Today I have the pleasure of interviewing one of my favorite bloggers/writers/professors and just plain talented people out there. Dr. Monica A. Coleman is a minister, scholar, activist, and writer. (Yes, it is possible to be all those things …). Presently, she is Associate Professor at Claremont School of Theology. And she has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder! I was relieved to know that Harvard graduates can be bipolar too!
1. So as I read through some of your posts, your trip through the healthcare system—finding the right doctor—was just about as confusing as mine. What advice would you give to the person just starting that journey? What are some of the qualifications of good doctors, and red flags of bad doctors?
Monica: If I could do anything over again, I would take a trusted friend with me as an advocate. When you’re sick, you cannot be your best advocate. You just want someone to take the pain away, and you can’t make the clearest decisions. At least, that was my story. And that’s not just about mental health, but it’s especially true in this area. My advocate could speak up for me, write things down, help me process them afterward, and talk about aspects of my journey and symptoms that I might not think to say. This friend or advocate can also know you well enough to know when there’s not a good match in terms of values, personality, style, etc.
There is one thing I did that helped a lot – when I was looking for doctors about 10 years ago – I wrote all my symptoms down. I wrote down every pattern I could think of, and answered all the questions I thought a doctor would ask (after all, they tend to ask the same introductory questions). Then I handed these sheets of paper to a doctor. It was much less exhausting than re-telling my story and symptoms every time I met with a new doctor.
I think that finding a good doctor is about finding the right match. I want to have doctors with the same values and worldview that I have. So I ask questions about their philosophical approach to health care. I also want doctors that are feminists. It sounds like an odd requirement, but I had a bad experience where a doctor in the hospital asked me why I moved to a particular city for a job when I was dating someone in another city and wanted to maintain the relationship. I could barely believe I had to explain that my career was important to me too. I need doctors who are not afraid of talking about faith – without eschewing medication. I need doctors who understand the advantages and disadvantages of medication and alternative therapies, and who are willing to work with me across modalities
2. As a reverend, you are obviously a religious and spiritual person. How has your faith played a part in your recovery?
Monica: My faith has been the ground and saving force for me in the midst of living with a bipolar depressive condition. In my most difficult darkest moments, I know with every fiber of my being that God is with me, and that God understands what I’m going through and how I feel. In those moments, I feel like no one else can get inside my head and know me and understand me like God can. I feel that God wants my wellness, but sits with me and holds me when I’m unwell.
When I crave community – or need community – to sustain me, the worship traditions of black churches are like a balm to my soul. The music of the spirituals and the cadence of black preaching styles and the ritual of altar prayers transport me to some of my happiest and most spiritual moments as a child. I feel the pains and joys of the ancestors and those in the present community and I literally feel uplifted and buoyed. My parents and grandparents raised me in this tradition, and no depression yet has extracted this from my cells.
3. Do you find the stigma among the African American culture even thicker than the white culture? If so, how do you penetrate that?
Monica: In many ways, I do think that there is a greater stigma among African American culture than among white cultures. I live in southern California, and many white people will freely reference “seeing a therapist” in normal conversation. Black people don’t do that. Seeing a therapist is generally seen as a sign of weakness or a lack of faith. There is still an active mythos of “the strong black woman,” who is supposed to be strong and present and capable for everyone in her family – and neglects her own needs. In the midst of a depressive episode, I had a friend say to me, “We are the descendants of those who survived the Middle Passage and slavery. Whatever you’re going through cannot be that bad.” I was so hurt and angry by that statement. No, depression isn’t human trafficking, genocide or slavery, but it is real death-threatening pain to me. And of course, there are those who did not survive those travesties. But that comment just made me feel small and selfish and far worse than before. It made me wish I had never said anything at all.
I am just now learning that vulnerability is strength. I am learning to speak and write boldly about the reality of living with a depressive condition. Even when it’s hard and I don’t have it all figured out and it’s actively kicking my butt. It’s the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. It feels like running naked across the front lawn.
But I also feel a lot of affirmation when people respond – especially other black women – and let me know that their processes and challenges are made lighter by hearing their experience reflected from a pulpit, leadership, the classroom, or wherever I am. That confirms what I’ve felt is a calling from God. It encourages me, and helps my health.
4. You are a beautiful writer. Is it therapy for you?
Monica: Thank you.
I think a lot of my writing emerges from the experience of living with a depressive condition. I’ve often tried to hide my sadness and retreat into myself – while putting forth the exuberant, happy, productive side of myself. I would pour the sadness into my writing – journal writing, poetry, short stories and prose. As a teenager, I think my writing teachers saw my challenges more than anyone else. I still find the page to be a safe place to express myself. I still actively journal. It’s a place to put my most raw emotions and be validated without worrying about the impact of those feelings.
My more public writing is ministry for me. I have been so deeply moved by books that I personally know the power of the written word to create community, to validate, to encourage and nourish and create new worlds. I don’t know that my writing has done this for others the way some writing has done this for me. But I hope it does. If I can accomplish even a fraction of that for at least one other person, then I feel that I am living out my calling.