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From Dream to Nightmare in 28 Seconds: How Would We Cope?

From Dream to Nightmare in 28 Seconds: How Would We Cope?

What kind of lawyer dreams keep you up at night? We all have file-specific heebie-jeebies where we can’t fall asleep, or we wake up in a panic because we keep thinking of things that ought to have been done on current and old matters. I am not sure if non-lawyers fully understand the desperate thoughts than run through our brains when we are quiet.
Non-lawyers talk about dreams where they discover that they are in a large group of people and realize that, while everyone else is dressed, they are naked.
Anyone who has gone to university has the dream where you can’t find the room where you are supposed to write your final exam, or when you look at the exam paper and it appears to be written in a foreign language that you don’t understand.
And I had a recurring dream as a new mother returning to work, where I can’t manage to leave the office at the end of the day to get home to my baby due to a variety of ridiculous impediments. I didn’t actually struggle consciously with going back to work—it felt quite normal—but my subconscious was worried.
But have you ever had a nightmare where you are accused of a crime that you didn’t commit? At first, you trust the process and readily believe that if you just answer the detectives’ questions, all will be well. And then they put you in a cell and lay charges. Maybe you are arraigned and have a bail hearing, all while telling everyone that you are innocent. You begin to realize that it will fall to you to prove your innocence—something that should not happen in a western justice system—or you will face spending the rest of your life in jail.
Michael Bryant experienced this—not the dream, but the reality. Michael was a legal superstar. He clerked at the Supreme Court of Canada, completed a Masters’ degree at Harvard, and worked at a prestigious law firm in Toronto. But he had the political bug and was elected as a Liberal MPP, becoming the youngest Minister of Justice in Ontario history a few years later.
That part of the story sounds like a fairy tale and not a nightmare. Here was a lawyer who had everything, made in the shade, the world was his oyster.
But ten years later, shortly after returning to the private sector, Michael had an encounter with a bicycle courier which resulted in the death of the courier, Darcy Alan Sheppard. Michael was arrested, put in a cell, and was charged with dangerous driving causing death and criminal negligence causing death. And because he had appointed most of the prosecutors and judges in Ontario, the powers-that-be in Ontario's justice system wanted to ensure that he did not get any kind of break that would look like special treatment. Instead, he received the worst type of special treatment—having to make his case that he did not commit a criminal offence and that Mr. Sheppard’s death was a tragic accident.
I remember reading about this event in 2009. Perhaps the style of reporting was in part to blame, but I conjured up images of an arrogant politician who evidently thought he was above the law and who was reckless, or worse. I was less media-savvy than I am now, and I assumed that this was a case where an entitled person had behaved awfully and that he was no doubt guilty of causing the death of a bystander. But when his story came out, I had to confront my bias and my ready belief in an initial media story.
How did Michael persevere and stay sane when everyone around him assumed he was guilty? In my nightmares about not being able to prove that I didn’t do something I was accused of, there are times when I just want to give up, but he found his resilience and inner grit, using strategies he had learned through confronting personal challenges.
This year, I read Michael’s book, 28 Seconds: A True Story of Addiction, Tragedy, and Hope. I highly recommend this book for members of the legal community who have nightmares along the lines of Michael’s story (and my own nightmares!). In fact, both his book and his story are so compelling that Assist has asked him to speak at our first post-pandemic Hand to Hand event in Edmonton on October 3, 2024!
Do you remember Assist’s Hand to Hand events? We held our first one in Calgary in 2014 featuring Senator Romeo Dallaire, and then in Edmonton in 2017 where Olympian Clara Hughes was our speaker. We returned to Calgary in November of 2019 where retired Supreme Court Justice Clement Gascon, along with Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Michele Hollins and retired Provincial Court Judge Bob Philp, talked about overcoming mental health challenges in law. We kicked off 2020 full of excitement about our next event, which would be in 2021 in Edmonton.
But we know what March of 2020 brought. There were no in-person events. Even as we returned to office-based work in April of 2022, no one was a in a hurry to attend large dinners. However, now that we have, for all intents and purposes, moved to a post-pandemic lifestyle, Hand to Hand is back, and we are thrilled that Michael Bryant will be our speaker.
The purpose of an event like this, of course, is to provide our audience with:

  1. Affirmation that what they themselves may be experiencing is normal rather than a sign of weakness;
  2. Inspiration in the example of someone who was able to make the difficult transition from being controlled by depression, anxiety, or other mental health challenges or addiction to being in control of them;
  3. Knowledge that mental health concerns can be managed using healthy habits, avoidance of traumatic triggers, cognitive behavioural therapy and other tools of mental health hygiene;
  4. Specific ideas, tools, habits etcetera that the audience could adapt for themselves.

Many events and speakers have focused on re-telling the trauma that an individual experienced in grappling with mental illness. To be sure, there is some value in that since it does provide some of the affirmation referred to in point 1 above. However, if we are to make any meaningful difference to the lives of our audience members, we need to provide much more in the nature of items 2-4 in the list above.  There is already a great deal of material available to our audience in the nature of testimonials about speakers’ trauma. Adding more does not help improve the lives of those we serve, and it risks putting the speakers’ own health in jeopardy when they re-experience some of the worst times in their lives. In the limited time and attention we have from our audience, we need to spend less time on those trauma narratives and more time on giving our audience real solutions to the real problems they are having. Those solutions may well be rooted in the personal narratives of people who have survived difficulties of course, but we must deliver something the audience members can take away beyond just “Oh how awful that must have been!”  They need to leave the event with the beginnings of a plan to help improve their own lives.
Learning that a speaker had already started to build their mental health toolkit can be important for those of us who tend to run on empty. We say things like “I do my best work when I am under stress.” Sometimes we survive on adrenaline surges, flying from one file to another, in a happy state that relies on our belief in our infallibility. But we know that there is a tipping point when good stress (eustress) that causes our peak performance converts to troubling stress, and we begin to struggle. When we are overloaded and we encounter an unexpected problem, we often collapse from exhaustion and can’t see our way out of the deep well we have dug for ourselves.
It is helpful to see that other lawyers who are hard-wired like us put time and energy in building their well-being not in response to a major crisis but at an earlier time which enabled them to work through a major crisis. If other lawyers can adopt introspection and set themselves up for well-being, then we can, too, so that we can ride out the rocky bumps of life.
Please save the date—October 3, 2024—and plan to spend an evening at the Hotel Macdonald. We will be dining in the Empire Ballroom, listening to Michael, and enjoying each other’s company. We may have a few fun-fundraisers, too. We can all think about whether we are short-changing ourselves by indulging in stereotypical lawyer excesses, and we can all enhance our coping strategies.
We will look at the feasibility of running a bus from Calgary to Edmonton on October 3rd with an overnight stay in Edmonton and back to Calgary the following morning.And, of course, lawyers and students from all parts of the province are welcomed with open arms—we are working on a group rate at the Hotel Macdonald for out-of-town guests.  Please let us know if you are interested in this option.
And perhaps your firm would like to sponsor the event or a component of the event. We will be circulating sponsorship opportunity packages in the next month or so. Let’s show our commitment not only to being good lawyers but to being well lawyers, together in Edmonton, on October 3rd.