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Freedom Ghost

Just recently, I listened to Brené Brown’s two-part podcast with Bono. It was amazing.

Most of the conversation revolved around Bono’s paradoxical life. How he lives in the divergence. In the middle of two things that don’t make sense. And how he struggles in his lyrics.

From about ’97 through college, I obsessively listened to U2’s song, “With or Without You.” As I thought about those lyrics, I can’t live, with or without you, I questioned my own divergence.

Maybe it’s age. Probably the illness. I thought I was getting really good at denial, but actually, I’ve begun to accept that I live in a paradox. And may stay there.

And maybe it was Bono’s words that allowed me to get through my day yesterday. He makes a conflicted life cool, so I’m on board.

Yesterday, I had jury duty. The last time was about ten minutes after my illness and I was medically excused, but this one stuck. The night before, I reminded myself that the smell of the courthouse is distinct and would be a trigger. I hoped aloud that it wouldn’t be in Courtroom 303, which was the place of my last hearing as a practicing lawyer in May, 2018 (and the courtroom drawn on the cover of Unwillable). I chose to deny and convinced myself I had to go, so I’d do it with a smile and not feel a thing.

I arrived at the courthouse early and sat (masked) with about 40 people around me. I overheard many nervous questions, like: “You ever done this before?” “Do you think they’ll take about half of us?” Unlike those around me, I spoke the secret code and knew the secret paths. But I kept it to myself.

I became Juror #13. We lined up and walked up the staircase to the third floor, and into Courtroom 303. As I ascended the stairs, I felt the trigger. It was the death march of my final court appearance. When I arrived in the courtroom, sat down, and looked around, I felt my chest pumping. I have a lot of lawyer memories in that room, including that final day.

As my heart wanted me to get the hell out of that room, my mind scanned the place and begged to stay. The attorneys stood and smiled as the jurors arrived. Their tables were set up for battle.

This should be me. I should be at counsel table.

I looked at the table on the right, closest to the jury, and saw myself on May 3, 2018, with a shaking hand, praying to get through that hearing. The unexpected last one of my career.

The parties looked nervous and counsel looked amped. And I wanted to trade places. I’ve never desired to be a judge nor sit on a jury. My life was the trial lawyer.

I saw a lawyer’s binder in front of her. It was approximately 15 feet high by about 3 feet wide. And it was full of tabbed documents. I shuddered as I looked. The last time Mike and I tried a four-day trial together in that courtroom, we had similar binders. And banker’s boxes of papers behind us. The boxes I watched attorneys and their staff haul through the front door.

As I saw what she needed to manage and handle for the next few days, I told myself, I’m glad that’s not me.

She’ll have the sleepless nights. Presumably, she’s been at this case for years now. She carries the client’s risks and fears in her hands and head.

But as I watched the lawyers stand and address the court, I heard, I wish that was still me.

I knew the judge as she walked in. We were colleagues and friends before she took the bench, and we continue that way. I knew the attorneys. (I also knew one of the parties, which immediately excused me).

I burned out of the courtroom and almost flew down the steps.

Yet I tried to take it all in. The marble. The gold color. The large televisions at the entrance displaying the cases. I said hi to William, Steve walked by in his recognizable hat, an expert doctor from New York arrived and asked for directions, and the security guards waved at me.

I needed to get out of my old place.

When I left, a voice inside of me said, There’s a hole in my heart that will never repair. And then I texted Mom to say, “I’m done. Let’s go get coffee!”

As I drove away, my random playlist selected Jon Batiste’s song, “Freedom.” I blared it. And I pictured the lawyer’s binder.

The next song was (don’t judge me) Justin Bieber’s, “Ghost.” I wanted to be happy, so I went back to “Freedom” and sang along. But once again, “Ghost” followed. And that’s when it hit me. I live in a paradox.

I’m licensed to practice law in the State of North Dakota. I will never again practice law.

I want so bad to go back to my job and to be that Jackie M. Stebbins. That job almost killed me before and it absolutely would kill me again. That Jackie M. Stebbins and her law firm are long gone.

I have a freedom that never existed in my life as a lawyer. Something the lawyers I saw that day do not have.

I was a lawyer.

The ghost of her still follows me.

I am a lawyer.

Life’s different now.

I went out for coffee. I went shopping. I made #booktok videos.

And I wrote this.

Maybe my life’s contradiction isn’t all bad.


“Now it’s your time (it’s your right) You can shine (it’s alright) If you do, then I'ma do too

“I don't know why but I feel like freedom (yeah) I hear a song that takes me back And I let go with so much freedom (oowee) Free to live (how I wanna live) I’ma get (where I'm gonna get) ‘Cause it’s my freedom” ~ Freedom by John Batiste

“That if I can’t be close to you I’ll settle for the ghost of you I miss you more than life (more than life) And if you can’t be next to me Your memory is ecstasy I miss you more than life I miss you more than life” ~ Ghost by Justin Bieber

Photo cred: Jesse Knutson Photography (Courtroom 303 was taken for me by a colleague in the Covid-era)


/ / 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, faith, hope, and survival. / /


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