Walking Through the Valley
About the Guest
Is it possible to walk with God yet still get depressed? Pastor Tommy Nelson talks about his recent battle with depression. Join us as Tommy recalls the very moment when his depression engulfed him and the anxiety and physical pain that followed. Joining Tommy in the studio is his wife of 30 years, Teresa.
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.
Pastor Tommy Nelson talks about his battle with depression, recalling the very moment when his depression engulfed him and the anxiety and physical pain that followed. Joining Tommy in the studio is his wife, Teresa.
Walking Through the Valley
Bob: Have you ever wondered what prolonged depression can feel like?—deep, soul-wrenching depression. Here is what it was like for Pastor Tommy Nelson.
Tommy: You lose count of the hours of the day—you’re not conscious of the hours of the day. You're not conscious of the days of the week. You are going from moment to moment in stress, and in pain, and in anxiety, and in depression. And your fear is it will never end, and you’re going to die like this.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, December 17th.
Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. Today, Tommy Nelson takes us with him on his journey through the “valley of the shadow.” Stay tuned.
[Skip James singing Sick Bed Blues]
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. It was our engineer, Keith, who found that Skip James’ blues song. Keith loves the blues—he sings the blues every day when he comes to work. [Laughter]
Dennis: All kidding aside, there are a lot of folks who, when you come to the holidays, they get blue.
It reminds them of—perhaps, what they don’t have or what they have lost, or maybe, some circumstances they are facing.
Bob: Yes. There is a difference between somebody going through a time of sadness / a momentary feeling blue for a day and somebody experiencing real depression. In fact, that is what we are going to look at today as we continue listening to a conversation we had—this was several years back—we talked with Tommy and Teresa Nelson / he’s a pastor in Denton, Texas—talked about an extended period of depression that they had gone through.
But before we continue the conversation with the Nelsons, we wanted to give our listeners an update. I know a lot of listeners have been tuning in this month. They know there is a matching gift that’s been made available to us, here at FamilyLife. We still have about half the month in front of us, and we’re still trying to take advantage of this $2 million matching-gift opportunity. This is a critical time of year for us.
Dennis: And we’ve got a good bit of the match we need to make up. So, we need listeners to say: “You know what? I’d like to be a part of this ministry. I’d like to make a difference in another person’s life.” I don’t think our listeners realize, really, the breadth of what FamilyLife Today is all about—just some of the groups of people we ministry to or we feature, here on FamilyLife Today, and give voice to.
One of them is the orphan. We talk a lot about championing the cause of adoption, foster care, the orphan—and encourage parents, in the process, to follow God’s will, obviously—but also to give voice to those who have none. FamilyLife Today has been doing that for over a dozen years.
Another group of people that we champion and we also minister to—it’s kind of been a surprise to us as well—are prisoners. We’ve got a number of prisoners—over 3,000 prisoners—who have been through the Stepping Up® video series.
A lot of them listen to FamilyLife Today—they get help / they get hope. You don’t imagine somebody being in a prison can have an impact on their family, but they can. They have relationships with their kids / with their spouses. They need help / they need hope that their marriage and family can go the distance.
Then, there is another group that we minister to—and this is a growing group as well—this is homeless men and women all across the country. Our video series, Stepping Up, has been used to call homeless men to get a job, to reconcile with families, to lead their families, and to take responsibility to be the man God made them to be.
And all this month, we are challenging people to give so these ministries are possible. I can just tell you, as a listener, one of my favorite gifts that I’ve ever received, here on FamilyLife Today, was from a homeless woman, who listened to FamilyLife Today every day.
Where she found a radio / where she found the ability to listen, I have no idea; but she sent in a buck—one dollar—because FamilyLife Today was helping her, as a single-parent mom with a child, living out in the elements, without a home.
I just want you to know—when you give, as a listener, you’re making this ministry on this radio station and on hundreds of other radio stations, across the country and around the world, possible to impact people in lots of different circumstances.
Bob: I mentioned the matching-gift opportunity. When you give this month, your donation is matched with a double donation from a group of people who have agreed that they will match each donation, given in December, up to a total of $2 million. What I mean by a double donation is—if you give $100, they give $200.
We’re trying to take full advantage of that between now and the end of the year.
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Dennis: And if you’re listening, online, I’d just challenge you to help us keep this coming to you through the web. It takes manpower / it takes technology—we need your help. So, if you’ve enjoyed this broadcast—you’ve been working out / you and your wife listening to FamilyLife Today—maybe, it’s time. Maybe, it’s time for you to step up and become a hero to another listener and make a difference in their lives.
Bob: Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com to make an online donation; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY.
Let’s dive into the conversation that we had, awhile back, with Tommy and Teresa Nelson. As I mentioned, Tommy’s the pastor at Denton Bible Church in Denton, Texas, just north of Dallas.
He’s a conference speaker and is pastor at a large thriving church.
We have already heard this week about how Tommy was preparing to teach through the book of Romans for a video series he was about to produce. It was a week or two before they were set to film the series that he sank into a depression and became, essentially, non-functional.
Dennis, you asked Tommy and Teresa about whether the family members had picked up on the clues about what was coming or what was happening in Tommy’s life.
[Previously Recorded Interview]
Dennis: Did any of your children pick up on it as—they're adults? I mean, they had to be watching their dad. Did they say anything to you, maybe, secretly, or did they confront their dad at any point?
Teresa: No, I don’t think so. There were times, I think, though, they’d go: “Wow! He sure is gone a lot,” or—
Bob: “Sure is busy,”—yes.
Teresa: —“Sure is busy,” or “Why don’t we go do this or that?”—or different things like that. But, no—but it was very shocking to them when this did happen. It was like: “Do something, Mother! What’s wrong with Dad? Do something!” I was like, “I don't know what to do!”
Tommy: What did John say?—“Somebody help him!”
Teresa: “Somebody help him.”
Dennis: “Somebody help him.”
Teresa: —our youngest son.
Tommy: Because I was the iron man, and so—
Teresa: But that was after he was already really going down.
Tommy: When I went down, my sons—it kind of scared them. They had never seen their father—and it wasn’t like I was an emotional basket case. I was a non-emotional basket case. It’s an emotionless waste; and so, I couldn’t—you just can’t relate. I couldn’t sit in a chair for over 40 seconds/30 seconds. My legs were so firing with adrenaline that I had to get up and walk continually.
Bob: This kind of—I don’t want to say it came on you—
Tommy: Yes—it hit me.
Bob: —but there was a moment where it hit.
Tommy: I was a big tree, in retrospect, that was beginning to creak and fall.
At one moment, I was on a Sunday evening service, about this time of year. I’m getting ready to do my favorite text in my favorite book, Song of Solomon, Chapter 7—the romance chapter in the Song of Solomon—it’s my favorite text. Sitting in a glider, in the church lobby, getting ready to go up and preach / walk on up, after the singing in the evening service—all the young guys are there. All of a sudden, all of the energy went out of my body. My heart rate spiked, and my blood pressure was so great my whole body shook. I went and lay down on a couch, and it passed after about 15 minutes.
They thought it might have been—maybe, I’d jogged that day and worked in the garden a little bit—and maybe dehydration. But slowly after that, insomnia set in.
Bob: I’ve got to ask you—you’re the pastor at Denton Bible Church / you’ve been exegeting the Word for 35 years.
Tommy: Yes—and I could quote you all the verses on anxiety you want.
Bob: Yes—“Be anxious for nothing—
Tommy: I knew them all. I’d quote the chapters they were in.
Bob: —“prayer and supplication.”
Tommy: You betcha.
Bob: So, when you start to feel this anxiety and when you start to feel like, “I’m ready to end it all,” doesn’t your understanding of the Word kick in and counsel your soul?
Tommy: Well, all you can do: “When my anxious thoughts multiply within me, Thy consolations delight my soul.” But that doesn’t help you—that keeps you from doing anything crazy.
It’s not like you’re worried. There is no external reason why this is happening. You have to just stand back and trust in the sovereignty of God in the bare blade and the bare Word of God to take you through this—because your body doesn’t care that you’re quoting Scripture—because you're hurting.
Teresa: But that's a different kind of anxiety even—to say, “Be anxious for nothing,”—that means, “Don’t be worrying about something”; but it wasn’t a worry—it was a panic—
Tommy: There wasn’t a something.
Teresa: —as far as anxiety. It was not a “I’m worried about something,” or something like that—
—but it was like, “I think I can’t swallow,”—I mean, that was one of the panic things he had—or “I’ve got to get home now. I need to be home.” So, it was more panic on, “My body is malfunctioning, and I don’t know what to do about it.”
Tommy: You can’t really even—a doctor—unless a doctor has been through it—I don’t care if it’s Ben Casey [TV show doctor]. Do you think anybody knows who I just said?
Dennis: I doubt it.
Tommy: Oh, yes, forget it.
Dennis: There’s a few in this—
Bob: Dr. Kildare [TV show doctor].
Tommy: That doesn’t help either.
Dennis: That doesn’t help—no.
Tommy: Unless a doctor has been through it, a doctor, a lot of times, doesn’t understand. Well, I just forget it because we’ll touch on it later.
Dennis: Well, speaking of diagnosing—
Dennis: —I mean, the Christian community, when it comes to depression, really falls into two camps it seems—and a lot of things in between—but there is the camp, over here, that believes that depression should be treatable only with Scripture and that anybody that would be in the other camp /
/ that would treat depression, as a disease, with medication is not spiritual.
Tommy: Well, since I’ve shared on this, Dennis, I have calls from all over the country, all the time, from—
Dennis: I’m sure you do.
Tommy: —everybody. I’m the lightning rod—saying, “What should I do?” What I tell them—and, realize, I’m talking as a guy on the Dallas Seminary Board, an evangelical pastor—I’m a fundies-in-their-undies guy—but I tell them, “You need to be careful of evangelical Christians,” because—and I am one—but evangelical Christians will go medieval on you real quick that you have—that this is a spiritual problem—and you cannot take anything / any sort of medicine to help you.
Now, these are the same guys on Lipitor®, Flomax®, and Cialis®—alright?—three times a week. But they’re going to tell you, “You can’t take anything.” Can we put that on?
Dennis: Yes, I think so. [Laughter]
Tommy: I got the thumbs up from your boy in there. He says—no, but these are the same guys that take everything.
What they don’t realize is there are reasons—social, emotional, and sometimes, they are moral reasons—that bring on the stress / to get you to that place of stress.
But whenever you talk about depression, you’re dodging the bullet if you don’t talk about medicine because this is where Christians will polarize. I’m telling you—I had to cut back 70 percent of what I was doing.
However—you’ll enjoy this—now, I went to—I’d never been to a counselor ever in my life. I went and sat down with an elder of one of the Bible churches in Dallas—he had been through it himself. He looked at me; and he said, “This must be strange—you sitting here?” I said, “It is. I’m always on the other side of the table.” He talked to me about him going through it, and it just helped me to know that a sane guy had gone through it.
I would say to him, “If I get through this” and he would say, “When.” And that was like a big light to me. I’d say, “If I can get through this”; and he’d say, “When— you’re going to get through this—your body is going to repair itself, but you’re going to have to do some things.” And he sent me to a psychiatrist.
I’ll be real honest—I felt like Saul going to the witch of Endor; alright? I knew that, when I walked in the office, that the spirit of Jonathan Edwards was going to rise up through the floor and say, “You're going to be here with me tomorrow.” [Laughter]
Dennis: He’s going to get you; huh? [Laughter]
Tommy: And this was a Christian guy. I shared with him what I had. He said, “Sure.” He said: “This is what you’ve got—is right here. Whenever it gets intense and that anxiety gets intense,”—he said—“your serotonin is gone. You’re going to need some help.” And he said: “Take this. It’s a replacement for serotonin. It’s not a long-term help; but it will take the edge off of that.” Sure enough, it started giving me back the ability to relate to people.
Then, he said, “You need a serotonin reuptake inhibitor.” And what I’m saying, Dennis and Bob—it’s—this is me and what I went through. The whole deal about a psychiatrist is—a lot of times, they have to take the individual. So, what he told me may not be what they would tell somebody else.
Tommy: So, I don’t want somebody emulating what I did because you may have to have somebody who knows more tell you; but he said: “You need an SRI, a serotonin reuptake inhibitor. Your body is not using its own serotonin. That’s what the stress has done, and what you are experiencing is the side effect that is called anxiety and depression. And this, right here”—and it was about as big as an aspirin / a small aspirin—“take this.” And he said, “It won't do anything for a month because it’s not doing anything. It’s allowing your body not to cannibalize its own serotonin, and you’re going to start using your own natural stuff.”
Well, about three weeks later, I’m just sitting around. All of a sudden, I was looking at Teresa, and I said—I just stopped, and I froze. I didn’t want to tip whatever it was the wrong way—and I said, “I'm me.” She said, “What do you mean?” I said, “I’m telling you—I’m me.” For just a second, it was all gone; and I was happy. It wasn’t like I was sedated—I was me again.
That was in about—I started them at August.
Then, at the end of August, I got to feeling better. September, I got to where I could jog. I couldn’t run—and I run four miles a day—I couldn’t run / I couldn’t walk 20 minutes. I got to where I could run again—I started getting my energy back. I got to where I enjoyed reading again. I got to where Teresa and I could—we got to where we could take a little vacation and go up to Colorado again. Then, by October, I could preach again; but I had to cut out 70 percent of what I was doing. When I would preach, I’d have to go home and take a nap. November, I could sleep on my own.
I’m so glad God did that to me because a lot of my ministry was out of sheer effort; but a lot of the real joy, I don’t think, was there. There was a joy at accomplishment but not just a joy in resting. So, whenever I go through trials now and struggles now over the last six months, to be honest, it’s like they're almost trivial.
Let me tell you this—if you don’t have a wife or if a wife doesn’t have a husband that is there with you, the counselor I went to said, “Sometimes, there will be 25 to 50 percent of the people that go through this lose their marriages,” because the mate can’t understand it.
Dennis: Oh, yes.
Tommy: They just want to say, “Why don’t you just quit doing this?” unless you have an empathetic mate that will sit there with you—like Job’s buddies when they started off—and just sit there with you. Teresa would just sit there with me, and she put her life on hold because, when you go through a depression or something, your mate goes through it. They can’t walk away. She stayed right there with me. So, it gave me a depth of appreciation of Teresa because she got sounded out to the depth of her vow.
I used to look at her and say: “Honey, you never signed on for this. This wasn’t part of the deal,”—we, then, think—but she said, “When I said, ‘For better for worse…’ this is one of the worse times, and I’m here with you.”
Dennis: Yes. I want to talk more about that commitment that you two had, as you went through this dark time; but I also want to highlight your commitment to the Scripture.
I don’t want to minimize the medication issue,—
Dennis: —but a part of what kept you alive was your hope that was kept alive by your knowledge of the Bible.
Tommy: I don’t think medication would help you near what it could without faith—and turning from whatever it was that got you in that—you wouldn’t have made it. Dennis, you just cling and lay under the shield of faith when you’re too weak to move it; and that’s what I had to do.
Bob: Well, I might take that just a step further and say: “If you didn’t know Christ / if you didn't know the Scriptures,—
Tommy: Oh, I can’t imagine.
Bob: —“you’d still be on heavy doses of a lot of medication—
Tommy: Can’t imagine.
Bob: —“because that’s—
Dennis: What would be your hope?
Bob: That’s right.
Dennis: What would be your hope? I mean, what would be your hope?
Tommy: And Christians are right, in that sense, that you can’t treat depression simply as: “Take this medication.”
Sometimes, that can get you out of it; but unless you can deal with the front end of what moved you there—
—because, a lot of times, it is moral. A lot of times people get themselves in depression because they have got such stress from foolish, stupid, immoral actions; and all the medication in the world isn’t going to help you—I don’t think—when you keep repeating that stuff. Something has got to change at the front end for a medicine to help you on the back side.
As a matter of fact, the Book of Job—God burdened me, before all of this started, to read the Book of Job. I don’t know why; but as I started reading, it was almost like a voice that said, “You better take notes because you’re about to go through this.”
I wouldn’t trade this last year for anything. I don’t want to repeat it, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I was able to list, a few days ago, 15 wonderful things that have come out of this year. I wouldn’t trade it—it’s the worst and the best year of my life.
Dennis: In Job 10—I just happen to have my Bible open here to Job 10: “I loathe my life. I will give full vent to my complaint.
“I will speak in the bitterness of my soul. I will say to God, ‘Do not condemn me. Let me know why Thou dost contend with me.’”
[Michael Card singing Job Suite]
Bob: You know, you read a passage like that or you hear it put to music as Michael Card did there, you almost have to go to the end of Job, where Job, after pouring out his lament before God, comes—and it is as if God says, “’Alright, are you finished? Is that it?
“‘Now, I have some questions I want to ask you.’”
[Michael Card singing Job Suite]
And you know, I think the point we want to make sure listeners get here is that the Bible speaks to these issues. It talks about our mental, and our physical, and our emotional health. We need to see a doctor when there is stuff like this going on with us. We need to get input from a physician, but we ought not ignore what the Scriptures say about these issues.
Recently, we had the opportunity to sit down with a physician, Dr. Charles Hodges, who has written a book on the subject of depression called Good Mood Bad Mood. And he explained that there is a difference between feeling profoundly sad for something that’s happened in your life and clinical depression or bipolar disorder. It was good to have the conversation. In fact, he’s written a book called Good Mood Bad Mood: Help and Hope for Depression and Bipolar Disorder. This may be something you want to read or that you may want to pass on to someone you know—someone in your family who may have been diagnosed with depression.
We’ve got copies of the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go online at FamilyLifeToday.com to request your copy; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the title of the book is Good Mood Bad Mood: Help and Hope for Depression and Bipolar Disorder. The toll-free number to call is 1-800-FL-TODAY if you’d like to order by phone; or order online at FamilyLifeToday.com.
And quickly, let me ask you to pray for us. Between now and the end of the year, we are hoping to hear from as many listeners as possible to take full advantage of the matching-gift challenge that Dennis mentioned earlier in today’s program. When you make a donation in support of this ministry—between now and the end of the year—we have some friends who have agreed to, not just match your donation, but to make a donation of their own that is double the donation you made. So, if you make a $50 donation, they’ll make $100 donation; and FamilyLife will be able to take advantage of $150 of benefit.
Now, they’ve put a cap on that of $2 million. We’re hoping to take full advantage of that matching-gift opportunity. Would you pray for us? Would you consider making a yearend contribution? You can do that online at FamilyLifeToday.com—it’s very easy to do. Or call 1-800-FL-TODAY—donate over the phone. You can also mail your donation to FamilyLife Today at PO Box 7111, Little Rock, AR; our zip code is 72223.
And thanks, in advance, for whatever you are able to do—and again, please pray for us.
And I hope you can join us back tomorrow. We’re going to talk with Tommy and Teresa Nelson about what happened when the fog began to lift and when the season of depression began to change. We’ll hear about that tomorrow. Hope you can be here 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.
Help for today. Hope for tomorrow.
©Song: Sick Bed Blues
Artist: Skip James
Album: Hard Time Killing Floor Blues, (p) 2008 Shout! Factory
©Song: Job Suite
Artist: Michael Card
Album: The Way of Wisdom, (p)1990 Sparrow Records
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