I was born in 1956, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was the second of three children. My mother and father both came from troubled, impoverished families and were determined to make a better life for themselves and their children. Mental illness, sexual abuse, alcoholism, poverty and domestic violence plagued their childhoods. Unfortunately, as much as they tried to shield themselves and us kids from the horrors of their backgrounds, some of the above mentioned issues manifested themselves in my parents and onto us children.
My dad, was the oldest of 7 children and had an alcoholic father who was absent from the home for long periods of time. He quit school and worked full time to provide for his mother and younger siblings. At 17, he enlisted in the Air Force and learned airplane mechanics. He had acquired a skill and the discipline he needed to provide for his family. He also carried a lot of anger, anxiety and perfectionism that thwarted his ability to have healthy, supportive relationships with my mother and us children. He was a driven man, haunted by his father’s failures to provide any kind of support for him and his family.
My mother, was the youngest of 8. She had 7 older brothers, one who passed in his teen years. Her family was plagued with mental illness, suicide, and alcoholism. My mother was sexually abused by another brother and his friends starting at age 12. Her parents fought frequently, often over finances. She told me that her father would frequently beat her brothers for misbehavior, but she was spared the physical abuse. In spite of their backgrounds, my parents were determined to leave their problems behind and begin a new life for themselves. They were both blessed with intelligence and good moral values. They moved from their small, rural Wisconsin hometown, to Michigan, and my story began.
I am named Carol Lynn, after my father’s sister Carol Jean, who died from polio when she was 12. My dad picked my first name, but due to her tragic , early death, my mother chose a different middle name.
My mother was a stay-at-home mom, and devoted her life to us. She was kind, loving and very attentive. My dad was the provider and disciplinarian. He was very distant emotionally, cold, and at times could be verbally abusive. My mother was always over-compensating for his lack of support and would often lean on us for her emotional needs. By the time I came into my late adolescent years, 11 or 12, my mother became more and more withdrawn, often staying in bed for days at a time. My parents started to fight frequently at her inability to function. My father was very angry at her for not keeping the house clean, or doing any of her daily chores. I would cry hysterically at night, as I would hear their shouting and arguing. My mother seemed to slip further and further into a deep abyss of paranoia and depression. I felt totally helpless and lost. I was grieving the loss of my sweet mother’s companionship and frightened by this cold, non-responsive person she had become. At one time, she went to the doctor and came back with a prescription for some kind of barbiturate, but it only seemed to make her fall deeper into depression. The stigma of mental illness was even more horrendous then, than it is now. She would sometimes rant about being afraid of being institutionalized like several of her brothers had been. It was a horrifying time for all of us. It was around that time, that I began having nightmares and started my own fearful journey with depression and anxiety.
I spent my teen years in Wausau, WI. My dad took a position as an Engineer at a manufacturing company in Wausau. We stayed there until I was 18. I severely struggled with self-esteem. Not ever feeling like I fit in with the other kids. My troubles at home were so overwhelming, that it was hard to join in with the activities of late elementary school and junior high. I , mostly kept to myself and would lose myself in music and books. I begged my dad to buy me a guitar when I was 12, and he did. He loved country music, and he paid for me to have weekly lessons. I have fond memories of learning some of his favorite songs and playing them for him. It was the only connection that we had and I craved his approval. My mother was still at home, and would go in and out of lucidity. Some days, she would be normal and others she would be paranoid and suspicious. I was never sure which personality would be there to greet me after school. Divorce was extremely uncommon in those days, so my parents never parted.
My life as a teenager, became not unlike so many of my peers of the 1970’s. We lost ourselves in sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. I found a group of troubled youth that I could relate to and fit in with. I had my niche as the folk singer of the group and would entertain my friends with covers of popular songs. Those of us who wrestled with depression, medicated ourselves with alcohol and street drugs and for awhile our pain was suppressed. Marijuana, amphetamines, tobacco, and alcohol were my drugs of choice. Cigarettes made us look cool, (or so we thought), marijuana kept us calm, but when we got the munchies, we gained weight. We retained our figures with amphetamines and enjoyed the mood highs they provided. One of the members of our group, OD’d when she was 15. We all grieved her death and vowed to quit using, but it wasn’t long and our false sense of invincibility took over and we were all back at it.
My grades plummeted in high school and I never completed my senior year. In Wisconsin, the legal drinking age was 18. I turned 18 in March, of my senior high and began hitting the bars nightly. I worked part-time at a gas station and stole money from my mother’s purse to fund my partying. The tremendous amount of guilt and shame I felt over my rebellious lifestyle would frequently haunt me but could easily be numbed by another night of drinking and doing drugs. I was definitely the prodigal child or black sheep of my family. My brother, who is 3 years older, was your typical first-born. He was driven to succeed like my father. He had no time for me or my loser friends. He was continually striving to gain my father’s approval by getting straight A’s, holding down multiple jobs and doing well at whatever he set out to do. Due to my father’s perfectionism, it wasn’t ever enough and he too, became a bitter, angry young person.. He set for himself high standards for education and career goals and has accomplished many of them. I have a sister also, who is 12 years younger than me. The tremendous age difference kept us from being very close until recent years.
In January, of 1975, my dad took a new position in Minneapolis, MN, and since I still lived at home at age 18, I made the move with them. The next 6 years consisted of me working various jobs, getting my high school GED, taking secretarial classes, living with an abusive, alcoholic college student, ending up back home, having two unwanted pregnancies and two abortions, many one-night stands and becoming more and more cynical and hopelessly lost.
When I was 24, I started working for my dad at his office, and began a friendship with his secretary. Her name was Marge, and she was a Christian. Now Marge wasn’t a goody-goody type Christian. She had had some major crisis’ in her marriage and family and knew all about depending totally on Jesus. She wasn’t afraid to share her struggles, her fears and sometimes her inability to even pray. That’s why I found her so approachable and her faith so appealing. We would go out to dinner and she would share with me her pain and her faith. At this point, my own life was slowly falling apart and my depression was consuming me more and more. I would be haunted during the night by guilt and nightmares and even the sex and drugs couldn’t numb the pain effectively for long. I knew I was seriously in need of help. I would share my pain with Marge and she would listen. Never once did she condemn me, shame me, or offer advice… she just listened. I know now, that she was praying for me.
One night in March of 1980, after bolting up from a nightmarish sleep, I began to talk to the Jesus she spoke of. I asked Him, “if Your are really alive, would You please do something for me!” An incredible peace settled upon me, and I fell into a beautiful sleep. On my way to work the next morning, the song, “You’ve Got a Friend”, by James Taylor, came on the radio. I began to cry like I had never cried in years. It was like a dam holding back years of pain and shame had burst. I wasn’t sure what had happened to me, but I knew I had been changed. Several days later, as I was rifling through an old box of books in our basement, I came across Billy Graham’s book, “How To Be Born Again”. Apparently at one time, my mom gave money to his organization and received the book. I poured over it and began to understand what had happened to me. I started asking Jesus to forgive me for all of my sins, and I pictured a toilet being flushed over and over again and filling up with clean water. I shared my new found faith with Marge and she was excited to hear my news! She went to a Lutheran Church in our area and they were hosting a weekly Wednesday video series on the Holy Spirit. She invited me to come with her and I did. I was scared to go, and didn’t understand much of the teaching, but I liked the peace and love I felt in the room. I realized that it was the peace and love of Jesus, that I had been trying to find in the bars, the drugs and the one-night stands.
I wish I could tell you that my life has been a bed of roses since that wonderful day. That it has been nothing but success upon success, but that would be a lie. It would also make those of you reading this, who still struggle with life as a Christian, feel guilty and inadequate. My life, in the 34 years since I received Jesus, has been marked by joy, pain, disappointment, success, sickness and healing.
A little after a year of my being born again, I married a young man named Steve. I met him at a Christian coffeehouse in downtown Minneapolis. He was playing drums in a band called “Potter’s Clay”. I had begun to go to the numerous Christian coffeehouses in the area for entertainment on the week-ends. It was a rough time for me in my social life, as the Christian kids didn’t want anything to do with me, because I still smoked cigarettes and had a tough background, and my old party friends didn’t want to hang out with me, because I just wanted to talk about Jesus. It was a lonely time and the pain of rejection from the church kids taught me a life-long lesson about accepting people right where they are.
Steve’s adult life was also affected by his upbringing. Unlike me, he was raised in a Christian home, but one that was taught and modeled a performance-based faith. He was raised to believe that your acceptance by Christ, was fully based on your actions. You screw up, condemnation was readily dispensed and God’s favor removed. You do the list of right things and don’t do the list of bad things, (determined by your denomination), and you might have a chance at earning God’s love. His faith yo-yo’d, depending on whether he felt good enough to approach God. What an interesting combination of belief systems we brought to our marriage! It is indeed a miracle that we have made it 34 years!
We got married in a Baptist Church, on August 15, 1981. Our first major trial occurred in our tenth month of marriage. Steve was working in a fiberglass factory and suffered an over-exposure to acetone. He was working in a small booth with an open container of acetone. He was inhaling it 8 hours a day and it was slowly poisoning the frontal lobe of his brain and liver. He began exhibiting symptoms of jaundice (yellowing of eyes and skin), mental confusion and paranoia, massive diarrhea, and weight loss. He was hospitalized for 2 weeks with heavy-metal poisoning and began a life-long struggle and rehabilitation. He was finally diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, secondary to 30% frontal lobe damage. He has had many ups and downs, years of stability and years of disability. He has felt at times, that the Lord had abandoned him, but over the years he has seen God mold him into a deeply, humble, compassionate and gracious man. He currently works full-time with juveniles at a residential treatment facility and has for almost 5 years. He is passionate about his work and has a special amount of empathy for the kids who struggle with mental health issues.
My life, as a Jesus follower, has also been marked with highs and lows. Steve and I have been blessed with three beautiful, healthy children, and blessed with a daughter, Jesi Marie, who only stayed with us for 11 hours. Our oldest daughter, Valissa, is 30, a wife, a mother of 2, and a family therapist. Megan, our middle daughter, is 27, engaged to be married next fall, a software billing specialist, and our son, Luke, is 24, and is a wild land firefighter for the United States Forest Service, stationed in Silver Lake, Oregon. Our children were all born when Steve was working as a Computer Support Analyst and his mental and physical condition were under control. The kids have been exposed to years when their dad worked full-time and provided well and years when he was not doing well and money was scarce. I stayed home with them, the majority of their childhoods. After Valissa was born, I had a terrible time with post-partum depression and sought medical treatment . Due to my family history of depression, I was started on an anti-depressant and an anti-psychotic. This was the beginning of a nightmare of many psychiatric medications that almost led to my mental and physical destruction.
For those of you who are currently on medications, I will only say a few things. The pharmaceutical industry is still very naive on how these medications work and the horrible side effects. Many of the drugs are addicting even though they use the term ‘tolerance’. You will go through a horrendous withdrawal, when stopping and switching medications. You may think that the medications are safe, because your Doctor prescribes them, but they are not. I will not list ALL of the prescriptions I was given over the years, but Klonopin, an anti-anxiety was the worst. I became addicted to it, and it stole many years from me and my family. It is just like any street drug and just as nasty. I was prescribed it in 1995, after having a panic attack. I was told that is was an anti-seizure med that they realized had a calming effect on patients and began to use it to treat anxiety. I battled this addiction for 13 years. Not unlike any other drug-user, I became a different person under its influence. My children saw their self-less, caring mother become a selfish and self-absorbed person. I was up to a very high dose in 2008, and barely able to function. My depression and anxiety were still at a devastating level and I was told by my doctor that I was no longer treatable with medications. That my only option was Electric Shock Treatment. I refused this route of treatment. He began to take me off of all my medications and I plunged into Hell itself.
Many months of black depression, intense anxiety, sleepless nights, uncontrollable tremors, itching and minor seizures. I had lost all hope and was wishing I would just die. My faith in Jesus, had become only a memory by this time. But in the pit of my darkness, I began to read the Old Testament book of Job. I could relate to Job’s pain and agony, and began to pray again. As much as I would like to tell you that I was healed and restored overnight, it was a 4 to 5 year process. 23 years of medications, had clouded my brain, poisoned my liver and severely impaired my judgment, I have been medication free now for years and am still healing and catching up on the normal maturation process. My liver functions have returned to normal. I sleep peacefully most nights, my children and I are in the process of being restored, and I have been employed part-time for over 3 years.
Most important today, is my relationship with Jesus. He has been my healer, restorer, and faithful companion. I have cried out to Him daily and He has been faithful to hear and answer my prayers. I have poured over His Word and promises and clung to them for sanity.
I have many, many favorite verses, but my two favorites today are:
Job 22:21“Submit to God, live at peace with Him. And in this way, prosperity will come to you”
and 1 Thessalonians. 4:11“And make it your every effort to live a quiet and peaceful life: minding your own business, working well with your hands, so that your daily life may win the respect of others and that you will not be dependent on anyone”.
It is still very painful and shameful for me to talk about these horrible years, but if my story helps someone or gives them hope, it will have been worth it. God bless you.
~ Carol Johnson
Carol has been married to Steve for 34 years and a follower of Jesus for 35 years. She is the mother of 3 beautiful adult children and grandmother to 2 wonderful grandbabies. She works as a leasing agent at an apartment complex in St. Louis Park, MN. She loves music and has had the privilege to be a part of several worship ministries over the years singing and playing guitar.