Chonda Pierce: Journey Back to Laughter
By Belinda Elliott
CBN.com Daily Life Producer
Her gift is making people laugh. So you can imagine her unbelief when she found herself emerged in a pit of despair and battling depression.
Christian comedian Chonda Pierce was planning to enjoy a winter break from touring when she became ill in Miami on a trip with friends. When she returned home, the normally cheerful and bubbly Pierce could not make herself get out of bed. She was unable to do anything except sleep and cry. Doctors could not explain her illness and prescribed numerous medicines “just in case.”
It wasn’t until her fifth trip to the emergency room that a doctor informed her that she was clinically depressed. He prescribed an anti-depressant medication and suggested she seek counseling.
In her new book, Laughing in the Dark, she writes about her journey through the darkness of depression and what brought her back into the light.
At first, her diagnosis stunned her. She writes in the book, Me, depressed? But I’m a comedian. … I have to get back to work! I have jokes to write. How can I write a joke when I’m depressed? Will it sound like this: “Knock-knock. Go away!”
Even as she writes about the hopelessness she felt during her 18-month battle with the illness, her indelible, good-natured wit shines through.
Pierce is no stranger to adversity. Her childhood was full of challenges and disappointments. She lost both of her sisters at a young age. When she was 16, her 20-year-old sister Charlotta was killed in a car wreck. Not long after that, her 15-year-old sister Cheralyn was diagnosed with leukemia and died from the disease 21 days later.
In between the deaths of her two sisters and on her brother’s wedding day, her father, a pastor who struggled with manic depression, packed his bags and deserted the family shortly after pronouncing the couple man and wife.
That’s when she began using humor as an escape and became what she describes as the “queen of sarcasm.” The Lord brought hope and healing to her in the years after that, and He turned her penchant for comedy into a ministry.
But nothing could have prepared her for the intense battle that she faced with depression.
“You would be surprised at how your mind can trick your body, and your very being, that life is sad and over and done and you’ll never get out of this,” Pierce says. “That is such a lie that depression uses to keep you in bondage. The truth of the matter is that’s not so. Depression is treatable. It is something you can be completely victorious over. God sometimes chooses to heal miraculously, and many times He chooses for us to learn the discipline of taking care of these earthly vessels that we are trapped in until Jesus comes.”
Taking care of her body was something that Pierce found she had to begin focusing on, and that included taking medications and going to counseling. Like many who find themselves in similar situations, she was hesitant to do either at first. She attributes her feelings to pride and to the stigma that is often attached to those methods, especially among Christians who may believe that a person who chooses that route doesn’t have enough faith that God will heal them without medical intervention.
“I had to realize that what was going on with my feelings and my afflictions had very little to do with my faith in God,” Pierce says.
Eventually she came to see the medications as a way that God had provided for her to get better. She points to the story in Genesis of Adam and Eve being kicked out of the garden. Before they left, God provided for the couple by making clothes for them.
“God loved them so much that He didn’t leave them empty-handed,” Pierce says. “He gave them a tool of a warm garment for when times would get tough, and this cloth that would help them physically cover the shame that they felt when they discovered they were naked. So it teaches me that God gives us tools, and that’s what medicine and counseling are.”
The attitude that Christians shouldn’t use these God-given provisions is one that needs to change she says, especially when directed toward people dealing with clinical depression.
“What if we finally got the nerve to climb out of bed in the midst of our depression or our struggles in life, and we placed on the garments that God gave us? We took the medicine. We went to the counseling. We were studying. We were keeping in the Word. We were playing our praise music. We were doing everything we knew to do. And finally, in that heap of shame that we are in, we make our way into a church and the first thing that happens is someone looks at you and says, ‘Now where is your faith? You take off that garment and believe in God!’ when it was the God of the universe that provided that in the first place,” Pierce says. “We are kind of tough on each other, and we don’t view depression as the illness that it is. It is simply a chemical imbalance, a shift in chemistry.”
She says that people who are not depressed often struggle to understand what their loved ones are going through. She compares the disease to walking around with a heavy pillow strapped to your head and wearing a pair of dark sunglasses.
“That is depression, that force of trying to hold your head up and trying to see the world on a sunny day but to you it just seems dark and cloudy. That is what depression feels like on a good day. On a bad day, you don’t even want to get out of bed,” Pierce says.
Fortunately, she had several close friends and family members who walked with her through her battle with depression. They not only checked in on her frequently, but she used them to hold her accountable even for small things, like getting out of bed by a certain time each day and not returning there until evening. Slowly she added new things into her day, first working a puzzle, then folding a load of clothes, until the day when she was ready to climb aboard her tour bus again and go back to work.
But she is still careful to take care of herself, paying close attention to good nutrition and exercise. She cautions others who struggle with depression, or who have in the past, to do the same. She says she recently learned the acronym HALT that makes those things easy to remember: do not allow yourself get hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.
“I always like to add HALT and pray,” Pierce says. “Don’t let yourself get hungry, or angry, or lonely, or tired, or drift too far from a very tender and active life with the Lord. You may not feel like it. In depression you certainly don’t feel like even the Lord himself is around, but what you have to start operating in is what you know, not what you fear.”
In her book she calls this “rehearsing in the dark what you learned in the light.” People who are depressed have to take note of what their feelings are telling them and then compare that to what they know to be true.
“You’ve got to talk to your depression like it’s a third person,” Pierce says. “You just have to say, ‘You know what, right now you are lying to me. You are telling me I can’t get out of this bed and I will never amount to anything, and that’s a lie.’”
The best way people can reach out to loved ones dealing with depression is to just be there for them and realize they can not pull the person out of it on their own, Pierce says. Allow them to feel what they are feeling. Her relatives sat with her and read Scripture to her, which she says brought her great comfort.
She also cautions people to take very seriously every word that a depressed person says, especially if they talk about wanting to die.
“If anybody ever says, ‘You know I just ought not be in this world,’ or ‘I wish I wasn’t alive,’ those are very serious calls for help," Pierce says. "Don’t shrug them off. Don’t say, ‘Oh, let’s just go the mall; hush up that talking.’ Those are really cries that their body is saying, ‘I need some help here.’”
She also encourages people who are depressed to remember that God sees their pain, and He loves them.
“The Bible says, ‘He is nearest to the brokenhearted,’” Pierce says. “I love that. That means, for the depressed folks, He is absolutely right there in the midst of the darkness, and from that we can learn to rely on him at a whole new level that we probably never realized.”
That’s what her battle with depression did for her. She says her faith has grown more than she could have ever imagined.
“It’s brought my life to a much more mature level in the Lord so that I serve him now not so that He will keep me well,” Pierce says. “I just serve Him because He’s good, and He is God and I’m not.”
Now she wants to help others by sharing her story. Though some cautioned that a book on such a delicate subject could mean the death of her career, Pierce felt like it was important that she write it.
“I have found that folks come out of the woodwork that just desperately wanted someone to put a voice to how they feel and what their struggles are,” she says. “I am praying that God will use it as a catalyst and a conduit for His healing and for His love, and that the Church will begin to embrace some of the tough topics out there with love and understanding and not condemnation.”
Pierce and her brother have also opened Branches Recovery Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn., a faith-based center that helps people overcome things like depression or addiction.
She is also excited to hit the road again with her comedy tours, though she says she plans to take things at a more reasonable pace rather than pushing herself so hard.
Learn more about her comedy tours and see when she may be in a city near you by visiting her Web site, www.chonda.org.
Want to read more of Chonda's story? Check out her book, Laughing in the Dark: A Comedian’s Journey through Depression.
Comments? Email me
More articles by Belinda on CBN.com
CBN IS HERE FOR YOU!
Are you seeking answers in life? Are you hurting?
Are you facing a difficult situation?
A caring friend will be there to pray with you in your time of need.