I love the pictures of sixteen-year-olds when they’re happiest. And when they feel like life is just beginning. We’ve all seen it on our social media. In front of the camera is a (very young – OMG do we really let these kids behind the wheel?) teenager holding a small, but life changing, plastic covered piece of paper.
Behind the camera is the parent who is (OMG – how can parents let their kids drive and sleep at night? – I’m already fretting!) really nervous and a tiny bit excited.
I remember getting my driver’s license as a fourteen-year-old (which now seems insane, but it was Bowman in the 90s, life was crazy) and truly feeling alive. There was a lot of promise in front of me (only if my older brother would let me drive his little, blue Buick, which was my grandma’s old car … but he never did).
In October 2009, when I was sworn into the Bar by taking an oath, signing my name in a large book, and getting my bar number, I felt that renewed sense of promise. In my purse, I literally carried a small piece of paper that granted me the license to practice law. With that paper and number 06412, I could literally change people’s lives.
Until that license was no longer a necessity and I forever stopped signing pleadings with my name next to #06412. In all reality, that day was May 8, 2018. It’s just taken my heart a while to catch up to the facts.
One of my favorite humans and lawyers is a woman named Joanne. She is older than I am and practiced far longer than I did. She was an exceptional lawyer and the best mediator I ever worked with. If you had two parties at dire odds, Joanne was the woman to call to mediate the case and assemble some sort of peace and truce in the war.
I like to believe Joanne said this to me before I got sick, but now I’m not so sure. Either way, it stuck with me and was something I referenced after my life was decimated. Joanne told me that she was never just a lawyer. She was first and foremost a mother, a wife, a grandmother, and more.
Without much stretch, I spent fourteen years preparing to carry that piece of paper in my wallet and the large piece of cardstock in a frame on my wall. The practice of law wasn’t a job. It was my calling, my passion, and my dream.
When I awoke in June 2018, to learn that I had a rare and debilitating brain illness, my entire identity and being was wrapped around what I did each day at Stebbins Mulloy. Every piece of me had been put into my lawyer life. Sure, I knew I was also a mother and wife, and of course I was proud of that. But right or wrong, I don’t think I generated much if any of my identity from those roles. Those roles were my life, but my job was my everything.
In October 2019, when I created JM Stebbins out of thin air, I wrote that I was a “lawyer, mother, wife, and autoimmune encephalitis survivor.” But those words were a bit contrived. I was trying desperately to turn my life around and subconsciously, I was trying to change myself, my personality, and my dreams. And I know I heard Joanne’s words when I ascribed those adjectives to myself. Because I believed what she said and I hoped I was much more than just a lawyer. But even more so, it was because I honestly had no idea of what or who I was without lawyer attached.
Almost six years later, I still carry the little piece of paper in my wallet, and even managed to pose for an “I got my license” picture when it was renewed for 2024. But nowadays, the meaning of my license carries very little intrinsic value.
Sure, I'm still proud to say, “My name is Jackie M. Stebbins and I’m a lawyer in North Dakota.” Because I am. My illness didn’t change that.
But what’s changed for me as I head into 2024, is that I no longer search for adjectives to surround my name. I saw my lawyer – mother – wife – survivor tag the other day in a speaker bio and it made me chuckle. It also made a lot of sense.
Brene Brown’s latest book tells us that humans feel more emotions than we have names for. The past six years of experiences, both high and low, tell me that the sum of my parts is far greater than four adjectives. I’m much more than what’s listed in small bios.
But it’s not because I’ve transformed that drastically. It’s because my ability to see my true identity has.
For quite a few years, I tried to keep the scales balanced. My new life against my old life as a lawyer. And I’m proud of myself for how much I kept trying to show up as a “retired – sick – disabled – no longer practicing lawyer.” But I don’t really want to do that anymore.
For me now, showing up as a lawyer feels pretend. And I don’t want to pretend any longer.
Because the scales no longer balance. They have completely tipped.
Who am I?
I’m Jackie M. Stebbins.
And there’s so much more than adjectives that go into that.
JM Stebbins friends, stay open and flexible. Malleable is for the living. Rigidity is for the dead.
“I was waiting for so long
For a miracle to come
Everyone told me to be strong
Hold on and don’t shed a tear
Through the darkness and good times
I knew I’d make it through
And the world thought I had it all
“Let the rain come down and wash away my tears
Let it fill my soul and drown my fears
Let it shatter the walls for a new sun
A new day has come” ~ A New Day Has Come by Celine Dion
/ / The JM Stebbins blog is an autoimmune encephalitis blog from former lawyer and autoimmune encephalitis survivor, Jackie M. Stebbins.
Jackie M. Stebbins is also the author of Unwillable: A Journey to Reclaim my Brain, a book about autoimmune encephalitis, resilience, hope, and survival. / /