It should have been a fun day.
Candace Payne stood ready to sound an air horn to kick off the 2016 Nerf Tournament at AT&T Stadium, better known as Jerry World or the home of the Dallas Cowboys. But instead of laughing at the people getting pelted by foam bullets, Candace was fighting back tears. She was a long way from just a year ago, when she had to stand in line at that same stadium to get free school supplies for her two kids.
You know Candace.
You probably laughed along with her a little more than a year ago when she bought a Wookie mask on clearance at Kohls, put it on in her car and cracked herself up. Overnight, the woman who had been through homelessness, fear, a suicide attempt and financial struggles was known nationwide — probably further than that — as Chewbacca Mom, one of the happiest parents this side of the Death Star.
“The beauty of this story is that I really understand the middle class, hard-working, family mom,” Candace said. “You never want to ask for help, even though you know you need it sometimes. I understand what it’s been like to struggle to have joy.”
In real life, her laugh is just as contagious as it is on the video. She doesn’t use it to mask the pain. Instead, she bears those scars proudly and still goes on the offensive every day to choose joy.
A Nomadic Childhood
Homelessness and joy aren’t two words that are used together often, but for Candace, it was just the norm while she was growing up. Her parents did the best they could for their four children, and it wasn’t until Candace grew up and raised her own family that she realized how poor hers had been.
Through all of the moving and financial struggles, Candace’s parents taught their children happiness didn’t rely on things. While the lessons in home repairs were lacking, they did teach her to be joyful all the time.
One of the hardest times Candace remembers is when she was 9 and her family left Arkansas to move to Texas, and she realized they wouldn’t have a home once they got to Texas. The only shelter they had was the family van which would serve as a makeshift home until the family could upgrade to a trailer and eventually a long-term hotel and then a house.
Her family was devoutly religious, using their travels as opportunities to go to different church functions across the country. Candace was saved when she was 6 years old, sitting on a crushed-velvet patchwork quilt on her parents’ water bed after having the literal fear of God put into her at a southern gospel concert, but it wasn’t until a few years later that she really understood what God’s love was really all about.
“I remember as a 12-year-old at church camp, for the first time hearing a speaker talk about God loving me,” Candace said. “I remember calling my mom from a pay phone at the camp after the sermon was over and telling her that this guy was a liar, that he said that God loves me.”
Candace told her mother the God she knew only wanted to rub her face in all the bad things she had done. Her mother set her straight, telling her to pay attention to sermons a little more because she was missing the big picture. At the end of that camp, Candace knew for the first time what it meant to be loved and saved by God.
She wrote herself a note in her Bible after one of the sermons at that camp: June 2. Remember this night. You will never be the same. God loves you.
While that Bible has since been replaced — it’s currently stored in her attic in a pink Tupperware™ container — the sentiment has stayed with her. It shaped Candace’s young faith, something she would desperately need in her young-adult years.
College was a big shock for Candace. She was a self-described evangelist in high school — someone who loved sharing the Gospel with her friends — but the pressures of college proved to be too overwhelming.
“Somewhere in college, I started comparing myself. I didn’t fit in for the first time. I didn’t know where I fit. I didn’t know who I was. I was in a whole different arena where the competition, in all honesty, for talent and for career was the first time I had tasted it. And I realized I didn’t match up as well as everybody else.”
That’s when an insult from a boy she liked pushed her over the edge. She was already dealing with depression and issues of self-worth, but this was just too much for Candace to handle.
“You don’t look at all like Chris Farley when you dress up,” Candace’s then-crush told her.
There are words to describe the man who said that, but none of them are appropriate for a Christian publication. Draw your own conclusions.
But that insult sent Candace spiraling into deeper depression.
One night, Candace took a pair of kitchen shears and started to test how far she would have to cut before she reached her vein. Her plan was to cut straight down the vein in her arm until she opened it enough to bleed out. At the last minute, her roommate ran in and stopped her.
“The only thing that allowed joy to rush in was that I was able to hold on for one more second, one more minute, one more hour, until I could finally get through those thoughts,” Candace said.
While she did get help for her depression, her college career didn’t get much easier. She left before she got her degree to move in with some friends from her musical theater program who were survivors of a plane crash that killed several members of their choir. Her roommates were all dealing with post-traumatic stress after the crash, something that made it even harder for Candace to recover from her earlier suicidal thoughts.
“I couldn’t concentrate on studies,” Candace said. “I couldn’t concentrate on anything other than trying to keep my friends alive and trying to keep my friends emotionally stable.”
She left at the end of her junior year and went back home to her family. Instead of finding relief, she just found more people who needed her. Her ailing grandparents needed help, so Candace stepped up as her stand-in caretaker.
Candace took a job at a small church where she met her now-husband. Thankfully, he did not draw any comparisons between Candace and the main character in “Tommy Boy.”
Today, Candace is the mother of two who happened to go viral when she recorded herself laughing in that Chewbacca mask. Yet even as a wife and mother, things have been hard. They’ve made sacrifices so Candace can stay home with the kids.
“Behind the mask, I was someone who often felt given up on, overlooked, undervalued and insignificant,” Candace wrote in her book. “I was a person with family stability issues and a less than perfect marriage who often struggled to figure out how to stretch our budget from one paycheck to another.”
What sets Candace apart from others who have been through hard times is that she chooses joy on a daily basis.
“Defiant joy, not like a defiant child, but something that goes against gravity,” Candace said. “Listen, I’ve been dealt more than I could probably say the average person who has seen the Chewbacca mom video would assume … We learned to really rejoice in the little things. I don’t have all of the answers. I don’t have the corner of the market on joy, but what I have discovered is that it is a choice every single day.”
A lot of things have changed for Candace in the past year. She takes selfies with strangers. She’s done promotional events. The original video has been viewed more than 166 million times and shared more than 3.5 million times. She has her own Wikipedia page—Chewbacca Mask Lady—and even has her first book out, “Laugh It Up.”
What hasn’t changed is Candace’s decision to choose happiness—no matter what the Storm (Troopers) of life might bring.