For 30 years, I worked as a feature writer and reporter at The Toronto Sun. Eventful years. Healing years.
Why was I so successful there? I don’t really know. So I went to the source and asked the woman who hired me.
Shortly after I graduated from Ryerson’s Journalism program in the spring of 1977, Kathy Brooks from The Toronto Sun called, asking if I was interested in freelancing in the entertainment section.
“YES!” I said. Off I ran for an interview.
Kathy remembers hiring me “because your personality was bright and fun and the clips you showed me were good,” she said. “I was an intuitive hirer, and I felt we connected.”
She admits she didn’t know I had a mental illness, though it was never a secret, but The Sun’s Editorial Director, J. D. MacFarlane, a titan in Canadian journalism (former Toronto Telegram Editor-in-Chief and Ryerson’s Journalism School chair) knew me. He had admitted me to Ryerson on the spot when we met on the second day of classes in September 1975 – before I had filled out an application!
After my first interview with Kathy, JDM as he was known, told her that hiring me would be a gamble, but if she wanted to give me a chance he would be solidly in support because he had admired my work at Ryerson.
Kathy, also a Ryerson grad and a former Toronto Telegram editor, trusted JDM, but admits she knew little about “manic depression,” she said. “You educated me as we went along, suggesting books to read, and by talking about yourself. You were bright, enthusiastic, (sometimes too much so), involved and involving. You had lots of ideas and loved working.”
I was also a problem.
“Your enthusiasm rubbed some of the other staff members the wrong way, and I had to assure them you were a valued employee and a valuable person. There was some resentment about the amount of time you got from me, and you were not exactly a shrinking violet. You tended to speak loudly on the phone, disturbing other people.
“Sometimes you just plain acted crazy,” she said.
So, why did The Toronto Sun put up with me?
“Despite some who complained, you had a very supportive group of people surrounding you, including some top Sun management people,” Kathy said.
“And when you were well, you were very well! You wrote well, you came up with good ideas, you had a fresh perspective on things, and your enthusiasm for your subjects came across. People forgave you your lapses because of how terrific you were when you were really with us.”
Kathy Brooks and The Toronto Sun took a mammoth chance on me. At the same time, I was open, up front and very comfortable talking about my mental health issues. Education by example is a powerful way to demythologize mental illnesses – to erase people's prejudices and discrimination, fears and ignorance.
Why should people with mental illnesses be treated any differently than people with physical illnesses?
Because of my experiences at The Toronto Sun, including 11 hospitalizations and several times when Kathy had to take me to the hospital, The Toronto Sun played a huge role in my Recovery.
Mental Health Recovery is possible, but it doesn’t come from psychiatrists’ prescriptions and pills. It comes from being challenged and rising to those challenges, from working hard and succeeding.
Most importantly, Recovery comes from the ongoing support, encouragement, kindness, patience, understanding, compassion and empathy of people like Kathy Brooks and the late J.D. MacFarlane, who believe in you, are willing to take a chance on you, and have the vision to see your potential behind your label!
A workplace can be such a healing environment – for anyone. Where else can you build skills, self-esteem and confidence, valuable friendships and a productive structure to your day that's as social as it is professional. Yes, there are stresses, but the benefits far outweigh them when you're working in surroundings where you are valued.
Every manager should acknowledge a person's good work. Not only things they do wrong.
Money is not the only reward people work for – though it's important. Just as important, emotionally, is appreciation for a job well done. It makes you feel you're contributing to your company's success and you're a vital member of the team. Nothing makes you feel better. And it only takes a minute. It's crucial for good mental health in every workplace, for every worker. And it costs nothing.
I can't imagine where I'd be today were it not for the enlightened Kathy Brooks, J.D. MacFarlane and many others at The Toronto Sun.