CBA President, Stephen Rotstein, speaks with former CBA President Madam Justice Michele Hollins about her battle with depression. You won't want to miss this vulnerable discussion.
CBA President, Stephen Rotstein, speaks with former CBA President Madam Justice Michele Hollins about her battle with depression.
Having grown up in Saskatchewan, Michele graduated with her B.Sc. from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas in 1987. She returned to Saskatchewan and obtained her LL.B. from the University of Saskatchewan, College of Law in 1992. Michele is an ardent volunteer, particularly within the legal community. She has been heavily involved in the Canadian Bar Association since her articling days, including serving as the CBA Alberta Branch President in 2007. She became CBA's National President in 2014-2015. She was appointed at the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta in 2017.
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Voiceover: This is Conversations with the President, presented by the Canadian Bar Association.
Stephen Rotstein: Bonjour, hello everyone. Welcome to another episode of The 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 of many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishinabe, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendake. I would 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 Métis whose footsteps have marked this land for centuries.
My priority as President is to strengthen our legal community, both in sense of making sure members have the tools they need to be the best selves, both professionally and personally, but also in the sense that they encourage other lawyers to volunteer in their communities.
In this series I talk to accomplished legal professionals who are leaders and volunteers and I hope you will be able to be inspired by their stories as I am. Today my guest is Madame Michele Hollins who was appointed to the Court of Queen’s Bench in Calgary, Alberta in 2017. Before that she was a partner in Dunphy Best Blocksom LLP in Calgary. In 2014-2015 she was the National President of the Canadian Bar Association. She was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 2008. For many years now she’s been open about her struggles with depression and takes every opportunity she has to discuss the importance of mental health for legal professionals. Michele, welcome to the podcast.
Michele Hollins: Thank you so much, Stephen. I appreciate the invitation.
Stephen Rotstein: So I want to start by asking you about your career, which is quite distinguished, which is combined both being a lawyer and obviously on the personal side raising twin daughters as a single mother. Can you kind of run me through how you’ve gotten to where you are today from where you started?
Michele Hollins: Sure, a little walk down memory lane. So I hadn’t set out at any point in time to be a lawyer. I wanted to be a doctor.
Stephen Rotstein: Also a good profession.
Michele Hollins: Yes, yes. But the way my life unfolded I just came to the rather uninformed conclusion that it would be too difficult to be a doctor with young children, so I thought, “Oh well, being a lawyer would be the next best thing and not so hard.” As I said, particularly ill-informed decision-making process, but I have loved it. It actually has suited me very well. I’ve loved the law from law school through practice through to being pointed to the Bench as a judge. So that’s all been good. Certainly there’ve been lots of times that were a real slog. As you mentioned I have twin daughters, so those girls are now 33. In fact I have a new grandchild of my own, which is pretty exciting.
But when I started law school they were 14 months so that was a bit of a slog. And I was a single parent relatively quickly into that process. And so they were about 4 years old I guess when I did a clerkship, and 5 years old when I started my articles at [unintelligible 00:03:26] in Calgary. And so yeah, the older they got, the busier they got, the busier I got, the harder the work got, but I was always very in love in with my job. And so between the kids and my work frankly it was a lot happier that it was ever unhappy. I really appreciated those years and really enjoyed all of it. But it was, as it turned out, raising two kids by myself that set the table for my experience with depression, as odd as that sounds.
Stephen Rotstein: Right. So I do actually want to talk a bit about your personal issues with depression because you’ve been very open on it and I will be completely frank. You are a role model to many lawyers because of the way you’ve been so open about the issues. Can you tell me kind of what happened and why you chose to go public about your story?
Michele Hollins: And before I do that Stephen I just want to, you know, give my thanks and commend you for making mental health one of your priorities as President. I did that back in 2014 when I was President. And I just find it very warming and gratifying to see someone who is prepared to continue to make that a priority of the organization.
I mentioned that the precursor to my experience with depression was being a single mom of twins. Being a single mom of twins was great; that was not the sad part at all. But in about 15 years ago, not coincidently when they entered their senior year of high school I started to become very sad. This part of the story is always a little tough for me to get through. I didn’t know why but I just was sad, and I was sad every day and it just didn’t get better. My first reaction – and I mean because we all have blue days if you want to call it, or sad days; we have days that we don’t want to live this day – but this was just so relentless and so unceasing. And it wasn’t me and it wasn’t characteristic of me. I would describe myself as a quite happy person.
And of course the first thing I did was look at my life and try to figure out, “OK, like what is bothering you? Why can you not lift yourself out of this, this doldrums?” And my life was so good that it provided absolutely no answer to that question. I mean my kids were, they were set to take over the world. They were applying to different universities all over the place and gathering up scholarships, and they were excited about the next phase of their life. I was a partner in a great law firm and I was really sort of coming into my own as a lawyer. I had a great client list, I had good relationships with my clients, I had really good work to do and I loved doing it.
And so there was just nothing when I looked at my life objectively that could possibly explain what on earth was going wrong with me and making me feel so despairing, and increasingly despairing. And things began to deteriorate I guess pretty quickly, still with no idea in my head of what was causing all of this. But I lost my appetite; I became disinterested in any sort of exercise. I, who had been one of the predominant social butterflies in the organization I think, didn’t want to do anything. I started making excuses not to be at social events, I didn’t want to be with my friends, I didn’t return phone calls and it just got worse and worse and worse. And of course relatively quickly began to affect my ability to work.
I couldn’t focus. Some days I really struggled to get out of bed. Everyone who has been through a depression or suffers chronically from depression, most of them anyway, will describe fatigue, and it’s a fatigue unlike anything that I had ever experienced. I would get up and have a shower and need to go back to bed. I’d just be completely overwhelmed physically and mentally with the idea of trying to get dressed or drive to work.
And so at that point some panic begins to set in as well because I didn’t understand what was happening. I seemed completely powerless to address it or fix it. And it was probably a few months into this, I guess actually probably five or six months into it that I had a couple of friends that simultaneously sort of intervened. And I remember standing at an elevator bank with Terry Evanson, our then Executive Director of the Alberta branch, on our way from one social to another. I was on the branch executive at that time. And she came up to me and said, “Are you OK?” I just lost it, just burst into tears. And she said, “OK, well no need to answer. You’re not OK, I can see that. But I want to talk to you about getting some help.”
So that was the next thing that happened, is that I did reach out. And because it wasn’t, for me it wasn’t so much like, oh, at least to that point, I should be able to fix this myself. Those were all my initial thoughts were. First of all, “Nothing is wrong with you, smarten up.” Secondly, “You should be able to reason your way out of this.” And thirdly, “Well, just fix it, just fix it. And that’s what we do, we’re lawyers. We fix things.”
So I went through all of those phases and it wasn’t until I went to a counsellor, to a psychologist, and I remember my first appointment with her. I walked in and she asked me my name, presumably just to check and make sure that I was the appointment she had, and I said my name and that was it. I started crying and I cried through the entire hour. And that was a measure for both of us I guess of how deep the hole was that I had found myself in. I was, by that point, really unable to do any meaningful work. There were days when I went to the office and often it took most of the morning, sometimes into the afternoon, just to be able to physically get there.
I was in an office at that time that had no glass, right? It had a door that closed. And I would come in, go into my office, close the door, and then sometimes lay down on the floor of my office and cry. So it was not how you think of lawyers. You think of lawyers as capable and competent and capacitated and working hard, and as I said, solving problems and doing all those things. And so the nature of my profession I think made it more difficult, made it scarier for me and for most lawyers I think to try to figure out, “How do I square what is happening with me with the expectations and for me that my clients had of me?”
So those were very, very dark times for me. But the good news was that once I turned my face towards the sun and I had therapy sessions with this psychologist pretty much every week, and that went on for a long time. I went to my doctor as her suggestion and he prescribed a course of antidepressants, and I was on antidepressant medication for about a year and a half. And of course, so I forgot to explain what she explained to me, which is why all of this was happening was my kids were leaving. My kids were leaving me and it wasn’t so much being along, it was being without them.
And even now, I mean they’ve been gone for, I don’t know, forever. They’ve been gone for a long time and 14 years I guess; I can still feel that sense of panic that I didn’t want them to go. I would’ve done anything to keep them from going except keep them from going. Because of course they had to do that. So but once some of those things kind of came to light, you know, that my therapist and I were able to work through what was actually going on with me, then she was able to help me cultivate some tools. And this is the case for a lot of people who become depressed because of a, it’s often a situation you can’t change. And in fact I think that the inability to do anything about it is what feeds that panic and that sense of helplessness that is so congruent with depression.
But I was able to develop some tools. I was able to say, “OK, you just have to get through this event or this period time” or whatever it was until the kids did leave. It did not change our relationship. In fact arguably it may have strengthened it. We still talk almost every day. Everything that my therapist said would come to pass in a good way came to pass. But I’m grateful for so many people in that narrative but most of all for the friends that I had that cared enough to say, “We’re worried about you and we think you need to get some help,” so.
Stephen Rotstein: So Michele, that’s an incredibly moving story to me and I’m sure to those people who are listening. And again I really appreciate you sharing your story because I do think as people hear from you they realize that while they’re facing challenges they’re not alone. And you talked about your journey to try to address it so I’m wondering – a lot’s been said about COVID and what’s going on with COVID and isolation and the various pressures that are on lawyers, well on people generally – but since this is a podcast focused on the legal profession, on lawyers specifically, I’m just wondering – COVID is a perfect example of a situation that you have no control over – what advice you would give people who may be currently struggling with issues of mental health and wellness right now as a result of the pandemic or a result of something else in their life?
Michele Hollins: Sure, I’m probably more comfortable sharing my own story than trying to give advice, because certainly everyone’s experience comes from a different place and people will go through it differently and people have different levels of support. But I think for lawyers, one of the things that we all need to recognize, whether you suffer from depression or are prone to it or not is that the profession is enormously stressful. It’s just in the nature of what we do and how we do it; and so not only to cut yourself some slack and to be very mindful of your mental health, but for those around you too. I mean it is just not an easy job. It’s not intended to be easy and I wasn’t looking for an easy job, so that’s fine.
But it’s just one of the only things I think where – how does the saying go? – “If you’re not busy enough to complain about it then you’re going to be unhappy that you’re not busy enough.” So you’ve got a ton of work on your desk then your stress is driven by deadlines and client expectations and how is this work going to get done? And if you don’t have enough work on your desk then it’s worse because then you experience this kind of horrible sinking job insecurity that I think can be enormously damaging.
And so lawyers at all stages of their careers may be prone to those feelings. I particularly have concern for young lawyers. You know, when I think about my situation, I was a partner in my law firm. I was extremely well supported. And it wasn’t that there weren’t ramifications for me financially but those were all manageable. The most important thing was that I had partners who were willing to try to understand what I was going through, and they were willing to do the most important thing I think, which is, “We will not abandon you. We will not run away from you. We are there.”
And so there’s two – you’re either a person who is going through depression or you’re a person who knows someone who is, I think as a lawyer. And so my advice is if you have feelings like the type I’ve described, if you are not coping and you know you’re not coping, don’t delay in accessing some help. I drove myself nearly to a point of no return. I could have damaged my relationships irreparably, I could’ve damaged my practice irreparably and none of that was really necessary, because if I had sought help earlier my recovery would’ve begun earlier. And the ramifications of what happened to me would not have been ultimately as severe.
So if you are not doing well, talk to someone about it whether that’s a friend or a family member. Or if you’re not comfortable doing that then talk to a third party, talk to a professional. If you are on the other side of that ledger and you see people around you that you notice are behaving differently that may not be coping, that don’t seem to be themselves, then be my friend. Be my friend Terry, be my friend Jim. Ask them if they’re OK. Tell them that you are concerned, that you care about them. If you’re not particularly close, ask them anyway, and if the person that they are going to need to confide in is not you then at least suggest that they find someone. So those would be the sort of immediate address things.
There are two other pieces of advice I would give. One is – and this came very hard to me and I still struggle with it – is don’t judge people for their reactions to the stressful and depressing things that are going on in their lives. One of the things that I did to myself, and it went on for a long time, was to chastise myself for being – it was just so dumb. I mean I had these kids that were doing so well and they were going to go to university; it was all good news. And so I was actually angry with myself often for being depressed about something that didn’t make logical sense.
But being able to let that go and just stop trying to reprimand myself for feelings that didn’t make sense, I also learned that it’s very important that we do that for each other. I have heard stories over the years of things that caused people terrible sessions of anxiety, terrible periods of depression. Sometimes I had a little voice in my head that says, “Oh, well, I don’t know. I don’t think I would’ve reacted that way,” or “That doesn’t sound that bad to me.” That is so unhelpful. It is unhelpful to the cause of improving mental health generally and it is unbelievably unhelpful to the person who is suffering. So that’s the first thing, it is important not to measure someone’s reaction by what you think you would do.
The least piece of advice I would have is for people who are like myself now, who – I think still I’m prone to depression or I can be – but what I have learned is to be very mindful of that part of myself. So just like you would go to the eye doctor and get your eyes checked every once in a while you may hop on the scale once in a while. It’s important to check in with yourself. And what I mean by that is all of the little things that you know indicated to you that things are going OK. So you’re eating properly, you’re sleeping OK, your relationships are functioning well, you are not overly irritable, you’re not overly fatigued, you’re excited about the things that you’ve always been exciting about. It’s important I think that people develop those habits of checking in their mental, just asking themselves those questions from time to time.
Stephen Rotstein: Right, that’s great advice. I know you said you weren’t going to give specific examples.
Michele Hollins: I know, I know. I can’t help it.
Stephen Rotstein: You’d be, “No, no, well it’s good, it’s good.” You’re passing – you know, I just want to take this opportunity to say that the CBA also has put on its website various resources. The Wellness Subcommittee, which I know you received an award from back in 2019, have various resources such as the Wellness Hour, which is available as well as the Dear Abby column. So that’s my little commercial for various resources, and there are others at the CBA.
I did want to ask you one other question about mental health and wellness and then I have some other questions. My question is you talked about this during your year of presidency, and again you’re both a role model and a trailblazer in that area. We’re now in 2021, soon to be 2022; do you think a lot’s changed? Like our acceptance of these issues has changed? Hopefully, maybe I’m answering your own question, but where do we still need to go as a society to deal with these types of issues?
Michele Hollins: I think the short answer is yes, things have changed drastically. You know, it’s interesting for me to watch these kinds of conversations becoming more commonplace, not just within the legal profession, but you see the professional athletes that are prepared to talk about this now, you know, celebrities. And so I do think there is a difference. I hit that incline somewhere along its earlier path, and when I began to talk about these things probably beginning in about 2010-ish, my reaction every time I have spoken about mental health has been overwhelming reaction and identification.
So I just was so surprised at the beginning at how many people, just by number would tell me their own stories of struggles with depression, with anxiety. It was affirming but it was also kind of alarming that it was so prevalent, and that we seemed I think so unprepared early on to deal with it as the illness that it is. You’ve heard these comparisons many times, but if you have the flu, you stay home and everybody understands that. And if you break a leg you’re going to be out of commission for a while and everybody understands that. But this, because it is – and I do think that’s one why – is because it’s invisible, because it’s so subjectively experienced, has been much more difficult to address.
So I would say on the continuum that we are much farther along in terms of people’s awareness that these are really prevalent issues within law firms, within our workplaces, within our families. I’m very happy about the progress that’s been made in terms of awareness as a society. I am less enthused about the progress we’ve been able to make in terms of how we deal with that. And you know, I’ve been an employer as well so I’ve been on both sides of this issue and the answers are not easy at all. But that I think is the next big sort of nut to crack, is what does our assistance look like? What does our support for someone who is struggling look like? How do we make resources available to people in a way that is actually really effective. How do we see them through a mental illness and how do we reabsorb them into an organization, an institution, a firm, whatever it is.
So that’s what I think. Those are the more difficult pieces, so not surprisingly probably more work remains to be done.
Stephen Rotstein: Right, thank you for that. I think as part of my role as President I’ve had the opportunity to go to various branches, hopefully to do more in 2022. And a lot of the issues you’ve just spoken about are ones that have been addressed. People have come as I’ve talked about the areas of mental health and wellness, people have talked to me about their own personal stories or people in their lives. And again, employers – whether it be law firms or corporations – are trying to really assist their employees. But you know, sometimes they’re just struggling to know how to. What you said is very, is resonating very much with me.
I want to pivot a bit to some of the other things that are going on in your life, because you’ve been very active over your career. You obviously were very busy in volunteers, and both in the area of pro bono and other volunteer work you did, including obviously your role in the CBA. I’m wondering if you can speak to, because obviously there is lots of individuals out there who are either younger in their career or just want to generally get involved, what advice you would have for them as far as getting involved whether it be in the CBA or whether it be involved in your community or other areas like that?
Michele Hollins: Certainly. So there’s just no shortage of reasons why people should be involved in their communities, why they should search volunteer opportunities that speak to them. So I’ll begin with the less-philanthropic reasons I guess. From a building a business perspective, being in involved in your community and in organizations, whether those are legal organizations or non-legal organizations, is very important for a whole bunch of reasons. First of all it helps you read people, create networks. It also hones your communication skills, it hones your leadership skills, so there’s nothing so valued, and Stephen I know you’ll understand this, as learning how to chair a good meeting. You know, we –
Stephen Rotstein: Still learning on – yes! [laughs]
Michele Hollins: So those are skills that you can work on as a lawyer, particularly a young lawyer. Well, you are also providing a support and services to any host of organizations that really need your help. I mean I can tell you sitting on the Bench that organizations and individuals within our community who are prepared particularly to help self-represented [unintelligible 00:27:12] navigate the system are absolutely invaluable to the judges. It just is, there’s just such a difference between people who have some sort of support in bringing their cases before the court. And so there’s no shortage.
I will say a small piece of advice, pick something that you’re really passionate about. Like throw your time into stuff that you actually really enjoy and care about. You should come away from volunteer meetings feeling really enthusiastic about the work with that committee or board or organization is doing. And if you find yourself dreading every time that you are going to provide your time to an organization then it may not be the right fit for you. And eventually that resentment is going to eat away at the benefit that you’re actually prepared to provide. So find the right thing.
I had someone say to me in terms of networking one time, is it’s not rocket science; go to everything, just go to everything. And you know what? It’s really not bad advice. Not everything is going to jazz you but a lot of stuff will, and you’ll make connections. And this is certainly what the CBA did for me in part was allow me to meet and get to know lawyers across the country, but also here in Calgary and in Alberta. And those lawyers as we grew through the years, and those relationships deepened, became very important sources, not just of work but of advice for me as I grew as a lawyer. So I can’t say enough about the benefits to you as an individual of becoming involved, in the legal community and in the broader community.
But going back to the conversation we’ve just had about mental health I would also say that there are huge benefits, particularly for lawyers, in either gaining or maintaining some perspective through volunteer work. It is really important that we don’t forget where are, the world in which we live, and all of the people that are crossing our paths every day that are living very different lives. So I’ve heard it said that one of the most important things you can do to help yourself when you are struggling is to express gratitude. And I do think that is really important. And if you need to figure out where to find some gratitude, then go to some of these organizations that need your help and throw yourself into a pro bono file and really try to understand how the law intersects with people’s everyday lives. And that will give you, I think that will give you the perspective that may assist you in getting sort of outside yourself a bit.
So I think the benefits are just multitude.
Stephen Rotstein: Great, well I really appreciate that insight into volunteerism, obviously something that I feel strongly about as well. I always talk about my CBA experience and the people that I’ve met, including yourself as the greatest reward and the friendships that I’ve made. So thank you and it’s been great catching up with you today and for you sharing those important, your personal story and advice to individuals who are again dealing with mental health and wellness issues. So thank you very much and please continue what you’re doing, the good work that you’re doing in that area.
Michele Hollins: And you too. Thank you very much Stephen for the invitation and best of luck to you as President. And thank you for spearheading this and for fulfilling the role that you do in the organization. I continue to be grateful for the work that the CBA does, and for your role in that as well. So good luck with the rest of your year and thank you again.
Stephen Rotstein: I’ve been talking with Madam Justice Michele Hollins of the Court of Queen’s Bench in Calgary. 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 idea? Or do you see a need for the legal professionals that aren’t currently being met, would you have the resources to suggest an idea? Let us know on Twitter @CBA_news. On Facebook or on Instagram @CanadianBarAssociation. You can also find me at Twitter @StephenRotstein.
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