Red Letter Christians got the privilege to chat with Rev. Dr. Monica Coleman about her latest book Bipolar Faith.
Bipolar Faith is your memoir, but it is also the story of your family, and honestly takes a look at race, poverty and mental health in America. Tell us a little about your struggle with Bipolar Disorder. When were you diagnosed and how have you found healing?
My diagnosis was not a straight line. There is a chapter called diagnosis in the book, but it doesn’t come until near the end.
There were signs and various symptoms throughout my life, but I always thought things were situational. Or I thought I was experiencing some emotional turmoil I needed to work through. I didn’t see the symptoms as a pattern at all. I didn’t even know the word “bipolar”. Additionally, I moved a lot, and when you move a lot, for school and jobs, you are not seeing the same therapist consistently. The last thing that made my diagnosis difficult is that I have Bipolar II, so I would only go to see a professional when I was depressed. No one was seeing the good side of the bipolar pattern; we were only seeing one half of it.
It’s a difficult thing to diagnosis. But finally I got someone to dig in and ask the right questions.
I think it’s helpful to have a name for what it is. There’s something helpful in naming an issue. It means you’re not alone, and other people are with you in this, even though your symptoms may not look like another person’s.
I don’t use the word healing in mental health. I prefer to say living with or being healthy. Being bipolar is like an addiction in that I have it all the time. For me, living well comes in eating well, exercising, spiritual disciplines – things that are not rocket science. But these things are not optional for me, they determine my overall health. I am also really conscious to keep people around me that know me well, and can see what I don’t see. They can bring it to my attention if I am becoming unhealthy.
Talk to us about intersection of socio-economics, race and mental health.
This is a complex thing. Mental health issues are not just a chemical imbalance cured by medicines. There is individual trauma that people have, but then there are collective traumas. In my case those were migration, sharecropping, and slavery, to name a few.
These are cultural and collective traumas. And when you’re just trying to survive and have somewhere to live, who has time to think about mental health? So in poverty, it doesn’t get the same priority, and it doesn’t have the right language. For so many people, having a faith is what has helped them survive. Going to church helps them collectively express what they are going through.
I wanted to put all of this together and just say this is a complex.
You share about your work in the Dinah Project, and ministry in various local churches – all the while dealing with trauma from rape, depression, and suicidal thoughts. What could the church have done to help you in your healing?
Some churches failed because they thought they could give religious platitudes for a complex answer. “All things work together for the good of those who love Him” or “God has a plan”. That doesn’t help people. Of course, that’s in our scripture, but just quoting that at someone doesn’t solve anything. It doesn’t address the complexity of the issues, and it doesn’t address the pain of the person sitting in front of you.
I felt stuck with the church. The good thing about that was that I had to keep looking. I finally found that church after a long search, and they told me just to show up. Sometimes showing up is incredibly hard. But if you just show up, God will be here, ministry will be here, and the community will be here. My community was inclusive and welcoming when I couldn’t give anything. That showed me what ministry really was. This kept me in church.
My book is as much a journey of depression as a journey of faith. Bipolar Faith discusses growing up in church, my time in Campus Crusade, my evangelical faith, and becoming a minister. It’s the story of my faith journey.
How can the church be an advocate in issues of mental health?
There are a couple things that I know are important. First, it’s incredibly important for clergy to have therapist friends. We’re not qualified to handle all issues in our church. But it’s not good enough to just say, “Go see a therapist.” We need to be able to say, “I have a friend, can I drive you to their office?” Clergy can still take care of spiritual and prayer needs, but we should refer out to professionals as needed. We do this with physical health, why should we treat mental health any differently?
The second thing that is incredibly important is for the church to hear your experience from the pulpit. We need to use words like depression and mental health, and to be able to talk about these things that from the pulpit is critical. Scripture gives us plenty to work with. We can use it to name these issues.
In what ways did your mental health impact your faith?
My mental health textured my faith. It gave it color in depth and feel. I can’t imagine not having bipolar disorder. It’s a part of who I am now, and I like who I am. Being honest about my mental health and living faithfully with it has pushed me out of a simple faith. It pushed me to be a theologian and to learn more. I’ve strived for more than simple and easy answers. Now my theology contains a solid core of knowing that God is always with me.
What is Scripture has guided you as you’ve lived with depression?
In African American history, oral text and song is so important, and points us towards that which is holy. I don’t usually go to the Bible even though the Bible is important to me. I go back to the Scripture of my grandparents – the hymns we sang in the kitchen.
Jesus Keep Me Near The Cross and Wade In The Water are two that come to mind
I sing songs to my child all the time, because when she is lost I want her to come back to these words and these messages. When she can’t find the words, she will be able to hum them, sing them, or perhaps even moan them.
Monica is on the Bipolar Faith book tour now through November. Check out her site to see if she is coming to a city near you, and keep up with her by following Monica on Facebook, and Twitter and search for #BipolarFaith.