Q&A: Jan Wong's long march from depression to reinvention
Journalist self-publishes Out of the Blue, a Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, Yes, Happiness
Jan Wong, the reporter who once inspired terror in celebrities with her popular "Lunch With" columns, has now turned that penetrating eye on herself to tell a harrowing, but sometimes funny, story about her spiral into clinical depression. It led to the loss of her job at the Globe and Mail, where she had spent 20 years as a reporter, but ultimately to renewed health and re-invention.
Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and Yes, Happiness is self-published. The book chronicles the trajectory of Wong's depression, which started after a controversial article she wrote in 2006 about the Dawson College shootings. In the article, she suggested Quebec's linguistic politics was a context for the violence. She became the target for hate mail and a death threat. The Globe and Mail published an editorial expressing regret for the controversial portion of Wong's article.
The stress was the catalyst, she says, for her clinical depression. She got into a struggle with her newspaper and its insurer over the processing of sick leave benefits. In the end, the newspaper fired her.
Out of the Blue chronicles Wong's long road to recovery, but it is also a wide-ranging exploration of workplace depression. Today, she is a monthly columnist for Toronto Life magazine and a professor of journalism at St. Thomas University in Fredericton.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: You're a tough reporter. You went to China during the Cultural Revolution as one of the first Western students allowed to enrol at Beijing University. You lived under Mao. You witnessed the Tiananmen massacre and the crackdown on dissidents during your time as the Globe and Mail's China correspondent from 1988 to 1994. How does your experience with depression compare with all that?
A: It was the worst experience. Because I felt like there was no hope, that I was in a dark hole, that I had lost my identity and my ability to earn a living, that my relationship with my family was ruined. I had destroyed it because I was so awful to be around. So I would say it was worse than anything I had ever experienced.
Q: What did you set out to do in this book?
A: I wanted to tell the story of a workplace depression because I felt that my story was just one of millions and I felt that no one was talking about this — certainly no one from my first-person experience.
Q: Your "Lunch With" column (1996-2002) was popular because your interviews with celebrities included detailed observations of their foibles and vanities. In this book, you do the same to yourself. How deliberate was that?
A: I made a decision from the beginning that my personal problem, my personal embarrassment and humiliation were completely secondary to the importance of the story, to tell people what it's really like. I have always felt that way in my journalism. I'll always tell you how stupid I am, what a dumb mistake I made, all my venal thoughts. I will tell you this because my personal vanity is secondary. What is most important is for the reader to understand the story. If I personally happen to be the best example I can find of depression, then I am going to tell you. I am going to use it.
Q: I liked the example about when you had insomnia: you used to elbow your husband awake and make him tell you about his PhD dissertation because it would put you to sleep.
A: Yes, I am so terrible. And it is very boring!
Q: You write that it's hard to lose a job that's "central to one's identity." To what extent do you feel it was the reason for your depression?
A: I think that's what it was all about. In our society, work is what we do. It's the first thing that we tell people about ourselves and it's how people evaluate our worth. In the context of our society, work is all-encompassing and it seemed to be my main purpose in life and that’s why this experience was so life-changing, because I realized: "Wow. So what happens when I can't write? What happens when I'm not at the newspaper I love so much? What happens to me then?"
Q: In the book, you describe how you drew from the experience of writers who also suffered from the disease: Virginia Woolf, William Styron and F. Scott Fitzgerald. What did you learn reading about them?
A: I didn't know anything about depression when I started. I didn't even know I had it. Even when I was told, I didn't believe my doctor. So when I started reading other writers, I realized it's a universal human condition. One in five people go through this. And all these authors who are such great writers had gone through it. And they couldn't write either! So I felt slightly better. And they all recovered. Virginia Woolf committed suicide, but she left behind an incredible legacy. It also told me that understanding the human condition, and understanding pain makes people great writers. I'm not saying I'm a great writer at all. I'm saying that I didn't know this. I didn't pay attention to depression until it hit me and then I started seeing it.
Q: This is also a funny book. There's a love story in there too, about the support that came from your sister, your husband and your two teenage sons. Can you talk a bit about that?
A: It isn't all dreary. I have always tried to be funny as a writer. And depression is pretty funny, actually, when you are going through it. There are so many absurdities. So I tried to be funny, because I know it is hard for the reader to cope. And for the love story, it just happened.
My sister wasn't speaking to me, and then suddenly she was there at my side. I don't remember all that she did, but she was always there. She would drive through the night. Once she was so tired she got out of her car and fell into my tulip bed. And I was extremely narcissistic — that's one of the characteristics of depression, you only think of yourself. But I did yell out "Are you okay?"
My children and my husband are incredible. The reason I wrote about it was because I want others to know that if you have a good family, you can get through this. Somehow the family ties strengthen and bring you through this.
Q: You describe two turning points. One is meeting your former Columbia University journalism professor, who tells you to get on with your life. The second is meeting the Chinese woman whom you denounced to Communist authorities during the Cultural Revolution because she asked you for help to flee the country. She was expelled from university and sent to work in the countryside. Her advice to you, when you reunited, was the same as your professor's. How important were those meetings?
A: Very critical. My journalism professor knew how much I loved journalism. He said "It's over. Enough. They don't want someone like you. They don't want someone who is going to be abrasive and aggressive and tell them things they don't want to hear."
And then when I talked to the woman, Yin, who had every reason in the world to gloat and say "Serves you right. What goes around, comes around," she didn't. She was very understanding and sympathetic and said "Move on. You're okay."
Q: You had decided to quit the Globe and Mail (before being fired) while visiting China during your depression. You had landed in hospital and you write: "I had never expected to end my journalism career, severely constipated, drugged on a benzo, hooked to an IV of gingko extract in a hospital in Beijing. As my professor said, I'd had a good run. Now it was over." Did it strike you as ironic that you made this decision in the country where your career started?
A: It didn't actually occur to me, but you're right, it was the full circle, because I had wanted to become a journalist when I was in China so I could tell people what totalitarianism was like. That's why I became a journalist. So actually it was very fitting that I end up in a hospital bed in the emergency room.
Q: This book seems to me like the third instalment in the history of your life, after Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now and Beijing Confidential: A Tale of Comrades Lost and Found. It flows out of these stories. Had you ever explored whether your breakdown was, in part, a delayed reaction to living in China during the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen massacre?
A: I think it was. And going through the trauma of trying to find Yin — that was pretty traumatic — and worrying about how she would treat me when I did find her, so I could apologize. All of that was building up. The Tiananmen stuff was really tough. When Tiananmen happened, we didn't really know much about post-traumatic stress. Nobody talked about it, especially not for a journalist. So I think we never really processed it. So I think there an accumulation. Journalism is a very stressful career. Dawson was stressful, too. Covering a shooting like that and writing it in a day. All of that is cumulative.
Q: What are the life lessons that depression taught you?
A: The big life lessons are that you can have clinical depression and you can get over it. It's completely treatable. It has an end. Second life lesson: you'll probably be stronger when you come out of it than you were before. The third life lesson is you'll probably be happier because you leave it behind and you will find a new life. The fourth lesson: that family matters. Everything else is extra.
Q: You had economic stability during your depression. But depression for people without money is different…
A: For people who don't have that economic independence, it's crushing. That's why this book is so important. I want employers and employees and HR professionals to understand. For companies, you're just going to have to spend more money if you fight it. It's going to end up costing you more. Understand that when your employees are sick, they are sick.
We used to feel like this about pregnancy and maternity leave. Women would get pregnant and they'd get fired. Now we understand that it's okay to get pregnant and it's okay to have a maternity leave and that life goes on in companies, and in our society we will accommodate people who decide to have children. It wasn't all that long ago that we didn’t.
I hope that if there is any change, we will be able to accept that when people have a mental illness, they can't come to work. But they will come back later, when they get better. So it is very dark for people who have no money. It is even worse for them and it will compound their depression. Since we're Canada and we have a health care system, we need to know this. We need to take responsibility as citizens, as employees and as employers. We need to understand mental health.