Resilience Is a Super Power

A conversation with Sara Polley, MD, about what inspired her to become an addiction psychiatrist and what motivates her work with young people and families
Sara Polley
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During her first year of medical school, Sara Polley took part in the Betty Ford Center’s Summer Institute for Medical Students (SIMS), an internship she describes as “lifechanging.” Today, triple board-certified in adult psychiatry, adolescent psychiatry and addiction medicine, Dr. Polley serves as medical director of Hazelden Betty Ford’s adolescent and young adult services. Beloved by her patients and nominated by her peers, she was named a Top Doctor: Rising Star by Mpls. St. Paul magazine. Dr. Polley brings extraordinary empathy and expertise to her work, creating life-changing opportunities to understand, heal and grow.

Looking back at your medical school experience, why did you apply to the SIMS program?

Part of my story is that my dad struggled with alcohol use disorder when I was growing up. He had periods of sobriety and relapse. When I was in college, my dad relapsed and passed away. Although I didn’t identify it at the time, I think his struggle influenced my decision to apply for the Betty Ford Center’s internship. I already had a strong interest in psychiatry, maybe partly because addiction was related to psychiatry. The Betty Ford Center was the premier place to go for addiction treatment, so I saw the internship as an opportunity to learn about addiction from a medical perspective. The fact that a donor-funded scholarship was available was a major incentive for me, too, because I couldn’t afford to pay for an internship experience.

What was your biggest takeaway from the SIMS program?

The experience was hugely reparative as the daughter of someone who died as a consequence of alcohol use. It was the first time I shared my dad’s cause of death out loud, with anyone. I always felt that having addiction in my family meant that there was something wrong with me. Being in a healing, nonjudgmental environment where addiction was talked about as a disease—where it was understood that my dad died from a disease—really put that whole piece together for me. I was able to break down a lot of the shame I’d been feeling.

On a professional level, I came away with more hope and knowledge about treatments for addiction. I had a certain amount of skepticism going in because treatment didn’t work for my dad. So I wondered, ‘Do these people really know what they’re doing? Is there actually treatment for addiction?’ To learn about the disease nature of addiction, to watch how clinicians worked with patients, to see that people were actually getting better—the experience was far more hopeful than I imagined and made me much more interested in addiction medicine as a career.

How did the experience influence your medical interests and practice?

I was drawn to medicine and, in particular, to psychiatry because I’ve always aspired to be an advocate for people when they’re not doing well. More so than with other medical conditions or mental illnesses, I saw that patients with addiction were treated poorly in the medical system. I wanted to make a difference for this patient group–for people like my dad–both in the care I could provide for individuals and the advocacy I could provide within the field.

Today, you work directly with young people and families who are faced with addiction and other mental health conditions. This is such a complex area of medicine. What continues to draw you to this work?

My patients are some of the most resilient people I’ve ever met. They have been through many things that could have destroyed them. And yet they’re still here. Part of my work is helping patients recognize their resilience as a super power. It’s remarkable to watch how quickly young people can change once they realize their autonomy and ability to change. I’m always humbled when patients thank me for my help. As I tell them, I’m just along for the ride–to point out what I hear them say and to help them reflect on making their own choices and their own way forward. This is incredibly inspiring work.

Listen to more from Dr. Polley

In an interview with William C. Moyers, Dr. Polley shares more of her personal story and her passion for helping families emerge from life’s most difficult struggles.


The Strength of Our Stories

Dr. Polley often finds herself turning to the copy of Alcoholics Anonymous she was given years ago as a Summer Institute for Medical Students participant. Its opening pages are filled with handwritten notes from the Betty Ford Center patients she was immersed with, including a forever-grateful mom. "She wrote that my story helped her see the impact of addiction on her own daughter," Polley shares. "She also wrote that my dad would be so proud of me for wanting to help people who have the same disease."


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