Recovery from addiction and reckoning with our common humanity

By Karen Dyck October 30, 201730 October 2017

Recovery from addiction and reckoning with our common humanity


Michael Bryant is an Ontario lawyer and former Attorney General for Ontario, whose story came to the attention of the broader public when he was charged in 2009 in relation to the death of Darcy Allen Sheppard. Those charges were ultimately withdrawn by the Crown in 2010 and two years later, Bryant released his memoir 28 Seconds: A true story of addiction, tragedy and hope, describing not only the events surrounding the death of Darcy Sheppard but also his struggle with alcoholism and path to recovery in the years before and after that life-altering experience.

Bryant spoke in Winnipeg last weekend as part of the CBA’s annual Wellness Workshop on the theme of Addictions, Recovery, Reckonings.  Addressing the preponderance of addiction among members of the legal profession, Bryant asked a variation of the classic nurture versus nature question:

Is the legal profession and legal education in some way causing lawyers to become addicts or is it that people prone to addiction are attracted to the profession?

His view is that it is the latter, at least in his case – that he was born wired to chase adrenaline, to always want more and more and that he was therefore drawn to the bright lights of a legal career.

Bryant spoke about fear and pain as a common denominator, referencing Jean Vanier’s 1998 CBC Massey Lectures, Becoming Human.  Vanier argues that we are all susceptible to fear and pain, but of differing varieties. Bryant noted that we discriminate against certain kinds of behaviours or responses to pain because of our individual or societal fears, and in doing so, assign stigma to some but not all pain. For example, in the past, a cancer diagnosis was seen as something to be hidden or a source of embarrassment but today that particular stigma is gone.

Stigma is defined by the OED as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” Bryant suggested that stigma of alcoholism, addiction and mental illness is not inherent but learned behaviour and can therefore be unlearned or never learned at all.

While we see efforts in society to remove the stigma of mental illness, such as the #BellLetsTalk initiative there is not yet a similar move afoot to de-stigmatize living with addiction or alcoholism. Bryant argued that legal profession regulators often reinforce this stigma through their approaches to addressing the issues of lawyers with addiction, responding in ways that may inhibit recovery and drive the addictions underground.

Instead, Bryant suggested that a plurality of pain requires a plurality of response to that pain. Not all lawyers require the same kind of help in order to address their alcoholism or addictions, but regulators are prone to taking a one-sized fits all approach that may do more harm than good. An approach that works, he suggested, includes respect for autonomy, beneficence and compassion. Regulators must withhold their judgement and instead stand in common humanity with those whose pain and fear manifests itself in addiction.

This is consistent with the conclusion reached by Vanier, who wrote in Becoming Human that:

“Until we realize that we belong to a common humanity, that we need each other, that we can help each other, we will continue to hide behind feelings of elitism and superiority and behind the walls of prejudice, judgement, and disdain that those feelings engender.”

Michael Bryant’s ongoing recovery from alcohol addiction exemplifies Vanier’s approach and invites individual members of the legal profession not only to recognize their own humanity but to draw upon common experiences of pain, such as anxiety, depression and addiction, in exercising compassion to support and help others in their healing processes.

Karen Dyck is a lawyer based in Manitoba with a keen interest in enhancing access to justice and equality.

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