“Voluminous readings, high-stakes exams, and difficult content” are the main reasons for high levels of mental illness among law students, according to a Lawyers Weekly readers’ survey.
Now imagine being a student who is addicted to drugs and alcohol trying to cope with the pressures of legal studies.
Greg Johannson was that student. He began abusing alcohol and other drugs at the age of 15. And was during his first year at the Schulich School of Law in September of 2012 that he started using heroin — at one point, daily.
“Through that first year of law school my life went downhill fast,” he says. “I didn’t make it through first semester.”
Today Greg, 33, is looking forward to competing in the Jessup Moot in Edmonton in March, graduating from law school in May, and continuing his articles in Gander, N.L., where he started last summer. He has come a long way since his journey with addiction began in his hometown of Vancouver.
He says that by the time he was 18, drugs and alcohol were no longer fun — they were something he needed just to get by.
“But I didn’t stop,” says Greg. “And at 25, I discovered opiates after breaking an ankle and being prescribed oxycodone for pain.” By 29, he was spending his days getting and using drugs in Halifax’s North End.
During his first semester at law school, Greg began missing classes and assignments and finally spoke to Elizabeth Hughes (assistant dean, academic) and Michael Deturbide (associate dean, academic). They advised him to apply for a medical deferral, which was granted by the law school's Studies Committee.
“I was struggling to get by,” says Greg, “but I knew I wanted to come back.”
Hitting rock bottom
In the winter of 2013, Greg was homeless in Halifax. He was alone and had nowhere to go.
“As an opiate addict, you wake up every morning with an overwhelming and unbearable physical and emotional pain. Every day is a struggle for survival,” he says. “You live in squalor and you hate who you have become, but the only thing that matters is getting your next hit.”
Greg returned to Vancouver and eventually came clean to family and friends about what had been happening in Halifax. At the time, he was paying daily visits to Insite, a supervised drug-injection site on Vancouver’s downtown East Side.
On a day when his dealer didn’t have anything to sell, Greg walked to the Vancouver Library to look up rehab centres in British Columbia. He got the number for a treatment centre called Cedars at Cobble Hill on Vancouver Island. He returned to Insite and, after using, he sat on a milk crate around the corner from the facility and called Cedars at Cobble Hill.
“The guy who answered the phone heard the sirens in the background and said he had been where I was,” says Greg. “I thought if he could do it, so could I. Three days later, I was there. Detoxing off heroin were probably the hardest two weeks of my life, but things have been infinitely better ever since.”
After two months, Greg was sober — and he has remained so since the day he left rehab on May 20, 2013, what he calls his “Clean Day.” He’s grateful for the support he has received from family and friends.
Making his way back
For the next seven months, Greg lived in a recovery house in Victoria, moving out in February of 2014. He and four of his housemates moved into an apartment in Victoria for four months, where he worked in a gourmet restaurant and attended recovery meetings. He moved out in July and returned to Halifax; he had been readmitted to law school and was ready to start first year again in September.
“Professors Hughes and Deturbide were so supportive when I came back,” says Greg. “An essential part of the law school experience is having someone to sympathize and not judge. It’s easier to be candid about my experience because society has become more accepting of addiction and other mental health conditions. The law school and the faculty and students exemplify that acceptance.”
When Greg returned to school, he attended an eight-week Mindfulness in Law course, where he benefited from meditation. It’s something he continues to do because when he does it regularly, it lowers his anxiety and helps him sleep.
“That course is a wonderful support,” he says, citing meditation as the single most important part of his recovery, along with attending regular recovery meetings in the community. To reduce stress, he plays squash, SCUBA dives and does art projects.
During second year, Greg volunteered as a health mentor for students in Dal’s Faculty of Health Professions. He told his addiction-and-recovery story to them to build compassion and so they could learn how patients can manage their own conditions and care in tandem with the support of health professionals.
That same year, Greg worked in a recovery house on Robie Street called Alcare Place, where he was a night-shift supervisor. “I loved it,” he says. “Most of the time nobody broke curfew and nothing went wrong, so I just did homework.” In 2015, he was on the executive of the law school’s Sober Support program, which helps students be safe at events where alcohol is present.
Greg is very active in his recovery. He has a sponsor who helps him come to terms with his demons, attends weekly recovery meetings, and tells his story at Halifax detox and treatment centres and hospitals. He’s available to do informal peer support with other law students because he knows first-hand how important it is to have accessible support systems. In addition to turning to Professors Hughes and Deturbide when he needed help, he also talked to a counsellor at Dal’s Counselling and Psychological Services.
“I want other students to know that I understand what it’s like to feel hopeless, and that with the right supports, recovery from addiction is possible,” says Greg. “We’re all in this together at law school, and knowing you aren’t alone as you struggle through mental health issues is so important.”
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