Coming Out of the Dark:
Two Pastors’ Wives Share in Their Husbands’ Journey Out of Depression
With Rosalyn Goodall And Susan Wagner
Depression not only affects the pastor; it also affects his family. In this candid interview with Richard L. Schoonover, associate editor, Enrichment journal, Rosalyn Goodall, wife of Wayde I. Goodall, and Susan Wagner, wife of E. Glenn Wagner, share their journeys as they and their families walked alongside their husbands during their time of depression. Their message of hope will encourage other wives who find themselves in similar circumstances.
How Did Your Husband’s Depression Affect You And Your Family?
Susan: Glenn’s depression caught us by surprise because he has always been strong. When we were in Colorado, he suffered from high fatigue, and was close to burning out. He thought he needed to step out of ministry and take any available job because he was burned out. But this situation was different.
I was seriously concerned about where Glenn was mentally. I am not sure he was processing his thoughts well. I had to answer questions for people and repeat things to close friends. He was unable to cope with anything. He laid around the house for the most part. That was hard on me. My heart hurt deeply to see him that way. I was feeling his and my pain at that point.
I was overwhelmed and saddened that the ongoing 2-year struggle in the church had caused this to happen to my husband. I felt abandoned and we did not experience the help, support, or encouragement I expected and needed.
My discouragement and feelings of abandonment along with the stress caused by Glenn’s condition caused me to slip into my own depression.I knew the symptoms because I had been through two previous depressions.
I also experienced grief, anger, denial, and sever panic attacks. I have never been angry with God, but I was extremely angry with people — mainly Christians. Then I would get angry with myself for the way I was handling my feelings and my situation.
During the deepest parts of my depression, I had no joy nor could I find enjoyment in any activity. I was no longer interested in anything. To get up in the morning, get dressed, brush my teeth, go to the couch, sit down, and turn on the television was an accomplishment. I would stare at the television without knowing what I was watching. When I ventured out of the house I often experienced panic attacks.
Another symptom of my clinical depression was a change in my sleep patterns. I have experienced insomnia off and on since I was a little girl. For me, my insomnia seemed normal. I finally realized that my trouble sleeping was not normal, but was insomnia. I also learned that one symptom of depression is insomnia, and that one symptom of insomnia is clinical depression. I thought: No wonder I’ve gone through depression.
It was also difficult to see the hurt in my children’s eyes. They are both young adults. Glenn’s parents also suffered. It has taken at least a year for me to come completely out of this depression. During this time, I experienced every emotion a person can possibly experience, to the extreme.
Rosalyn: When we returned from Europe, Wayde was suffering from his second major depression. His depression seemed to stem from situational causes and was burnout-induced. We had been living in Vienna where there were many stressors.
The mindset in Vienna was that the only way to be good enough was to work harder. In other words, God only approves of persons who are the first to arrive and the last to leave. The pastor must work harder than everyone else. He must say yes to anything anyone wants him to do. Under these circumstances, it is easy to become depressed. A pastor may feel guilty. He may think he will never measure up, cannot please God, and no one will ever like him. He may even worry that he will be fired from the church.
I believe there was a great deal of spiritual oppression in Vienna. Depression, suicide, and affairs were common. The many cultural differences took their toll on Wayde. We returned to the United States primarily because Wayde’s nerves were shot. He was frustrated and exhausted.
I began to look for answers. I tried to find solutions and assist in my husband’s recovery. I pulled back on anything that could be stressful to him.
My sister struggled with depression, and my parents had taken her for counseling. So, I knew counseling is often needed to help people work through depression. I also knew that depression can be a major illness, and some people deal with it their entire lives. Antidepressants and sedatives can be appropriate treatments for depression.
Based on what I knew about depression, I determined to put my husband first even more than usual. Rest is important along with lowered expectations and responsibilities. We tiptoed around him more, cooperated with him more, and took more of his responsibilities. I did everything he usually did around the house, such as mowing the lawn, and taking care of the house and washing the car. I answered the work questions and the people questions. We loved on him.
Wayde would sometimes ask, “Have I disappointed you?” His depression caused him to be insecure, and he constantly needed our love and reassurance.
We tried to be quiet and let him sleep. We did whatever he needed us to do. Wayde also regularly went to see a counselor in another town to ensure confidentiality.
How Can Pastors’ Wives Cope With Depression?
Susan: I sought professional help, and I am on medication. I see a Christian psychiatrist. During one visit, my psychiatrist handed me a small stone. On it was written, First.
He asked, “What does that mean to you?”
I replied, “Well, Jesus is my Rock.”
That was not the answer he was looking for, so he asked, “Okay, what else?”
I was thinking, Okay … first? And then it occurred to me: Whoever throws the first stone. That ends much of the self-centeredness that results from depression after you start coming through the different stages.
So, I looked at my psychiatrist and jokingly said, “Oh, you’re mean.”
That stone got the point across. Stop moping in your circumstances. You need to let go. There is truth in the phrase: Circumstances will cause you to become either bitter or better. I knew these things were only hurting me. If I continued to handle them the way I was, they would destroy my walk with the Lord and my relationship with my husband. Glenn moved on quicker than I did even though most of the attacks were against him. But, as far as I was concerned, it was done to me as his wife. When I sought help, little by little the fog lifted.
I had an I-could-not-care-less attitude. Rosalyn mentioned how she tried to take responsibilities away from Wayde, such as washing the car. During my depression, I did not care whether the car was washed. A person in depression often loses the ability to care about things. I do not like feeling that way, and I am not normally like that. But worse, I also did not care about some people. I learned that I needed to focus on something other than the negative thoughts I was holding on to. One thing that took me a little longer to do was to let go and focus on what was ahead.
Rosalyn: I try not to take offenses directed at Wayde personally. In a husband and wife relationship, it is easy for the wife to take offense at attacks on her husband. A pastor and his wife are one in the Lord. When the Bible speaks about forgiveness, it concerns the parties directly involved. However, a pastor’s wife must be willing to accept the forgiveness and reconciliation that is brought about between her husband and his offender. This brings glory to God.
A godly wife always tries to help her husband. She tries to help him solve any problematic situation he may have. They discuss it together.
Wayde might tell me a conversation he had or he would ask my opinion. He would ask, “Am I reading this right?” or, “What do you think about that?”
I would offer suggestions. But I allow the offense to remain between the two parties involved.
It is important not to let an offense eat into your spirit. Do not become an angry, vengeful person. Do not gloat when those who offend you suffer. It can be hard not to gloat and say, “Thank God.”
I feel the people who attack pastors are walking on a slippery slope. When I find out they have headaches so severe they cannot go to work, I want to think: Well, get right with God. I am not sure that is gloating, but I do know it does not honor God to think this way. Yet, at times, I would like to tell certain people to wake up. “So, your daughter just got a divorce from her husband. What did you expect? You are not living for the Lord. You are poisoning your family through your bad advice, through criticizing your pastor, and you are destroying the fabric of your own home and your physical well-being.” This is how I am tempted to feel and respond to these people. But God wants us to honor Him with our thoughts, and to show His love to everyone.
When I was coping with Wayde’s depression, I tried to give him support, hope, love, and acceptance. Often he did not want my advice. He just wanted to tell me what is bothering him and receive my love and a hug. He needed me to be noncritical and understanding.
I also tried to offer new ways for Wayde to look at things and to be objective. For example, I gave him a calendar. Everyday I helped him record something he did that he had not done for a while. Maybe one day he got out of bed, brushed his teeth, and went back to bed. As least he brushed his teeth. He had not done that the day before. Or maybe he ate breakfast. If nothing tasted good the day before but today he ate a muffin, we wrote down: Had a muffin. Then, after a month or two we would go back and check the calendar. We would remember that a month ago the big accomplishment for the day was eating a muffin. But today he did some business over the phone. I felt joy in seeing his progress and that gave me something else to write on the calendar: Today he laughed. This was an effective way to measure his progress. I suggest that people coping with depression keep a calendar.
What Hope Can You Offer To The Pastor’s Wife?
Rosalyn: It is important to understand God’s complete forgiveness. We are His precious children. God wants to bless His children, love them, and accept them. When a person is depressed, it does not mean God is sitting in heaven with a hammer waiting to pound him. God wants us to be faithful. He does not expect people to be sinless. He completely forgives people when they are not perfect and ask Him for forgiveness. But He wants people to be faithful.
If a pastor’s wife is going through depression or if she is watching her husband go through depression, know there is a light at the end of the tunnel — and it is not an oncoming train.
You may wonder, Will I ever enjoy things again? This may be another item for your calendar: Not only did I eat a muffin today, but I also enjoyed eating it because it tasted good. That signals progress. You will taste again. You will see in color again. You will feel joy, satisfaction, and love again. When a person is depressed, these things may seem far away. You may think: I’ll never measure up. I’ll never be loved. I’ll never be happy. I’ll never sleep well again. But that is simply not true.
Susan: I would encourage pastors’ wives who are suffering with their own depression to seek help as soon as possible. Do not wait. Many pastors’ wives are probably concerned about what would happen if anyone found out they were seeking help for depression.
Most pastors’ wives want to keep their depression a secret. They may feel ashamed. They do not want anyone to think there is something wrong with them mentally or that their depression is because they have sin in their life. If sin is the problem, then deal with it. Otherwise, depression needs to be understood as a medically diagnosable illness.
Many people believe they can work through depression on their own. If not, they will go to their pastor. Sometimes these deep issues are beyond the pastor. Depression is not short-term, but long-term; people need a professional.
When a person has a bad cold, he goes to the doctor. Some people become so depressed they become suicidal. A depressed person needs to seek help before he gets to this point. Therapists know what the symptoms of depression are and what medications will help. My therapist’s qualifications and willingness to help were a great plus.
A pastor’s wife who is dealing with depression sometimes closes herself off and does not let people know she is depressed. Unfortunately, she often shuts herself off from the very people who can help. But she needs to seek help and support from others.
It is important to communicate with your husband. I tried to keep my first two bouts with clinical depression from Glenn. I put on an act when we were together. I did not want him to have to deal with a depressed wife because I felt he had enough on his plate dealing with a large, growing church. Even though my intentions were good, what I did was wrong. I should have said something to him earlier. Second to God’s love, comfort, and peace is your husband’s. He is the person who should help you feel the most secure. Confide in him.
A pastor’s wife must overcome the fact there will be Christians who will not understand or accept this. They also need to understand that depression and the attitudes it often inspires in the hearts of Christians are a form of spiritual warfare. This lack of understanding is difficult for those affected by depression, but the fact is people who have never been through depression and have never experienced the struggles it brings cannot empathize as well as those who have. But a pastor’s wife needs to understand that their church might not be the place where she will find the healing, comfort, encouragement, and help she needs. In fact, when Glenn told church leadership of my need during this time, he was told, “Your wife is your problem.” We were both devastated by that remark and their attitude toward us.
Confidentiality and trust are also issues for the pastor’s wife. She needs to know whom she can trust. That is hard to know because sometimes those you have trusted betray you.
Explain How People Helped You.
Susan: Depression creates a situation similar to what one finds when dealing with terminal cancer. As soon as others learn someone has been diagnosed, they often start treating that person differently. This causes the ill person to back away from them. People also back away because they do not understand the illness or know how to help. But three individuals helped me.
My daughter has given me great support. She made me get dressed and go exercise. It is important to leave the house.
A high school friend who lives here in Charlotte has also given me support. Julie is like a sister to me. We would go to lunch and she would just listen. I can tell her anything and know it stays with her and that she would truly pray for me.
One other person from the congregation was supportive. We are good friends. Her husband was going through chemo, and she suffered with depression because of the overwhelming task of being a caregiver. She finally concluded that the only way she would be able to function and be there for her husband was to seek help. She decided to take medication. We had much in common. We were sisters walking side by side that shared the same struggles, but for different reasons.
She kept a journal of her experiences on 3 by 8 index cards during the time her husband struggled with cancer. She also would read God’s Word. At times she would say to me, “I just had to write this down because I knew it was for you.” These three people were the people I needed. Each person ministered to me differently.
People suffering from depression usually have limited support. That is another reason why it was important for me to cry out to God. I knew God would never fail me. One’s expectations get cut down a notch. I needed to move forward and focus on things that were ahead and not on those things that were behind. Unrealistic expectations can be easily toppled. My expectations were unrealistic. I assumed I would have gotten more support from the church. When my expectations were not met, it hurt. Yet, I had confidence in God. I knew He was going to be faithful. It is important to know God and draw strength from Him. God never allows anything in our lives that we cannot handle with His help. I knew God would bring Glenn and me through it. And He did! And He still is!
How Important Is It To Maintain A Devotional Life During Depression?
Susan: When depression begins and a person is at his lowest, he may not be able to focus or read anything. Activities you normally do without thinking become an effort. Just getting out of bed can be a tremendous struggle. To even think about brushing your teeth is difficult. Your whole thought process shuts down.
In the beginning, we received letters and phone calls from people in the congregation, our city, and even other states and countries whom we did not know. I would read the letters. Glenn would then tell me someone had called to say: “We love you. We do not know everything that is going on, but we are praying for you.”
But after reading these letters and receiving these calls, I said to Glenn, “Right now these words have no meaning to me. I do not sense the fulfillment or true meaning of those words.” Basically, they were words without any action.
I was numb. Idid not want to hear these messages because they did not minister to me. Most of my encouragement came through praying to God — just talking with Him. I would go out on our screened porch in my pajamas and stare at the trees and watch them move in the wind. In my numbness I would say to God, “I need Your help.”
God knew what was in my heart and mind. I would verbalize it to Him. I did not have devotions. If I read the Bible, there was no meaning in it for me. I do not know how else to say it. There was just nothing there. Little by little, I started to pull out of the fog and I began to see and hear the words as I tried to read.
I love the Psalms because I know David got depressed as well. His psalms are uplifting. David recorded how he cried out to God during the difficult periods of his life when he felt so wretched. That is where I was. I would pick out certain psalms and cling to the promises of God. If they are promises, it means they are true.
Little by little, I got back into regular devotions. For a few months I did not open the Bible, but I regularly talked with God. And yes, I cried and sometimes yelled, too.
God knows what we are going through. He was aware of my struggles. Then, when we come out on the other side, we can praise Him and give Him the glory. I knew everything was going to be okay, but I had to go through the process.
Rosalyn: When a pastor’s wife is going through depression, she can write down Scriptures about God’s promises, love, and forgiveness on 3 by 5 cards. Each day she can read these verses and will realize how much God loves her, how much God forgives her and accepts her, and how much God will protect her.
Many times when we are depressed we wonder if we have let people down. We wonder if we’ve let God down. We wonder if it is because we need to learn humility or to be more honest and hard-working. But when we go to God and ask for forgiveness, He is faithful. According to Psalm 103:12 and 1 John 1:9, we are forgiven. We need to understand that God doesn’t expect us to be perfect. This is why reflecting on Scripture is important.