My counselor recently asked me to start a gratefulness journal – to write down daily thankful thoughts. But since my diagnosis and recovery, it’s been my hope to live out my gratitude each day, rather than reflect upon it in the abstract.
When I wake (especially during the 999 days of Covid when I was homeschooling two children and feeding an infant) I try to first thank God. I really do. I usually thank him for my healthy children, and then I ask for courage and patience (back to that homeschool thing). And nearly every evening, you can find me reading a memoir or feminist mindful meditation book, which usually reminds me that my life ain’t half bad.
I also spend a lot of time sorting through memories, emotions, and feelings from this journey I’ve been on for a while now. It’s a big process, but always seems better when I find things to be thankful for.
Amidst my near-amnesia mind for most of May into June of 2018, I have shards of memories and moments that I’m trying to illustrate in my book (you know, that adventure I embarked upon that consumes me and just may turn my AE back on, kidding … sort of).
A memory I have that will never leave me, is from May 3, 2018. I walked into the Burleigh County Courthouse that morning for what would be the last time of my career, but I didn’t know it that day. As I reached the third floor, Judge Sonna Anderson and I crossed paths in what I now believe was divine intervention. We had a beautiful and candid conversation. I can still see her hair, and her lavender eye shadow. Her smile. I can feel our conversation through my then trembling hands, my clenched jaw, and the blaring white noise ringing in my ears. I felt awful that day “from my insomnia,” but seeing her gave me such joy.
Judge Anderson was always one of my favorites. She treated all parties in her courtroom with dignity and respect. She was stern when necessary, but her equity and humanity were always at the forefront. She yelled at me so much one day that I never forgot it. But in hindsight, I absolutely deserved it, and learned from it. I once witnessed her fiercely advocate for fairness in a program aimed at repeated DUI offenders. She was adamant that the program needed to be equitable for everyone, not just someone with means. I remember watching her in that meeting, and just smiling. She was a force I admired.
Eleven days after our encounter, and just six days after I breathlessly fell out of my law office, I voluntarily committed myself to the psychiatric ward. For forty-eight hours, I wandered around like a shorted-out ghost. My memories are not only nominal, they are distorted. But I do have a memory of a young man happily ready for discharge. His problems: drugs and the law. I interacted with others very little during my stay, but I remember our fist bump in a group session where I wished him the best, and told him to stay away from drugs. I hope he did.
While in the ward, I was closing in on what could have been the last days of my life. Had my cognition remained intact, I would have been hopeless and overcome with fear about my deterioration. I knew I was very sick, but there was still a tiny flicker of light that told me somehow I’d overcome my burden. Others around me mostly saw darkness in their future.
Towards the end of my first year of recovery, my period of grim survival, Judge Anderson died after battling cancer. I never got to see her again, after May 3. I was devastated. I was not equipped to handle losses, and they kept happening. A high school classmate died of breast cancer, a law school classmate of colon cancer, and then the Judge. Those periods of grief on grief felt like a cancer gnawing on me.
I’m nearly three years away from my commemorative seizure and diagnosis date, but I’m not yet fully in the light. Pain still lurks, panic sweeps me away random times. Today’s bar “luncheon” was a Zoom presentation about the Bismarck/Mandan Drug Court. While Judge Feland presented, another judge I greatly admire, I kept thinking of Judge Anderson, and had to stop myself from crying. It doesn’t help that bar gatherings are not so subtle reminders that my career was taken from me. I’m no longer Jackie the lawyer. I no longer represent defendants plagued by addiction.
A while back, I saw one of the youngest defendants I ever took through the hell of a federal court sentencing. As he took my sandwich order, he proudly told me he graduated drug court. I gave him my number and told him to call me when he needed support. He was a kid that I always felt needed a hug. God, I hope I hugged him. And, I hope he’s sober right now.
I was an advocate. I helped. The pain of my losses still overwhelms me. A burn in my chest leads to the welling in my eyes.
I don’t personally know alcoholism and drug addiction. But I can relate to feelings of despair, hopelessness, uncertainty, and the loss of agency and power. I’ve seen what life looks like when you aren’t sure you can go on with it. The feelings of addiction. And, I’m a firm believer that how you treat those on the margins, is the greatest sign of your humanity. The treatment of an addict.
At the end of the presentation, I put out the fire in my chest, and quickly remembered that my life ain’t half bad. I can still help, just in different ways. What some people in drug court need, besides support and accountability, is a bike. They need someone to treat them with dignity and respect, to help them.
In memory of Judge Anderson, two people in drug court will have a new bike from Sean and me.
And for those two people, I hope God can give them the serenity to accept the things they cannot change, the courage to change the things they can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Thanks for being such a great role model for me, Judge Anderson. I’m so grateful that I had you in my life, and so thankful our paths crossed on that fateful May day.
“Turn me loose from your hands
Let me fly away to distant lands
“Thinking of the ways That the wind can turn the tide And these shadows turn From purple into grey
“For just a skyline pigeon Dreaming of the open Waiting for the day That he can spread his wings And fly away again
“Fly away, skyline pigeon fly Towards the dreams You’ve left so very far behind” ~ Skyline Pigeon by Elton John
*Author’s Note: We delivered the bikes to the courthouse on April 14, 2021. It was the first time I had been there since May 3, 2018. Smells are powerful triggers, and that place has a distinct smell. But I’m happy to report that I did just fine, and it was so great to see so many colleagues and friends. It was also a little bittersweet.
I took the picture of Judge Anderson not too far from where we stood on May 3. You can just barely make out the sign for Courtroom 303 behind me, the courtroom I was headed to. It felt good to just be there for a minute alone, and take it all in. I fortunately caught up with Judge Grinsteiner, who presided over my final hearing. (Opposing counsel that day was then Bobbi Weiler, now Judge Weiler. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see her) I also saw Judge Hill who kindly gave my children snacks, because they were “starving.”
Pictured at the bottom (L to R): Presiding Judge of the South Central Judicial District, Bruce Romanick (former commander of the Drug Court) - Judge Cynthia Feland (current commander of the Drug Court) – The Lawyer formerly known as Jackie M. Stebbins - District Court Law Clerk Krista Thompson.