Someone You Should Know: After rare brain illness ends law career, Bismarck woman writing memoir

Someone You Should Know

Two years ago, a trial lawyer in Bismarck began having trouble sleeping.

Now, she’s on the other side of a rare and devastating condition that permanently turned her life upside-down.

“It’s always kind of haunting me, right?” says Jackie Stebbins. “Because no one can ever tell me that I won’t ever get this again.”
She’s referring to autoimmune encephalitis — a rare condition which causes a person’s immune system to attack the brain.

The road to a diagnosis began in the fall of 2017. “My sleep became interrupted,” Stebbins says.

That turned into insomnia. Soon, her hands were trembling, her ears were ringing, and months of sleepless nights overwhelmed her.

“I checked myself into the psychiatric ward in a complete cry for help. I was just begging for someone to put me to sleep,” she recalls.

At first, doctors chalked up her symptoms as side effects of depression or anxiety. Jackie thought she had burnt herself out as a busy trial lawyer. But in May of 2018, the truth was finally uncovered by a nurse practitioner. “She took one look at me and said this is not behavioral — this is neurological.”

Her immune system had turned against her brain. “I didn’t know the day,” Stebbins says. “I couldn’t tell time. I couldn’t draw a clock.” And when she was seriously injured by a violent seizure, she reached her rock bottom.

“My back is broken, my mind is broken, my spirit is broken — and it was like, ‘Go forth, Jackie. Get better.’ It was awful.”

For Jackie Stebbins, “getting better” meant steroids that would transform her physically. It meant being confined to her house, to allow her brain to recuperate in torturous peace. “Loud noises, a dog walking in front of me, big crowds — everything bothered me.”

And it meant walking away from her passion. “Giving up my law firm has been devastating,” Stebbins says.

But now, a year and a half after her diagnosis, Jackie is bouncing back. She’s looking more like herself — and she’s writing a book about the health journey that might have broken her, if not for her family, her friends, and her faith.

“Every day I have a choice to be bitter and to decide that this illness has devastated every part of me, or I have a chance to say ‘Thank you God, I’m still alive.’ I have a great life, and I can still be very productive to the world, just in a different way,” she says.

It’s that resilience that makes Jackie Stebbins Someone You Should Know.

Jackie isn’t pushing herself (that’s important for her recovery) but she says her book could be finished in 2020.

And here’s the best “final chapter” of that book she could ask for: she and her husband are expecting their third child in April.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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