Judge Lynn Toler: Putting Her Own Mental Health On Trial

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Judge Lynn Toler runs a tight ship on TV’s popular “Divorce Court.” She helps couples navigate and work through some of the worst marital issues including infidelity, domestic violence and miscommunication. She’s honest, thoughtful, fair, concise and even funny at times. She pretty much has it all together.

But, growing up, she had to deal with and is still sometimes coping with a rocky childhood spent living with her mentally ill father. She had to go on the medication Zoloft and had severe depression.

Toler credits her mother for helping her survive, and shares her wisdom in a new book, “My Mother’s Rules: A Practical Guide to Becoming an Emotional Genius.”

“An emotional genius is a person who doesn’t have everything under control, but knows how to manage their emotions and get things better under control day after day after day.”

At home, Toler’s dad’s manic attitude swings clashed with daily life. He would rage over mispronounced words, misplaced eyeglasses, carpet dust, or imperfectly aligned window shades. In general, his tendency to exaggerate everyday things turned into ugly outbursts.

In the book, she writes, “Daddy was an ongoing event. At our house, a mispronounced word could have us running for our lives. A dirty carpet could lead to gunplay.”

As Lynn approached junior high school age, she recognized that her father’s acting out affected her own moods. She became angry and began acting out, breaking light bulbs, wetting herself in public, and reacting hysterically to minor frustrations. Anxiety and depression dominated her days. When Lynn was about 10 years old, a pediatrician and close family friend attributed her mood disorder to her father’s erratic, combative behavior.

“I had two nervous breakdowns by the time I think I was 12 mom’s not quite sure,” confesses Toler to NPR. “The first one I had in the fourth grade. And I was, as my mother often said, someone who fell a little too close to her husband’s emotional tree. And that’s why I found my mother’s way of doing business so important, because she helped me walk from an emotional mess to one in which I can control how I feel and what I think.”

As an adolescent, “my emotions changed and defined my life,” Lynn says. “It was so overwhelming…” In her book Lynn says, “ … my fears would cascade on me. Daddy would break out a window and I’d wake up convinced that I was going to die in an automobile accident that day.” By the time Lynn reached high school age, her depression had morphed into anger and headaches, and she withdrew from social gatherings and people.

“While I was on the bench, there were so many immensely ill people coming in my courtroom, and that we were their first line of defense. I know one guy – I remember one guy [that said]…