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.