Chonda Pierce is a Christian comedian who has struggled with depression. She wrote about her experiences in her book Laughing in the Dark, published in 2007. The following article is adapted from that book. Please note that Chonda’s husband, David, passed away in 2014.
Emotion and chocolate are a lot alike: Too much and you can get downright sick, too little and the world might as well end (that is, if you like chocolate as much as I do). Women are emotional creatures, but if we allow our emotions to drive us in our homes and marriages, someone could end up getting hurt.
Generally speaking, emotion is not a bad thing. We need it for expression. When little Tommy makes a goal in soccer, it’s entirely appropriate to cheer like crazy. And when Aunt Myrtle dies, it’s right to weep, wail and mourn to express our sense of grief and loss. In both situations, we feel somewhat purged for having gone to the emotional extreme. We have participated in the human experience.
But what if you whoop and holler and there’s no soccer game? Or you cry and wail and Aunt Myrtle has only a head cold? What if you are _____ (fill in the blank with your favorite activity, such as shopping, waterskiing, cooking, knitting, playing tennis, etc.) and suddenly — totally unannounced and unprovoked — you’re hit with overwhelming feelings of depression that send you careening straight to the funeral end of the emotional scale?
In those cases, emotion is not your friend. It’s out of sync with reality. That kind of emotion fuels depression — like gas on a fire. I’ve had to learn the hard way to keep the gas can far, far away, lest a spark become a bonfire. I’ve also had to learn that it’s OK to approach some things very unemotionally, very matter-of-factly — even God.
I found myself weeping on the most peaceful beach in Jamaica. (I know what you’re thinking — what did I have to weep about? I was on a beach in Jamaica!) My husband, David, was hoping that a little sunshine, the sound of waves breaking on the sand, and lots of island food would cheer me up.
I had been taking my medicine for several months. I still had more bad days than good days, but the doctors had told me to expect that. Most antidepressants build up slowly in your system. On a good day I got my things packed for the trip, just in time for a bad day — when I cried at the airport. I pulled myself together and managed to get through customs. Then, a few hours later, while sitting on a tropical veranda with a Caribbean breeze blowing across my face, staring off into the most gorgeous blue water I’d ever seen — I wept again.
Not even the delicious banana-flavored something I was drinking (Nonalcoholic, of course! When you’re depressed, it’s important to limit your alcohol and caffeine intake to zero.) could keep me from thinking, I shouldn’t even be alive. I’m making the people I love miserable. I will never crawl out of this gray hole. My career is finished. My family will never look at me the same because of this pathetic life I’m living.
Nearby steel drums played something Caribbean-like. And all I wanted to do — all I could do — was cry. I apologized to a lot of people that weekend — to the umbrella man on the beach, to the waiter at the fancy restaurant, to the Russian couple who sat at our table at the all-you-can-eat beachside buffet. (They told us they were professional dance instructors; so while the tiki torches burned, David demonstrated some of his robot dance moves for them.)
One evening at sunset, I had a breakthrough. I sat quietly and watched the sun — a beautiful ball of orange fire — drop slowly into the ocean. Through tear-blurred vision, I saw it disappear peacefully into the blue. And as objectively as possible, I thought, That was beautiful. There was no song or swell of emotion that brought me to that conclusion. The sight of a fiery-orange sun disappearing into an endless expanse of blue sea is a thing of beauty. Some things can’t be denied, no matter how you feel.
At that moment I realized that the presence of God is like the splendor of the sunset: It can’t be denied, no matter how you feel. God manifests His presence in many ways that are not emotionally driven — in warm winds, the smell of sea salt, the trilling of birds, the setting of the sun. His signature is at the bottom of every great work of art and under the title of every beautiful song. I don’t have to feel as if I just left a romantic chick flick to know that my husband loves me. And I don’t have to feel the euphoria of a heart-pounding, hanky-waving revival sermon to know that I’ve been saved.
Depression taught me a great lesson that weekend: Feelings are temporary. Sometimes they even lie. From that evening forward, I began to lean more on what I know and less on what I feel.
I’d like to say that I came all the way around that weekend. That we laughed and ate tons of island food and danced with the Russians. But the fact is, I cried a lot. And I didn’t eat much. And most of the beauty I saw was blurred behind tears.
But what I did do was to be still and know that He is God, as Psalm 46:10 says. I invested in that verse totally. I was so still I even sunburned on one side. In the process, I realized there was nothing wrong between God and me. No deep, dark, secret sin, as I had feared. I didn’t have to feel God to know He was right there beside me — even living within me.
Seems I found God in a matter-of-fact way in Jamaica. God abides in and out of emotion — whether we’re singing “Shout to the Lord” or simply feeling numb. God is God. God is.
On the plane ride home, I remembered something — or at least I thought I remembered it. I had been in a fog of depression, so I couldn’t be sure. So I asked David: “Did you really do the robot dance for those professional dance instructors from Russia?”
David turned and — as much as the tray table in front of him would allow — brought his right arm up, lever-like, then smacked his right hand down with his left one so that his right arm seemed to drop suddenly. Just like a robotic arm.
“They were very complimentary,” he said in all seriousness. That made me smile.