Review of OUT OF THE BLUE, by Jan Wong
The subtitle is: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and Yes, Happiness
As a person with first hand experience with a bout of mental illness last year, I was curious about journalist Jan Wong’s autobiographical book about her experiences. Mental illness is a rather common prevalence: 1 in 5 people will have it. Jan Wong’s battle with depression was extended and aggravated by her employer’s denial of short-term illness benefits, as the people in charge did not think she was legitimately ill and believed that Jan was not unable to do her job as a journalist, in spite of doctor’s assessments.
Jan first went off work ill after a complete mental breakdown in 2006, when she was completely exhausted and obsessed with work. She had been receiving an endless stream of hate mail addressed to her and her family after her article about the shooting in Montreal at Dawson College was published in the newspaper The Globe and Mail. She had been assigned the job on the day of the shooting and went there immediately. She had a special connection, as her sister worked there, only not that day.
A 25-year old man had shot 20 people on the Dawson campus. The shooter was of East-Indian descent, a college drop out, living in his parents’ basement.
In 1989 Marc Lepine (born as Gamil Gharbi, son of parents from Algeria) in a shooting spree at the Concordia University’s Ecole Politechnique in Montreal killed similar devastating numbers of people on campus, in that case all were women.
Because there had been a third shooting in Montreal by a Russian, Valery Fabrikant, Jan Wong had concluded in her article that an issue of racial discrimination in Quebec society might be the cause of such unrestrained retaliation attacks by individuals who felt alienated from the Quebec society at large.
She mentioned the PQ’s leader Jacque Pariseau’s remark after the referendum about separation of the province of Quebec from Canada was defeated: …that Quebec almost was a country, if it hadn’t been for the ethnic vote (meaning anybody who is not born francophone) and the money (referring to the Jewish business world)…, in summary, anybody who is not “pure laine”, (a French indication for 100 % wool, a label sewn in sweaters), in Quebec used as slang for generations of francophone Quebecois.
She researched the suicide rate in the nation and found that Quebec had the highest rate. Jan’s conclusion was that the discrimination and alienation of many members in Quebec society might have generated this vengeful action by the second-generation sons of immigrants, unhappy and likely mentally ill young people who are failing in their own lives and falling between the cracks of existing support systems.
Jan’s article was badly received by the public in Quebec, as well as by the national political leaders in the country. She had used the term “pure laine” in her article to indicate the racial undertones in Quebec society. A motion was past in the (national) parliament that the newspaper and Jan Wong must apologize to the people of Quebec for her offensive remarks.
Her employer, The Globe and Mail, did not back her up and left her hanging, advised her to keep her head down, and not to talk about it, and put an convoluted apology in the paper. Jan complied with the gag order to the best of her abilities and refused all interviews. Then a website appeared, discrediting her family and calling attention to, and discrediting Chinese food, questioning what sort of animals were routinely eaten by Chinese people.
It was Jan’s first personal experience with racism; her family of Chinese descent had lived for a century in Quebec. The francophone newspaper Le Quebecois published a call for a boycott of her father’s restaurants. When Jan received a package at work with her two published books, cut in pieces, with a letter with a death threat and the ominous words: I know where you live, she ran home and had a complete emotional breakdown. That was the start of it all.
The employer’s insurer, Manulife, denied Jan her short-term illness claim. Jan being whom she is, a fighter and whistleblower, did not give up the fight to get acknowledgement for her illness and the payment of her benefits that were due. Jan had completed the appropriate medical exams and had received the recommendation from her doctor that she was ill and could not work.
A long battle ensued described in the book, with many grievances filed, arbitration, medical reports not accepted or not forwarded to the people who should have it, and union lawyers involved with mediation meetings. During her illness, her trips out of the country away from the situation to visit with friends and relatives, approved and recommended by her doctors as therapeutic, were not approved by the union and the employer–reason for another grievance and mediation.
After six months of illness, she went back to work, still believing she would be OK at work and that she should not really be ill and off work. She had not accepted her own illness yet. When she started to receive another stream of hate mail at her work address including a death threat, she had a relapse of crying and irrational responses and went off again. Somebody impersonating Jan had started a website with nonsense on it generating the second bout of hate mail.
This so far is only about the battle with her employer and the insurance company. Jan Wong’s book also described in detail how her functioning was impaired, and her ideas about what caused the illness. It took a long time before she herself accepted that she, as a very strong person–seemingly invincible–could become this weak and collapse. Completely.
Jan’s long road to recovery was at times agonizing to read. You want her to accept and be quiet at times, just to focus on getting well, but Jan would not become herself again by giving in and keeling over, although suicidal ideation was her companion for a time.
When Jan Wong was ordered by her employer to return to work after a trip to France, and she did not do so, she was fired, after having worked for 21 years at the newspaper. Her doctors (GP and psychiatrist) did not assess her healthy and would not sign her off for return for work. Even the independent medical examiner assigned by her employer would not declare her healthy. Jan and her legal advisor from the union filed a law suit for wrongful dismissal.
In the meantime, Jan tried to write and publish her book about China that she had taken time off from work for at the start of her illness. She was at times rather functional and never lost her will to fight—-a reason why it was for others hard to see that she was still ill. She and her editor took years to complete re-writes to finish the book. Jan at first refused medication, until she could not deny any more that she would not recover without treatments, medical as well as psychiatric.
The whole “affair Wong” revealed the facts of current workplace treatment of the ill. Jan Wong exposed the way her workplace and its insurance company treated a mentally ill person: bulling her back to work and denying sickness benefits. Just because one is not visibly ill, does not mean that person is able to work.
Depression is a devastating illness, not in the least for the person herself. It is a fallacy to think a strong person cannot get mental illness. A strong person generally takes on more and is given more difficult assignments than an employee with less stamina, but even the strongest person has a breaking point. A mental illness changes an individual forever, even after recovery. Jan points out that, “Once you’ve lost your mind, you never feel secure again.”
I bought the book for my Kindle when I was off work with a mental illness, induced by work circumstances and aggravated by lack of support for the initial diagnosis, similar to Jan’s situation. When I told my therapist about having bought the book, she advised me to wait with reading it, until I was fully recovered myself, as its contents might not be helpful at this time for me.
Indeed, now a year after my own recovery reading the book, I admit it was good to take that distance, so I could observe the process Jan went through more objectively and would not be triggered into my own vulnerabilities.
I would agree with Jan Wong that the modern workplace is ill suited to recognize, respect, and allow recovery of employees’ mental illness while working. I would say that high stress work environments in a substantial way can contribute to a break down, such as Jan’s assignments in war zones and the campus shooting on as a journalist. Especially when an employer is not having your back, mental illness can escalate and cause the continuation of the illness.
I found the novel well written; it illustrates Jan’s desperation during her illness, and also her affected–but still strong–spirit. She is a whistle blower and a courageous one, taking on the national newspaper, and Manulife. Regardless of where one stands on the politics of Quebec, I would like to say Thank You to Jan for her book.