I found the book to be highly readable, personal, and an honest telling of what it’s like to live with mental illness, while trying to find God along the way. I would describe Coleman’s theology as evangelical infused with African religion turned process theology—a theology that affirms the possibility of talking about God in relationship with the constantly changing world.
At the same time, there were parts of the book that bordered on uncomfortable to read, theologically speaking. With one in ten adults in the U.S. suffering from depression, mental illness is important subject matter, however parts of Coleman’s spirituality felt foreign to my experience and made it difficult to relate to her at some points. Perhaps most importantly, anyone eager to read this book should be warned that Coleman’s experience with sexual violence plays a major role in the book.
The intersections of race, historical trauma and mental health are tangible in Coleman’s memoir. In the prologue she writes, “What’s the difference between depression, war, being black in the Jim Crow South, and plain old hard living?” It is impossible to separate her family’s history from her health. Throughout the book, we read about Coleman’s profound dedication to her identity as a black woman of faith, while also having to function in predominantly white academic settings. It’s obvious that she longs to maintain her truth, yet mental illness is such a taboo within the black community that she struggles to find a faith community that will accept her as she is.
“It took me years to learn what generations of African Americans have long understood: there are things worse than death” (xix). Albeit dark, for Coleman, a life filled with as much suffering as she has endured is easily classifiable as being worse than death.
Throughout the book, the reader can feel Coleman’s longing for something bigger than herself. She longs for someone to tell her that God is crying with her through her suffering. The reader can sense that even though Coleman does not always feel God, she never gives up hope that God exists. Along the way, she finds professors, therapists, and friends who help her get through. Ultimately, she stumbles upon her own diagnosis in a book on bipolar disorder—bipolar II, the more common form of bipolar characterized as a high-functioning, often misdiagnosed form of bipolar, which includes severe depression.
Despite setbacks, sexual violence, and a life-long battle with mental illness, Coleman gains a new understanding of theology. She writes, “I know that as I grow and change, my faith will also morph. My spiritual practices will change; my beliefs will shift; what feeds me will evolve…I will find new ways of knowing God.”
For a book written by a PhD, this book is readable without being lofty. Mental illness is something that many Americans suffer from, although perhaps not to the extent that Coleman has endured, and this makes the content relatable. Theologically speaking, I found that process theology was a theology that I have always been drawn to without ever knowing it had a name. I imagine that there are a number of persons who will read this book and feel the same way.
Race plays a major role in the book. It cannot be separated from other parts of Coleman’s identity, and the book should be read keeping intersectionality in mind. Various moments in the book could feel distant to anyone who grew up outside of the black community, but Coleman’s writing is inviting enough that the reader feels drawn to her story.
Having come from a Kansas Mennonite background, fainting at the alter and calling it anointing, speaking in tongues, and evil spirits are experiences that I am unaccustomed to but are relevant to a certain demographic of people. It is a form of church that is unfamiliar to many, and although these moments do not take up a significant portion of the book, they could be foreign and uncomfortable for some readers.
Her experience of healing from sexual violence plays a major role in the book. She spends the middle part of the book describing her feelings in the days, months, and years following her rape. She touches briefly on forgiveness and more so on mourning the part of her that died after the rape and then birthing a new self. For those for whom sexual violence is part of their story, be sure to take good self-care while reading this book.
Bipolar Faith is a book written by someone suffering from mental illness who longs to maintain her faith. This book is for anyone working to keep their faith while also suffering from mental illness or recovering from trauma. This book is for their allies. It is for persons of faith wanting to know how to best support those among us who are suffering from mental illness or on the path of recovery from trauma. This book is for people of color searching for validity from faith leaders. I would recommend this book to anyone who is looking for God somewhere in the depths of darkness, for those trying to be light in those dark depths, and for faith leaders hoping to engage in the topic of mental health.
Read and reviewed by Dominique Chew.