Don’t argue with your health: How a rare brain illness ended my legal career
Jackie M. Stebbins.
Lawyers are busy. We have intense jobs, and the stressors are endless. Emotional clients ask us to work magic, we’re continuously in adversarial positions and our days require flawless focus. The cycle of work, bill, prepare and work more, can be vicious.
Thankfully, lawyers have strong-willed personalities. We are logical, thorough and we’re impeccably organized. We help people prepare for life’s worst-case scenarios through contracts and estate plans. We always have answers.
We attend CLE classes where we’re reminded to keep our stressful jobs in balance with our driven personalities. We’re told to take breaks and be mindful of our mental health and substance abuse. I listened to the advice but thought: That’s not me, that’s for other people. I don’t miss deadlines, and I won’t get sick.
But then it happened to me. I fell deathly ill while going into my ninth year of private practice. It was unexpected, there was no action plan tailored accordingly, and it was worse than I ever could have imagined.
On Nov. 5, 2017, I woke up at 4 a.m., like an alarm was set in my head. The early wake-up call routinely and painfully continued for months. Then insomnia set in, and life became terrifying.
By that time in my career, I believe I was living with chronic stress from constant demands, long hours and emotionally and mentally taxing work. But I stubbornly ignored the warning signs that told me to slow down, including a flared gastrointestinal tract and my mother’s warning that my work life may lead to depression. I thought stress gave me my edge, but in hindsight, I felt exhausted, irritable, overworked and like I had lost my sense of self. I felt buried under the weight of it all. I was burned out. Yet on the outside, it all looked perfect. I was living my dream of being a successful trial lawyer and had a beautiful family. I conquered my professional goals and believed I was thriving.
I mostly suffered alone, because I didn’t want to admit to mental health problems, and I didn’t want medication. But when I faced the effects of insomnia over a two-day trial, I knew I couldn’t go on as I was, fearing my work would be affected. I finally opened up to my family and a few close friends. I was an insomniac and was starting to feel very anxious. We all agreed upon a reasonable and easy conclusion: I suffered from work-induced depression and anxiety. And I begrudgingly believed I was another statistic among depressed lawyers.
In April 2018, I sought prescribed antidepressants to sleep, but they didn’t work. I continued to plow through work, as tremors took over my hands and white noise blared in my ears. I was then prescribed various other antidepressants, which exacerbated the feelings of sickness deep inside of me.
Facing my protracted deterioration, I finally admitted my problems to my law partner, Micheal, and I left work on a Tuesday in early May to take “one week off.” Earlier that day, I had what I now know was a serious panic attack at my desk. I knew I couldn’t stay at the firm any longer, and I nearly collapsed on my way out the door.
Upon leaving work, I swiftly declined. I wasn’t very communicative. I didn’t sleep, mostly stared and had little physical energy. I became paranoid and confused, and I hallucinated. I believed a man from a divorce case I had tried lurked in my bedroom and shot me in the face.
I pleaded with my family to hospitalize me in the psychiatric ward. Six days after I left my firm, my husband, Sean, and a close friend, Ashley, helped voluntarily commit me. The night of my admission, Micheal, Ashley, and another close colleague, Betsy, sat at my kitchen table to devise a plan for my absence. And for the next few months, as my health twisted and turned, these three lawyers and Sean oversaw my professional and personal life. I was oblivious to everything.
During my 48-hour commitment, I struggled to tell time, know the date and to read and write. I didn’t feel like I belonged there, but I was certain of one thing: My severe illness was all my fault. I was convinced my workaholic ways had made me sick. The providers told me I had shorted myself out at work, yet they assured me I would get better with time.
Upon my release, Sean cared for me like I had dementia and questioned whether I was possessed. Six days later at a follow-up appointment, he shared the signs of my cognitive impairment and strange behavior with a nurse practitioner. When she witnessed my confusion, tremors, inability to walk on my own and dystonia, she recognized a neurological condition and expedited my referral to a neurologist—her swift action saved my life.
During the next three days, I failed a neurological examination, underwent MRI imaging of my brain to rule out a brain tumor, and endured a painful spinal tap. Just 20 days prior, I had successfully defended an order to show cause hearing, but now couldn’t draw the face of a clock in a cognitive exam. My neurologist believed I had autoimmune encephalitis (AE), a rare and potentially fatal brain disease wherein the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy brain cells.
After the spinal tap, I had a grand mal seizure that broke and dislocated my shoulder and broke my back. I was hospitalized for five days, and once stable, began IV steroids to treat the AE, and my brain miraculously rallied. I was then sent to the Mayo Clinic for further treatment of my rare condition.
At the Mayo Clinic, I learned that I didn’t do anything to cause the AE, and my work stress was not to blame. Yet I didn’t feel an immediate absolution of my guilt. My reflection upon my work habits created a deep wound. It’s still hard not to think, “What if?”
My recovery process was slow and arduous. I ingested medication, struggled to survive and was mostly confined to my home for a year. The Superwoman efforts required to repair my mind, body and spirit were overwhelming, and there is no AE recovery handbook to follow. With love and support from those around me, and my fierce determination to recover for the sake of my children, I rose to the challenge.
I never returned to practice after that fateful day when AE ushered me out the door. On July 31, 2019, 10 years to the date from when I began my legal career, I retired from practice. And amidst the trauma, I have rebuilt and accepted a new life.
I can’t go back and save my job and wellness, but I can offer my humble advice to other practitioners. If your health is in jeopardy, don’t argue—but immediately seek help. Medication, counseling, and self-help practices can change or even save your life. Seek out employee and lawyer assistance programs through your local bar or insurance policies, where you may be eligible for free counseling and mentoring. Even simple tasks like deep breathing and stretching at your desk can help calm your mind and body.
You may not control everything in your life, but you must take charge of your wellness, career and happiness. Only you have the power to be the lawyer and person you want to be.
There can be no health without good mental health. Don’t be stubborn, and don’t allow stigma to prevent you from seeking help. I no longer hide from shame, nor do I fear showing weakness. I feel empowered when I open up about my health after a devastating illness, and I hope it’s inspirational to others.
Jackie M. Stebbins focused her practice on family law, criminal defense and civil litigation. She was recognized by local and national organizations for her achievements in the law and her community under age 40. She is the founder of JM Stebbins, where she spreads awareness and hope as a writer and motivational speaker. Her blog and Brain Fever podcast enjoy a worldwide following, and she hopes to see her memoir, Requiem for Me, out soon. She lives in Bismarck, North Dakota, with her husband and three young children and is a member of the State Bar Association of North Dakota.
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