Monica Coleman has always been a high achiever. Harvard undergrad, MDiv at Vanderbilt, PhD at Emory, ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, now a professor of theology and African-American religions at Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, Calif.—her accomplishments are impressive, all the more so since she suffered from paralyzing depressive episodes that were only later explained as symptoms of bipolar disease. Offering a rare memoir about mental illness by someone in ministry, Coleman is telling her story in Bipolar Faith: A Black Woman’s Journey with Depression and Faith (Fortress, July).
While people marveled at her energy as an Ivy League student, a pastor-in-training, and a fitness fanatic, close friends witnessed her deep depressions. Operating under the widely-held assumption in her church that seeking professional or medical treatment would indicate a “lack of faith,” Coleman hesitated to find help until her church work and studies began to be severely affected by her symptoms. With her diagnosis of bipolar II in 2003, the mystery was solved.
“Most people know bipolar as a condition with highs and lows,” said Coleman. “The highs are usually associated with feeling invincible, not sleeping, or spending sprees.” But with bipolar II, the highs are lower. “They usually manifest as productivity, quick thinking, an ability to multitask well, rapid speech, and sometimes irritability or anxiety,” she told PW.
Coleman also writes of being raped by a friend while in grad school. Still unable to recover years later she discovered her church didn’t offer much support. Revealing her trauma to pastors at several churches, Coleman said she received halfhearted responses. Some church leaders even implied Coleman was to blame, while others told her that having strong faith should be enough to get over it. “I disclosed the rape to ministers like trying on new shoes,” Coleman writes in the book. “Pick out a style, estimate the size, and slide foot inside… Only to find that the pretty looking shoes pinch the toes or leave gaps in the heels.”
Finally, Coleman took recovery into her own hands. She created a support group for victims of sexual violence that evolved into the Dinah Project (named after the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah in Genesis 34), and in 2004, Fortress published her book on the program, The Dinah Project. She has also written four other books, on depression and on African-American and womanist theology.
Of baring her suffering in Bipolar Faith, Coleman said, “I had looked for stories of other people going through the same things, especially people of color, but I couldn’t find them. So I wrote the book I wished I’d had then.”
Today, Coleman has stopped seeing her symptoms as a personal failure and found peace with her illness, which has deepened her faith. “Being bipolar is part of me, and now I am able to like myself,” she said. “I have the assurance of God’s presence and my team of good friends, medicines, doctors, and my faith to hold me together.”
Tony Jones, senior acquisitions editor for Fortress’s two-year-old Theology for the People line, called Bipolar Faith a “theological memoir,” one that ponders the nature of God through life story. Marketing and publicity plans for the book include a social media blitz and a nine-city tour of churches, educational institutions, and bookstores starting in July.