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Jan Wong tackles taboo of workplace depression with courage

Jan Wong fought her former employer for paid leave during her depression. (Photo by George Whiteside)

Jan Wong fought her former employer for paid leave during her depression. (Photo by George Whiteside)

BY IRWIN BLOCK

There are many inspiring moments in this gripping personal story of how one of Canada’s toughest, most courageous and successful journalists fell into the dark hole of workplace depression.

Told with honesty when it comes to revealing her weaknesses and many character strengths, we are reminded how depression in its various manifestations can strike anyone, even someone like the Montreal-born Wong who in mid-career had reached the pinnacle of professional achievement.

Here we see the much-admired Globe & Mail correspondent, who dodged mortal danger to bring readers a blow-by-blow account of the treacherous Tiananmen Square massacre while she was its China correspondent in 1989, reduced to a “reckless shopaholic” as her clinical depression sets in.

But Wong, still the meticulous researcher, inquisitive mind and relentless reporter, asks her psychiatrist why these impulsive and unnecessary purchases made her so happy.

He tells her the therapeutic effect of shopping—not window-shopping but actually buying stuff—“activates the brain’s reward centre, releasing a gush of dopamine.”

It’s the same happy chemical triggered by gambling, drug use and other addictive behaviours, she writes.

Anecdotes of her excesses while on sick leave from the Globe—some funny, many sad—are interspersed with research on the history of depression.

As we follow her erratic behaviour, Wong quotes from literary figures and characters who were also afflicted, including author William Styron, Flaubert’s Emma Bovary and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Galloway.

Her saga, laced with self-deprecating humour, describes a courageous battle to be recognized as someone with a debilitating illness, entitled to paid sick leave. Equally courageous is her refusal to be gagged by her former employer.

It reads like a thriller, and Wong emerges the heroine as she and her union clash with her employer who, in spite of her dedication, work ethic and achievements, suspected she was faking her illness.

Human resources and her group insurer, Manulife, balked at her claim for paid leave on disability.

What triggered her depression was the Dawson College shooting in 2006, when Kimveer Gill killed Anastasia De Sousa and wounded 19 others before taking his own life.

The Globe sent Wong to Montreal the next day and in 24 hours she put together a 3,000-word front-page piece. It went through several editors, including then editor-in-chief Edward Greenspon.

Three short paragraphs of analysis her editors had requested resulted in a furor, with denunciations in Quebec City and Ottawa, racist epithets, death threats, and calls for a boycott of her father’s famous House of Wong restaurant in Montreal.

She had drawn a parallel between Gill’s Sikh background and those of the two other shooters in Montreal universities, Russian-born Valery Fabrikant and Marc Lépine, son of an Algerian father. She opined about their marginalization “in a society that valued pure laine.”

As she was having dinner, her editors called and asked for more on this angle, but Wong replied she had given all she could.

Faced with a storm of backlash, Greenspon wrote an apology for the offending paragraphs, stating they were “clearly opinion” and should have been cut. But he never stated that he had read and approved the piece before it was published.

The reaction triggered Wong’s descent. She was no longer able to write, precipitating her battle to regain her mental health as she sought paid sick leave.

The book includes anecdotes about the strong support she received from her two teenage sons, husband, family in Montreal and friends.

Wong eventually came to terms with her employer, never agreeing to a non-disclosure demand, except for the amount of the financial settlement, and moved on to a new career as an academic.

Anyone who has battled with depression, be it mild or debilitating, or is interested in the latest scientific understanding of this illness, will be moved, entertained and enlightened.

irblock@hotmail.com

Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, Yes, Happiness by Jan Wong is available at janwong.ca/outoftheblue.html, $21.99.

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