Confronting the unseen

Being appointed as a judge hasn’t stopped Michele Hollins from speaking openly about her struggles with depression

Confronting the unseen
Photo: Derek Heisler

In her judicial application, Michele Hollins was asked how her experience would provide her with insight into the diversity of Canadian perspectives. She cited the impact of mental illness in her answer. She said that her previous work at the Canadian Bar Association had brought her into contact with many legal professionals dealing with addictions and other personal issues that kept them from being good lawyers and happy human beings.

“I think judges must always be mindful of the fact that the litigants (and lawyers) before them may be struggling with unseen illness,” she wrote.

Hollins would know. Many years before, she suffered from an unseen illness that had a profound impact on her work and her personal life. And although her illness may have been invisible at the time, the legal profession has since heard loud and clear about the real impact it had on her.

Hollins was a single mother with twin daughters, working as a civil litigator in Calgary. Despite the challenges of balancing her career and looking after two teenagers, her life was enviable. She was a partner at Dunphy Best Blocksom LLP with “great clients,” she says, and her daughters were in their last year of high school and “bound for great things.” They were picking which universities they wanted to attend, and the hard work she had put into raising them had paid off.

But she was suffering invisibly. “I started to be very sad. And I’m not a sad person at all ever. And I just couldn’t shake it. And it was just getting worse and worse and worse every day. And I couldn’t figure it out. I couldn’t talk myself out of it.

“That was the beginning of my depression. It took many months to figure out what was going on. And in fact, it took a couple of people in my life to intervene and tell me that I was not doing okay, that there was something really wrong with me that I wasn’t going to be capable of just fixing on my own.”

Those interventions convinced Hollins to get professional help. It eventually became clear that her feelings were because her girls were going to leave her.

“We’d been a family of three for 16 years. I can still feel that sense of panic now that I felt then when I thought about the fact that they were going to leave. With twins, it’s at the same time. So, I was going to go from having a full house to being completely on my own. It just was terrifying, it was absolutely terrifying to me. I would have done anything to have kept it from happening.

“And so, I just withdrew. Depression for me was just not wanting to be. You wake up in the morning, and you don’t want to be awake, and you don’t want to get dressed, and you don’t want to go to work. You don’t want to see your colleagues, you don’t want to talk to clients, don’t want to eat, you don’t want to exercise, you don’t want to socialize, you don’t want to talk, you just don’t want to be.”

Hollins was in counseling and took antidepressants for about a year and a half.

“My counselor was fantastic, she gave me a lot of tools to deal with that sense of panic. And she saw me through that transition period where the girls left and were established. They started going to school and all that kind of stuff. It was exactly as [my counselor] predicted it was. We stayed as close as we had ever been, and we still are as close as we’ve ever been.”

Hollins says she is lucky because her depression was situational — it went away after she sought treatment and realized her relationship with her daughters was still solid. But what has never left her is the memory of how she felt.

“I actually think, in some ways, it’s quite a gift to have recovered, but still recognize and empathize with people who are struggling.”

This emphathy, as Hollins predicted in her judicial application, has come in handy in her new career. She was appointed to the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta in 2016.

But her openness to talking about her depression came many years before that.

As president of the CBA, Alberta Branch in 2007-2008, Hollins began to speak publicly about her experience, and her audiences gradually became larger until 2014 when she became the national president of the CBA.

“As I was coming up to my presidential year, I said to the executive and to the staff, ‘this is my thing, this is the thing that I want to talk about, when I have the ability to talk about it.’ Not because it’s easy, and not because I love talking about myself. I think it’s really important. I feel like within the legal profession, this is a very present issue, it’s a very present need.”

During her presidency, Hollins committed to accept any invitation to speak about her mental health “unless I just physically could not.” The lessons for the profession, she felt, were too important to ignore.

“There were days [during my depression] when I would get to the office and go inside my office and close the door, and lay on the floor and cry for hours. The idea that that person lying on the floor crying is supposed to be a lawyer who’s intellectually and physically capable of taking your very complex problem and sorting it out and providing you with solutions and advocating for you if necessary, those are all things that lawyers do that are difficult to reconcile with someone who is having serious mental health issues.”

It’s a lesson she hopes those who hear her story don’t have to learn the hard way. “If I had understood what was happening, if I’d been more knowledgeable, or more vigilant or less determined to try to fix myself on my own, I could have had my depression treated much earlier in the process and it probably wouldn’t have had such a big impact on my practice.”

While Hollins thinks she may have now spoken about her depression hundreds of times, “I’ve never been able to describe my experience without breaking into tears, not once, not one time. And that tells me that your familiarity with those feelings is just never going to go away. And even though they don’t, even though I’m not in a position right now where that scares me or could harm me, just the recollection of what that felt like is a reminder that it can happen.”

Which, in addition to providing her with empathy for those who are suffering invisibly, also gives her tools to stay healthy herself.

“I know that from my first year and a half in the job [as a judge], I need to pay attention to that because I need to be mentally well, as much as I need to be physically. In fact, I use my brain probably more than any other part of my body. So, I intend to be quite vigilant about my mental health and do the kinds of things that I know are helpful to me.

“For me, it’s about some self-reflective time, I like to be outdoors a fair bit, trying to create some balance, not being too hard on myself on the days that doesn’t happen. Trying to eat decently and exercise and take care of my body.”

While Hollins has no doubt about the risks of ignoring mental health, and the toll that has on the profession, she pauses when asked about the risks of speaking publicly about her own struggles with depression, and whether that has affected her career.

“I didn’t have repercussions for talking about it. So, I should be very clear about that. There were no negative repercussions for talking about this after the fact at all. In fact, the reception has been unbelievable. It’s just blown me away at how receptive every single audience, no matter how it is composed, has been to me just talking about my experience. I’m not a professional health expert. I am not trained in any of those things. But just telling my story in general, it obviously is an experience that resonates with a lot of people way more than I could ever have expected.”

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