A few years ago, Brian Johnson had an experience that changed his life.
The worship leader and co-founder of Bethel Music had a panic attack that sent his life into a spiral. In his new book, When God Becomes Real, Johnson talks about the 6-month long nervous breakdown that ensued, and how he eventually found hope, healing and a message for others facing mental health issues.
RELEVANT: Tell me a little bit why you wanted to write this book.
You know, my team and Jen, my wife, were really encouraging me to write the story. It was nothing short of a miracle getting out of that season. I think it brings a lot of hope. When I shared [my story] at church, it ended up being the number-one watched message for the year. That showed us people are really wanting this and needing this, because a lot of people struggle with depression, anxiety, hopelessness.
When we jumped into it I started realizing there’s actually quite a lot that would be a real help for people. The music is what I do professionally, but this book feels more pure to me. We did this as a pure ministry move to help people who are struggling with anxiety and depression and all of those things.
In the book you talk about having a panic attack. How would you describe that experience to someone who hasn’t gone through that?
It’s an otherworldly feeling. It kind of takes over your body. You can’t breathe, can’t think straight—that’s a scary one—when your mind is not working, that’s pretty paralyzing. The sense of hopelessness is so strong that you just can’t reason it away. It’s all consuming. The word hell becomes very real. Not that you’re going to hell, but to me, that’s what hell would be like.
For me the bigger thing was the nervous breakdown. It ended up being a bigger thing than just one panic attack. Something was actually broken in me. Through six months of trying to work with people and the medications and different things and the miracle of how it all ended and how God broke through…that’s the story I really would love to tell. I really feel like there is hope for people. It felt so impossible, and God brought me out of it.
Why do you think this experience gave you this new form of exposure to God’s presence?
Well I think it just reassures you He is all powerful, all knowing, in control of everything. We say that, but we don’t really know it, right? It’s like information versus revelation. When God becomes your only option you have a revelation of who He really is. When I was a kid, worship got me through panic attacks, but in the nervous breakdown season, reading the Bible over and over is what helped my mind heal. The combination of the worship and the Word became so real.
How has your view of God changed in terms of how he interacts with you in your daily life?
I think there’s a backbone God gave me in that season. I know a few things have happened since then there’s no way I would have been able to get through if I didn’t go through the [nervous breakdown] season. It’s almost like a gift. We go through these impossible things and then God proves He’s God. He’s faithful and it reassures that strength in us.
If someone is dealing with anxiety or depression or panic attacks and is really feeling hopeless right now, what would you say to them in this moment?
First thing, I would say you’re not alone and you’re going to be okay. It’s not just mind over matter. You’re not alone and God doesn’t lie. The Bible says trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. And I think sharing with the right people is really important. Getting it off your chest, getting people around you that can be there for you to pray for you. The community we had really prayed for me during that season and I think all of those things really helped. Word, worship and the community.
Was this difficult to revisit in this much detail?
In some ways. It’s not difficult for me to tell the story. One of my core values is to be true and real and I really want that to be a part of the ministry. But I will say talking through some of the drama brought up some fences and things I had to relive.
Another thing I was going to say I want to make sure to highlight: I did take medication. I encourage people that are really going through, it if they need medical attention, to seek medical attention. I think people get addicted to certain meds, and I know what that feels like because I had to wean myself off a certain thing, but I will say a sedative really helped me at certain times where I thought if I didn’t have it, I’d have been back in the hospital. To remove the stigma of doctors and medication: I needed it for part of the time. Just thought I would put it in there.
As a culture, we’re starting to understand mental health in a new way. Do you hope this book will challenge the way some Christians view mental health?
Yeah, I think so. I think part of the problem is the shame that wraps itself around that whole thing. It’s a gift from God when He’s your only option and He steps in and performs a miracle, but at the same time, we should remove the shame and give grace for people to see a doctor. We go to counseling for marriage, we go to counseling for personal stuff. If you had a broken arm and didn’t fix it, it would be cruel, and for me, this was physical for a time and I needed medicine. The doctor even told me that.
A lot of people will know you as a songwriter. Has this affected your career as a worship leader in any way?
For sure. I would hang onto songs like my life depended on it in some moments. Praise isn’t praise unless faith is attached to it, these moments of feeling the opposite [of a song] but speaking out the words. There was a song Jason Ingram and I had been working on in that season called “Greater Than All Other Names.” He had a recording of him playing it on the piano and—I’m not kidding—I listened to this little demo for like eight hours a day for six months. Just that one thing over and over. There was power on it, a reminder. It highlighted the importance of praise yet again for sure.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.