Joanne Lee Wong
LEARNING TO LIVE LIKE JOB
Updated: Mar 10, 2020
HELLO, my name is Joanne and I’m an alcoholic.
Since this is a new column, I thought I’d introduce myself to give readers an idea of who’s that girl and why she thinks she has anything of worth to say in a column about Christianity.
In the eyes of the church, I’m a nobody. I’m just an ordinary churchgoer. I’m not a preacher, I’m not a Bible scholar, I’m not a lay leader and I don’t even really have a defined ministry at the moment. In fact, oftentimes, my faith can be a bit wobbly.
Let’s start from the very beginning.
I’ve always been blessed by God. I grew up with a wonderfully close-knit family and things have consistently come easily to me.
As a child, my great passion was ballet and, not only did I win scholarships to study dance abroad professionally, I also had the amazing experience of training and performing with the Singapore Dance Theatre as one of their scholars during my teenage years.
Being Singaporean Chinese, however, academics were always going to take precedence and I too was incredibly blessed in that department. Without really studying all that hard, since I spent most of my time outside of school in the ballet studio, I managed to get into both Oxford and Princeton universities anyway. I ended up reading Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) at Oxford University and had a marvellous time twirling my varsity days away, competing in ballroom dancing, and earning a coveted Oxford Blue.
The blessings continued into early adulthood. My calling had always been to be a journalist and I got my first job as a political reporter with The Straits Times immediately upon graduation. After a couple of years, I ended up as a business news anchor on Channel NewsAsia before leaving to pursue a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) at the one of the best business schools in the world: the University of Chicago. I rejoined The Straits Times thereafter and was a columnist amongst other editorial roles.
You can imagine how such a privileged 30-odd-year formative period shaped my convictions. Despite remaining a Christian throughout, I breezed through life without really developing any depth to my faith and I readily admit to various regrettable episodes that were not very Christian-like at all.
But here’s where things started to go downhill and my fourth decade was riddled with heartache and depression.
My first instance of deep, debilitating depression occurred when a six-year relationship died slowly and eventually ended in sharp acrimony. This was a man I was waiting to marry. For months, I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t function, and once almost fainted in the shower after not leaving my bed for five days straight.
A video my sister made of my
schnauzer comforting me during
those dark days when
I couldn't get out of bed.
(Source: Janice Lee Fang)
That was followed by a three-year relationship which ended when the guy left me out of the blue and married his ex-girlfriend six months later. No surprise then that I plunged back into the blackest depression as I just could not cope with the rejection and betrayal.
My psychiatrist called it “high achiever syndrome” because I simply could not understand why the efforts I was putting into my endeavours - just as I had in the past with ballet, academics and my career - were not getting the proportional returns I thought ought to accrue. In short, I had absolutely no resilience whatsoever.
Then, just when I started to climb out of the deep hole I was mired in, something came out of left field that completely blindsided me.
I was stalked.
The stalker was a schizophrenic woman who had watched me during my days as a TV newsreader and, in her fractured mind, thought we got married and that I had borne her, my “husband”, a baby. When I left Channel NewsAsia to pursue my MBA, she thought I had left her and taken our child away. When I returned to the media upon graduation, she saw my byline and photo in The Straits Times and started actively stalking me – sending me up to 15 emails a day, calling my work phone non-stop, leaving abusive 54-minute phone messages and showing up at my office lobby in hopes of waylaying me and following me home.
This lasted for four years during which I was again crippled with severe insomnia, extreme anxiety and began becoming more and more anti-social. The Police eventually charged her in Court with harassment, but back then, the crime of stalking was minimally covered under the Miscellaneous Offences Act and she got away with a mere slap on the wrist.
Although all my friends and colleagues said I could finally pull myself together and stop acting like a traumatised victim now that she’d been fined, both the Police and my psychiatrist warned that I had to be even more careful than before. The big, burly woman might be even more dangerous than she had been previously as I had taken action against her, and her obsessive “love” for me might turn to aggressive hate.
I crumpled. My work performance suffered as I was wracked with migraines after endless nights of sleeplessness and terror. I lived in so much fear that she would eventually find out my personal details being so exposed on the media frontlines and I was finally forced to leave journalism – a calling that defined my identity for nearly 15 years.
This third bout of depression lifted after I took a year off work to recover while helping the Law Ministry in a small way to ensure stalking was included in the new Protection From Harassment Act. But even so, by this time, I had almost totally lost my way.
I crossed over to the other side of the media coin and went into corporate communications, but never found my footing in a profession I wasn’t interested in. I met a very nice guy and had a couple of bittersweet years with him – bittersweet as I had never fully committed to the relationship due to the state of catatonia I was living in.
During these years of oblivion, I also lost quite a few friends – old friends I considered my BFFs. In one case, my sleep disorder caused me to miss a breakfast tête-à-tête and she never fully forgave me afterwards. In another, my tendency to dull my pain with alcohol eventually pushed away a friend who had been a close confidant since our teenage years. And the third case? To this day, I still have absolutely no idea what made her ostracise me from our ladies’ group. Suffice to say, I lost friends I loved dearly at a time when I had very few trusty anchors left to help me hang on to any semblance of my former life.
Then when things seemed to take a turn for the better and God blessed me with an amazing man of faith, I faced the full force of judgement from family, friends and people in church for marrying a divorced pastor even though I had absolutely nothing to do with the break-up of his first marriage covenant.
Someone in church circles, a medical doctor whom I had shared my stalking experience with, ended up spreading rumours that, based on the medication I had been prescribed back then, I was clearly mentally ill. I got compared to the infamous Sun Ho - a wife who supposedly led City Harvest’s Pastor Kong Hee astray. Friends who came to our wedding were criticised for supporting our marriage, while the run-up to our big day was ruined by email after email warning us to abort our nuptial plans and stop our “sin” before it was too late.
Having survived that wedding trauma, we then entered into years of struggle to conceive a baby since by then I was already 40. After much heartache and the loss of my one and only IVF embryo, I was forced to accept that I had become infertile and relinquish my lifelong dream of being a mother.
In summary: I lost relationship after relationship; I lost my career; I lost my best friends; I lost my reputation and was castigated as a mentally-ill home-wrecker who was leading a beloved Man of God astray. Then, to top it off, I lost my desperately-desired chance to be a mother.
This entire tale of woe I recounted just yesterday to an old Methodist Youth Fellowship friend who was back in Singapore for a short week. She had read my previous column on infertility and left me an encouraging message so we wanted to squeeze in a quick catch up call. She had been something of a mentor to me during our MYF days. But apart from trading the odd comment exchange here and there on social media over the years, we hadn’t had a proper heart-to-heart chat since I’d left Singapore for the UK when I was 18 and she later relocated to the US. In other words, the last time we interacted properly, my faith had still been a sweet summer child.
How she responded to my sad story floored me. She said my sufferings – which also included another major tragedy that is not my story to tell – reminded her of Job. A good man who was blessed with plenty but who lost it all when God allowed Satan to test him to show how faithful he was.
“But Lorraine, I wasn’t faithful. I ranted and railed at God. I didn’t talk to Him for almost a year!”
“Job complained too. The fact that you ranted at Him and ignored Him showed you still believed, right? You didn’t lose your faith. You were just lost. Jo, you are very brave to have endured all your trials.”
“Brave? I didn’t do anything. All I did was try to survive and cope.”
“You know, there is strength in just putting one foot in front of the other just to carry on.”
We hung up and I cried. Because you know what? Lorraine is right. Like Job, God has restored me to a far better condition now than I had been in my former untested state.
My family has never been closer, especially with two little nieces who call me their Pretend Mummy; I have the absolute love of an extraordinary man; and, now that I’ll never be a mother, I can stop killing my health in the corporate world so I can pursue something that helps others and gives me purpose once more.
Then, this morning, I felt God reinforce Lorraine’s gentle message of comfort when Reverend Malcolm Tan preached from Isaiah and pointed out that we have to cross the desert before we get to enter the promise land.
He quoted from Chapter 60:1-3:
“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
His point: that once we have passed our trials and journeyed through the wilderness, God will use us as a light and He will use us mightily.
Could that be why I’ve been inspired to start this column, I wondered? I’m hardly a bright light but, like Job, now that I am blessed beyond measure, is it time for me to bless others in turn?
Before my ego could even attempt to puff up, Pastor Malcolm then issued what he called “a challenge to our narcissism”. He warned that, even as we seek to be God’s light to the nations, we need to be aware of our obsession with self which does not bear the spirit of Christ. He reminded us that God blesses us to be a blessing to others, and encouraged us to ask for the strength to look beyond ourselves.
So while this particular introduction post has been all about myself, my sufferings and my subsequent blessings, the reason I’ve decided to embark on this column is to use my crossing of the desert to show others the possibility of reaching the promise land. Not every article is going to be from a place of my own pain, in fact most will probably have nothing to do with my life at all.
But whatever light God has blessed me with, it is time I stop hiding it under a bushel and I am going to try to use the modest talent in writing He has given me to provoke thoughts and start meaningful discussions.
Hello, my name is Joanne and those were some of the trials that have made me who I am today. The reason why I have begun this column is to look beyond myself and try to bless others. Now that you know me better, I hope you will join me on my journey and feel free to call me out if I am guilty of what Pastor Malcolm calls “Christian self-centredness”.
Have a great week ahead.
Joanne Lee Wong is a writer, wife and corgi mum. She’s not a bible scholar, teacher nor church leader - just a former journalist and member of a Methodist congregation who struggles reconciling her faith with everyday experiences. All views expressed are her own.