Conversations with the President

Overcoming addiction with Kendra Goertzen

Episode Summary

CBA President, Stephen Rotstein, has a heartfelt conversation with Kendra Goertzen, the inaugural recipient of the Grant Davis Collegiality and Wellbeing Award, granted by the Manitoba branch of the CBA.

Episode Notes

CBA President, Stephen Rotstein, has a heartfelt conversation with Kendra Goertzen, the inaugural recipient of the Grant Davis Collegiality and Wellbeing Award, granted by the Manitoba branch of the CBA.

Kendra Goertzen is a Manitoba lawyer who practices in the area of family law and child protection in Winnipeg. Kendra's mission is to eliminate the stigma associated with addictions. She herself is in recovery and is very open about her own past struggles with sobriety.

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Episode Transcription

Overcoming addiction with Kendra Goertzen


Voiceover: This is Conversations with the President, presented by the Canadian Bar Association.


Stephen Rotstein: Bonjour and welcome everyone. Welcome to another episode of this season of Conversations with the President. My name is Stephen Rotstein, President of the Canadian Bar Association. I'm speaking to you from Toronto, home to many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat.

We ask each of you to consider the treaty lands and territories on which you reside as we acknowledge with respect and gratitude the many First Nations, Inuit and Metis whose footsteps have marked this land for centuries.

My priority as President is to strengthen our community, both in the sense of making sure that our members have the tools they need to be their best selves, both professionally and personally. But also in the sense of encouraging lawyers to volunteer in their communities.

In this series of episodes I talk with accomplished legal professionals who are leaders in volunteerism. I hope you will be inspired by their examples as I am.

My guest today is Kendra Goertzen, a Manitoba lawyer who practices in the area of family law and child protection in Winnipeg. Kendra is the inaugural recipient of the Grant Davis Collegiality and Wellbeing Award, granted by the Manitoba branch of the CBA.

Kendra is an outspoken advocate for work-life balance, and she works towards eliminating the stigma associated with addictions. She herself is in recovery and is very open about her own past struggles with sobriety.

Kendra makes a point of spending time with her family and friends and looking after her mental health, which is very important when you work in an area like child protection or family law. I look forward to discussing how she does it and what lessons she can share with other lawyers. Kendra, welcome to the podcast.

Kendra Goertzen: Thank you for having me.

Stephen Rotstein: So I want to start. My first question is asking you about the Grant Davis Award. I understand that this is the first year it’s been handed out. Who was Grant Davis and what does this award recognise?

Kendra Goertzen: So Grant Davis was a lawyer practicing family law up until – he died in 2019 and he died of suicide. And so, you know, despite that, when Grant was alive and when Grant was practicing law, he was a joy to all of us, everyone that knew him. He was one of my best friends and we did yoga together. He ran, he had great relationships with other lawyers, and he, in my experience with him as friends, you know, he was very committed to his own mental health and his own growth.

So the award was – my understand is that after he did die, the other lawyers put together this award to honour him and the contributions that he made to our profession. And so I believe it’s a great award – he was a great person and everyone loved him.

And he was somebody who, you know, as his friend, it wasn’t something that I expected, that he was struggling to the extent that he was. I think that a lot of us do struggle from time to time and will talk about it. But the extent that Grant talked about it, it wasn’t something that I expected would end the way that it did.

Stephen Rotstein: Right, yes, it’s obviously sad the way it ended, but it’s a positive step as far as having an award that deals with the important issue of mental health and wellness.

Kendra Goertzen: Exactly.

Stephen Rotstein: So we’ll delve a bit deeper into kind of your story, and how you’ve been involved in this issue. But obviously, congratulations on being the first recipient of the award. And are they planning on giving it annually then? Is this going to be a new annual award with the [unintelligible 00:04:28]?

Kendra Goertzen: It is an annual award, yes.

Stephen Rotstein: OK, that’s great. You know, you can obviously continue to be an advocate for these things and get others involved as well. So you’ve been outspoken on the elimination of stigma associated with addiction. You yourself are in recovery. Can you share your story of kind of where you were and kind of where you are today as far as your mental health story?

Kendra Goertzen: Sure. So, for myself – so I'm in recovery for, I guess I would say, for drugs and alcohol, and what that situation was like for me was, I actually – I wasn’t a huge drinker throughout my entire twenties. I was very focused on school, etcetera. Like, I drank a lot at school like other people did, but then, more so later in my life, alcohol became more regular and more – I would say more destructive.

And when I say that, I mean mainly just for my own emotions. It was something that I was doing to kind of –  at the end of the day, drinking to maybe just – I don’t know, maybe I thought I was celebrating, or I was just drowning out the emotions of my life and my days.

And it got to the point where, at the very end, in 2016 was my last year of drinking essentially. I quit in January 2017. But what was happening for me personally was that I wasn’t able to – I was trying to have kids and I wasn’t able to, and so that was really hard. So ultimately, I just was drinking a lot, and I knew that it wasn’t sustainable.

So when I quit in 2017, I felt immediately better. A, I was emotionally having a hard time because something bad was happening for me. Or not bad, but challenging, you know. And I was actually able, from moving forward in sobriety, to deal with the emotions of that experience.

And then just generally, for me, the life that I enjoy – and even when I was drinking, I would still do things, like, go to yoga classes or try to be active and do healthy things. And that was a lot easier to do without alcohol, or without being hung over on the weekends. Or even things like being available to my family and my friends.

So sobriety wasn’t hard for me to – it wasn’t hard to have alcohol out of my life, and it was an immediate benefit. I could tell so early how much happier I was and that has just continued each day. I love being sober and I love –

This is only my experience. I can't speak to other people, and I know I have a lot of friends that drink and do it in a healthy way. But the transition for me of where I was just before I stopped, and then now where I am and what I'm able to do, is incredible.

Stephen Rotstein: So just, everyone’s story is unique, as you mentioned. You just woke up one morning and said, “I just don’t like this feeling, I'm going to stop drinking,” or did you follow a program, or –

Kendra Goertzen: Well, so this is what happened: I had been to AA twelve years earlier, because I was doing drugs a little bit. So I went to AA to stop doing drugs. And then I was successful, but then I was, like, “I don’t think I need AA.”

So how I quit drinking this time was, yes, I went back to Twelve Steps, but I also – when I quit in January 2017, my best friend had written a blog post that he was going to quit drinking for a few months, and so I saw that post and I said, “Oh, I’ll do this too.”

And I guess at the time, I didn’t expect to quit drinking on a long-term basis. And I had never – I had never quit for a long-term. When I was trying to get pregnant, I would quit for a little while, or I'd quit for a little while when I first went to AA twelve years ago.

But it wasn’t – I think I didn’t expect to do it forever, and maybe that’s what made it easier, because it was literally – in Twelve Steps they call it One Day at a Time, and that’s exactly what I was doing. But then it just became so obvious to me how much my life was changing, that yes, I don’t think I ever want to go back to drinking alcohol.

Stephen Rotstein: Right, so you mentioned it’s been about six years, is that right?

Kendra Goertzen: It’s five – I just had five in January.

Stephen Rotstein: Congratulations. So I mean, that’s amazing that, you know, obviously – that you're able to stop something that obviously you felt had that impact on your life. And as you mentioned, obviously, you felt a lot of benefits. You know, you mentioned the yoga and the working out, but it sounds like it’s also impacted your professional life as well.

Kendra Goertzen: Yes, and I will say as a little bit of a caveat or interestingly, the year that I drank last, 2016, was one of my best professional years. I had incredible cases that were reported. Those clients are still my clients in some ways, where they’ve come back for variations, and I wouldn’t – so that’s the interesting thing is, I think that alcohol can really thrive in life as a lawyer as well. Like, you're drinking a lot with other people.

But at the same time, for me anyway, there was a little bit – this is, again, my experience only – is there was a little of ego there. I was doing really well in my cases and really well in my work, and that’s where I would want alcohol to come with me.

And so for one of those decisions – I had two big reported decisions from 2016, and one of them I got the judgement on the – I was ten days sober, and I remember getting it, and it blew my mind how well the case went. And part of me, I was going to go home and say, “Oh, I should get some wine or something and celebrate with that.” Anyway, I didn’t. But alcohol, I think, really fits with being a lawyer, but it doesn’t have to, there’s other ways to celebrate.

Stephen Rotstein: Yes, no, hearing your story, I just think about pre-COVID, the way people did after work go for a drink, or you know, celebrate a big deal or a successful case. Go for a drink and – you know, that doesn’t have to be the way, but you're right, that is clearly the default. And for some – and I'm speaking to someone who, you know, is sharing – I really appreciate – your own personal story.

But it’s a stress-reliever from the stresses that obviously are associated with the profession of practicing law. So you know, you mentioned yoga, you mentioned other things. What other things would you recommend instead of drinking, would you recommend that people do? I know everyone’s situation is unique, but to kind of reward yourself for the successes that come hopefully with one’s professional life, or deal with the stresses that obviously come with one’s life too.

Kendra Goertzen: Well, for me, what I’ll do now as a – I’ll still go for drinks with people, where they're having drinks and I'm having appetisers or something. But I have a group of women that I go running with that are lawyers, you know, and we’ll go running when someone’s having a bad day, or when someone won a motion. You know, we’ll celebrate that way.

I just meet people for coffee. As far as – I think that numbing is still something that I need to do sometimes. When I finish a trial or when I finish a long day, I will watch a really ridiculous television show –

Stephen Rotstein: Yes, Netflix is good for that, yes.

Kendra Goertzen: Exactly. And then that’s something that – I mean, because it’s a piece for me, sometimes. Like, what I need to remember is that, yes, sometimes I do need to numb out and sometimes I do need to relax, but you can do that without alcohol. You can do it by, like I said, watching a really foolish show, going for a walk, listening to music, calling someone that you love. There's a ton of ways to make you feel good.

Eating, like, sometimes I’ll eat a whole pizza. You know, there’s lots of stuff that you can do. Ice cream for dinner, that’s another good one that I really, especially in early sobriety, was doing a lot.

Stephen Rotstein: Don’t tell my kids that. They don’t drink, but they do eat a lot of ice cream. [Laughs]

Kendra Goertzen: No, I mean, there's ways to – my life doesn’t need to be so regimented that there’s no room for imperfection, right, and so I try to be easy on myself in those ways. But what I'm not doing anymore is just escaping completely.

Stephen Rotstein: No, no, I think those are great observations. And you know, food in itself can also be a positive and a negative for some people.

Kendra Goertzen: Yes.

Stephen Rotstein: But obviously, you know, the escapism, whatever, it’s the Netflix or exercise or, you know, treating yourself in another way, I think is obviously good advice.

What else do you think – you know, the CBA as an association, something I’ve talked a lot about, we have various resources out there to try to help people in their mental health and wellness journey, but what more do you think we could be doing as an association? Or what do you think we’re doing well?

Maybe I should have started with that. What do you think we’re doing well, or what do you think – areas where, as an association, we could further help members of the profession?

Kendra Goertzen: Yes, I mean, I think – so I’ve been practicing for fifteen years now, and when I was – I wasn’t hearing much about mental health or wellness in my first few years of practice. So I mean, that’s the first thing as well, I think.

And we would always hear about balance, or the firms would tell us that they were wanting balance, but that’s the first thing, I think, we need to send a message that people don’t need to be working so much, that’s for sure, because then we’re all going to burn out.

Stephen Rotstein: Yes.

Kendra Goertzen: And I think that each person – I know I’ve been to other seminars on addiction, but there could be seminars on things like activity, or like you said, food. There’s lots of areas – there are so many areas of wellness, right, and the question is, which one of them are we –

I think we’re all really good at some of them and we’re all really maybe less amazing at others. And I know which ones are mine. I know what’s easy for me and I know what’s challenging for me. And so, for lawyers to be really –

And that’s another thing I can say for myself as a lawyer is, I'm not always honest with when things are hard for me. And it’s when I am, that’s when things can open up. And so we can, by offering varying options for how to – like, various areas of mental health, that could help lawyers remember that they're all important.

And it’s not just, say, going to the gym. Because I think everyone’s good at going to the gym, pretty much, you know, like –

Stephen Rotstein: Oh, really? [Laughs] I think a lot of people [unintelligible 00:15:45] going to gym.

Kendra Goertzen: A lot of people I know are great at going to the gym – and this is, again, myself as well. Sometimes I would sleep terribly for a whole year, or I'm always getting takeout, or whatever. There's things to – because for me, it doesn’t –

One of the classic examples that I use is, there was one day that I went to a yoga class, and it was a great class, whatever, but then at the end of the class, I had a fight with my sister-in-law in the parking lot, like, yelling, you know. And it’s like, well, what value was that class, when I just had that argument right after? So yes.

Stephen Rotstein: No, I think, look, you know, in conversations I've had with – in the Conversations with the President podcast, but also conversations I've had with members, I think everybody’s got their different – well, both their different triggers, but also their different ways to kind of relax. And I think some of the things you’ve mentioned earlier, I think, are good ones. And I think – my two cents’ worth on this is, people have to find what works for them, right.

Kendra Goertzen: Right.

Stephen Rotstein: You know, you’ve mentioned a bunch of times yoga and stuff like that. I’ve been trying to do that, and I just can't. [Laughs] I’ve tried it. So, I don’t know, maybe I’ll try it again sometime, but I definitely think, you know, again, we all need our stress relievers.

So I want to kind of just transition a bit to something else that you do, which is, you volunteer. I understand that you're active in your community and volunteering on various causes. Can you give me a sense of kind of what you’ve been involved in and kind of why that’s important to you?

Kendra Goertzen: I’ve been on the board of my community organisation in my neighbourhood, and so that’s important for me, because I live in one of the lower income neighbourhoods of Winnipeg, and I'm a renter, and these are all choices that I've made just for my – they align more with how I want to live.

I don’t want to live in the suburbs, I want to live centrally. I don’t have a car, etcetera. Anyways, I stay involved in that to ensure that I'm connected, I guess, with my community. I'm not on it – that’s what I was doing.

And I'm also on the board of the – we have a Child Protection Defence Lawyers’ Association, and that is something, again, that’s important for me, because how child protection works in Manitoba is, we have agency lawyers and the child protection lawyers, the parents’ counsel.

And the parents’ counsel are primarily funded by Legal Aid Manitoba, and the agencies are bigger firms working, getting paid by the agencies. And this is no secret: they get paid a lot more than we do, they have a lot more resources than we do because of their bigger firms, etcetera.

So what we do – so at my firm, for example, I'm the only one that practices in this area, so I'm relatively alone, right. So, we have these meetings to ensure that we maintain connection with each other and keep each other informed of how our cases are going.

And then also, I do volunteering in Twelve Steps. I do sponsoring out of other women and that kind of stuff, all the time as well.

Stephen Rotstein: So it sounds like, besides your professional life, obviously your personal life or the mixture between your personal and your professional life, keeps you busy.

So you know, I asked you a question earlier about how the CBA could help lawyers manage the stresses in our life. What do you think we can do as far as promoting volunteerism and seeing that other lawyers obviously give back?

Kendra Goertzen: I guess, just to remember that – I mean, this is what I believe, is that the best thing that we can do is give of ourselves, right, without any kind of results, I guess. That would be my reason of doing these things, is that when we show up and become available for other people, just for the sake of doing so, that’s where the self-esteem comes in, that’s where the feelings of worth come in.

But it’s not something that I can describe, other than, you have to experience it to know. And that’s why that becomes just as addicting as, say, making money. If you do the right thing often enough and you show up, and you know how it feels at the end –

They always say, like, in Twelve Steps, when you're sponsoring a person, it’s not necessarily to keep that person sober, it’s to keep yourself sober. You're doing it for your own – I mean, if you can keep them sober, great, but you do it because of the feeling that it comes for you.

Stephen Rotstein: Right, I couldn’t have actually said it better myself. You know, I’ve talked a fair bit about my volunteerism journey, and this is exactly why. I mean, people say, “Oh, it’s great that you're doing it,” and I say, “No, it makes me feel better. It makes me feel good.”

So I think those are important messages, and like I said, I appreciate the leadership by example, both in the area of mental health and wellness, and the area of volunteerism.

So you know, Kendra, it’s been a pleasure meeting you. Congratulations again on being the first recipient of the award, and continue all the great work that you're doing.

Kendra Goertzen: Thank you.


Stephen Rotstein: I’ve been talking to Kendra Goertzen, a Winnipeg lawyer who practices in the area of family law and child protection. She was recently honoured with the Grant David Award for Collegiality and Wellbeing by the Manitoba branch of the CBA. Merci, thank you.

We want to hear your stories about how you think legal professionals can help strengthen our communities. Do you know a lawyer who exemplifies this ideal, or do you see a need for legal professionals that aren’t currently being met? Let us know on Twitter at cba_news, on Facebook and on Instagram at Canadian Bar Association. You can also find me at Twitter at stephenrotstein.

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Until next time.