Sacrament By Monica A. Coleman


The following is a guest post written by Monica A. Coleman, Ph.D., scholar and activist committed to connecting faith and social justice. An ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Coleman has earned degrees at Harvard University, Vanderbilt University and Claremont Graduate University.  Coleman is currently Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology in southern California. She is also Associate Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate University.

This article was originally posted on the Beautiful Mind Blog.  Be sure to check in there and follow Monica’s journey.

“You have to believe in it. It won’t work if you don’t have some faith that it will work.”

These are the words my friend said to me years ago when I realized I could no longer manage my depressive condition without medication. Friend to friend, depressive to depressive, minister to minister . . . he told me to have faith.

I knew how to have faith in God. We prayed and preached about that for a living. I was not used to having faith in a pill.

I’m the kind of person who has to have a raging headache for at least 6 hours before I’ll take a painkiller. I’ve been misdiagnosed more than one time, given the wrong medication, and suffered through weeks of vomiting and head-to-toe rashes. And that was for medical conditions far less complicated than the human brain. By the time of this conversation, I had negative faith in medicine and its competency when it came to my body. In my worst medication-related reactions, I lay down in bed and declared I would die right here before I went back to that doctor again.

But I didn’t want to die, and when death at my own hands became a closer reality than I could stand, I called the psychiatrist. In the days before the appointment, my friend reminded me I was going to have to muster up some faith in more than God if I wanted to get better.

At the time, I lacked the ability to see how my friend was connecting my attitude and my health. I knew that some religious traditions believe that you can heal illnesses through prayer and meditation. I knew that some traditions disallow procedures that some medical doctors consider life saving – like blood transfusions. I had read about these religious trajectories. I didn’t know anyone who lived them, and I was not a part of these traditions. My Christian faith had never taught me to eschew allopathic medicine.

But lay and medical personnel alike are aware of what many religions have long taught: your mental and spiritual approach to your body and healing make a difference on how you heal.

And who’s to say God doesn’t work in and through medication?

“You have faith in inanimate things all the time,” my friend continued.

I had faith in a chair – that it wouldn’t collapse when I sat on it.

“Try to believe in the medication. Believe that it will help you.”

I decided to believe – but more through a combination of desperation and my trust in my friend, than spiritual maturity.

The twice-daily pill swallowing served as a kind of Eucharist or holy meal where I trusted in the mystery that what I put in my mouth would connect me to God, myself and others.

What I could not have imagined then was how much faith it takes to get off medication.

There is a common idea that a diagnosis of a mental health challenge starting psychotropic medication and staying on it for the rest of one’s life. That’s what the nurse at the HMO told me. This is true for some people.

But there are also many reasons why people who live with depressive conditions stop taking medication. Here is a couple:

  • It’s contraindicative with another medication that must be taken for a more serious or pressing condition
  • It threatens the health of a growing fetus (if you’re a woman planning to birth children)
  • Another medication might work better but the system has to be med-free to start something new
  • The medication is for one pole of a bipolar depression, but unhelpful when moving towards the other pole

These are just a few of the reasons I’ve heard from my doctors and friends who live with depressive conditions. I’ve gone off medication for some of the reasons listed here.

If going on medication requires the patience of a saint, getting off medication requires the faith of one.

First there are the side effects. Mine have included nausea, insomnia, unbelievable sleepiness and headaches. Not for hours, but for days and weeks. I’ve literally taken to the bed and wished for a detox center.

I’ve marveled at the power of the medication – to both stabilize me, treat threatening symptoms, and then to undo my stability.

What is so wrong with my brain that un-taking a couple of pills throws my whole body off kilter?

And then there’s life without it. I needed so much faith to take the pills . . . the faith I mustered to believe what I’m not: I’m not less of a human being, or less than God’s beloved creation; I’m not a wimp who couldn’t handle life nor am I a believer whose piety failed her. All that faith means nothing when the meds are gone.

Without meds, I am wholly dependent on a new trinity of regular sleep, exercise and disciplined healthy eating. These are not optional. They are the practices I need to be okay . . . and if I’m lucky, well and happy.

Oh, and there’s the anger and resentment. I am completely convinced that other people, normal people, don’t have to do all this. I know it’s a lie that depression tells me. But I still believe it. I don’t want to add one more item to the daily to-dos: tell the depression liar that there are no “normal people” and everyone should be doing these things.

I suspect that my Protestant heritage makes this kind of faith more difficult for me. As Martin Luther and his many successors critiques the abuses of the Catholic church of their day, they stressed the importance of biblical text, and of faith as belief. They wanted to make God and religion more accessible to ordinary people.

This Christian trajectory often loses a more sacramental understanding of faith. Catholics and Orthodox did a far better job of reminding people that God is in the elements and the rituals. Engaging in these things was also an experience of God.

Is it God when my alarm goes off indicating that it’s time for me to go to the gym?

Is it a divine calling to have my head on the pillow no later than 10:30 every night?

Is organic tropical fruit holier than my constant chocolate craving?

In my world of living with a depressive condition – with and without meds – the answer is yes. It means trusting that there is some salvation in the elements and the rituals.



Categories: Women's Suffering

Tags: , , ,

5 replies

  1. Dr. Coleman,
    Your ministry is powerful beyond words. For all the rest of us that tread more quietly, with shame, on this path, your constant openness, your sharing of your struggle, lights a path that we might share with you. I will share that as someone with an anxiety disorder since my 20s, and after going off the medicine for it this summer (again, finally, or a mistake?), the universe now requires my attention – like you – to the way I eat, sleep, get physical excersise, and practice my faith. It is not an easy path for any of us, but I believe, entirely, that G-d is there in the ways you describe. G-d in the elements? Indeed. In the medicine that helps. In the challenges and opportunities of leaving the medicine behind. Many thanks.

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  2. Dr Coleman,
    Thank you for sharing the thing that makes us feel most fragile, a mental health battle. Thank you for your carefully balanced acknowledgement that medication can work but is not for everyone. I was lucky that the two clinical depression episodes that added to my understanding of depression were not severe enough that I acted out my suicidal ideations.I was even luckier that whatever chemical imbalance was present has not returned. Like you, I practice good health with rigor.

    Both episodes were in response to prolonged stress without any support I could recognise. Your friend was a gift from God. Depresssion felt like being in the bottom of a deep well with no energy to call for help or even recognise that anything could be done to climb that steep ladder out.Your friend named the problem and a possibility. The naming is powerful.
    In 1968 depression was rarely written of or spoken about as the frequent companion of women that is recognised today, nor were there any but the most powerful drugs. Depression was often called “a female”, meaning hormonal, problem with a common solution thought to be ” a good man”, meaning sex. What???? Not helpful!
    Thanks to the sharing by respected people like you, depression and other mental illness has come closer to being not a shame, but an illness. May you be blessed with serenity and good health.

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  3. Thank you both Peggy and Lara – especially for your personal sharing and the encouragement along this journey!

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  4. Hi Monica, I too have suffered from depression. Hartshorne’s notion that many things that happen in our world are the result of chance, not my choice or yours, and not the will of Goddess or God, has been helpful to me. When I was at my lowest points, I kept saying, “It will never get any better, and why me?” I really do believe that there are many ways in which life just ish’t fair, not to me, not to you, and not to many others. But life is a gift all the same. I hope you find your way through this. I have found renewed joy in the gift of life ever since I felt the room filled with love when my mother died. I DID NOT get what I wanted and felt I needed from life, but I learned to appreciate what I do have. Just the other day, I said to a friend, “I did not get my ‘true job,’ I did not get my ‘true love,’ but I do have two ‘true dogs.'” When I woke up the next morning, I couldn’t stop smiling, because I knew that now, that is enough, and I also knew that at one time, it would not have been. Love, Carol

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