Jan Wong is one of my favourite writers. I loved her writing with The Globe and Mail, Toronto Life and Chatelaine, and I have posted reviews of two of her books to this blog. I was not aware that Wong battled depression for two years and struggled with her employer, The Globe and Mail, and her union to prove her medical condition. Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, Yes, Happiness is Wong’s account from the onset of her depression to her firing from The Globe.
Wong is a passionate journalist whose drive to get a story is one of the reasons I love her. When I read Red China Blues and raved about her book to anyone who would listen, almost everyone I spoke to knew her reputation for being (in their words) cut-throat, merciless and self-absorbed. I disagree with these assessments. In my opinion Wong writes exactly what she feels because she owes it to her readers to be truthful. Wong will not compromise her principles to avoid hurting the feelings of others. The entire Affaire Wong which precipitated the onset of her depression left her without the ability to write yet her passion for bringing her case to justice was still there. She was a fighter, and would not sign her name to any document that denied her sick pay, or denied the acknowledgement from three doctors and psychiatrists that she was clinically depressed. In spite of her battle with depression she would not cave in to the demands of her employer. She would not leave The Globe and Mail solely on their terms and she certainly would not go under a gag order.
I would never have read a memoir about someone’s descent into depression if it hadn’t happened to Jan Wong. Wong herself foresaw the healing power of writing about her ordeal:
“After many months at home, it occurred to me that writing about my depression might help me to claw my way out of depression.”
“In the end, I felt I had no choice. If I did not vanquish depression by writing about it, I feared I would never write again.”
Depression left Wong sleepless, moody, both hypo- and hypersensitive to the world around her and, worst of all, unable to write. Her sense of self-worth deteriorated when she realized she couldn’t function as a reporter and do the job she was paid to do. Her own doctor, her psychiatrist, as well as an independent medical examiner all concluded that Wong was depressed and should take time off work, yet Wong found out that it is very hard to prove to your employer and even worse to prove to your insurance provider that you are suffering from a disorder that has no visible symptoms. Had she broken her leg or come down with a case of hemorrhagic fever, she would have had an easier time in claiming sick leave. Out of the Blue documents Wong’s determined efforts never to give up and fight for her right, as she says, “to be sick”.
One reason I like Wong’s writing is that she makes me laugh, yet when the news broke about her two years of emotional surfing below sea level, I was saddened. However even in a story about the gloomy blues of depression, I found myself at times laughing myself silly. I believe that Wong’s ability to write humour is a sign of her recovery. For example, while suffering yet another sleepless night, she would often use her husband as a sleep aid:
“In fact, whenever I had insomnia, my solution was to nudge him awake and ask about his doctoral thesis. He would become animated, well, not quite animated, but he would start talking at length about parallel programming languages and the semantics of shared variables. As he droned on, I would fall deeply asleep, leaving him wide-awake.”
Wong was able to see the humour in her own condition, and often put herself as the butt of a joke. She could start bawling without warning at any situation, no matter how innocuous, happy or sad. While attending a performance of “Madama Butterfly” at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, Wong wrote:
“When the house lights dimmed, I had a little cry. On stage, Butterfly was weeping bitterly. If those around me noticed my damp cheeks, I hoped they would assume I was just another crazy opera buff. I was, in fact, just crazy.”
The “geographic cure” is the term for abandoning one’s place of stress and getting away from it all. Wong was advised by her doctor and psychiatrist to go on holiday, and she definitely felt a turnaround in her attitude afterward:
“Although the sadness stayed with me, travel did transport me away from the rancid crust of everyday misery.”
In a hotel, “You can shut out the whole world by hanging a sign on your doorknob. If only I could have worn a do-not-disturb sign at work.”
Unfortunately, when a depressive goes on holiday instead of reporting to work, the employer can only look at you and your apparently symptomless condition with skepticism. Wong was accused of trying to cheat the Globe by claiming sick time when she was reinvigorating herself on holiday.
Out of the Blue is a valuable memoir in that it is focussed on such a high-profile personality and her battle with depression. Jan Wong overcame the blues and has used her journalistic skill to defeat the disease by writing about it. Her life is an open book in Out of the Blue; Wong tells it like it is and does not shy away from even the most intimate of details.