Ashley Pollak, 42, originally from London, now lives in Ibiza with his wife Justine and their six-year-old son. He is an entrepreneur and creative strategist. Here he shares his inspiring story of learning to make the best of his bipolar.
When I was in my twenties I was diagnosed with bipolar. Over five years it dominated my life and disrupted all my dreams and ambitions.
At 23, I got a graduate job in advertising but I didn't enjoy it from day one. Over the year I worked there I felt bullied, undermined and misunderstood – I ended up a shadow of my former self. Ten months later, when I was unable to function and do my job, despite the support they offered me, I knew I had to leave.
It was the first time I'd shown signs of bipolar disorder and back then, there was no high, just a debilitating low. There is a perception that when someone is low they are lazy and inactive; that they should be able to pick themselves up and go for a walk. For me, there was a dramatic difference between what was going on inside my head and what other people could see. To an outsider, I probably seemed 'fine'.
Of course, I’m not a doctor or a scientist, but the way it feels is like the interconnections in my brain break down. For example, I love to cook and if I go to the supermarket and see that the fish is really fresh at the counter I’ll be quick to think of recipes – to connect that fish goes well with tomatoes and olives in a stew with asparagus, rice and a nice glass of rosé wine.
But when I’m low I can’t do that anymore. The supermarket becomes overwhelming, the prospect of figuring out what to buy makes my palms sweaty and quickens my heart rate. However, if I’m given a shopping list and can take my time, I’m still perfectly capable of getting it done.
There’s a similar thing with computers. Ordinarily if you watched me at work you’d see me able to jump from one activity to another – putting together a presentation, drawing a design, editing a film and some music. But when I’m low I can barely type...
Highs and lows
My first high came six months after my low. I’d started a new job as an account executive at an advertising agency where I immediately felt valued, appreciated and respected. My confidence grew and I got involved in more projects to prove myself. With hindsight, that started to spill over into over-confidence and making decisions that didn’t fit with the company's way of doing things.
Three months later, I got fired, but I didn’t see that as a problem. I had a clear sense of who I was and what I wanted in life. Whilst at the company I had been introduced to a book about an inspiring advertising man from the 1960s. Within weeks I had persuaded an airline to give me free flights to go and make a film about him.
I was on cloud nine doing what I love, meeting inspiring people, hearing incredible stories. I started speeding up. I created a little company when I got back, did my weekly shop at an organic food market. I was juggling lots of balls in the air and then in one day I dropped one, then another.
I had a number of those days over the years. They are terrifying. It's like you're falling and desperate to be caught. I would frantically call close friends to try to talk myself out of it, but to no avail.
Over those five years I cycled between the highs and lows. I tried many things to get my life back. I begun seeing a therapist who, 20 years later, is one of my dearest friends. I happily took all the medication I was prescribed (a mood stabiliser and antidepressant) and have continued to do so since.
I tried living my life where I didn’t say yes to anything that might trigger my condition – big nights out, jet set trips or anything ‘exciting’ that might over-stimulate me – and I tried the complete opposite. I attended groups avidly, I listened to what seemed most relevant and ignored the rest.
There are some key steps that got me onto a path towards a healthier and productive life. Not long after I was first diagnosed I was referred to local psychiatric services. My experience wasn’t good. Each time I would see someone new and have to explain my story over again.
One meeting still sticks in my mind, all these years later. I was told that I should limit my expectations, lead a less complicated life, get a job in a supermarket, take it easy. It made me really angry and stuck in my head. Why should I give up one who I wanted to be? I knew the ambitions I had and wasn’t prepared to sacrifice them.
Then, a few months later, I saw an amazing psychiatrist. He was in training and was the same age as me. He told me he had read a book called Mood Mapping by Liz Miller and that I should take a look. Liz is a neuroscientist who has bipolar and within weeks I was attending groups that she hosted in her house in Fulham, London. Her ideas, that helped form the basis for her own recovery, remain with me to this day.
In Western medicine bipolar is seen as being about controlling highs and lows, Liz made me reflect on it instead as 'energy' – that there is a high and low state as well as an energetic and calm state. The goal, whether you are high or low, is to get to the calm state. Applying this idea had a transformative effect on my mental health.
The final piece of the puzzle was refining my medication – my consultant introduced a different mood stabiliser and we stopped the anti-depressant. I had got my life on track, but the lows were stopping me from fulfilling my potential. I thought of this problem like a classic car that needs its engine tuning.
I sought out the best advice I could find and was recommended by a doctor friend to a psychiatrist at The Priory who was top in their field. The hourly fee was more than I could afford, but I hoped that the information would make a big difference and it did. Based on the latest studies and research, Sue changed one of my medications and the doses to focus on stopping the lows.
For 12 years it worked. I began studying at night school and then at the age of 25, I got my big work break. I went on to work as a cameraman for the BBC, set up my own agency, hire five staff, create work I'm really proud of for the British Museum, lastminute.com and the Design Council. I got married, we adopted our wonderful son, dealt with family ill health and deaths. Through all of this no blips, no episodes, I started to say, 'I used to have bipolar,' assuming it was all in the past.
Bipolar is back
Then Covid happened, I closed my company overnight and instead set up a new garden delivery business with my wife and friend in just four days during the first lockdown. It was wildly successful. We delivered over 900 orders across London. Then, after the summer, my wife Justine suggested we rent our London home and move to Ibiza. I was all in. I had the most amazing two years, still no mental health issues.
We decided to invest more energy, time and money into a pivot of our startup Doorstep Gardener to become a technology platform. For six months I completely focused on the business – pitching, fundraising and building. I would wake at 7am, bursting with ideas and work 16 hours straight.
But when I was finished work, I couldn’t switch off. Justine would be watching TV, I’d be creating music on my iPad until the early hours. One week I created four pieces of music over four consecutive nights.
It was intense and so when a friend said his birthday was coming up and he was having a party I looked forward to it with relish. 'Work hard, play hard,' I thought. I need a blowout party. Hindsight is a wonderful thing...
With reflection, I needed to see things from another perspective and that party triggered the flip. So, after 12 years, I crashed. At first, I called it burnout, recalibration, but the reality was bipolar was back in my life. This time it took me three weeks to get back on my feet, facing the consequences of my actions and finding a positive way forward.
Coming to terms with bipolar
It was a very challenging time. I’m now a father and a husband, I have others depending on me and my actions, the financial implications are higher too. However, it was a very different experience from when I was in my twenties, as I had more psychological tools to draw on to help my recovery.
I have always been interested in developing more self-awareness. I like to read, listen to podcasts and watch videos which share ideas on how the brain works and how to keep life in balance.
Over a year ago, I attended an online course on exploring thoughts and feelings, and how to harness them to lead a more balanced life. I was introduced to concepts like breathwork and body scanning (which linked into the calm state Liz Miller taught me about), gratitude, goal-setting and journaling. The idea of journaling is to get all our thoughts out on paper on a daily/weekly basis, but I didn’t get on with that so started recording audio notes on my phone instead.
When this latest bipolar episode happened I was still using these techniques and I realised that the audio notes had captured the whole cycle of my high, the low and my recovery. It helped me to get the context I needed and I'm sure was key in speeding up my recovery.
I felt that these recordings could be of value to others so I approached Dr Paul Keedwell and Oliver Turnbull who have a mental health podcast called Why the Long Face?. We ended up working on a podcast series which explores the journey in detail with my life coach, the wonderful Pete Adams.
The message I want to send out is that you can live a fulfilled life by embracing all of you, including your mental health. This latest episode of bipolar has offered me the opportunity to re-explore my condition and have a much clearer sense of who I am. It’s taught me where best to channel my energy to lead the life that I want to live.