Bismarck woman shares journey of how an illness took her from lawyer to laureate

Published: Dec. 17, 2019 at 9:02 PM CST
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A rare disease where the body's immune system attacks the brain, called Autoimmune Encephalitis, can be devastating, and even deadly if not properly treated.

Jackie Stebbins was a partner at a law firm in Bismarck and a successful trial attorney. She describes herself as a huge Elton John fan, even dedicating much the office space in her house to someone she draws inspiration from.

"I love that he talks so much about acceptance. You need to accept who you are. You need to accept people around you for who they are,” said Jackie.

That lesson of acceptance became even more important when Stebbins had to fight for her life. She thought it was the beginning of depression. Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression according to a Johns Hopkins research study.

Her sleep was getting interrupted. Then it transformed to full-blown insomnia, before getting much worse.

“"My hands shaking, my ears ringing, my chest hurt. I became very confused and I didn't speak. I mostly just laid on the couch and stared. It got so bad and I felt so dysfunctional, I actually checked myself into the psychiatric ward,” said Jackie.

Even after coming home from the psychiatric stay, her condition worsened. It wasn’t until a visit with a nurse practitioner and then a neurologist that she learned her months of problems weren't mental, but physical.

"The nature of this illness is it really ebbs and flows. There's no linear path to treatment. So once I got out of the psychiatric ward, I actually got worse,” said Jackie.

It took a severe seizure, which broke her collarbone, for doctors to finally diagnose her with Autoimmune Encephalitis. The disease wasn’t even confirmed until 2005 when a doctor discovered an antibody according to Autoimmune Encephalitis Alliance.

Stebbins says doctors in Bismarck likely saved her life. Her two kids and husband wouldn't have to face the thought of life without her. But she fears what her condition did to her kids.

“As a mother, I think it was about the worst thing that could happen to me. I have to live with what I know happened, which was me losing my mind and losing control of my physical body and mind in front of my children and they saw that,” said Jackie.

It also meant she had to step away from what she loved. Ten years to the day after starting her law career, Jackie retired.

"It devastates you mind, your body, your emotions, your spirit, everything. Everything that it can devastate it does. And to add one more layer of insult to injury, it took away my law firm. It took away my career, my livelihood,” said Jackie.

That move meant she had to find a new path. She always wanted to inspire others and her story is- as she jokes- is a made for TV horror film. So naturally, Jackie decided put her story into words.

"I'm going to write a book and I'm going to talk about it because that's the only thing I know how to do to get over the effects of the devastation that it's caused me."

Stebbins is writing a book about the recovery process. It’s expected to come out in 2020. Throughout that time, she relied on her “knight in shining armor” and husband Sean.

"When we made our vows, I actually had an extra inflection when I said in sickness and in health as a joke. Thankfully he has seen me through sickness so I knew he would be there no matter what. He has been there no matter what and he has acted with superman strength,” said Jackie.

All Stebbins needs now for the book is an ending. We don't want to spoil the ending of the book, but Stebbins says the family is expecting a baby girl in the Spring and she'll probably have some part in the book.