In the beginning, it seemed we had the perfect life. Earle was a youth pastor, loved for his zany humor and yet so serious about his commitment to Christ. I was Earle’s “dream girl,” a former cheerleader.
Together we worked with the kids in our youth group. Soon after our wedding in 1985, Earle took a senior pastorate. I jumped right into music ministry and all the hospitality-related tasks of a traditional pastor’s wife.
God blessed us with three beautiful daughters. Earle eventually left the pastorate to begin working for Focus on the Family. I taught piano lessons from our home. God blessed us in such tangible ways — perfect timing in the purchase of a home, an incredible deal on a grand piano, a teaching schedule that was always full. Yet on the inside, our hearts were dying.
In the spring of 1995, our youngest daughter was diagnosed with IGA deficiency — a condition in which her immune system never fully developed. We were told there was no cure and no hope for improvement. She would be at greater risk of getting cancer or an auto-immune disease, and would be more susceptible to other illnesses (God saw fit to heal her immune system two years later — but that’s another story!).
At the same time, Earle’s dad was fighting a losing battle with kidney failure. A favorite nephew of Earle’s was also dealing with mental illness that ultimately led to suicide.
Earle was also struggling at work. God blessed him with excellent people skills and incredible discernment, and for 13 years he had ministered to the needs of hundreds of people who called in to Focus on the Family. He listened compassionately as people poured out their stories of pain and tragedy, betrayal and heartache.
He thought he was able to let it all go and not be affected by the stories he heard. But the accumulation of so many years listening to peoples’ troubles was taking its toll. The youth pastor who used to stay up all night with his youth group or drive 300 miles for a day of water-skiing, now wanted only to stumble through the door after work and watch TV.
In November 2000, during a belated getaway to celebrate our 15th anniversary, Earle’s world unraveled. He was in tears; hopeless, afraid, unable to eat. He met with a psychiatrist soon thereafter.
We learned that one type of depression is caused by a serotonin deficiency in the brain. Because of the severity of his condition, he was put on medical disability. He remained off work for three months. He was given anti-depressant medication and spent significant time with a counselor.
Here’s how Earle describes this time:
"Mental illness runs in my family, and yet there has always been a lot of denial and shame about it. For a long time, I thought if I just kept focused on God's Word, I'd find relief. But the depression just got worse.
“Spiritually, I couldn’t feel God’s presence. I couldn’t understand why He didn’t heal me. Reading the Bible didn’t help. I couldn’t even pray. Others had to pray for me. Only after I’d received some counseling and started taking anti-depressant medication did I start to feel better.”
Depression’s Effect on the Kids
According to Earle, “Fom the very beginning, Karen and I talked openly to the kids about depression and why I was the way I was.
“Our youngest seemed not to notice my illness. Our oldest daughter, who was 12 in 2000, also handled things OK. She was busy with her friends and school activities. Our middle daughter had the hardest time. She felt insecure seeing her daddy sick, but she had a particularly good public school counselor who was able to help her through things.”
The Long Road to Healing
During his time off work, Earle attended counseling appointments several times a week. He explored his insecurities and fears. He relaxed, made sure to accomplish some small task each day, watched his diet and walked. He and I walked and talked for hours on end. By the end of the three months, he was able to return to work, though never again on the phones.
I would like to be able to say we’ve lived happily ever after. But that’s not the case with clinical depression. When things are not going well, the doctor may try a different medication or a different dose. Sometimes this results in a terrible nosedive that may take weeks to stabilize. But depression is a manageable medical condition.
How has it affected our marriage? In many ways, it has brought us closer together. We have learned to share our hearts with each other. We've learned to look at a situation and figure out why it caused such pain.
It hasn't been easy. There are times when Earle is angry and withdrawn. He is often exhausted. I often feel overwhelmed with having to shoulder much of the responsibility for running the home and family. And I sometimes get discouraged knowing we serve a Lord who could reach down and heal this in an instant — but has chosen not to do so.
Earle and I have learned the meaning of our wedding vows, “in sickness and in health.” We are committed to sticking together and working through this. And we have learned how little most people know about mental illness.
Some friends have withdrawn from us because they are uncomfortable talking about it. Others have told us this is a spiritual issue and that if we just pray more and praise God it will all go away. But by far the most common response has been one of compassion, as people have rallied around us even though they don’t completely understand our situation.
Friends have prayed, listened, brought meals, helped with a variety of tasks, given money, taken the girls when we needed time alone, given gifts and words of encouragement, and just “been there“ for us.
Out of the Shadows
Earle has been incredibly open and honest about his illness. Right from the start, he has been willing to share his story. He is quick to encourage others to get help. He is quick to inform people that this is a real medical condition, something that can be helped through medication and not something to be ashamed about.Earle is living proof that someone depressed enough to be off work for an extended period can regain the health to return to a full-time career.
Our Lives Today
When Earle was still on disability in early 2001, I tried to be a compassionate, loving wife. I was there at every instant, to talk or listen. While often exhausted and stressed, I gladly carried the responsibilities of the home and children. And I enjoyed the support of friends who rallied around us.
By the summer of 2001, I felt Earle and I had never been closer. I was actually thankful we went through this ordeal, which I thought was basically over.
But the years have been tough on me. Sometimes I feel angry when it’s not clear how I should respond to Earle’s moods. There are times I cry out to God, saying I just can’t take it anymore. And then Earle does something that shows his true character — that of a responsible, godly family man who would die for any one of us. Like him, I ride these ups and downs; and like him, I hope for a brighter future.
Our story is still in progress. But we tackle each challenge as it arises, and thank God that Earle has been able to keep working. And we make ourselves available to others who are struggling, thankful that God can use our trials to help others. We live every day fully aware that there are many godly, Christ-centered families who turn daily to the Lord to gain the strength to win their battle against clinical depression.