Falling Into Darkness
About the Guest
Tommy Nelson, the pastor of Denton Bible Church in Denton, Texas, along with his wife, Teresa, talk about his recent bout with clinical depression that left him feeling numb and confused.
Tommy and Teresa NelsonSince 1977, Tommy Nelson has been the Pastor of Denton Bible Church, located in Denton, Texas. He has been featured on Focus on the Family, FamilyLife Today, Josh McDowell, For Faith and Family, and other national broadcasts. He has a Master of Arts degree in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary. Tommy has been married to Teresa Nelson for more than 25 years. They have two adult sons, Benjamin and John.
Tommy Nelson, the pastor of Denton Bible Church in Denton, Texas, along with his wife, Teresa, talk about his recent bout with clinical depression that left him feeling numb and confused.
Falling Into Darkness
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, December 16th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. Tommy and Teresa Nelson join us today to talk about what happened the day the big draft horse went down. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Wednesday edition. We’re going to talk about what happens when a—
Dennis: —draft horse goes down.
Bob: Yes. It can be—this can be a tough season of the year for families, going through the Christmas season—
—there can be challenges that families face.
Dennis: And the question is—for a family: “Who do you go to? What’s your trusted source for counsel, advice, encouragement around the issues you face in your marriage and family?” And I’ve got to tell you, Bob, with our six kids—and five of them with a bunch of growing families—and they are in the midst of raising them in what is the most challenging day, I think, that has ever existed in our country. I just started listing down—and these are why we do what we do:
We want to help men understand how to better love and lead their wives and family spiritually.
We want to help dads interview their daughter’s date—[Laughter] —that gets the guys nodding—and how you can train your sons to know what to do when girls are aggressive, sexually.
We want to help women be all that God created them to be and know what it means to be a woman.
Then, when it comes to training your kids, I just jotted down some of the broadcasts we’ve done recently, Bob:
Screens and Teens—no doubt about it / helping your child navigate social media and the traps that are on this little bitty screen—they can be life altering. There are the sexual identity issues of manhood/womanhood, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, transgender.
I mean, there are all these issues coming at us. What we’ve designed FamilyLife Today to be and what we’ve designed it to do—is to give you the biblical perspective to anchor opinions and convictions, out of the Bible, to help you know how to just, not merely survive, but how to thrive and how to build your family to make a difference in this culture.
But to do that, we need a special group of people who are heroes. These are heroes that want to make a difference in other people’s marriages and families—they want to bring help and hope to other people’s homes.
That’s why, this month, we’ve got a special invitation and a special challenge for people to give as they’ve never given before. If there has ever been a time for you to give, as never before, it’s today.
Bob: Well, and the month of December is a critical month for ministries like ours. In our case, more than a third of the revenue we need to operate the ministry comes in during the month of December—or it doesn’t come in—and we have to recalibrate our year based on what happens in December.
We’ve had some friends of the ministry, who have come along and said, “We want your December to be really strong this year.” So, they have agreed that, if a radio listener will make a donation, they will match that donation two-to-one. You make a donation of $100 / they’ll kick in $200; and we’ll wind up with a total of $300 given to the ministry at that point. They’ll do that up to $2 million. We’re trying to take full advantage of this matching-gift opportunity. You can go online at FamilyLifeToday.com and make a donation; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to donate.
Either way, your donation is going to qualify for this matching-gift opportunity; and you’re going to help us take full advantage of the match. We do hope to hear from you.
Dennis: And here is what I want you to know, as a listener—when you give, your generosity changes lives, it touches marriages, it corrects families. It, ultimately, has an impact for generations to come.
Will you stand with us as we stand alongside you and your marriage and family? Will you come help us change the world? I was challenged to do that, Bob, back in 1970, when I joined the staff of Cru®: “Come help change the world.”
Dennis: Do you know what? We’re still trying to do it, and we want to invite you to become a hero and change the world.
Bob: Well, again, you can give online at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to make a yearend contribution in support of this ministry.
Now, we want to dive into what we are going to hear today.
We had a conversation, a while back, with a pastor and his wife—Tommy and Teresa Nelson. Tommy is the pastor at Denton Bible Church, just north of Dallas. He has served there faithfully for decades. He’s a great Bible teacher. Yet, a number of years ago, he hit a bump in his ministry. He and Teresa came up and talked with us about what was, really, an emotional breakdown for Tommy. He was diagnosed, eventually, with clinical depression.
[Previously Recorded Interview]
Tommy: If you had asked me what depression was—I could not have told you. I have been 35 years, almost, in the ministry and have been through rough times / tough times; but if you'd asked me about depression, I would have said, “Well, you need to go take a nap, memorize Scripture, and quit being depressed.” And that's probably what 90-plus percent of all evangelical pastors in the—what—I’m on the Dallas Seminary Board—I know my stuff.
I’ve been through Dallas Seminary, but I didn’t really know what people went through when they got hit with—physically, going through a depression.
Dennis: Teresa, you’d watched Tommy in ministry for more than three decades; and you’d been through a lot of things in your marriage and family. He shared some of those things, here on FamilyLife Today. Would you have ever described your husband as being someone who ever struggled with depression until this hit?
Teresa: No. I don’t think he did struggle with depression until this hit; but I think, maybe, he had been kind of—if you want to say—revving up to it for a few years, just from stress; but it didn’t show itself.
Tommy: There was no reason for it—overtly—I mean, it wasn’t like a sin, it wasn’t like worry, and it wasn’t like this or that. It was—basically, Dennis, it was overwork. Depression comes from stress, and it can be stress at an event.
Sometimes, there are huge things that can happen to you; and then, other times, there’s just stress that comes in the ministry.
Guys in the ministry are the worst about it because we deal with struggles. Sometimes, if you deal with them over and over—long, long, long, years and years—and you never really take time off / but you just keep doing more, and more, and more—at some point, your body is going to stop you and say: “That’s all. We’re not going to do that anymore.”
Dennis: I think you’ll take this in the right way—but because you’ve been on the broadcast a number of times—
Dennis: —and our ministry has partnered with you on a number of occasions, we’ve followed—both Bob and I—have followed your ministry with great delight. We’ve known of some of the things you’ve done. The Bible study—what’s it called—Metro?
Tommy: Yes, we did that for seven years—2,000 people in Bible study.
Dennis: Yes, just this massive Bible study, and then your discipleship group—
Tommy: The Young Guns—yes.
Dennis: You take the Young Guns and meet with them at six in the morning.
Tommy: —four mornings a week / 500 hours of Bible.
Dennis: And leading a church—how big is your church? How many people attending?
Tommy: There are about 3,500 people who show up on Sunday.
Dennis: And I have to tell you—
Bob: Now, wait—Song of Solomon conferences all around the country.
Tommy: Ten Song of Solomon conferences a year to about 2,000 people a pop.
Dennis: A little writing on the side.
Tommy: A little writing on the side.
Dennis: A little family on the side.
Tommy: Yes, two grown sons / two grandkids.
Dennis: Yes, there you go.
Tommy: I struggled with elation more than depression. I just loved what I was doing.
Dennis: Yes, but I peered back in from a distance; and I go, “Some guys are bionic, and they can just do it.” And we were not judging you—I’ve got more in my own life that I can judge than to have time to go judge you—but I just wondered, “How could you do it all?!”
Bob: How did you keep the pace up?
Dennis: How did you keep the pace up?
Tommy: I did it because I loved it. I would run four miles a day / lift weights every day—plus everything else I did just out of pure love—I loved what I was doing.
Dennis: How many hours a night did you sleep?
Tommy: I would go—I’d go to bed—I’d crash at about 10/10:30.
Then, I was always up at 5—never would I sleep past 5. Usually, I’d get up about 4 because I was excited about that day—because at 6, I got to handle the Word with 40 top guys. And so, at 6, I would take off and teach until 7. Then, I would usually go and answer emails. Then, I would go work out; and then, I’d come back and usually take a nap in the afternoon. Then, you know, get ready for a weekend conference and head off on a Friday—do three times Friday night / three times Saturday morning. Come back—four times on Sunday on preaching—
Tommy: —get up and go—6 a.m. I loved it just because—just the idea of the gospel—being expended for the gospel was wonderful.
Dennis: Oh, yes.
Tommy: And I was doing stuff at that Romans conference. I was in the middle of getting ready to video Romans; and I was just living for that when it hit me, sitting in a chair—
Tommy: Are you going to stop me now?
Dennis: I want to stop you before you talk about the chair because I want to turn to Teresa.
Barbara, in my life, has what I call “anchors.”
And when I’ve outrun my coverage—pushed it past the margins—she has this unmistakable way of throwing out anchors. They usually hit me in the head because it’s got to get my attention. While this was all going on, did Teresa throw out anchors?
Teresa: Yes—and looking back at it, I think that’s why—somebody said, “Well, didn’t you see it coming?” And I’d go: “Not like it hit him but in his unwillingness to listen to what I was saying.” That was different because Tommy always valued my opinion, or my counsel, or whatever; but he had—I mean, it was like he had closed ears. I was saying: “You’re doing too much. Don’t take that. Why do you want to do it?”
Yes, he would say, “I love to do it”; but I’d say, “It’s too much,”—and he wasn’t listening. That’s why I think he was already ramping up to what really happened to him.
Bob: Do you remember these conversations she’s talking about?
Tommy: Oh, yes, I did. I walked—I very rarely ever—Teresa has enormous wisdom—and I walked past a couple of things that she said. She was nice to me because she’s a motivated—I mean, Teresa burns on all cylinders / so we run the race together—but in retrospect, she would never try to hold me back; but she was cautioning me. I just went ahead on. If I had listened to her, it probably wouldn't have hit me.
Dennis: Leading up to that moment in the chair, when Tommy realized he was in trouble, did you see signs that said: “Whoa! Something is going on here”?
Bob: Not just that he was busy—but did you see things starting to come through?
Teresa: Yes, like anger—I mean, not just all the time / but the little things making him angry. Maybe, irritated would be better—that there was just irritation like—
—and things that would come in to alter maybe his schedule or whatever—those were kind of irritating. So, I did—I began to see little things—but until we were in the hospital and he started saying, “I’ve got”—well, we weren’t in the hospital, but at the doctor's office, where he said, “I have got to go to the hospital.”
That’s when I knew something was not right with Tommy because it wasn’t, “I need to go to the hospital to…”—you know, whatever. It was, “I’ve got to go there to sleep because I’m not sleeping.” And in my eyes, Tommy was sleeping. So, it was just like it was unreal to me that he was so—I don’t know—just wanted to go to the hospital to get well.
Tommy: It’s like your accelerator is hung.
Teresa: And it was.
Tommy: And my accelerator was hung with the emergency brake on—that’s what the experience is.
Dennis: So, you’re looking at the tachometer—you see the RPMs are way over there—
Dennis: —but the wheels are slipping.
Tommy: You can’t stop. You just—you are intent—it’s like your body—it’s not like you’ve got a mental problem—with giving way to stuff. I mean, your body gets hung with an adrenaline mode and you just shutdown.
Teresa: We thought he had allergies, or sinus infections, or something—
Tommy: Because I’d get flu-like—
Teresa: —because there was something flu-like going on with him.
Tommy: —my body would hurt. What it was—was adrenaline.
Teresa: I saw panic in him or panic to get a medication that the doctor—I mean, you know, to where it was causing conflict between us because I didn’t recognize—and there was no reason to recognize because I didn’t know what it was / what was really going on with him—but it was like a panic to get medication.
Tommy: And my body wouldn’t behave. I was pushing it to do this stuff,—
Teresa: Yes, he couldn’t control—
Tommy: —and my body was shutting down. Like a big tree, it was creaking and falling; and it wouldn’t cooperate.
Teresa: I saw he was totally out of control—and not isolated—but where he was so preoccupied.
Teresa: Yes—and like—because he was already thinking: “What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with me?”—like he couldn’t hear / he couldn’t relate. As it progressed, it got worse and worse to where he couldn’t enjoy the kids, the grandkids, anybody.
Tommy: The thing was—you don’t really—when something like that hits you—in my case anyway—there was really acute clinical—where your body shuts down, and you don’t know what it is.
They tested me for diabetes.
Tommy: They thought tumors. They thought stroke. They thought diabetes—trying to find out what it is. All my blood comes back perfect. All the urinalysis—it’s perfect. All the MRIs / all the x-rays—I’m perfect. But I know something has happened to me, but you don't know what it is that it’s produced. All I can say is—and every guy that’s been through this knows what I’m talking about—when I say, “Your accelerator is hung.”
The guy explained it to me—because I had sat down with some specialists in it. They said—and here is the layman’s translation—is that, when you go through intense stress, your body produces adrenaline. Just like when the jack slips and the car falls on somebody, you pick it up—alright—now, your adrenaline hits. You produce, they said, what is called cortisol from stress. That’s okay here and there, here and there, here and there.
Bob: A little shot of that—right.
Tommy: But the fellow said: “When you do that continually / when you’re always in that stress adrenaline mode, what happens is—that cortisol shuts down the leading neurotransmitter in your body that’s called serotonin that”—he said—“was kind of like”— and the specialist told me / he said, “—it’s like oil to a car.” Your central nervous system works on this. When it’s depleted, what you experience is the phenomenon of depression and of anxiety—they’re the same coin / different sides—and they come and go.
It’s when your body is stuck; and then, it shuts down into depression.
The scary thing is you don’t know what it is. All you can do is start pulling back on the stuff, but your body won’t respond immediately. It’s not like you can stop on Friday and feel better Monday. You have to shut down, sometimes, for a year.
Spurgeon had it, Luther had it, Alfred Lord Tennyson had it, Sir Isaac Newton had it, and Charlotte Bronte had it. It’s just amazing the people that have had it. In the old days, they called it, melancholy; but there is something—it’s not discouragement / there is something wrong with you. What’s scary is you don't know what it is.
Dennis: You know, I recently had a physical. I went to my doctor, and we just had a lengthy conversation about a lot of matters related to life. After we’d pretty much finished my physical, he began to talk about what he was observing in other people. He was talking about how stress today—
Dennis: —that most—it was like 90 percent of the illnesses he saw, as a physician—9-0 were related to stress.
And I think, as a culture, we do get addicted to adrenaline—
Dennis: —and to the next event, and the next thing, and the next thing. Even in the ministry, I mean—Bob knows—there is a tremendous honor, privilege, sanctified moment, where God uses a broken pot to minister to other broken pots and helps them. There is that elation that you spoke of.
Bob: Kind of a spiritual rush.
Dennis: Yes. And you can get addicted to that over a period of time. If you’re not careful, as you just described, there is a payback.
Bob: Well, and that’s what I’m trying—am I hearing you right? Because I’m hearing you say, “This came on me,” but I’m also hearing you say,—
Tommy: Ramping up after a while.
Bob: —“I brought this on me.”
Tommy: Yes. I can look, in retrospect, and see three years before—
—it was a continual putting myself in unrelenting pushing, without any rest—is what did it. I could see it happening over about three years; but it did hit me, literally, in a moment. My body said, “That's all.”
Bob: In that process of kind of going for the stress—going after this stuff—did you let any of your spiritual disciplines slide?
Tommy: No. Reading the Bible was my love/my joy. And so—
Bob: —beyond just the vocational side of it.
Tommy: Yes. And vocationally, I did everything that I should have done. I was reading my Bible, and loving what I was doing; but—
Bob: But it doesn’t sound like there were a lot of Sabbaths in your life.
Tommy: Oh, no. There were no Sabbaths. I was—I am an effort guy. I love being stretched. The old Vince Lombardi deal of life being “lying, exhausted, in victory on a field of battle”—I love it! I love being pushed like that.
Also, I’m a quarterback—I was a quarterback in high school/college.
So, you’ve got 30 seconds in the huddle—nobody talks but me; alright? I love being in control. [Laughter] You walk up to the line. Nobody moves until you all bow. I want everybody to bow. Then, I wipe my hands on your rear end, and nobody moves in the stadium until I say. So, being a pastor and being a quarterback are great complements. [Laughter]
And Teresa, to be honest, is the same kind of person. Her father was the same kind of person. Teresa is driven. If I had died, she’d have grieved two or three hours;—
Teresa: Not true.
Tommy: —and then she’d have been on her way—maybe a day and she’d be on her way. She is an old-school Texan. So, we both love producing. I didn’t like stopping for stuff.
Bob: Are you living differently today than you were?
Tommy: Oh, gracious! I had to get rid of about 70 percent of what I was doing.
Bob: So, you’ve made some adjustments?
Tommy: I’m a typical preacher now—it’s disgusting.
Dennis: We’re going to come back and talk more about that. Tommy, forgive me because I do not want to—in wrapping today’s broadcast up here—I don’t want to simplify or quickly spiritualize—
—but there is a message that you just sent a lot of people. There is a reason for Sabbath rest.
Dennis: And we do need to embrace that aspect of God’s Word. Quite honestly, I may not be a draft horse, like you; but I’m married to a wife—she communicates to me, Teresa, over and over and over again about Sabbath rest—setting a day apart, getting an island in the midst of the activity, in the midst of the pace of life. We didn’t do it perfectly. You know what? She would jerk my chain when I’d go too far. There has been occasion—because, like Teresa, Barbara is pretty goal-oriented herself—and I’d need to pull her back.
But there is a great lesson for all of us—whether or not you struggle with depression or regardless of your lifestyle—you need to honor what God told us to honor in the Ten Commandments—
—setting apart a day and honoring Him.
Bob: Yes. We had an opportunity—this was not that long ago—we sat down with a medical doctor, Dr. Charles Hodges, and talked about the difference between just being sad about something and real clinical depression. He’s written a book called Good Mood Bad Mood: Help and Hope for Depression and Bipolar Disorder. We’ve got copies of Dr. Hodges’ book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center.
In fact, if you’d like to listen to the interview we did with Dr. Hodges, we’ve got a link available to that interview as well. Go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, if you’d like to listen to more about this subject or if you’d like to order a copy of the book, Good Mood Bad Mood, from Dr. Charles Hodges. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call us, toll-free, at 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY.”
Let us know that you’d like a copy of the book, Good Mood Bad Mood; and we’ll make arrangements to get a copy sent to you.
Let me just remind folks of something that you said at the beginning of today’s program, Dennis. We’re about two weeks from a brand-new year. That means we’ve got two weeks left for us to take advantage of the $2 million matching-gift fund that has been established, here at FamilyLife.
When you make a donation today, whatever your donation is—these friends of the ministry have agreed that they are going to make a donation that is double the donation you made. So, if you make a donation of $100, they’ll add $200 to that; and FamilyLife gets to take advantage of $300 in financial support for our ministry.
And this is vital for us because more than a third of the revenue we need to operate the ministry comes in during the month of December. Would you consider, today, going to FamilyLifeToday.com? Make an online donation in support of our ministry. Or call 1-800-FL-TODAY—
—you can donate over the phone. Or you can mail your donation to FamilyLife Today at PO Box 7111, Little Rock, AR; our zip code is 72223.
Now, tomorrow, we’re going to talk about what life is like when you’re in the middle of an extended season of clinical depression. We’ll hear more from Tommy and Teresa Nelson tomorrow. Hope you can join us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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