I was actually hurt or angry at another person.
- I served people above God. As a people pleaser, I attempted to be all things to all people. I sometimes went against my own standards or ethics of what I knew was right because I wanted to keep in the good graces of others. Essentially, people became my god. And the thing about people is that we are all human- our needs or emotions change on a regular basis. Our desires and relationship dynamics can shift with the season. By trying to keep others happy in a moving, changing, fallen world, I was all. over. the. place. There was nothing steady or grounding about placing my focus solely on others’ happiness. My choices that made someone happy yesterday could make them mad today. I constantly stayed on the merry-go-round of building my world around the moving target of other people’s expectations.
While the world of theatre welcomes this versatility and adaptability, doing so in real life can be exhausting, inauthentic, and even dangerous.
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True Transformation: God-Based Identity
Here’s what I have come to know as Truth over the past six years of work in counseling and codependent recovery:
- A God-based identity is far more grounded than the one based on people. Scripture is packed full of references to Christ as a cornerstone and God as a rock. That identity is a solid ground we can stand upon in this world. I would much rather base my identity on something firm, stable, and unchanging instead of the whizzing, whipping winds of change that come from trying to please others. When I choose to ground myself in God, the world is easier to navigate and I know who I am.
“Therefore, my beloved brethren whom I long to see, my joy and crown, in this way stand firm in the Lord, my beloved.” – Philippians 4:1
- An identity built on Christ is glorifying to God. His Word reminds us to put our priorities in the right order. He also tells us that when we try to please people, we cannot also be a servant of Christ (Galatians 1:10). When we build our lives around a God-given purpose and identity, we are able to serve Him with our whole hearts instead of the leftovers.
“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” –Matthew 6:33
- Rooting myself in God yields security in His true, unconditional love. In God, we are loved not because of what we do, what we bring to the table, what we achieve, or who we make happy. We are loved inherently, at the core of our very being, because He made us and we are His children. God’s love for us celebrates His good work in each of us, from our unique personalities and physical attributes, to our God-given design in our skills and gifts. When we cover up or move away from our own identity to be more like those around us, we step away from all of the special and wonderful things He crafted in each of us.
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” –Psalm 139:13-14
- A God-based identity builds authentic connection. People pleasing is surprisingly very lonely for how other-focused it is! When my people pleasing was at its worst, no one knew the real me because I didn’t know the real me. As I released my people pleasing tendencies, I discovered the things that brought me joy, what made me mad (and learning to express that in healthy ways), and how to share the real parts of myself with others. As I moved away from a people-based identity and into my God-given identity, I made real connections with others by sharing my authentic self. I also learned how to serve others from a healthy place, without ulterior motives or expecting anything in return.
“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.” -1 Peter 4:10-11
- When we build our life on the identity God gave us, we get to celebrate our weaknesses and our need for Him. When we recognize that we can’t do it on our own, we rely on God instead of others to life us up. We allow Him to lead us in our work, relationships, love, goals, and our lives, instead of struggling through on our own false strength. A God-based identity allows us to remove all of the layers and masks to be proud of our weakness, because it brings glory to God and makes room for Him in our relationships.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. -2 Corinthians 12:9
Friend, if you struggle with wearing a mask for the fear of letting other see the real you, I am praying for you today. Christ allows us to step into freedom from the overwhelming exhaustion of our former ways of people pleasing.
It is possible to stand firm and secure. It may take some more shifting (a good kind of shifting!) to fix your focus onto a lasting and steadfast love rather than seeking the approval of man. But I can guarantee you that God provides us with a full, abundant, grounded life when we surrender to Him. I pray that over time, you can shed those layers and learn more about who God made you to be.
It is my honor and joy to share this story with you. This sister of mine is a real life friend here in Roanoke, and I have loved walking this journey with her. I have literally watched her freedom unfold over the past few years, but especially this past year. I have seen God work in her own life, but then also impact other women around us in community. Through her thoughtful conversations and wrestlings about how alcohol affects our lives when used in unhealthy ways, she has made room and grace for others who may wrestle with the same thing: “gray area drinking.” I love this sister’s heart and her story.
Here is Saralyn’s Freedom Story.
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Before we get into your story, I want to know some of the fun stuff about you, Saralyn! Tell me about where you’re from, what you love to do, and anything else that will give us a little slice into your life.
Thank you so much for even asking me to be a part of this Heather! It is a true honor and I LOVE how you are sharing stories to help others! I’m originally from a small town in West Georgia called Carrollton, but Virginia is my home. I am one of 6 children and I’m smack dab in the middle! I’m a believer, a wife to Stephen of almost 12 years, mother to Charlotte (6) and Carson (almost 3). Most days you’ll find me moving my body through some form of dance/cardio or Holy Yoga. Stephen and I love to go see live music and take hikes outside with our family. We also are involved at our church where I serve on the Women’s Ministry Team.
Galatians 5:1 is a key verse for our FREEDOM STORIES. It says “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Therefore, do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” What was the old yoke you were living under? What was that slavery like for you?
YES GIRL! This verse is special because it will ALWAYS remind me of you, Heather. I discovered this verse while we were in a summer bible study called Seamless (one that I will never forget). If you are looking for a good launching pad-type study into the Bible, please check it out! I now proudly display this verse in our home.
Growing up I was always a believer, but I was not a participant in my faith. It wasn’t until about 2 years ago when I discovered that there was a “relationship” opportunity for me and the Lord. Through joining our new church that we love and finding a Bible study, this is where that relationship started for me.
It’s important to mention that I come from a family that is cursed with unhealthy addiction. One of those is alcohol. Yes, I would party some in high school and I might have even thrown a party or two while my parents were out of town. I never took anything too far and no one ever got hurt. Fast forward into college, marriage and becoming a mother. I continued my partying ways and it began to taper off after the first years of our marriage and more so after the birth of our first child. There were still plenty of Sunday mornings where I would wake up hungover from the night before. Once Carson came into the picture, I developed extreme postpartum anxiety and depression. I tried to eat right and workout enough to make it go away. I saw a doctor and she helped me get the right medication. However, I often found myself reaching for a glass of wine when things got stressful or to just unwind after a long day. Looking back, I realize I would reach for a glass to manage my anxiety. Often that one glass would lead to another and next thing you know you are bathing the kids with a glass of wine. Then you are rushing to tuck them in bed so you can go have another glass.
As a working mom with two small children, it is stressful. Not to mention the expectations of having to portray a perfect life these days. Social media can really be a tough place for people.
What I dealt with is what I consider “Gray Area Drinking.” I didn’t consider myself addicted. No one ever got hurt. I didn’t lose my job. I just began to realize that it wasn’t serving me well.
What were some of the old narratives you absorbed?
That I need to drink to have fun…
To relax, manage stress, or just because I deserved it…
To be the life of the party…
As a marketing professional, I want to also touch on the areas of social media and how companies are normalizing drinking more than ever. There are countless meme’s, t-shirts, cups, even health and wellness businesses promoting the lifestyle of how mom’s “need” to drink to do our jobs. “Mommy Juice”, “Wine Not”, “Rose All Day” is everywhere! It’s hard because of how normalized and celebrated drinking alcohol has become.
I also believe it is important to mention that I struggle with body image issues. After having two children via c-section and breastfeeding, it is understandable. One thing I didn’t realize I was doing is that I would rarely give myself days off from working out. I would sometimes never let my body fully rest. See, I knew that I would more than likely be drinking that night. So, in order to “make room” for those calories from the wine, I would make myself workout. Not a healthy balance at all.
Over time, I’ve realized who my identity is in Christ. I used to walk into a room and I would mold to other people’s personalities to make them or the situation more comfortable or bearable. I realized that is actually sinful – to not lean in and embrace the person God has made you to be. I don’t have to do that anymore. God calls us to shine the light and gifts He gave us and to stand firm in that truth.
What was the turning point? Was there a rock bottom or a point that you realized that you couldn’t live like that any longer?
One night, after some early evening drinking and not eating until 9pm, I attempted to put my kids in the bath. They were tired and didn’t want to take a bath. I remember screaming at them and losing my cool. It’s a feeling that makes me sick every time I am asked to share about it, but I don’t shy away from sharing it because it’s my truth. This is where the love story began with me and Jesus.
That night I decided to ask the Lord for help. I could no longer do this anymore-be bound to this kind of pain. The next morning was February, 12, 2018 and this was two days before Lent. I decided to see how it would be to give up alcohol for 40 days. It was amazing what the Lord did with me in those 40 days! I have been alcohol free for over a year now and it has been the best decision of my life.
I no longer wanted to be that person, that kind of mother, to ever see those little eyes to look at me that way again. My children were 5 and 1.5 at the time and I thank God that they were so young when I decided to give up alcohol.
I am and will always be grateful for making the choice while I still had a choice to make.
What changed? (what actions did you take/truths did you discover/community did you connect with to help you find freedom)?
This is such a good question! LOVE IT! So, I knew another mom that loved Jesus and she had recently given up alcohol. She was an unexpected angel and she is still someone I communicate with all the time. In fact, I have been public about my journey and there has been an amazing dialogue with other sober curious mothers. We call ourselves, “Sober Sisters”. There is a group of us that are on the same text thread and get together on occasion. We share our ups and downs along the way. It’s been amazing!
There are also a few Instagram accounts I follow that have been helpful such as @tellbetterstoriesmedia, @drylifeclub, and @thesoberglow . One podcast that especially helped me is called Edit- Editing the drinking and our lives by Adian Donnlley and Jolene Park. It’s like they crawled into my head and put out to the world exactly what was going on with me! SO good!
Tell me about your life of freedom. What does it look like for you now?
WOW! People ask me all the time if this is a “forever” thing. I tell them that I do not want to get ahead of myself, but it’s a decision made knowing that I’m just a better person without it.
I believe that drinking is a wall between my relationship with God. I am able to receive His love and communicate better with Him. I now have a better understanding of what I was put on this Earth to do and my identity in Him.
There is also less drama in my life. Part of this process is removing things that might have brought me anxiety or stress. I have been able to take a deep breath and be more intentional in the relationships with my family and friends that lift me up most.
Do you still wrestle with those old struggles? What do you do on those days to fight for your freedom?
I am human so yes, I sometimes do. For some reason, vacation can be hard not to have a drink. It’s like the enemy knows that I am not in my normal routine and he wants nothing more but to throw me off.
In those moments I am honest with myself about them. I take it to the Lord, talk to my husband or my Sober Sisters about my feelings. Sometimes I may reach for some dark chocolate, kombucha or hot tea instead!
Are there any key scriptures, quotes, or books that have been helpful for you on your journey into freedom?
Be on guard, stand firm in the faith, be courageous, be strong and do everything in love. 1 Corinthians 16: 13-14
Honestly, I just LOVE this one! It’s my favorite. I believe that all of those words, that posture of faith and strength has carried me through being a participant in my faith so far. And of course, Galatians 5:1 really does say it all, right?
And last, because I’m a big believer that gratitude lists help us remain present and fight our battles, tell me 3 things you’re grateful for right now.
Being able to hang out with my husband and kids. To be present with them – not rush bedtime, to feel my very best each morning when they wake up!
To treat my body as a temple and something that I use to honor God.
To use my story and my suffering, to possibly help someone else by leading them to a better relationship with Christ.
– – –Saralyn is a believer, wife, mom and loves all things beautiful! You may find her doing yoga, hiking outside, volunteering her time in Women’s Ministry through her church or involved projects with her clients through her marketing and creating branding business, Saralyn Hamilton Creatives. Follow along in her everyday life through Facebook, Instagram or on her blog!