Interview with Bonnie Keen with Christian Book Previews' editor, Debra Murphy:
CBP: Can you share with us your Christian testimony?
Bonnie: I grew up in Nashville, I'm a native, in a very legalistic church. There was no music, no choir, none of that. That was the only thing I was good at, was singing, I was in First Call for a long time, and I sing and write and have my own CDs. I grew up doing theater, studying classical music, but I grew up with this fear of God. There was no grace or mercy taught to me, it was just like carrying around a ball and chain. It's what I was taught. Everybody else was going to hell, which was a horrible way to grow up. I think when I look back, I began having migraine headaches when I was 6 years old. You know the whole thing where the room got dark, and I was sick to my stomach. I was setting myself up for having some sort of depression later in life. I was being set up as well as having a genetic background to it.
I left home about seventeen, being on the road with bands singing in clubs. I was a little Christian Doris Day, just sweet little girl going to my room every night by myself. But I didn't know anything about Christian music until I was in my early twenties, and was asked to tour with a young girl named Amy Grant. I had never heard of her. (laughing) I said, "Send me your music." Sure, I was doing KLOVE commercials, modeling, I didn't know what God wanted me to do, but I knew it would probably be in the arts.
God very mercifully lead me through it into a path where I got to sing with Amy, and then go on the road with Russ Taft. And then I got married and had my kids, and First Call started traveling. Of course, we had quite a bit of success. About 11 years into my marriage, I found out my ex-husband was seeing someone else and in love with her. It is an all too familiar story for some people, but I ended up in that loser category of divorce, and I never thought that would happen to me. I didn't know what to do, I didn't have a choice of what would happen, except to move ahead.
My children were 2- and 6-years-old at the time, so I went about five years being a single mom. At first I didn't want anyone to know publicly, because I thought they look at artists on stage and they think you've got it together. I'm telling you -- I don't know many that do not struggle in some area of their life just because we're all human beings. And we all need Christ, and we all need that grace every day.
About five years after my divorce, and I'd been going about one step forward and two steps back, trying to date again: abysmal failure. Relationships broken, you name it. Then First Call went through a real horrible breaking, where we were involved in a national scandal that tore the group apart -- over the same issues that broke my marriage up. And I began to question what was going on. I went into a real serious, clinical, chemical depression. I didn't know what depression was, so I got help. My pastor helped me, got me to a really great doctor, got counseling. And I talk about all three of those areas in my book. I think physically, spiritually, and emotionally you need to get help.
I began to learn what depression was, and when I go out to speak and sing, and I mention it, all these people come flooding up saying, "I want some information, I need some help. For my family, or somebody has killed themselves, or I'm going through this and I don't want to tell anyone in the church, because the church doesn't understand. What can I do?" And really, quite honestly, this is the most difficult project I've ever worked on, including songwriting. I didn't want to write about it because it was so personal, I guess the shame issues are still lurking in there in my head.
I just wanted to give an overview to people suffering with depression, so they'd know they weren't alone. And to anyone dealing with a family member, to say, "This is what it is." Because if you haven't been through it it's hard to understand, and I don't know that I would. But there's hope for all of us, because Christ died for all disease, and depression wasn't left off of that cross.
CBP: Sometimes I think that they don't know what it really is, so they simplify it. They say, "Put a rubber band around your head and snap out of it."
Bonnie: That's what people told me, my closest family members said snap out of it, you're a type A, do-it-all girl. I can't snap out of it, and I was just crying all the time. And it scared me, because I was always so push ahead. My pastor said, "Bonnie, I've seen you go through loss after loss in your life, and you barrel through it. I wondered when you were going to hit the wall. You've hit the wall now, so get some help."
CBP: So we pretty much touched on your career opportunities, and that's incredible.
Bonnie: Yes, I've been very blessed to have a great opportunity in my life, both in the recording studio, singing background vocals. First Call sang for years, commercials, I sang backgrounds for Garth Brooks' record a couple of years ago. I sang for Barry Manilow. I mean, all these really interesting artist as well as some main Christian artists. And just to travel with just tremendous people, and learn about what Christian music is. Now to write, and be able to express my faith is terrific.
CBP: You were reluctant to turn to writing, but it has been a healing process for you?
Bonnie: Yes, songwriting has been an ongoing part of my life. Songwriting is a different muscle than writing a book. This is my third book, and Harvest has been very good to mentor me through this process. I journal a lot, and have my whole life. My first book was taken from my journals for ten years, with the divorce, the single parenting. I do now really love writing, both songs and in book, because it gives voice to both. I know some people like to read and some don't listen to music as much. I try to weave them together when I do speaking engagements.
CBP: You touched on certain topics like events that led to the start, like the feeling of guilt.
Bonnie: I think I was fed guilt every night at dinner, you know, "Here's your mashed potatoes, here's your meatloaf, and here's your guilt." I was raised feeling like God would never be pleased with me. So I always felt guilty, even though I tried so hard, and all of us do, to meet up to what we can't meet up to without the blood of Christ. I always felt this weight. I was delivered out of that theology when I left home in my teens, and I really began to study the Word of God personally by myself. I thought, "You know, some of this stuff I've been told, I don't see in here anywhere." In fact, I've seen quite the opposite. I see a merciful God, and a God grace who sent Himself in the body of Christ to me. That was what healed me from all those years. But I still have to rewind those tapes and try to erase them, they're still in my head. I think depression, for people of faith, they think, "I'm supposed to have the joy of the Lord as my strength, I'm supposed to see every day as the day the Lord has made and I will rejoice and be glad in it." When you're in a depression where all you see is loss, there are many factors that lead to that. With your body being out of whack, and your thought processes being out of whack, there's a tremendous sense of guilt, "Why am I not celebrating my faith?" Interestingly enough, I found instances of great women and men of faith who had tremendous feelings of dispair and doubt.
CBP: You have page after page of references to that, and I looked at this and thought that's right. What about how you felt that you would just settle for anything. I look at you now and cannot believe that.
Bonnie: (laughing) Well, you know we all look at ourselves in a different way. My sweet daddy's in heaven now, he graduated a couple of years ago from Alzheimer's, and he was a gentle man, a very southern gentleman. But was never involved in my life. My mom was the opposite extreme, just totally living her life through me in some ways. But I needed my dad, I think every woman needs a father figure to say, "You look great" or "Who are you going out with?" or "What are you doing?" My dad never asked me anything about myself.
CBP: I think in your book you touch on that.
Bonnie: I was pretty open about that.
CBP: For readers, that's incredible just knowing that you talk about that. That might be a real thing for so many of us.
Bonnie: You know, that's interesting. I've done a lot of interviews, and you're the second person that's picked up on that as something that a lot of people will probably relate to.
CBP: Especially for women. You refer to a ladder -- people need visualizations.
Bonnie: I think everybody has a ladder in their life that they're climbing. Our ladders are all made up of what we believe is truth, maybe expectations that we have for life. When your ladder suddenly, the rungs start to break, like for me, divorce was never a possibility. The ladder started to fall apart over my ministry, I was in debt over my head, I had been in and out of relationships that were not right for me, I wanted a second marriage, I wanted God to show me His will. But everything seemed to be going just totally askew. I finally just fell from my ladder.
For me, my ladder was made up of expectations that weren't realistic. I think for many people of faith, I know I was one of them and I still tend to be, that think A plus B (Loving God+Serving God+Trying to do my best) equal C. And it doesn't. We don't live in heaven yet. We're not home. We live in a fallen garden, and A+B usually equals Q or something bizzare. So what do we do when we hit the ladders that break.
There was a huge season for me just saying, "God are you really there? Do you really care what's going on?" I don't get mad at God, but I can fell that God isn't really interested. Which is a lie. It isn't anywhere in the Word.
CBP: You thought your ladder was built on truth but...
Bonnie: It was built on expectations and things that, yeah, it wasn't solidly built on the fact that no matter what I go through, that Christ will never let go of me. It was so interesting, when I went through the questions, that is the proof. I remember, I was crying so much, I can't eat, I can't sleep, all I think about is loss, I don't want to be alive anymore. I told my pastor, "I just want to go to heaven." Except I had these two little kids that needed me. But the darker it got around me, the closer I felt to God. It was a strange and wonderful paradox.
I remember sensing Jesus saying, "This is exactly where I came and died, for these dark moments when you don't know what you're going to do." They're not just for the light, and I learned how to praise to God in the dark. I knew how to praise him in the light, but I learned how to praise him and thank him in the darkness, which was an awesome experience. And I still struggle with depression, so it's a highly personal, ongoing situation in my life. But I know now what to do, and I'll never, hopefully, be in that darkness again. Shades of grey perhaps.
CBP: In your book, you talk about what depression is, because it's a multitude of things. For our readers, that's a very Christian way to approach what is depression. Could you highlight for us what depression is?
Bonnie: Depression really is, I think, a chemical imbalance in our brains. I like simple things: mood messengers. I mean it's seratonin, and all these other words. I often say, because it really came true for me, that when prisoners are being interrogated they disrupt their sleep patterns and they disrupt their eating patterns and light deprivation. They use this on people to totally mess up their thinking pattern. So when you're in a depression, and your body goes into a place where either you sleep too much or you don't sleep enough, you can't get out of bed, or you eat too much, or for me, I couldn't eat. When I all I saw was loss, and my circumstances defined me, not God's truths, when everything's flatlined, I don't have any joy in things that gave me joy, when I just didn't care if I lived or died, that cycle feeds itself. My thinking was all skewed. By the time I got help, and most people get help, our thinking has become so off base, we're so way below zero that we have to get help. Spiritually people will pray for us. Physically some people need to be on medication, I did, I had to be on it. I'm now on a very small dose--I'll just say it--I didn't want to be on it when I wrote the book.
CBP: That helps other people to become comfortable, that should their doctor need to prescribe it for them, you help us from a Christian basis to really understand that.
Bonnie: That was one of the things I prayed very much about. There's a lot of controversy about medication, and I certainly don't believe in over medicating. I believe you need a really godly doctor that you're accountable to. If you're somebody, for more than two or three weeks has had they symptoms I've just described, and you're isolated and you don't want to be around people. If you just can't think of anything worth getting out of bed for, seriously. I cried for weeks. I cried at the grocery story, and just could not stop crying, which is a symptom of clinical depression.
But I want to ask, I would first seek somebody and say, "Will you pray for me? You don't have to fix me, just pray for me. I'm in a really bad place." And I hope that would be someone in your church or a friend who would pray for you. And then, say to your doctor, "Do I need to look into possibly being on something for a little while?" A lot of people can be on something just long enough to get them back where they can fight again. For some people it's just getting more sunlight, getting artificial sunlight machines. But for some of us, like me, and for people with bipolar and very serious issues, we live in a time and an age where we can take a pill that will give you the ability to fight, to pray, to love, to serve. It doesn't make me high, it doesn't make me wanna bounce off walls, I can just cope.
CBP: But our bodies are operating on chemicals, and your chemicals are not in balance. We are not real natural like we were a hundred years ago, in our foods, etc. We have more stress than they did then, and you have to understand that you can't rob yourself of the correct chemicals. But you're right, sometimes it's getting back to where you can fight again.
Bonnie: I really appreciate what you just said, because I think at the beginning of the book I mention that we were created for a garden where there was no pollution and there was no 9-11's and no Columbines. We don't live in that garden anymore. Now we have Christ who's restored to us the hope of what's to come, and we have the hope. But for some people, this side of heaven, that go through tremendous losses, or chemically are just wired differently. We can turn on the news and in one hour's time can see more loss than people used to know about in a month's time. I don't think we were emotionally wired to take in what happens in this world. So I'm not surprised to see depression at an epidemic, because we were wired for love and for life and for walking with our Father every day. We have to really hold onto that and not look down our noses at people who cave in sometimes.
CBP: How did it affect your family?
Bonnie: Oh, it affects your family so much. I remember thinking I have got to get it together because my daughter was ten, Courtney. She actually wrote a little bit in the book. My son was six, and it was Christmas time, and I had been on the Young Messiah tour. I had gone down into the pit and didn't know what was happening. When I got off the road, I went straight to my pastor and my doctor and tried to get help.
My daughter especially has got these wise eyes, and we've always said that she can tell when something's wrong. And all children can pick up when something's wrong with their mom. She walked up to me, I remember, and said, "Mommy, are you dying?" And I was kind of shocked, and I said, "No, honey." She said, "Well, you act like you are." And so I thought I'd better figure out how to explain to my kids why I am like this. Because they're used to mom that can do all things, and mom that keeps going, and there's mom just sitting.
So I sat she and her brother down and I said, and I think the Lord helped me with what to say, and I said, "When you get sick and when you get the flu, or you get a virus, sometimes we take you to the doctor and you get medicine and stay home from school for a little while. You rest, and you get better. It's kind of like my heart has the flu. Doctors are helping me, people are praying for me, and I may be a little tired right now, but I'm going to be alright." Well that kind of satisfied her, but I did notice that my son, who was six years old, was fine. He was strong until about five months later I started getting better, he had a time for about a month where he fell apart. Cried and cried, wouldn't let go of my leg, wouldn't go to school. I called a counselor and asked what was going on, and he said that he's having a delayed reaction to being afraid of losing you. You know, it was interesting at six years old how primal that was. But my daughter has had her own episodes of depression, she's now 22, and is a wonderful dean's-list, amazing, one of my best friends in the world.
On my mother's side of the family we discovered there were many women, one had been institutionalized with depression. And my great-great aunt finally told me about this, no one had told me. I was predisposed genetically, and she had some of that in her. She's had to take an anti-depressant from time to time. She's gone to a counselor and talked about issues from our divorce, and how that affected her, that was a huge loss for her in her life. I'm real proud of her for facing all that. But it does affect your family.
CBP: I want to close with Helen Keller's quote which you included, "Thank God for my handicaps, for through them I have found myself, my worth, and my God. What did you find?"
Bonnie: It inspires me.
CBP: Was your depression a gift?
Bonnie: It was a gift. That is a strange thing to say. If you're someone suffering with depression and you hear that, you probably want to punch me in the face. If you're in the beginning stages. Maybe later on. I began to realize that as Christ said, "I give you my Holy Spirit as a gift," that the Holy Spirit of God was inside of me. Depression in the Greek means being pressed down. I felt so pressed, depressed. I realized that the Holy Spirit was being pressed with me, so there was some jewel of God being formed in me, because as I was pressed down, so was the Holy Spirit of God. And I see now, that God never lets anything be wasted. Never! In His economy nothing is wasted, not one tear, not one bad thing we go through, and I thank Him for that every day.
Now I can go out, with my little book, with my experiences and all the losses, with a divorce, everything, I can go out to people and say, "God is a Redeemer. God hears you no matter how dark it gets. There's another side to it where you see the light." You can look back and know that was something God used to show me how much He loved me. That's really hard to know that at the time, but I see it as something that helped me understand myself better, and has given me something that I can offer other people, and that's surprising.
CBP: You are an absolute delight, and thank you for sharing.