Lauren Polly, MEd., CF, RYT, knows first-hand how a mental health diagnosis can also mean a life of labels, stigma and limitation. After exploring alternative modalities along with traditional treatment, she discovered the importance of treating the whole person – body, mind, and soul. She discovered that she is a gifted empath who is keenly aware of others and her environment and her entire life changed when she reclaimed those gifts beyond her diagnosis. Now, she shares her transformative path to help those with similar stories to reclaim their own gifts. Lauren is also a speaker and executive life coach who works with leaders around the globe to trail-blaze their mission-driven work in the world. Lauren received her Master’s degree from the University of Virginia in Communication Disorders with a focus in Speech and Language Pathology. She is the author of The Other Side of Bipolar, an internationally best-selling and multi-award-winning book.
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Lauren, thanks so much for taking some time to hang with me today. I really appreciate it.
I’m happy to be here.
Lauren, you have written a book called The Other Side of Bipolar: Revealing Your Strengths to Move Beyond the Diagnosis. I want to hear a bit more of your story. We have a lot of moms who listen to our podcast with young kids that are growing up and moving through puberty, and of course through high school and college. Every kid has their own journey. Of course, my kids have had some challenges through those seasons of life. But I want to hear a bit more of your story, and when did you start to experience some challenges as a young person?
It kind of started to hit around age thirteen, right at that crux point of adolescence kicking in. So much of it, I believe, was secondary to the social changes that occur at that time. It stopped being about just being fun and open, and playing, and being yourself at that age, and started to be about do you fit in? If so, how? And if not, why? It was just interesting, all the different social scenarios I found myself in with getting bullied or feeling like I didn’t measure up. All the whispers that happen in middle school, which happens to everybody unfortunately.
It’s very challenging and it almost kind of work up this inner enemy in my head. Where before I knew it, the voices weren’t coming from other kids from the outside in, it was something that I internalized. My head became very judgmental and very self-conscious about myself, which led me down a dark, dark path.
When you say inner enemy, what were some of the things that you were hearing about yourself that perhaps other kids are hearing a well?
That people didn’t like me. That I didn’t fit in. I was very pretty and I always garnered a lot of attention for it, but somehow that kind of worked against me when I got into middle school because I drew a lot of attention. If I didn’t behave the way other kids do, you know they like to put you as the odd man out, so I was going through that in a big, big way.
Also, I’m very sensitive and very aware of my environment, so a lot of the whispers in that situation may not have been directed directly at me, but because I was aware of the environment to such a degree, I felt like everything was about me. So my paranoia with that grew. I got very anxious. I got very depressed. Very, like I said, hyper-critical. It just escalated from there.
At what point, you said escalated, did that move toward a depression or suicide attempt? How did that end up playing out for you?
It started first with anxiety, and getting very, very anxious, very nervous. I had a lot of social anxiety, where before like I said, I was very friendly and it was just easy to engage with people. All of a sudden, I was second guessing everything I said. I just wanted to disappear quite frankly. I felt like everybody was looking at me and talking about me. Which of course then led into depression and then dark thoughts. I had a lot of mood fluctuations.
Then unfortunately because I didn’t have language to express it, I didn’t have an external event of trauma to talk about, it was just this confusion and feeling lost, I hid it all. I just put a smile on my face and I tried to navigate it on my own, which wasn’t successful. After months and months of that, I just gave up and I started to contemplate suicide. I wrote a letter and I took a bunch of pills and luckily my mom found the note before I had a chance to go back and do it again.
Wow. How did she find the note? What was that experience like?
Well, my mom calls it a God whisper. Basically she was noticing some behavior changes in me. Again, like I said, they were subtle because I was hiding a lot of it. But she finally got a call from one of my teachers. I had forged a signature from her on a bad grade, which is very unlike me to get bad grades first of all, also to forge a signature. So she just had this whisper that something bigger was up. Went home, searched my room, and there was my letter hidden in my desk in my room.
Wow, that is a heartbreaking moment for a parent for sure, and scary of course. What did your mom end up doing? Did she talk to you about it? What happened?
I came home from school and my dad’s car was in the driveway, which was unusual that he was home that early. I walked in and they were both sitting around the kitchen table, red faced and puffy from crying.
They both just sat on either side of me and grabbed a hand and just said, “I found your letter.” I immediately broke down and started crying. I didn’t even realize how much I was carrying and trying to hide, and how much energy I was using towards that. Just to have that opening of, “We know what’s going on,” allowed me that opening that I needed to be able to get it off my chest and start processing it.
What a powerful moment. What a scary, scary moment, yeah. Did they end up seeking outside support to help you? What was the next step there?
The first step we went to is this social worker who was the wife of the pastor at the church we attended. She was kind of the soft spot in the immediate help of that evening, just to walk us all through it. From there we went to different doctors. I ended up getting diagnosed as bipolar shortly thereafter. But it was fascinating having this big moment of, finally I was able to open the floodgates and express myself.
From that moment on, I never wanted to take my life again. I immediately started feeling better. Part of what I like to do with my story is open up those doors for other kids and teenagers, college kids, to be able to open the door without the drama of a suicide note. I think if we just had more open conversations about this without the stigma or the freak-out, I think it would be a lot easier to navigate the ups and downs.
Yeah. When you were diagnosed with bipolar, for people who aren’t familiar, we’ve all heard that term, how would you describe that in layman’s terms? What is it and how does it play out in someone’s life?
Yeah. There’s different forms of it, but basically from a bigger perspective, it’s having both poles. So instead up just having unipolar depression where you’re depressed, flat affect, no energy, lack of interest, sad. You have that, but you also have the opposite pole too. The bubbly, the fast rate of speech, the impulsivity, the feeling of grandiose-ness. There’s just big rollercoaster of emotions.
In between there’s a lot of anger, there’s a lot of upset. There’s just hot bedded emotions up and down. Very uncontrollable and also kind of illogical. So I think that’s the bigger things. Like I said, I started anxious and depressed, and the more that it festered in me, the more that my mood fluctuations started to do that. Being on a roller-coaster.
When that was a diagnosis that was given to you, did that feel like relief, did it feel like a burden, did it feel like there was a stigma? How did you and your family begin to process that?
It was a rough road. I tell you, the very first time the diagnosis came, I felt relief. But it wasn’t from the label, it was relief of, there was a doctor who knew what was wrong with me and therefore could fix it. In my fourteen-year-old mind, that’s exactly what would happen. “You have a problem. Here’s the medicine. Here’s the treatment. Now you’re good to go.” It wasn’t until going through the process of therapy and learning more about it, where I went, “Oh, this is a lifelong thing.”
Unfortunately a lot of therapeutic techniques are really based in limitation and scare tactics. That’s what I went through bigtime in my younger years. Nothing was about holistic approaches or building up my self-esteem. It was always, “There’s something wrong with you and it’s always going to be wrong, and here’s what you have to do to handle it.” It wasn’t until I was twenty, six, seven years later, that I met a holistic doctor. He was the one who really changed my entire life and perspective on it.
Before we head into that part of your story, when you say that there was scare tactics, what does that mean?
“You have a chemical imbalance and even when you take medicine you may not be okay.” “You’re always going to have ups and downs in life.” “You can’t handle stress, so don’t try to shoot too big. Because as soon as stress hits, you’re going to lose it.” All of this stuff. The thing with these labels, and I don’t think people understand, especially in our society where we’re so quick to label people and so quick to write them off after they’ve received that label. They don’t understand that with that label, not only comes stigma, a whole host of personality traits comes with it, and predictions of future.
So you labeling a kiddo who is younger and is bright and hopeful for the future, a lot of that gets taken away as soon as they start to learn more about the diagnosis. And as they’re starting to be treated as a diagnosis and not as a person. So for me, that’s what the scare tactic was. It was all of a sudden I stopped being Lauren and I started being bipolar Lauren. It just became this filter that I started to see myself through.
Did other people know about the diagnosis? Was it something that you shared or your parents shared? Did you keep that private?
Well, one of my chapters in my book is “It’s Not Safe to Share”. That came after going to a youth group meeting and sharing that I had been through this suicide attempt and then gotten diagnosed. I just remember the phone ringing off the hook that evening with the parents of the other kids calling my parents. Part of it was in sympathy and part of it was because their kids were freaked out.
I could just perceive the ripple effect of that, where it really wasn’t safe to share because it impacted people in such a negative way. People looked at me differently. There was a fear in their eyes where there didn’t use to be. So I learned very quickly to start to hide it. “This is a private thing. This is something I’m going to get judged for. Nobody can know.”
Was faith or has faith been a part of your mental health ongoing? Or was that something that was more part of your childhood?
It was for my family. My family is very, very religious and they leaned on that. For me, I’m much more spiritual, I guess you would call it. For me, it’s way more about being connected and not being in the ideology of the religion. That’s just a personal choice. But for me the broader scope of religion, faith, spirituality, is just knowing that you’re connected to something bigger and you’re made of something bigger.
For me, that’s changed my perspective on my living and my quote/unquote “struggles” of, perhaps you’re here to share a message with more people and make their path easier. So that’s definitely helped me all the way through. Just knowing it’s not my little bubble that I’m trying to survive, which so many of us get stuck in. But what if there’s a greater purpose to all of it?
You mentioned that in your early twenties, you began to get some help from more of a holistic perspective. Talk to me about that doctor that began to help you.
Oh, he was a gamechanger. He was a gamechanger. He was the first person in six years of therapy that took his eyes off the big, pink elephant of the diagnosis, and actually saw me for me. The care was actually quite different. Up until that point, it had been fifteen minute checks with the doctor of, “Hey, how you doing? Here’s the next prescription.” And the psychotherapy, which is basically, “You’ve got a problem, you’ve got to keep digging until you fix it.” He was like, “We need to look at your schooling and your strengths, and pick a career that works for you. We’ve got to build your self-esteem.” He started yoga with me, meditation, diet, supplements. It was really the first person who looked at me in the entirety.
It was quite fascinating, because as soon as he started to take my eyes off the problem and actually put my eyes on developing myself, all of a sudden, all the medication that I was on started to be able to get weaned. I started to feel more confident, so I didn’t need the social anxiety medicine. My perspective on myself started to change, I didn’t need the paranoia medicine anymore. He weaned me off of all but one medicine on a very, very minimal dose. Over the next ten years working with different doctors, I was able to not only get off medicine but they actually overturned my diagnosis.
That was ten years ago. I’ve been off meds and perfectly fine since then.
I have never heard of such a thing of overturning a diagnosis such as that. How did this come about? What’s the process? Is this unusual? This sounds unusual to me.
It sounds very unusual, and at the same time, since I’ve written my book, I have heard from multiple, multiple people where they’ve had something similar. Whether it’s something that evened out over time. Whether it’s something where I just manage it better now. I don’t really have an answer for that, but there’s been a lot of people who’ve been able to, in the throes of adolescence, get diagnosed with something and through maturity and using different techniques, they’ve been able to come out on the other end.
I didn’t do it on my own. It was basically starting with that holistic doctor at age twenty, where medicines and the diagnosis was part of the package. But over the next ten years, me doing yoga, meditation, diet, developing myself more, the medicines just continued to get weaned until the age thirty. I met with my doctor at the time and said, “You know, I’m on such minimal medicines. Is it possible to try me off fifteen, sixteen years after I was first diagnosed and just see how do?” She was willing to work with me.
She worked with me through the whole process. She followed me after. One day I was like, “Do you actually think I have that diagnosis?” She says, “It’s too hard to tell, but I think you’re more prone to severe anxiety and depression, but you manage yourself so well.” So it’s just a fascinating thing. These labels, if you buy them lock, stock, and barrel, and you make them part of you, it never, ever changes. Even if you don’t have your diagnosis overturned, just being able to get some more breathing room around it.
That label, it is so powerful. I would say in our culture, even that term bipolar has a pretty big stigma.
Compared to depressed, anxious, ADHD. Bipolar, whoa. That’s a big one. Why is that? Why do you think that has such a stigma in our culture? And why is this so important for you to be talking about?
I think the stigma is a fascinating thing. For me, stigma really comes when you start grouping people together. For me, it’s no different than looking at somebody’s race, or religion, or social economic class. You put a label on them and that’s who they become. I think bipolar is so fascinating because it’s so stigmatized. So many people who have it, I think three or four million people in the U.S. alone. It’s quite large, the number. So many people manage themselves so well that nobody would know the difference. Nobody would know.
The people where you do go, “Oh, they’re bipolar.” They’re the ones who aren’t managing themselves. Because of that, the rest of us get grouped into their erratic behavior. All of these interesting things. The bad apple of the bunch is the one that gets the attention. People put the label with it and before you know it, that’s what you think it is. You don’t look at the broader scope of everyone else who is dealing with it and living a happy, successful life.
Yeah. I mean, I’ll admit Lauren, I have that stigma in my own mind. I have engaged with a couple people who, as you said, were not managing it well. There’s some scary experiences that go along with that, so I have that stigma in me. That’s one of the things that I love about this podcast. I get to interact with people that I probably wouldn’t normally interact with or have conversations about things.
This podcast is all about me Lauren, frankly. It’s just my own personal development tool. I get to take away my prejudices and I get to meet amazing people like you. I don’t know. I don’t care about the listeners, it’s just about me. I’m kidding. I’m kidding. But it is very powerful. I love being the ignorant guinea pig that gets to ask the questions that other people want to ask. Bipolar, it’s a tough topic. It’s definitely a tough one.
So as you have gone along in life, you are now a very successful speech and language pathologist, working in major hospitals. You could be writing and talking about speech and language, why are you talking about bipolar? What’s this all about? Why is this so important to you?
Yeah. I just remember that fourteen-year-old child sitting on the psychiatrist’s sofa and having her entire world crumble around her. The path that I have taken over the years of reclaiming myself and discovering the hidden gifts that actually lie in a lot of these mental illness labels, which we can get to in a second. For me, the more I speak up about it, the less stigma that there is, the more people may have a foothold to see people with more empathy. And also to be able to flip the perspective. For me, looking at my life, yes, I could be writing about speech and language and a whole host of other things that I do. But for me to help that tender, tender topic with people, that’s just something that I feel really drawn to doing.
My listeners know I had my own kind of mental breakdown about twelve years ago, hit rock bottom from my own choices of workaholism and not taking care of myself. I have a deep compassion for those who have mental challenges. One of the things that I always have to remind myself, I tell this to my wife all the time. She’s a kindergarten teacher, so she’s right there at the beginning of those kids. Experiencing oftentimes some self-regulation challenges and possibly some mental health issues.
I always tell myself, “This person did not choose this.” You didn’t choose this. So why would I hold a stigma against someone? Why would I have this idea in my head, “Oh, this person’s scary,” or “This is a bad person,” or whatever. They didn’t choose this. So many things that we deal with in life, we didn’t choose. It’s just part of our own chemical makeup, right?
It’s interesting. I think that there’s a big fine line, especially with people who are a little bit closer to this. I do coaching one to one, not just with people who’ve been through it themselves, but a lot of therapists who deal with this in their practice find me, and then a lot of family members actually who had either a parent or a sibling go through it.
It’s an interesting conversation to look at where people’s choice does come into play, and where behavior patterns actually start to get mapped out around the so-called chemical issues. There are people who are quite manipulative and start to utilize it to their advantage. Some people just get off the high of controlling the environment that way. So I think having the victim or having the enemy perspective, both of them take you out of presence with what actually is.
Not that anybody is ever wrong and not that you have to judge them, but you have to look with clear eyes of, “Okay, where does someone need help?” And where do they need a little kick in the butt of, “You’re actually right now treating me in an improper way and you do have the regulation to actually fix it.”
So I’m different with it. I have a lot of empathy with this population obviously, but also because I’ve been through it myself and I’ve watched it, I do have a little bit of a stronger edge with it. I advocate not just for the people going through it, but the people on the sidelines too, that sometimes are victim to the behaviors that are coming.
Right. Right. Yeah, that is tough. I see that. I see what you’re saying. Hmm, maybe I should say they didn’t choose it in the beginning. Yeah.
Yeah, and I think having empathy and also just being aware that, look, a lot of people they have different makeups. Everybody’s brain ticks differently. It doesn’t even really have to do with chemicals at that point, we’re all wired so uniquely and we all have different responses to stresses. We have different stress triggers.
The more self-aware you can get for yourself, and also the more awareness you can develop about the people you interact with, and how they bounce off the environment, the more power you actually have to be able to go into the choosing role and not the victim role with it. Which is what I work so much with people on. How can you find the space to actually choose how you’re going forward with this and not play victim to all this?
As a parent who is listening, who their child is experiencing the ups and downs. There’s so many ups and downs of being a parent, oh my goodness, with kids.
How would a mom know when it’s time to seek some outside support? No matter what it is. It might not be a bipolar issue, it could just be anxiety, depression, who knows what, self-regulation. How would a mom know when to seek some outside support?
I would say before even that, are you actually having the daily conversation about emotions? What your children are aware of? How they’re interacting with the world and giving them language, and a safe space to actually use that language to express themselves? I really feel like if we’re able to have these proactive and preventative mental health conversations, things won’t balloon into the issues where you may need a lot of that professional support.
So I would definitely start there, and start when you’re younger. They come home from school, “How was your day?” “How were you feeling throughout the day?” “How were you treated?” “What did that bring up for you?” “How did you deal with it?” Actually start giving them different languages to be able to express it. Then that way when there is an issue in the future, they’re going to be, one, feeling safe to come to you. Which I think is huge for a parent. And two, they’re going to have enough language and know that they won’t be judged if they do actually speak up.
I think that’s a really important thing to start practicing right now with your kids. As you move forward and have those conversations, your kids will let you know, “Look, I’m trying all this stuff. It’s not working. I’m still struggling.” I was just working with somebody out in Tennessee. Her daughter is, I think, twelve right now. They’ve been having these conversations for a long, long time about her anxiety.
Finally it just got the point where the little ones like, “I just need extra help here. Nothing’s working.” So that’s when they went out and actually stepped outside of the house to get medicine for her. But it wasn’t a snap decision. It was something they’ve had conversations about, and they’re very upfront and honest with each other. I think that’s the bigger thing. Are you having these preventative conversations now?
Right, right. My wife and I were experiencing therapeutic care all the way back through college. That was something that our college offered. We went through premarital counselling and so forth, so therapy and language of therapy, language of emotions has been a part of our lives from that point in time. So when our kids were born, it became a part of our conversations with them. Then at dinner we would oftentimes do a high and a low.
Now life is a little bit different with our kids twenty and sixteen. My daughter lives at college. There’s some busyness in our lives now, so those conversations are less structured around the dinner table, highs and lows, and more about on the sidelines, “How are things going?” and doing that on a daily basis. But one of the things that I would say, is that my wife and I have been honest with our kids in our own challenges. Not in an unfiltered way, where it’s raw, unfiltered. Because kids might not necessarily be able to handle that.
But just to be able to talk about the ups and downs of your day and be honest about that, and language that’s not about blaming others, but about taking ownership of our own lives, and our behaviors, and our own feelings. I think that that modelling of that can be super powerful as well. Do you think?
Yeah, it empowers them. That’s just the fact. People learn better from example, versus you telling them. Also, just keep in mind, that’s what I was getting to earlier, about the gifts that lie within the mental illness. There are people who are very sensitive and very aware. Most of us are. We’re more in tune with each other than we realize. Even though things look good on the surface, deep down underneath that if things aren’t, people are aware of that. Kids in particular, oh my goodness, they can smell it.
For me, I’ve always ticked that way. I’ve always been very sensitive to other people. Very, very connected. A lot of my ups and downs, I know were not really mine, they were just my awareness of everyone around me and all the uck that was there. So when you’re not modelling the fact that you are aware and that stuff’s going on, the kids are going to be able to be aware of it. They’re aware of a mismatch, and that mismatch can really cause a lot of upheaval.
So even having a conversations about, “Cool, these are the emotions that came up for you. What were you aware of? Were you aware of other kids being mean to some other kids? Maybe it didn’t have to do with you. Were you aware of someone feeling a bit angry but then they had a smile on their face?” For me, that’s been the big gamechanger, when I learned to call a spade a spade of, yes this person looks like they’re being nice to me, but underneath it, they don’t like me and they don’t have my best interests at heart.
So all of these conversations, unfortunately we’re not really taught how to process and how to be aware. When you actually start that in the home environment, and hopefully broader scales, schools and hospitals, that’d be wonderful. I think we’re going to have a different conversation with people.
The book is called The Other Side of Bipolar: Revealing Your Strengths to Move Beyond the Diagnosis. Of course we’ll link to the Amazon opportunity to purchase in our show notes. You can swipe up on your phone and click that link now. Also, everybody can find your work at www.laurenpolly.com, which we will link to. You have two things that I want to point people to. One is your podcast, it’s called The Lighten Up Podcast. And you also do one-on-one coaching with people. Can you tell us a little bit more about both of those things?
Yeah, The Lighten Up Podcast with Lauren Polly, it’s fourteen minutes of inspiration a week. I don’t do interviews, it’s just kind of me talking about different tools that I’m using in my own life and how it’s leading to a lighter living. For me, that really feels like again, calling a spade a spade, having clarity with emotions, how your brain ticks and what’s going on around you. So you actually step into the chooser role in terms of creating a life that you love. There’s a lot of great resources on that.
Then the one-to-one coaching is a deep dive with me. You can sign up for a free consultation on my website for that if you’re interested. I work with a whole host of people. I work with people who are overtly struggling. A lot of times, it’s actually not that, it’s people who just want to live a better, happier life, and learn these self-regulation techniques and this awareness technique to not only create for themselves, but also how to actually handle maybe families that they’re raising or businesses that they’re fostering, that kind of thing.
LaurenPolly.com. Lauren, thank you so much for sharing your story. My hope is that this will be a source of encouragement for parents that are going through those ups and downs right now, so thank you so much.
I appreciate it. There’s always hope and you’re definitely not alone in any of this. It can feel very isolating but all you have to do is reach out and get some support.
I love it. Awesome.