Live and learn Jan Wong: Fabulous 50s

Author Jan Wong shares her life lessons about unemployment, depression and having no regrets

Jan Wong on her life

In my 20s, I travelled the world, got married and studied Mandarin, Marxism and mutual funds. In my 30s, I travelled the world again — this time as a journalist. In my 40s, I had children, and kept working and travelling. I also began writing books.

Then, in my 50s, everything came crashing down. No, I didn’t get a divorce. I wrote a story that sparked a backlash, which pushed me into my first-ever clinical depression. The management at my newspaper thought I was feigning illness and fired me. Don’t worry — I didn’t leave quietly, and that surreal but ultimately triumphant experience is the subject of my next book.

Hollywood director and author Nora Ephron once noted, “Any catastrophe is good material for a writer.” Unfortunately my particular catastrophe temporarily robbed me of my ability to write. Depression laid me low, increased my already alarming number of grey hairs and had me sucking on meds for 14 months. But there were surprising benefits, too.

On an admittedly superficial level, I lost a lot of weight, also for the first time in my life. I’m now a size 4, a size 2 if I shop in an expensive store. Okay, the media are no longer supposed to encourage an obsession with body image. So let me say that, less superficially, I picked up some important life lessons. I learned you can be married to your job and lose it and survive. (Hmm, maybe in a way I did get divorced.) After years of putting on a suit and a smile and hustling into a newsroom, I discovered it’s shockingly easy to get used to writing in pyjamas, face unwashed. I learned family and friends matter most. When I was depressed and the doctor recommended I go to concerts, my teenage son invited me to the symphony. I felt my throat constrict with love as Ben, whose tastes run to the folk-rock band Great Lake Swimmers, fell sound asleep during the adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony no. 5. I learned psychiatrists are very helpful. Mine listened to me cry for nearly a year and then, at just the right moment, gave me a leg up so I could climb out of the swamp of despair. I am deeply grateful for universal health care — Americans have no idea what they’re dissing.

Now, as I finish out my 50s in good health, I look back in that rear-view mirror and think, like Edith Piaf, Je ne regrette rien. The journey into my own psyche was as much a growth opportunity as so many of the geographic journeys I have taken. My experience with depression has made me more tolerant. It has also given me the confidence to know that I can face darkness and emerge again into the light. I’m looking forward to my next decade. I envision the 60s as a period of great freedom. I see lots more travel in my future. And I’m eyeing those seniors’ discounts, too.

Jan Wong turned 58 in August. Her latest book, Beijing Confidential: A Tale of Comrades Lost and Found, is published by Doubleday Canada. Out of the Blue will be published in 2011.