In Lindsay Wong’s debut memoir, The Woo Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons and My Crazy Chinese Family, we find the author at 21, locked in a student housing apartment at Columbia University in New York, armed with a kitchen knife.
A 300-pound roommate from Montreal is in the hall outside, throwing her body against the door, in the midst of a psychotic break. Wong’s other roommate, a law student from Norway, has worked at the United Nations and speaks eight or nine languages, but is unversed in mental breakdowns and thus “ineffective in a Woo Woo emergency.”
And so it falls to Wong to inventory the kitchen for blunt objects such as stove elements – and hatch an ill-advised escape plan that involves ripping out window screens and long-jumping onto courtyard stairs below – until the police finally arrive to take the disturbed MFA student to the psych ward. The law student turns to Wong: “You and I are both proper, well-behaved girls from good families. We don’t have outbursts when we are upset! I just don’t understand why Columbia would allow in someone like that.”
Her comments underscore a theme at play throughout the book: the need to normalize mental illness.
Because for Wong, the thing about this traumatic incident is not actually how surreal it is. But rather, how familiar.
“I remember thinking in that moment: What do I do?” the Vancouver writer tells The Globe and Mail, seated in a packed coffee shop in her hometown. “For me, it’s always been a struggle. How much do you tell people about mental illness?”
“It was horrifying, and shocking,” she adds of the frightening ordeal. “I thought I had left that.”
Wong was raised in an affluent immigrant family rife with mental illness. Her grandmother was a paranoid schizophrenic; her mother was obsessed with ghosts, or “the Woo Woo,” as they called it. “Growing up, I felt very scared,” Wong recalls. “I think we were pretty isolated. I didn’t really have that many friends, and it was just mostly hanging out with your family. So if they tell you there’s a ghost in the bathroom, there’s a ghost in the bathroom.”
Her mother’s sister once brought traffic to a standstill for eight hours, threatening to jump off a local bridge on a statutory holiday. Wong explores the impact of this in The Woo Woo, which chronicles her life with mental illness, from childhood to her stint at Columbia a decade ago.
“Her actions, for sure, in the book really upset me because she was my favourite aunt,” Wong says. “She always was someone who was modern. She went to work. She seemed to have a really normal life. And just having that incident happen, I think it shattered me. It was a complete turning point, in a way. I think there was all these little moments that were building up to being able to write this book.”
The moment with her aunt was huge, she adds, because it was suddenly very public.
Before finding a home at Arsenal Pulp Press, The Woo Woo was viewed as too dark, too weird, too unrelatable, Wong says. It was rejected 14 times by major houses before getting offers from indie houses such as Arsenal.
So, naturally, it came as a shock when Wong heard The Woo Woo was a finalist for the prestigious Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, before even being published. “I think I expected maybe five people to read this book,” she says with a laugh. “But I guess more people have.”
The book’s surprise success provides an opportunity to start conversations about mental illness, particularly in the Chinese community, where Wong says it remains taboo. “I think it’s so important to just be able to be like, ‘This is what’s happening,’” she says. “I know a lot of people have mental illness in their families. And especially Chinese families, they don’t know how to process it, or deal with it … this is a call to action, in a way.”
Many other writers have reached the same conclusion. In recent years, there’s been an outpouring of titles that grapple with mental illness. From Leslie Jamison’s chronicle of addiction, The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath to Yiyun Li’s memoir about depression Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life and lawyer Zack McDermott’s account of psychosis, Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother’s Love, a range of authors are now unmasking mental illness. The young-adult genre has stepped in, too, with outings such as Brandy Colbert’s Little & Lion, about bipolar disorder.
Notably, this trend has even spread into historical fiction. Toronto’s Rachel McMillan, the author of seven books, has a new novel Murder at the Flamingo, about lawyer Hamish DeLuca, who struggles with panic attacks. Set in 1937 in Boston, it’s the first of a new noir series. The book follows Hamish’s capers investigating a murder mystery with his sidekick, heiress Reggie Van Buren, and navigating his condition. It was launched with an accompanying hashtag #FictionForEmpowerment, to raise awareness about mental illness.
In her author note, McMillan explains that while she had to read up to understand the medical lens through which Hamish would be viewed in the 1930s, she “required no research in presenting his symptoms.”
Indeed, the novelist has suffered from a panic and anxiety disorder her whole life. “Fortunately, with medicine and the modern strides to eliminate stigma, I have been able to live and work through what in Hamish’s time could have been a debilitating illness,” she writes. “It was very important for me to find some way to channel what I always thought of as my greatest weakness into something empowering. In writing this series, I am dedicated to creating space for the conversation about mental illness and normalizing it in the fictional community.”
This is, of course, also Wong’s aim. The author hopes that by emphasizing mental illness in her own writing, she’ll help people see how widespread it is – and that it’s a medical condition like any other. “It’s normal,” she stresses. “It’s like going to the doctor if you are sick.”