Making lemon aid

Making lemon aid
Photo: Bronwen Sharp
When Vassilios Apostolopoulos had fallen to the lowest depth of his life, he didn’t have to go back to law, after all he had made mistakes, given up practising, and been disbarred. He could have chosen to take other routes on the road to rebuilding his life. He had other interests, other degrees — he had been working on his doctorate in political science when he switched to law. But to not go back wasn’t an option for him.

“It would have been easier,” admits Apostolopoulos, recounting the first step he took on the road to rebuilding his life during an interview in the 56th-floor board room at Toronto’s First Canadian Place, where he has resumed his practice since having his licence reinstated in 2012. “I would also relinquish the opportunity to make an impact. The legal profession still remains caught in the social web of stigma and its many manifestations — some subtle, some stark and adverse, some silent but equally consequential for those who have to bear the brunt and burden of this living force we call stigma.”

Apostolopoulos’ star was rising when he graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1993. He was third in his class, won three prizes, and was invited to compete for a clerkship at the Supreme Court of Canada. He then joined Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP after articling there. Within a decade, his marriage and other relationships had fallen apart, he was isolated and homeless, his life little more than a shell. He had been disbarred for failing to account for $102,400, the proceeds of the sale of his client’s business, and for failing to follow up on an undertaking with another lawyer to file a mortgage discharge.

All the while he lacked any perspective about what was happening to him and around him. He had suffered from serious symptoms of psychological distress dating back to 1990, had been on medication and followed a strict regime of therapy. But it wasn’t until after everything had fallen apart many years later when it was determined his problem was actually obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep interruptions, more than 50 per hour, turned out to be the cause of the mood disorder, affecting his behaviour, judgment, and his ability to function. “It was a troubling situation that affected your judgment and your view of things,” he says now, trying to explain his state of mind at the time. “There’s a subtle shift in reasoning of which you have no control. That is what is so pernicious about this medical condition; is you have no insight into what is happening at the time it is happening, no matter how intelligent or knowledgeable you are.”

He calls the diagnosis and the cure a seminal moment. The use of a continuous positive airway pressure machine as he slept essentially eliminated the problem, as long as he could find a place to plug it in — a problem for those who unwittingly find themselves on the streets. But after two more bouts of homelessness, once for three months and the other for seven, Apostolopoulos found a way and persevered. “Within six-an-half months, I was working on an LLM degree in health law,” declares Apostolopoulos, who includes work on his doctorate degree in health law among his many current pursuits. He also has a broad practice with Apostol Law and Advocacy PC including health law, medical ethics, and professional regulation.

By the time he applied to have his licence reinstated, Apostolopoulos had long paid restitution to his former client in full. In the Law Society of Upper Canada’s 2012 decision to restore Apostolopoulos’ licence to practise law, Ted Yao wrote on behalf of the three-member panel: “While nothing is ever certain, the panel thinks this is one of the best cases for reinstatement the Law Society is likely to see. . . . One lawyer can advance public trust in the profession. This is such an instance.” He also noted Apostolopoulos was developing new ways of thinking about the law affecting mental health issues.

In his commitment to transform advocacy for mental health law and public policy, Apostolopoulos was involved in the Ontario Lawyers Assistance Program, which prior to its transformation provided peer support for lawyers with mental health and addiction issues. He also serves as vice president of Inner City Family Health Team in Toronto, which provides comprehensive interdisciplinary health care to urban homeless populations. It was there he met family doctor, Dr. Joshua Tepper, the board’s former president and currently president and CEO of Health Quality Ontario. Tepper was struck by Apostolopoulos’ ability to integrate his significant challenges and experiences in his day-to-day activity “and enrich those around him. He’s able to bring this depth of his experiences into his everyday and into experiences without making it about him.”

And like Apostolopoulos, Tepper believes stigma to be one of the largest obstacles facing those suffering from mental health issues. It’s used to marginalize a sector of society and the result, he says, is that we deny ourselves a perspective from certain voices.

This stigma is such a concern for Apostolopoulos that he’s decided to focus on its roots, its impact, and its issues in another of his current endeavours: a book. “[B]ecause the words and the language and the discourse on mental illness has yet to meet the challenge of shared collective understanding with knowledge. . . . Stigma is a difficult barrier to overcome collectively.” The research takes him back to ancient Athens and how other institutions have reduced stigma. Passing laws, he believes, will not make it go away. A deep understanding is what is truly required to diminish its impact in any meaningful way. “There are many words now offered about mental illness, but not the stories. That will be a key. And the reason I have been speaking about this is because of the abiding conviction that I must speak about what happened to me.”

What has struck him most in the three years since his reinstatement, is the number of lawyers who have approached him to talk about their own personal situation. And more importantly, he says, is their “absolute dread of disclosure. Most lawyers find it unthinkable to reach out and speak about their experience.” They see it as a cataclysmic event that would cause irreversible damage to their career. And, for the most part, Apostolopoulos agrees because it is seen as something of a character flaw. Indeed, Apostolopoulos is buoyed by efforts to bring attention to mental health by Ontario Bar Association President Orlando Da Silva and others within the profession.

As for his own story, Apostolopoulos is telling that as well. But he’s decided the best way to convey those experiences is on a stage through a play. Theatre, he says, is the best venue to provide the emotional impact upon an audience and the potential to teach us about ourselves. “My natural habitat is actually words and books and music and, of course, the life of the mind.”

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