Reporter Jan Wong gives searing account of her depression
Published Saturday, May 5, 2012 4:12PM EDT
Renowned former Globe and Mail reporter Jan Wong is known as a hard-nosed journalist, willing to ask the tough questions and work the long hours in order to get the story. So perhaps it's no surprise that when the story is her own descent into a deep depression, Wong treats herself as she would any other subject.
Her new, self-published book, "Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, Yes, Happiness," is a no-holds-barred account of Wong's battle with mental illness, brought on by a fierce backlash to one of her stories that led to her firing from her professional home of 20 years, the Globe and Mail.
Wong says she wasn't concerned with laying her emotions bare when recounting incidents that left her sobbing uncontrollably, wracked with fear and reaching for an Ativan to calm her nerves.
"I was much more interested as a journalist in getting the story out," Wong said in a telephone interview from her Toronto home. "So my own feelings and the privacy, all those issues were really secondary."
Wong's career at the Globe came to a screeching halt in the fall of 2006, after she wrote a front-page article for the Globe in which she posited that the fatal shooting at Montreal's Dawson College, as well as two other school shootings in Quebec, may be related in some way to the fact the shooter was not of pure Francophone stock.
She suggested that while the shootings were carried out by mentally disturbed individuals, "all of them had been marginalized, in a society that valued pure laine," using an antiquated term for French racial purity in Quebec.
The reaction to those paragraphs in what was a 3,000-word story was swift and harsh. Fellow journalists, the public, and both federal and provincial politicians called her theory everything from absurd to racist. She received death threats that put her home on a special 911 call list that would alert police to respond quickly if a call came from her home.
In the end, her editors at the Globe distanced themselves the controversy. Then-editor-in-chief Edward Greenspon wrote in the paper that the paragraphs should have been cut from the piece before publication, and blamed a breakdown in the editorial process. Wong was later fired.
In the book, Wong is excruciatingly graphic about her descent into a deep depression, including an opening scene in which she dashes from her car to her house without her keys and purse, hysterically pounding on the front door because she's under the impression that a reader who sent her a death threat was waiting across the road.
"I began screaming," she writes. "I banged on the door, bruising my knuckles. The blue-painted steel, insulated against Canadian winters, muffled the sound of my pounding. I was crying now, tears of pure terror. Did no one care if I died? I became convinced the killer was now standing right behind me. I still believed if I didn't turn around, I had a chance."
Wong recounts incidents like these throughout her book as she paints a picture of what she calls "a hockey mom having a nervous breakdown." In scenes that will likely be familiar to readers who have ever dealt with an insurance company, Wong not only tells of feeling marginalized by her employers. She also writes of her struggles to get her employer's insurance company to authorize her sick leave.
"And that's the motivating force, that's why I wrote the book," Wong says.
"I felt I have to give a voice to all those people who are at work, who are depressed and who have employers who don't treat them properly, who have insurance companies that push them around."
Despite the bleak subject matter, Wong does find silver linings in her experience. Her two sons and husband rally as she falls apart, and she and her sister re-establish a relationship that had been severed following the death of their mother.
Her recovery is also evident when, in contrast to earlier episodes in the book when she is paralyzed by simple obstacles, she isn't fazed by her regular publisher's decision not to publish this book. (Wong believes they feared the Globe's reaction).
Instead, Wong hired a book designer, a copy editor, a printer, a publicist and a salesperson and self-published the book.
"It's sort of like the last bit of healing for this mental illness," Wong says. "It's the last bit. It's the last piece of the puzzle, that I have to (publish) it. And as long as people read it then I'm really happy."
Wong puts herself in the 50 per cent of people who suffer a major depressive episode but fully recover and never experience another. She works as a freelance writer, has a new column in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, and is also a journalism professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, where she counsels her students to watch for signs of depression.
Wong says she keeps up with the goings-on at the Globe online, but the irony is not lost on her that she generally only reads a hard copy when she's at her psychiatrist's office, which is a rare event these days.
She's moved on, but hopes her book sparks a dialogue about workplace-related depression, which she believes is covered up or ignored by employers and workers alike.
"If people knew a little bit more about it, I think there would be less ignorance, less fear, less prejudice, less stigma," Wong says. "So I hope that by writing a book about it and getting people to pay attention, however briefly, to this topic, it will start a dialogue and people won't feel as humiliated or embarrassed."