Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor
Ourselves|Black continues the dialogue with Dr. Monica Coleman about her important new book, Bipolar Faith: A Black Woman’s Journey with Depression and Faith as part of our discussion on faith and mental health. Part 1 is here.
A reliable truism of mental health wisdom is that every issue started somewhere. Often a specific problem is a culmination of traumas, emotional shocks, and profound hurts and losses. Someone close is seriously hurt or dies, a child is molested or attacked, a lover brutally betrays. What happens next reveals the paradox of mental health in the black community: critical and deep-rooted issues, even though they are so familiar, don’t get talked about very much at all. Yes, the events are relived sometimes almost ad nauseum, but the scars and wounds are simply left in plain sight without comment. Over time it becomes clear that just as important as a thing itself is how that thing is handled.
In Bipolar Faith, Dr. Coleman, by sharing both events and how she handled them, provides an honest, daring, and bracing witness for a people who’ve seen plenty of tragedy but need more examples of how to work through the mental and emotional aftermath of what the things leave behind.
Consider what she had to say when I asked her about grief.
OB: I want to talk for a moment about grief. Are we giving grief and the working through of grief enough space in our culture? And if not, do you think that’s contributing to and putting pressure on some of our mental health situations?
Dr. MC: Yes! I think that across the board we try to move on too fast. There is this sense that after deep pain there should be unity, there should be reconciliation , you should get up and go to work. Take one of the most common forms of grief where you lose a loved one. Your elderly parent dies and you take a week off to get business together and funeralize, and then you go back to work. Nobody’s ok! You’re just supposed to go back to life as usual and do whatever it is you were doing before. Even as clergy we do funerals and forget to check in one month, two months, three months later after that period. That’s why I so love the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva. Everything stops for seven days and [they] don’t do anything except sit and be upset. It’s an acknowledgment that that’s all you can do when there’s grief. Sit still and be upset and let people do things for you because that’s what you need . And not that the grief goes away in seven days but acknowledging there’s a season in which you’re immobile is important and makes such a difference emotionally and spiritually and psychologically. We don’t do that as a society and so I think grief just settles in and it becomes painful and difficult for people. And grief can become depression. It can become depression when you’ve been living with the kind of challenging, I-can’t-do-what-I-need-to-do grief.
OB: In talking about grief and how we short-circuit the grieving process, one of the things I’m interested in culturally is the StrongBlackWoman thing, that truncated identity . I can’t tell from the descriptions you give of other women in your life but do you think [seeing that identity lived out] had anything to do with [how you reacted to and processed situations]?
Dr. MC: I think it did in the sense that there’s this [idea] that one has to be strong, the trope that I have to be a strong black woman but also literally you had to be strong because there was no safety net. If you didn’t work, nobody ate, nobody had anywhere to live. My grandmother was a sharecropper, and her husband died when she was very young and she had these two little kids and her. So what’s the option? Some of [the StrongBlackWoman identity] was created by the intersection of poverty and war and slavery so that you don’t feel like you have any options. It’s not like there is this trust fund that I can rely on so that I can just take a six month sabbatical and work things out. You have to work it out while you’re doing other things. … But there’s also this sense that was pervasive for me…that growing up African American, you don’t let them see you sweat. You have to do twice as much to receive half as much. But you don’t want a majority culture to know there’s anything wrong with you. People of color and women feel particularly vulnerable and so you definitely always want to present this image that you’ve got this, that you’re capable. That you are more than capable and confident because you feel like, ‘I’m already operating from a disadvantaged position. For me, that part was a very big factor.
OB: So when you were finally able to get a comprehensible diagnosis (Bipolar II Disorder) that made sense to you, it involved this aspect that you were still able to be very highly productive and functioning. Did that in any way make you feel better?
Dr. MC: No! Because I am highly functioning to other people but not to myself so within my own mind I know all the things I’m not doing and all the things I want to do but can’t do. It has taken years of people telling me this before I believed it because I don’t feel like that. … So to me, I didn’t frame it as strong black woman but I went back and forth between a sense that, I don’t have to be strong—and people close to me could see that—and resisting the image that says I can ask for help when I need it. I oscillated between that for a very long time, for decades.
OB: When we talk about asking for help as a person of faith, part of that is going to be reaching out and reaching up to God for help. So I was drawn by your discussion in the book when you talk about what happened to your relationship with God when things began to happen and as things unraveled a little bit more. What made you not just completely walk away from the faith?
Dr. MC: I often tell people if I wasn’t a minister, if I wasn’t in divinity school, I might have walked away from it. There was something about black church faith that was a part of who I am. It was like brushing my teeth. When I get scared I sing spirituals to myself. I think that was a big part of it, and the asking for help, we’re all kind of conditioned to ask God for help. I tried to ask churches for help and I give examples [in the book]of people who were so unhelpful . But there were also people who were incredibly helpful, who embodied the presence, the grace, the love, and the acceptance of God. Because of those people, it was okay if God and I were falling out because they were there. That’s why it makes such a big difference what we do for people.
OB: What do you think we could do to take better care of each other?
Dr. MC: Women especially are very good at taking care of other people . We’re socialized to take care of other people before we take care of ourselves. Whether you’re a parent or not, this is how women are socialized. Men are okay with operating in the world much more selfishly… If we don’t take good care of ourselves we often do take good care of other people. Perhaps one thing we can do is do that for each other, but as peers. I was often at these smaller churches and even some larger churches that had small groups. ... Sometimes it’s making your larger community into smaller sub-communities. The hard thing is you can’t really force this. You can orchestrate and facilitate but…it happens organically. Sometimes it’s just slowing down and having genuine relationships with people where you want to hear how they’re doing, and you’re willing to be honest with someone else about how you’re really doing. Clearly this won’t be the whole world but most of us only need five or six people like that.