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.
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Shifting the Self to Make Room
When I was growing up, I didn’t play “house” in the same way other little girls did. I played writer, teacher, theatre director, Miss America, and interior designer. I played artist, inventor, and in 9th grade I had one weird year where I thought I wanted to be a behavioral geneticist (I was really into science that year). As I entered into my 20s, I often thought I would opt to not have children. I was afraid I was too selfish. I feared I would mess up, or couldn’t handle the responsibility of raising a human. So it was easier for me to dream of Broadway instead of babies.
Then, Emmett entered my world.
Six weeks into my young marriage, I got sick and convinced myself it was a stomach bug showing up late from a Mexican honeymoon. But two pregnancy tests at home and one blood test from the doctor proved me wrong. That “sickness” was the most unexpected, terrifying blessing I could have ever imagined.
I had an unexpected reaction to this news. I grieved. I was so scared to step into this role, and I had no clue how to adjust to the reality of being a mother. I was so scared to embark on this journey, unsure of who I was, unsure about the impact upon our finances, and honestly unsure if my fragile new marriage could handle a baby.
Most of all, I was scared I would fail at motherhood.
Each day, as I rode the commuter train to work in Boston, I prayed.
God, I don’t know what I’m doing. Please show me how to love this child. Show me how to be its mom. Show me what to do.
I bought a cute little journal that I slid into the front pocket of my purse, and I started writing notes to the baby. I told it what I was eating that caused the most kicks and wiggles. I shared how the weather and shifting seasons looked like from my view out the train window. And as the baby grew, I started to cradle my belly with a protective hand.
When we found out the baby was a boy, we knew his name right away– it was a family name from his dad’s side that just seemed to fit. Emmett. I started writing notes in my little commuter notebook to Emmett- I wrote love letters each week, poems and observations about the world in 2012 when he was growing in my womb. I fell in love with this baby, and my heart took the full nine months to get ready to be his mama. But when they placed him on my chest, right above my swelling, full heart, I knew he was a gift. He was a straight up blessing from the Lord.
The first year was a blur. I tried to be “mother” but really didn’t know what that meant. Postpartum depression felt like I was moving towards my crying baby in a fog. My exhaustion amplified his colic, and I don’t think I showered much that year.
My afternoon walks on the farm where we lived were my sanity savers. I tucked Emmett into a little carrier, and he cozied into my chest each day. As we walked in quiet, I often felt stinging tears in my eyes, but also peace that God was with me. God was with us. I breathed in the air of our Virginia mountains and whispered to Emmett about the robin flying by, or the way the ground felt beneath my feet. I thought that being a mother meant completely dying to myself– denying all of my wants, needs, and dreams. I thought it meant sacrifice at my own expense, 100% of the time. I stopped caring for myself as I tried to care for this sweet little boy. In the midst of that (and in the midst of other hard circumstances), I think I just lost myself entirely. Or maybe, I didn’t really know who I was to begin with.
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God Loved Me Into Motherhood
The postpartum depression didn’t go away on its own. I visited a Christian counselor to seek help climbing out of the pit.
She helped me to discover much bigger work that I needed to do. As I started to uncover more over the next year or two about my identity in Christ, I looked at some deep wounds buried deep beneath a facade of perfectionism. I realized that if I was not well, I could not be well for my son. I could not transform magically into a mother, caretaker, and homemaker, if I did not know who I was first and foremost in the Lord. I could not show unconditional love to another until I fully accepted the unconditional love of Christ myself.
God poured healing balm into the holes in my heart and showed me that this baby could not fix my breaking marriage (that was way too much pressure for a child), and a marriage could not fix the holes from past trauma or wounds (that was way too much pressure for any human being). It was time to do some work with God to fill in those holes, with God as the Healer, Fixer, Redeemer. And He did fill in the holes– but first He tenderly unearthed the pain of the past. He waded through and weeded up my selfishness and pride. He helped me to see how my perfectionism was holding me back in motherhood. He planted seeds of healthier new thoughts about myself, and gave me a firm foundation in Truth to replace the lies I had memorized about who I needed to be to please and love others well. He brought community in my life to surround me when I felt lost. And mostly, He showed me so much love. I learned to accept His grace, and came to see Him as a loving, good father instead of a judgmental, condemning or apathetic figure. I learned how to parent from the ultimate Parent. He loved me into motherhood.
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A few years ago, in the midst of my divorce, my best friends from college convened in Minnesota for a wonderful reunion weekend. It was amazing how we were able to pick up right where we left off. It was also a gift to be with one another in person in the midst after years of major life transitions in each of our lives.
We laughed a lot, went for walks, drank afternoon tea on the porch, and held space for each other to fill in the details that we miss when we live hundreds of miles away from our dear ones.
We talked about jobs, moving, new marriages, and a marriage ending. We talked about missions and motherhood and reminisced about college memories. Our sweet friend hosting us for the weekend had her boys with her, and we took turns playing cars on the carpet with her toddler and holding her youngest baby. Two of our girlfriends there had bellies round with their first babies.
Where I once feared being a mother, I had by that point come to embrace it. Where I once had no clue what to do with a baby in my arms, my heart now ached to hold another of my own. As sweet as it was to be with these five beautiful girls, there was also an aching reminder that life had not turned out the way I had expected. They showed me so much love in that space, but it was bittersweet. I looked at the growing bellies friends expecting their first with simultaneous joy and sadness. And when it was my turn to hold the baby boy of our host, it was overwhelming.
Holding him brought up a surge of unexpected emotions. As tears welled and I choked back tears, I gently passed the baby to another friend and went to a room to cry by myself.
I felt gratitude for my friends. Joy for several of them as they also entered into motherhood. Awe for the growth God brought into each of our lives, not just in parenting but in other areas too. And then a deep, deep ache.
I had been ignoring it for a while, but the smell and softness of her baby boy brought it all to the surface. Along with the ache to have more children was a keen awareness that it may not be possible for me to have another. Then, guilt washed over me since I had already become a mother when others feel this ache for most of their adult years. Then, gratitude for Emmett and the chance to be his mama.
Grief for my breaking family. Gratitude for the family God HAD gifted me with. Gratitude and grief in the same moment, wrestling around in my heart in Minnesota.
Thus began a long season of reconciling the desires of my heart and the aches of my heart, and placing them in God’s hand. I began praying for His will for my family and acceptance of the season where He had me right now, but it still hurt.
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This Sunday in church, a sweet little girl in a tutu skirt babbled and smiled from the row of chairs in front of us.
When she made eye contact with me, she smiled even bigger and nuzzled into the arms of the woman holding her. I smiled back and we played a subtle game of peek a boo.
A few minutes later, I looked over at my fiancé, who was smiling in the little girl’s direction. I followed his gaze and saw she was playing the same bashful game with him. It made my heart happy to see.
It made my heart happy to see the pregnant mama at the grocery store last week, cradling her belly.
It makes my heart happy to get the video messages from another one of those dear college friends, snuggling her new baby and telling us about life with two kiddos.
It makes my heart happy to check in with myself and recognize that envy is not there. The aching is no longer resident. I can smile and know that God knows the desires of my heart, but also place those desires back into His hands and say, “Thy will be done, Lord.”
It makes my heart happy to know that God loved me into motherhood, but He also loves me in every single season of my life. He has loved me as a creative independent, as a new and overwhelmed mama, a broken-hearted and aching woman, and in the beautiful present season where he has me right now.
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If you struggle with contentment in the right now of your life season (whether you have a deep dream, an aching desire, or questions about your identity as it relates to your dreams and roles), here is a prayer I want to share with you:
You know what’s best for me, You have a design for my family, and You have a good and perfect plan for my future.
I know that You know my deepest longings and desires of my heart. Thank You for seeing me– for really seeing me– and loving me when I sit in unrest, longing, or questions about who I am. Help me to remember first and foremost who You are. Help me to remember who I am in YOU, beyond any earthly role, responsibility, dreams, or relationships (whether those roles and dreams are fulfilled or not).
And if Your plan does not include the fulfillment of these desires, I pray that I can genuinely say, “I praise You still.”
I want to honor You in the attitude of my heart as I live the life You’ve blessed me with. Help me not to envy others, but to trust Your plans for my life, Lord. Help me to be content and present in the season where You have me, right now.
P.S. I am deeply grateful to my friend Kristin Dunker of Kristin Dunker Photography for taking these beautiful family photos of Emmett and me in 2017. Thank you, friend!
Happy Friday, friends! This week’s story echoes what I’ve heard from so many friends and women in my life. It is hard to give up control from the desires, dreams, plans, and courses of action we map out. So, what does it look like to peel away the layers of perfectionism and surrender that control to God? Amie does a beautiful job of showing us. Thanks for kicking off 2019 Freedom Stories with an honest and beautiful piece, Amie!
Here is Amie’s Freedom Story.
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I silently stared out the window at the barren fields and cloudy skies, as we drove the five hour trip back home after a whirlwind trip to visit family for the holidays. The kids had their headphones on and were listening to a story CD, and my husband, Josh, was zoned in on the drive; I welcomed the quiet and temporary solitude free from distractions. As I watched the gray storm clouds rolling by, I couldn’t help but parallel the bleak skyline to the past year’s disappointments. It seemed as though, despite my best efforts, things just hadn’t gone at all according to plan.
My mind wandered to 2017, which had ended rather disastrously as I’d stretched myself too thin and ended the year with a panic attack, due to over-commitment and my desire for control and perfection in nearly every aspect of my life. This forced me to stop and re-evaluate my priorities. I remembered choosing the words “purpose” and “present” to define 2018, believing that a schedule and well-thought-out plan would cure the anxiety and stress I’d been unable to shake. I told myself that if I just had a clear-cut purpose and plan instead of aimlessly saying yes to everything, things would get better.
Instead of finding my purpose, however, God began to peel back the layers of my striving to reveal imperfections, weaknesses, and failures. I fought for control, for this perfect ideal I had in my head for what I thought God wanted. I looked at what others were doing and questioned why God didn’t create me with the ability to accomplish what they could. I kept asking myself why I seemed to have all of these limits that they didn’t and begged God to take away what I considered to be shortcomings so that I could do all of these great things for Him. I just knew I could be of more use if He’d created me without all of these struggles! My inner critic was relentless. My desire for personal perfection began to grow into a critical view of others as well, and I attempted to lay the blame for my failure on others. I told myself that if they had just behaved differently, my reaction would have been better.
Perhaps you’ve found yourself here before: wondering why, despite your gold foil calendar and multi-colored sharpie pens, life seems to be spiraling out of control at a speed you just can’t keep up with. You’ve found fault with yourself and others, as your inner critic keeps a running list of all the mistakes that give you cause to just throw your hands up in the air in defeat.
The GPS startled me out of my reflection as it reminded my husband that we needed to take the next exit, and it suddenly hit me: Josh wasn’t wringing his hands and wondering what the GPS was thinking, or if it was making the best decision. He was simply steering the van in the direction he was being told to go. He trusted that the GPS had the right answer.
Perhaps that was the answer to why last year had gone so horribly, terribly wrong. I’d been more consumed with the set of directions that I had so carefully laid for myself, that I forgot to trust the One who ultimately guides my steps. I’d ignored God’s whisper to rest in Him and allow Him to lead, believing the lie that the success or failure of my kids, my ministry, and my journey lay solely in my own hands. If I wanted to stop the mad cycle of failure, guilt, and regret, I had to stop striving on my own and sacrificing people on the altar of perfection. Wanting a perfect house, a perfect life, and perfect responses to anything that life threw at me was unrealistic, but how could I come to terms with the fact that life isn’t always ordered and controlled? I desperately wanted the peace that comes from knowing that it wasn’t all up to me.
Could it be that the secret to peace and rest simply lay in putting my trust in Jesus? I pulled out my phone and began to search for verses on peace. I found Isaiah 26:2, which says, “You will keep the mind that is dependent on You in perfect peace, for it is trusting in You.” (CSB) Jesus has already done the work for me, laying out His perfect plan for my life, and willing to freely give me the perfect peace if I will simply trust Him. It all began to make sense. Freedom and peace could be mine if I chose to trust that He has my best interest at heart, even when life is messy and things don’t make sense!
Now please hear me out. I know I can’t realistically live with the assumption that because God is leading that I’ll always like the direction I’m heading, but I can choose to rest in the fact that I don’t have to figure it all out on my own, control other people’s choices, or throw my hands up in defeat when things don’t go according to my plan. I continued reading and found that Isaiah 26:12 reads, “Lord, You will establish peace for us, for You have also done all our work for us.” (CSB) What difference would it make in my life if, instead of believing the lie that it’s all up to me, I believed the truth that every good thing that I do comes from God graciously enabling me to be part of His plan? This perspective eliminates my need to struggle through on my own, because He has become perfection for me.
Heavenly Father, help me to trust that Your plan for my life is better than anything I could ever dream up for myself. When I feel like I’m losing control and anxiety starts to creep in, help me to find my rest in You. Thank You for the privilege of being a part of Your master plan, and for allowing me to be an imperfect vessel to be used by You for whatever you see fit, even when things don’t go according to what I think is best. May my imperfections continuously point me to You, reminding me that You became perfect in my place. Help me to choose to accept the freedom You offer from perfection by resting in the truth that You have it all under control.
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Amie is a banker’s daughter turned farmer’s wife, who loves lazy days at the beach and a good conversation with friends. If she isn’t running here, there, and everywhere, you can usually find her doing extraordinary things like cleaning out her flower beds or washing dishes. She is a recovering perfectionist who is learning to see the beauty and purpose in each ordinary day, and hopes that sharing her journey will point readers back to her heavenly Father, who can take the mundane and use it for our good and His glory. She and her husband live in the country with their two children and pet goldfish named George.
You can follow Amie’s writing here!
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P.S. Want to read more Freedom Stories? Find more stories of hope and freedom from others here. Also, special thanks to John Canelis for the picture to accompany this post (via Unsplash).