Dr. Monica Coleman stands at the intersection of two worlds that don’t have a natural intersection: faith and science. She is an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a professor at Claremont School of Theology, and suffers from mental illness. In her 2012 book, Not Alone, she wedded her belief system to her condition, going so far as saying she finds God in her pills. This is one interesting theologian. We asked her to talk about her faith, her mental illness, her comforting rituals, and her disgust of the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
TP: You consider the saying “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” a “damaging lie.” Can you explain?
MC: I think it’s a damaging lie because depression does a lot of damage. Someone says that and you think, I should be doing better, I should feeling stronger. It’s like, well, it’s not true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger because for so many people what doesn’t kill leaves you a more shallow shell of who you used to be. Not everyone gets stronger. It was important to me to tell that truth. A lot of being able to see value in suffering is access to health care and your support network and a lot of dumb luck. Just living through it is reason enough to celebrate. You don’t have to be stronger. You just have to still be here.
TP: You write about the importance of knowing the rituals and the behaviors that comfort you, and doing them even when you don’t feel like it. For you it’s baking and bicycling, and watching your favorite comedian. How did you find your things?
MC: I stumbled on them and didn’t know I had them until I didn’t have them. I was one of those people who didn’t know how to bike as a kid. I was a roller-skater. I had a good regiment of exercise because I was on a sports team, and I kept up physical activity in college and in grad school. Then I made a move in my education and I realized I didn’t have those things and I hit a really bad low. I had a very stark and bad depression. There are probably a million reasons why, you know, chemistry and environment and all types of things, and I didn’t have the safety net, I didn’t have my rituals, I didn’t have a church community that felt good and like home to me. I had exercise but that alone didn’t do it. The things that I set up as part of my life, which I didn’t think of as how you live with depression, I thought I was just living life, but I moved and didn’t have those things and I realized those things – baking, bicycling, church – kind of kept me afloat. That was 12, 15 years ago. What I ended up doing was relocating to a community where I had more support, where I had better health services, where I had family, where there was no snow, which was important to me, where it wasn’t going to get cold and gray, I had to make that conscious decision, which was incredibly expensive and difficult to do. Now I’m better at knowing the things that I have to do.
TP: And they change.
MC: They do. Even now I find that there are other things that weren’t on my list, and so I add to the list. We’re evolving people.
TP: You like lists.
MC: Lists are really helpful for me. It gives you a sense of accomplishment to check something off your list.
TP: All right, the big question: tell me what faith means to you, and how you apply it to your mental health?
MC: There’s no perfect faith out there, right? Most of us need permission to say, I don’t feel like that, without kicking the whole thing to the curb. I wanted to show from within Christian traditions, as a minister, that sometimes I have doubts, I get angry. For me faith can be as simple as believing that the medication will work.
TP: I like that you have faith in medication. Can you talk more about that?
MC: I get this question the most when I do workshops. The way I think of it is as crutches. Medication is really helpful, just like crutches are really helpful. With crutches you use them for a while and then you recover and then you walk. A lot of people won’t be on crutches their whole life, but some people will be in a wheelchair the rest of their life. Medication treats symptoms, and symptoms can take you out. I mean I don’t understand when people say, Oh they’re just symptoms. Symptoms can cause you to be suicidal. Symptoms are really significant. If they are prohibiting your productivity, or even your functionality, you need to address them. But there’s always more. I’ve discovered that dealing with medication, whether going on or going off, requires faith. If you don’t believe it’s going to work it’s not going to work. It’s the opposite of the placebo effect.
TP: Did you have to work to get to that type of belief?
MC: Oh yes. I didn’t want to have to take medications. I didn’t want to have to go to doctors. I didn’t want to be that person who needs to need something – I’ve had all these conversations with myself — for weeks, months, years. How I must be really bad, not just kind of bad but really bad if I need medication. I’ve had all of these things in my mind where I talk myself out of getting help. I had to get to the point where I could say I’m going to choose to believe that this going to really be helpful — and like other things that are part of faith, it’s a process, it’s a daily process.
TP: And medication does work for you?
MC: It does, but it’s a trial and error. I do have side effects though, and getting off medication really takes faith. That can be really hard.
TP: I wonder if for some people faith leads to not seeking help because with faith one should have everything one needs. Do you minister to people whose faith is counterproductive to being open to mental health treatment?
MC: I see what you’re saying. In many ways I agree with you. The faith that many of us have inherited in whatever way can sometimes not be helpful. We hear all types of things, that I really think are unintentional I think, which are really not helpful in trying to live a healthy life when it comes to mental health, just trying to be a regular person who is fallible. Part of what I’m trying to do is show that one can be faithful, and live openly with a depressive condition. For me my faith is really important. And as a theologian I can redefine it and use it to think about things in different ways. Faith is such an important part of people’s lives and I want to say to them that you can be faithful and you can be depressed. God doesn’t hate you.
TP: Would you be comfortable sharing your diagnosis?
MC: I have a bipolar depressive condition.
TP: That can take a while to get right. Was yours a struggle to find the right diagnosis and treatment?
MC: It did take a while to get right – bipolar is not often bipolar one, which is extreme and obvious, and it can be easily thought of as depression. I can understand why it’s often misdiagnosed. I resisted medication for so long, which is not good, but in a way it kept me from being misdiagnosed and put on the wrong medication in that arena. By the time I did go on medication I had enough people around me who were saying this could be helpful, and it has been. I’m lucky, I don’t really have a bad medication story. I’ve often known more about it than doctors. I’ll be the one to say, wait, I don’t know that this will be good, or let’s look at this. Partly because I’m such a research nut. [laughs.]
TP: Was it difficult to be a strong advocate for yourself at a time when you weren’t feeling your best?
MC: Oh yes. It requires a lot of stamina. That’s where the faith helps. It’s faith in a process that’s hard to have faith in. So many people get tired of all the trial and error involved and that leads to suicidal thoughts, and I can certainly understand.
TP: All right, final question, and on a lighter note. You write that in dark times you reach for a DVD of your favorite comedian. Who’s the comedian?
MC: Chris Rock.
TP: “Bring the Pain”?
MC: That’s the one. I’ve watched it a million times when I’m down and it always makes me laugh.
TP: He would probably enjoy hearing that.
MC: I hope someone tells him.
This interview has been condensed and edited for publication.