Light in the Dark

toby slough Apr 28, 2022


Was it a perfect storm?

A global pandemic hit, our normal was rocked, the entire planet shifted and the subject of mental health was pushed to the forefront of headlines, podcasts and social media. It felt like the whole world was at the brink of a crisis like we had never seen before.

But for me, the conversations surrounding panic, anxiety and depression were not new at all. The highs and lows of good days and not-so-good days is familiar and routine. For over 30 years, I have been in a battle when it comes to my mental wellness. In the 90s, I was diagnosed with an acute panic attack and anxiety disorder.

I have spent most of my ministry talking about what it means to find freedom. I have traveled across continents sharing the message that freedom isn’t the absence of something, but it’s the presence of Someone—and that someone is Jesus. And as much as I have lived it, studied it, read about it, sought help from counselors about it, I sometimes still battle with the raging storms of mental illness. 

But 2020 was different. 

As a local church pastor, I spend many hours a week counseling men and women from my church family. I have spent Sunday mornings teaching about mental wellness. I have been very open and authentic in sharing my experiences with panic and anxiety. When I founded Cross Timbers in 2000, the first message series I taught was on recovery and how to find peace wherever you find yourself.

But in 2020, moms and dads began texting, emailing, calling and sending messages to me. I could feel the desperation on the other side of my screen as I read and listened. Pandemic stuff, I thought at first. It wasn’t long before I realized they weren’t calling looking for spiritual guidance about what they were experiencing personally. Parents were calling because they needed help for their kids. And the trends I had been noticing over the past several years were now becoming known. You see, the pandemic had exacerbated what was already there.

As recent data from the Centers for Disease Control reveals, anxiety among children and teens has been rising, with scholars and experts attributing the trend to everything from economic inequality to social media (cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/data). The months have turned into years of new realities for us all. Our kids are struggling to cope. Our families are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Our country’s healthcare systems are taxed and stressed because of the influx of newly diagnosed cases. Kids everywhere are emotionally exhausted and at the brink of irreversible bad decisions. The situation is dire.

But I am not in the “sky is falling” camp. Church, I believe we have the answer.

When I was first diagnosed, I had to learn how to communicate what I was experiencing with my wife, Mika. We were also trying to deal with how my illness impacted our two young kids. I was also leading a brand-new church that I had founded. The space I found myself in was debilitating at times. There were so few resources back then, and the subject was painfully taboo. I had few places to turn. It was a lonely and dark time in my life. I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t sleeping. And I had serious thoughts of taking my own life.

You see, I began to believe the lie that this world, my wife and my family would be better off without me. I made a promise to God that if He cured me, I would write a book and tell the world about how He lifted panic and anxiety right off me. I promised I would give Him all the credit. But that’s not how God works. I knew better. 

I was putting conditions on God, who loves me unconditionally. Pain causes us to focus on ourselves, we become our world, and everything becomes all about us. I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted, but I knew I didn’t want a life like that. I started seeing counselors. There were months when I saw them twice a week and sometimes once a week. There were seasons when I was on medication.

I leaned on close friends and met with my spiritual father. I fought the tendency to isolate myself. And I began teaching about moments when we ask God for something we desperately want, and His answer is, “Not yet.” I had a choice to make. Either I continue down a path that only leads to destruction and harm, or I ask God to help me see ways to use my experiences to help others. 

Over the years, I have prayed for people and witnessed God heal them completely. But that hasn’t been my experience. I did write a book, but it wasn’t the book I had prayed to write. It wasn’t about God’s move in my life that supernaturally healed me. Instead, it was about finding freedom from panic, anxiety, depression and other crap that tries to take us out. It is about the space between our current reality—our current circumstances, and the beautiful space of God’s healing. 

In 2020, we celebrated our 20th birthday at Cross Timbers. I released Not Yet to kick off the year and wrote series to go along with the book. As I wrapped up that series, I was looking for a message illustration about the transforming power of God’s work in our lives. I didn't want to use the salmon fish—that one doesn’t end well anyway. In my research, I learned about the goby fish. This little fish lives in Hawaii. It is born in saltwater and then makes its way up the mountains to live its best life in the freshwater streams. In the swim up the streams of the mountains, the jaws of these fish elongate so that they can use their mouths to help them up the rocks in the streambeds. Transformation for the goby fish happens in the most challenging moment of his life, and his most fabulous life is just on the other side of his upstream swim.

I watched a few videos on YouTube about how to draw a fish. I drew pictures of the goby fish like a cartoon. I storyboarded the life of a goby fish swimming upstream, sharing the important points to remembering that God is always with him, always keeping our eyes on the Son and never forgetting that helping others along the way is a good thing. When I finished the message, men were crying in the room. People came up to me and said, “You should write a kids’ book!”

The days of lockdown provided me the opportunity to really work on that kids’ book! I created the story of Toby the Goby with the central message that we can change the target of what winning looks like when it comes to mental health. God uses our darkest times for good. He uses the chaos and uncertainty in a way only He can do. The message of Toby the Goby is that change is possible in the middle of life’s most challenging moments. 

Mika and I also created an organization dedicated to reframing the conversations regarding mental wellness. We are committed to resourcing families with tools to help kids swim upstream. Our mission is to share Toby the Goby’s message with kids and students from all over the world, from all walks of life.  I believe this movement can normalize the conversation regarding mental health. I want to connect with others and use my own story to help people where I used to be. I want people to know that they aren't alone, that God is always with them. Turns out it was a perfect storm for a guy, a fish, and a battle to find freedom in the not-yet moments of life.

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