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Just 10 years ago, Vassilios Apostolopoulos was lost in an abyss.
Disbarred in 2002 for professional misconduct, he found himself sleeping outside the Canadian Opera Company building on Front St. He lost everything in a haze of depression — his family, his career as a lawyer, his home.
“I was cast adrift. Basically I lived in exile from others and from my own self. I had no explanation to offer to anyone — to my family, my mentors, my teachers, to my friends,” he said.
All of this followed what one doctor described as “one of the most hidden diagnoses” — a sleep disorder masquerading as clinical depression.
From that dark place in 2002, he has since completed a second law degree, begun a PhD program and this year, at 53 years old, had his licence reinstated by the Law Society of Upper Canada.
He began experiencing symptoms in 1990.
“I was a really driven person. All of a sudden I realized, somehow, my output had changed,” he said. The symptoms worsened, and by 1994 he was admitted to a psychiatric ward where he was diagnosed with depression and prescribed medication and therapy.
Just four years later, he stopped the treatment.
Around this time he committed two indiscretions that would later end his career as a lawyer. The first: failure to file a piece of paperwork regarding a mortgage. The second, a more serious transgression: misappropriation of $102,400 from a client.
“By the time my licence was revoked (in 2002), life had taken a catastrophic turn. I had lost my career, my marriage, almost all of my friends and I was estranged from my family,” Apostolopoulos said.
A few days after losing his licence, at his lowest, Apostolopoulos finally reached out.
“I contacted a friend and asked for help,” he recalled. “It was the first time I had ever asked for anything.”
That friend, working closely with his ex-wife, got Apostolopoulos to a doctor who eventually diagnosed him with sleep apnea, a condition whereby he frequently stops breathing while asleep.
“It really is simple, when you think about it — if you sleep lousy, how are you going to feel the next day?” said Dr. Harvey Moldofsky, president of the Centre for Sleep and Chronobiology and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. “It is probably one of the most hidden diagnoses — especially among the mentally ill.”
The change after treatment with a nighttime breathing apparatus was miraculous. His world came back into focus.
“I listened, after many years, to Mozart’s The Magic Flute and it was once more a moving experience,” Apostolopoulos said.
He immediately re-enrolled in law school in an effort to bring his life back from the brink — this time, with a specialty in medical law. He excelled academically, but life was still challenging and he soon found himself broke and homeless again.
Though he finished his second law degree with distinction, Apostolopoulos couldn’t power up the sleep apnea machine without a home. Again he found himself in the hospital, but this time he emerged with a new strategy to rebuild his life.
“I realized the things I needed — I had to set a stable foundation,” he said. While in the hospital he was accepted to the PhD program at Osgoode Hall Law School.
Since the relapse, Apostolopoulos has been diligently working on his degree and has mended relationships with his family and friends. His reinstatement as a lawyer this year came with the support of his doctor, professors and the man who he wronged initially.
He notes that the struggle isn’t over. The stigma of mental illness still looms large in his life and the lives of others.
“Stigma makes a huge difference every day, in small and big ways,” he said, “because in the end stigma is an institutional impediment — to treatment, to full participation, to inclusion and to the exercise of meaningful citizenship.”