The Unconditional Love of Chonda Pierce
Comedian Balances Faith And Medicine To Help Combat Depression
Posted May 23, 2016
Comedian Chonda Pierce has lived a life of paradox.
On the one hand, Pierce, the “Queen of Clean,” makes a successful living from laughter. She’s the top selling female comedian of all time, with performances such as “Laughing in the Dark” and her new Dove Channel comedy series, “Chonda Pierce Presents Stand-Up for Families.” Additionally, Pierce is a devout evangelical Christian, one whose faith has been a great source of strength and community.
On the other hand, Pierce has lived through years of tremendous sadness and tragedy, including childhood physical abuse at the hands of her father, the loss of both of her sisters at a young age, the loss of her mother, her husband’s battle with alcoholism and eventual death, and her estranged relationship with her daughter. These events in part fueled Pierce’s bout with severe depression, which left her suicidal and eventually hospitalized.
Like many people, Pierce felt that her depression reflected a weakness on her part, a personal defect, and she did not seek diagnosis or treatment for fear of being stigmatized. Additionally, Pierce felt that her depression highlighted a weakness in her faith, where she questioned why God was forcing her to suffer.
Through this experience, Pierce realized that many people in her community were also ashamed of being depressed and feared that seeking help would divulge the fractures in their relationships with God.
But now, Pierce has come to a new understanding about her depression, in which she has reconciled that she can be a deeply spiritual person and suffer from depression at the same time.
And she is sharing her story with others in order to deliver a message to the world: The spiritual path out of depression is to realize that not only is God’s love for us unconditional, but that we also must love God unconditionally, no matter what adversity we face.
Depression is considered the “common cold” of mental illness, with as many as 20 percent of the population experiencing some form of mood disorder (e.g., major depression, dysthymia, bipolar disorder) at some point in their lifetime.
Further, depression can be a chronic condition, with depressed people at risk for relapse over their lives. More, people who struggle with depression may experience significant loss of physical, social and role functioning comparable to or worse than that of other chronic medical issues.
Pierce recalled how the experience of depression disrupted her life. She told me, “I had been doing what I do for about 15 years when I hit the wall running. At first, I thought there was something physically wrong with me. I was anxious, nervous and couldn’t eat very much. My thinking became cloudy. The things that I used to love to do — walking or hobbies — brought no real joy to me at all. Your day is just flat.”
Many people with depression then begin to lose motivation to engage in basic life behaviors, such as getting up in the morning, healthy eating and exercise. This can lead to a vicious cycle, where an individual becomes more and more immobilized, and then is even less likely to engage in otherwise enjoyable or healthy behavior — thus worsening their mood.
“And then you linger in bed longer and longer and longer and dread starting your day until it begins to affect you physically, because you’re not getting any exercise, and you’re not eating well and you get run down. And then your thinking is even more cloudy,” Pierce said.
This vicious cycle can apply to a depressed person’s social support as well. One of the things that Pierce thinks made her depression worse was wanting to isolate. Individuals with depression may have more difficulty engaging in the behaviors necessary to maintain relationships, thus eroding their existing social support. And the social isolation can then result in worsening depression.
Pierce described how she experienced this interpersonal cycle. “When you’re depressed, you’re achy and you want to isolate. It feeds the depression, and it’s one of the things, I think, that is the hardest to fight and to push back on,” she explained. “And then everyone else around you, especially if they don’t know you’re depressed, they have a tendency to go, ‘OK, then, I’ll let you sleep for a while.’”
Ultimately, like many people who suffer from depression, at one point Pierce became hopeless that she would recover. “And I know there was a time when I was thoroughly convinced that life needed to be over,” she said. “I didn’t want to be around my kids. My kids didn’t want to be around me. Then the financial worry kicks in. How am I going to provide for my family? It’s a spiral that just sucks you down a dark, dark tunnel.”
Pierce had hoped that her faith would protect her to an extent. And her hopes were well-placed: Research suggests that spirituality predicts improved health and mood. For example, one study of 142 patients a week prior to heart surgery found that individuals with stronger religious beliefs had fewer subsequent complications and shorter hospital stays. Further, a 10-year study of 114 adults found that those who considered religion or spirituality more important to them were significantly less likely to be depressed over time.
But at a certain point, Pierce realized not only that her faith was not preventing depression, but also that her experience of depression was making her question her faith. “It didn’t affect me as far as questioning whether there is a God, or why is God allowing this? I have always been solid in that area,” Pierce explained. “But the thing that started weakening my faith a little bit is that it took so long for healing to kick in. ‘How come I have to walk this journey? Why are you not listening to my prayers? Oh, God, why have you forsaken me?’”
Furthermore, Pierce, like many other people, was sensitive to the potential stigma of having a mental illness. In 1999, the U.S. surgeon general’s report on mental health identified stigma as one of the greatest barriers to people seeking treatment. People are often afraid of being judged or that information about their mental illness will somehow become public, and as a result, do not seek care.
Pierce described how the fear of stigma kept her from seeking help. “I think we keep it secret too much because we’re embarrassed. And I think that’s one of the things that deters our healing and also makes us isolate even more,” she explained. “Because we are afraid of what someone in the church world is going to say to us when they find out that we are depressed. We shoot our wounded, in other words, and we have a bad history of that. So we’re all very afraid to step out.”
And Pierce did experience stigma after she was first hospitalized. “When I tried to go back to work, and I realized that there were concerts cancelled — that they began to cancel because they heard that ‘Chonda’s depressed, she’s taking medicine, she just got out of the hospital,’” she recalled. “I was really surprised that the stigma was still there, that people still remain that uneducated about this situation.”
“And then when this happened, I sadly realized, ‘Oh, no, we haven’t come that far.’”
Eventually, Pierce was able to get over the stigma and continued the treatment she began in the hospital. Research suggests that many forms of medication and psychotherapy may be effective in treating depression. After being hospitalized and diagnosed, Pierce saw immediate improvement.
Part of the change was how she interacted with her family. “When I finally got diagnosed, that was a game changer. My husband is a brilliant man and wanted to read up on ‘what do we have to do here?’” she explained. “One of the greatest things that we did was that they would set up a puzzle on the table, and I would sit at the table with the puzzle with my kids, with my husband or just sit there. And it would take 45 minutes just to find one piece. But it was the physical movement — getting from my bed and getting dressed, going into the kitchen. Keeping your head vertical, instead of laying down.”
Moreover, Pierce was able to examine some of the issues that may have contributed to her depression. “I had lost both sisters by the time I was 18. Our father was a pastor and was a very abusive man. I had a painful childhood. And I look back now and see the anger in my brain that could be the catalyst of all of this. It was something that needed to get out and needed to get dealt with,” she said. “’One of my counselors told me, ‘Depression is anger turned inward.’ We hit the mother lode!”
But as Pierce recovered, what also emerged was an opportunity for her to rethink her faith. “The greatest thing that depression did for me is to be able to learn to love God because of who he is, not because of how he makes me feel,” she said. “And it has really taught me unconditional love for God. So that idea of unconditional love goes both ways.”
Pierce explained why this unconditional love for God may improve faith and well-being. “Because if we can learn to love him unconditionally, then we don’t get mad when he doesn’t answer our prayers the way we think he should answer them,” she explained. “If we really loved him unconditionally, we would believe that his ways are better than our ways. And we would not get discouraged when we don’t get our way.”
Pierce explained how her view of Jesus reflects this concept of unconditional love. “When you dive into the New Testament, you see the love that Jesus had for others. He had this beautiful, unconditional love. And we’re supposed to strive to be that way.”
And yet this message may not always be conveyed. “In Christianity, we work very hard in an evangelistic way to convince people that God loves them unconditionally. What we fail to teach sometimes is how we love God unconditionally.”
From Pierce’s perspective, we need to understand that our difficulty achieving that form of unconditional love is very much the essence of being human, and we need to understand that this is an ongoing struggle.
“I have to have that same unconditional love for myself. And it’s wonderful when you figure out that concept,” she explained. “My self gets in the way of me all the time. And so I think that’s where we really all struggle -- because we’re not Jesus. And that’s a good thing to strive for. Believe me, I am not a perfect Christian.”
“I’d be a great Christian, if it wasn’t for me,” she said.
Through her experience with depression, Pierce gained a clearer understanding of the influences of God and Satan in our lives.
“I think that for people who are religious people, if you believe that there is good, and there is a God, and there is an entity out there that is divine, then you believe God has a tool set. God has inspiration and divine healing and he’s got creation — all of these beautiful aspects that we know of God that are in his tool bag.”
“Then you also have to believe that there is the opposite of that. There is always darkness at work in the world. If there is a darkness, if there is a Devil, what’s in his tool bag? Well, it’s going to be to discourage people — to isolate them, to depress them, to make them sick,” she explained. “The last thing that the dark wants is for you to have chemo -- because he doesn’t want the possibility of you getting healed from cancer. So the dark’s job is to keep you from thinking that.”
“And the dark will do anything to keep you in the dark.”
Pierce explained how this relates to depression. “The interesting thing about the concept of the Devil — Satan, or whatever that darkness is — he is not so powerful that he can make you do anything,” Pierce described. “What he does is, when our own humanity, our own self, does something stupid or steps out of line or sins or gets sick or depressed, the way he operates is through our thought process to allow that to defeat us. And I think that he’s in the business of reminding us that we are defeated.”
But Pierce believes that her faith in God is stronger. “I think that my God is much more powerful than any other entity out there. Everything in the word of God — there’s nothing in there that says that the Devil has the last word,” she said. “He wants to know what’s going on with your heart more than he wants to know what’s going on with your head. But we forget that. And I don’t know why we forget that.”
Pierce also experienced something else that she did not anticipate: People were actually seeking her out because of her openness about depression.
“Now I thought it would totally be the end of my career, and it would trickle down, and I would not get work. And then at the same time there were pockets of people and places and things and conventions and conferences that did have me. And they had me because I was depressed. They had me because I was speaking about something that needed to be heard. And I could speak with authority now, because I’m there. I’m in it. I’m in the middle of it.
“So, for every concert where someone didn’t want to have me there, every promoter that canceled out on me, there were an equal number of people who were ready to have this message out there,” she said.
Pierce is quick to point out that she encourages people to question their faith as she did — including whether they are guilty of sin that may be contributing to depression. “Whatever that vice is that’s probably not healthy for you, you have to change it. But it gives me the mindset to lighten up on myself and have some unconditional love for myself. And to realize that in this body, in this flesh, we have limitations,” she said.
“My thing is that I think it’s great to have those questions. And that’s what I’ve told crowds to do: Take out a sheet of paper and put a line down the middle and put that thought that’s going in your head. Did I step out of line? Is there something that God is mad at me over? Write that down,” she said.
“Here’s the good news. Yes, you did something wrong. So let’s fix that. Let’s rectify that. Let’s repent. Let’s redeem that. Tell somebody you’re sorry. Stop having the affairs. Stop getting drunk every Friday night. If you can identify it, great. That’s the beginning of the path of healing.”
But it’s through that questioning that someone may be better able to discover that he or she is not depressed because of sin. “Maybe you don’t even have to open the Bible. Maybe you just go, ‘Well, I’m a churchgoer. I’m not cheating on my husband. I’m not drinking excessively. I’m obeying the laws of the land. There’s nothing physically wrong. My job is good,’ she said.
“And if you can’t find something spiritual – here’s the good news – you’re just depressed!” Pierce explained. “Find a doctor. Get a diagnosis. Maybe your chemistry has done a flip-flop in all of this, and we’re going to have to start taking some medicine to start equaling that out.”
“People ask me all the time, ‘Is depression because you have some hidden sin in your life?’ And I always laugh and say, ‘If God don’t know it, I ain’t knowing it,’” she said. “One of those well-meaning church ladies said to me once, ‘You shouldn’t talk about anti-depressants from the stage. It makes your faith look weak.’ I told her, ‘Then take your glasses off and drive home!’”
For Pierce, the concept of dealing with depression is something that could unite people of all backgrounds.
“We need to see common ground with each other with our humanity. And then it opens the dialogue to begin to love each other more,” Pierce explained. “The way that you fall in love with someone is that you meet him. He’s cute, wonderful, attractive. But you begin to have common interests. And wouldn’t it be interesting that the common interest is our ailments. We all get cancer. We all get depressed. All the women are in menopause. A Muslim woman’s body is no different than a Christian woman’s body. They’re still going to go through the same thing.”
“Loving ourselves unconditionally, loving God unconditionally — that’s the beginning of learning to love others unconditionally. And that would revolutionize the world,” she said.
Pierce is looking forward to continuing her work. “I think that one of the greatest joys of my job is to break some of that down; and to be able to do it in a humorous way as a comic. You can get away with saying a whole lot,” she said.
And she is happy and proud that she has emerged from depression with an even stronger sense of faith. “And I’ve been grateful for that, because I’ve known people who give up on faith for a lot less.”
But Pierce knows that her faith may get tested again — and she’s ready.
“People say, ‘What if you die and find out there is no heaven?’
“And I go, “Well, what did I lose? Besides, I can use the sleep!’”