Bipolar Faith: A Black Woman’s Journey with Depression and Faith

Bipolar Faith CoverMonica A. Coleman’s memoir touches on a lot of significant themes: faith, grief, trauma, rape, depression, prayer, race, family, friendship, and history among them. She begins with the story of her great-grandfather who died, it was said, “of grief,” hanging himself, with the help of his son, in a shed where the noose hung for decades after. The memory was there, but the conversation about it was not.

Coleman herself faced grief for the first time when her grandmother died. Her grandmother’s DC home was a summer haven for Coleman, who, back home in Michigan, feared her father’s anger. Later, she experienced a different terror when her boyfriend raped her. With each trauma came a period of feeling frozen and unable to cope, followed often by periods of drive and ambition. She studied theology and started a ministry for rape victims. She learned African dance and found solace in considering her ancestors. It took years for her to recognize that the periods of pain were something more than grief and to seek treatment for depression. In this book, she chronicles how her faith and her feelings about life were transformed throughout that process.

It took a while for this memoir to grab me. The early chapters are largely pretty ordinary in both style and substance. A lot of the pain Coleman describes seems like typical teenage angst, ramped up a bit by her parents’ divorce and her grandmother’s death. Coleman ackowledges this, noting, “I can imagine how easy it is to miss depression in teenagers. Where is the line between normal angst and frustration, and a depression that can kill?” It’s an important section because it establishes a pattern of missed diagnoses and eventually helps Coleman and her therapist see her recurrent depression and possible bipolar. But the storytelling feels less immediate than in the later chapters.

When Coleman begins discussing her rape and its aftermath, the book becomes more intense and the insights feel deeper. Coleman expresses frustration at others’ reactions to her rape, their questions about her judgment, their assurances that she could pray the pain and anger away. It takes her a long time to understand just how profoundly the experience changed her:

But everything was gone. My sense of safety. My sense of trust. My faith. The woman I was for twenty-one years ceased to exist. To whatever extent I get those things back, they will not be the same. Because I changed. I cannot go back in time. I cannot be who I was before the rape.

When Coleman discovers process theology, she finds a new way of understanding God as standing alongside her and moving with her through change. Her explanation of how her experiences led her to a new way of being with God was powerful. She went through a long period of doing ministry but being unable to pray. It took time for her to incorporate what happened to her into her vision of who God is, and until she could do that, talking to God seemed impossible.

Another striking moment was Coleman’s coming to terms with her diagnosis of depression. Although Coleman had seen therapists at various points in her life, a terrifying illness and poor medical treatment had made her reluctant to seek medication to treat the depression, even after experiencing suicidal feelings. But the depression wouldn’t go away:

Depression mocked me. I was the kitten pawing, lunging, and chasing after the string unraveling from a spool held by an entertained owner. Except there was no force outside of me playing catch-me-if-you-can with my life. The depression was inside of me, asking in every known language: “Will you take me seriously now?”

Becoming open to herself and to her friends and family about her suffering led her finally to a diagnosis and medicine that helped. That was not, of course, the end of the story. Acknowledging the depression and later the bipolar meant recognizing that the struggle will always be there and finding a way to built a life and a spirituality that takes this reality into account.

The lessons Coleman learns are not easy ones, especially in a culture that doesn’t always want to acknowledge that faith doesn’t erase people’s struggles. This memoir adds a valuable voice to the conversation.

I received an egalley of this book for review consideration via Edelweiss.

This entry was posted in Memoir, Nonfiction, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Bipolar Faith: A Black Woman’s Journey with Depression and Faith

  1. Elle says:

    This looks incredible. I’m looking up process theology now, and am thinking I might need to read this book soon.

    • Teresa says:

      I learned a very little bit about process theology in seminary, and it struck me as an interesting was to think about God. Coleman doesn’t get into the details of it, but I liked the idea that thinking about God in a different way can be a road back to faith.

      • Elle says:

        Yes, completely. I’ve found a good intro book online (and in the British Library!), so it’s up and away.

  2. You hit on interesting points, especially about the line between teen angst and depression.

    • Teresa says:

      I think it can be hard to disentangle ordinary pain or grief from something clinical and serious that won’t go away with time. Coleman’s story is a good example of the difficulty.

  3. lailaarch says:

    There is still stigma associated with depression and bipolar illness, or indeed any mental illness or struggle. I’m glad more people are starting to write and talk frankly about their conditions and the ways in which they find strength and treatment. Combine that with the faith element that she explores and this sounds like a very interesting memoir.

    • Teresa says:

      Very true about the stigma. Coleman talks a bit about the stigma with faith communities and in the black community. Openness helps so much with taking that stigma away.

  4. It sounds like one of those books which you don’t necessarily look forward to reading because its topics are so heavy, but which you definitely should read, just to better grasp other people’s worlds. I think I might have to go and give it a try now…

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