“Jackie Stebbins’ UNWILLABLE is an inspiring story of a brilliant woman’s battle with autoimmune encephalitis and the circle of support--from loving family members to dedicated physicians--who helped guide her through a hard-won recovery. Her story is as moving as it is important and is destined to help so many others facing this condition.”
Susannah Cahalan author of NYT #1 Bestseller Brain on Fire
read an excerpt...
I remember the moment it hit. It was like the physical feeling of lightning striking me and an earthquake ripping through me all at once. It had an instantaneous feeling of terror and destruction. The explosion started in my brain and reverberated through my entire body. It caught and spread like wildfire.
It is my memory that I sat upright in bed when it felt like the lightning bolt struck my head. My hands and arms immediately started to fly wildly and uncontrollably all over the place, as if I was trying to brace myself while the earthquake tore through me. For just a second, I wanted to scream out for help, but I couldn’t. I peed my pants. And after that, it all goes black.
The memory I have is only an instant long, but I can still feel the desire to scream. I can feel my arms moving so rapidly and uncontrollably that they are almost screaming out too. It is the worst of all the nightmares, all the terrors, and all the episodes I had in that bed for those seven months, in a few split seconds.
about Jackie M. Stebbins...
Jackie M. Stebbins was living her dream as a nationally recognized family law, criminal defense, and civil litigator. But Stebbins’s career as a lawyer abruptly ended in May, 2018, when she was diagnosed with a rare brain illness, autoimmune encephalitis. Stebbins persevered to make a remarkable recovery and turned herself into an author and motivational speaker. Stebbins is the author of the JM Stebbins blog and host of the Brain Fever podcast. Stebbins’s side hustle includes raising three lovely children with her wonderful husband, Sean, in Bismarck, North Dakota, and in her leisure time she can be found reading, trying to be funny, and aqua jogging.
more personal "stuff" about Jackie M. Stebbins...
Does this book have a special meaning to you? i.e. where you found the idea, its symbolism, its meaning, who you dedicated it to, what made you want to write it?
Unwillable (Wisdom Editions, May 2022) is a dream come true for me, but in all honesty, for most of my life, it was an unknown dream. Unwillable is a memoir that I was “forced” to write. In 2018, I was a successful trial lawyer, the senior partner at my own law firm, and a wife and mother to two young children. I thought I had life by the tail and believed I was living my ultimate dream. A dream that began when I was in fifth grade and read my first John Grisham book. But on May 8, 2018, I left my law firm in search of a “week’s break,” believing that I was struggling with burnout, anxiety, and insomnia from the stress of my work. In the terrifying weeks, I admitted myself into the psychiatric ward, had full body tremors, went into cognitive failure, couldn’t draw a clock, had no memory, and began having seizures. I was finally diagnosed with a rare brain illness, autoimmune encephalitis.
When I woke up from my nightmare and my brain was turned back on by intravenous steroids, I had to try to understand this devastating illness, my near-death experience, and that I would never return to my beloved job or law firm. And as I learned about autoimmune encephalitis, I simultaneously learned about a NYT #1 bestselling book about my illness, called Brain on Fire. I vowed to write my own book to share my story and raise more awareness about this rare and can be deadly illness.
I struggled to stay alive and manage my health for one full year before I embarked upon my memoir-writing endeavor. From the start date to the publication date, it took me almost exactly three years. When it was published on May the Fourth be with you, I took it as a good omen.
Unwillable is dedicated to my parents, for making everything in life possible for me; my husband for allowing all the possibility I have; and to my kids, for I desire to give them everything possible in the world.
Where do you get your storylines from?
I was inspired to write Unwillable in part by my life’s destruction by autoimmune encephalitis, in part by my hope to heal, and in part because of how Brain on Fire aided in my own diagnosis.
I don’t have an exact memory of when I began saying that I too would write a book about autoimmune encephalitis to follow in Brain on Fire’s footsteps. My husband and mother diligently helped me during my frightening onset and long-term recovery, but no one remembers when I first declared that I was also going to write a book. We all just remember that once I found out about Brain on Fire, I was adamant that I would pen my memoir (which was a pretty gutsy move coming off of an illness that impaired and injured my brain).
Prior to my autoimmune encephalitis onset, I had never, ever considered writing a book. But once my life was derailed, I think I intuitively knew that in order to heal and rebuild my life, I would need to take control of my narrative. Writing Unwillable, quite literally helped me survive and recover from autoimmune encephalitis. It was also essential for me to regain my confidence and rebuild my life.
Brain on Fire was not only important to me personally as the inspiration to write my book, it actually helped save my life as my neurologist referenced it to my family when he diagnosed me. With that in mind, I hoped Unwillable could help save someone else’s life or aid them in their overwhelming recovery.
Was this book easier or more difficult to write than others? Why?
Outside of the traumatic death of someone close to me, I cannot imagine a story harder to write than my own about journeying through autoimmune encephalitis. Readers tell me all the time they have to put the book down to cry, as they cannot believe the terror I endured during the onset and the heartache that overtook me in my recovery. Writing about (quite literally) losing your mind, being incorrectly hospitalized in the psychiatric ward, losing all your agency and power, and having seizures, was very traumatic. But it was also very therapeutic.
Do you only write one genre?
I wrote my memoir, Unwillable, and I’m currently working on a part memoir, part guidebook about law school. And I do plan to write Unwillable’s sequel. I’m also a frequent blogger on my JM Stebbins site, and I write a lot of guest pieces about my illness, resilience, mental health, and lawyers. So I don’t get too far away from nonfiction. I did however write a novella for NaNoWriMo, but I have no doubt that it’s not only cliché (hot lawyer leaves NYC and returns to her hometown where she meets a hot fireman), but awful. It’s probably only suited for my eyes.
Give us a picture of where you write, where you compose these words…is it Starbucks, a den, a garden…we want to know your inner sanctum?
My writing space is open, well lit, and has a large window where I can easily see my kids playing in the front yard, neighbors walking, stray kids riding bikes, and what’s going on in the neighborhood. During the nice weather of the spring through fall seasons, I love to have my window open to hear my kids laughing (or sometimes crying) and the birds singing their morning and evening songs.
My workspace is tailored to my needs, with a special focus on my back, neck, and surgically repaired shoulder.
My writing space has a door to shut to keep out noise, so I can focus. But the space is also right next to the kitchen and pantry, where my kids constantly run by to get snacks, tell me a story, ask me a question, show me a picture, and fight just outside the closed door.
My writing space is full of my things. A quilt from law school is draped over my leather chair next to the window, and an Elton John blanket my mom gave me for my birthday takes its place on the ottoman. Elton John paintings and photographs hang on each of the four walls. Lyrics from my favorite Elton John song, Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, is painted on the wall my desk faces. Gel pens in the colors of red, purple, blue, and black, are in an Elton John mug next to me, along with various witty notebooks and large, brightly colored to-do lists. And at all times, I have a monthly planner within reach.
My writing space has music. It has my old CD collection that reminds me of when life felt simpler and happiest, in the nineties, and it has speakers that connect to my phone to remind me that I have access to every song ever made, right at the tips of my Apple Music fingers. My writing space has a time for music and a time for silence, mostly when I’m editing.
And lastly, my writing space has books! So many books. They are behind me on a giant, custom-made bookshelf. They are also next to me on my desk, so I can endlessly page through to find that one perfect quote I’m always looking for. The space is full of journals into which I’ve poured out my heart with my colored pens. It has old journals so I can revisit the past and the times when life hurt, and new journals that prove to me I’m living my better days ahead. And my space has my own book, Unwillable, proudly displayed on a shelf. My finished project that reminds me why I began writing in the first place.
And finally, of course…was there any specific event or circumstance that made you want to be a writer?
During my senior year in college, I specifically recall one of my final classes where another student talked about her bucket list and that she desired to someday write a book. I remember scoffing at her a little under my breath saying, “Puhh-leassse, that’s so cliché.” And for whatever legitimate or spiteful reason I seemed to have, I always thought people were being trite when they expressed that they, or someone they knew, should write a book. I believe it’s because since a very young age, I was focused on becoming a lawyer, and never really committed myself to hobbies. From the time I read that first John Grisham book, my heart was set on becoming a lawyer. Pursuing the law is time intensive academically, mentally, and emotionally. All of my waking hours and brain power seemed to go to family law, criminal defense, civil litigation, running my law office, and being the best wife and mother I could be when I was home. But in 2018, when my life was completely upended by my autoimmune encephalitis diagnosis, that all changed. When my brain was turned back on by intravenous steroids and I woke up, I realized that everything I knew was gone, including my beloved career. And suddenly, it was no longer trite or trivial to write a book. It was the only thing that kept me alive in my darkest days. Writing my memoir, Unwillable, quite literally helped me survive AE, recover from its devastating and traumatic onset, and rebuild my shattered life into an author, blogger, podcaster, and motivational speaker. I always go back to my favorite quote from John Lennon: “Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans.” Yes. Life happened to me. And it turned me into a “cliché” author. And I love every minute of it.
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