Ruby Wax on depression, and not being pigenholed

Comedian turned academic Ruby Wax brings wit and wisdom to the subject of the mind, how it can send us loopy and how to fix it. And her manual for saner living is now on tour, arriving in Glasgow tonight, writes Janet Christie
Ruby Wax: 'I'm happy being the poster girl for depression'. Picture: ContributedRuby Wax: 'I'm happy being the poster girl for depression'. Picture: Contributed
Ruby Wax: 'I'm happy being the poster girl for depression'. Picture: Contributed

Mental illness. If it’s not someone in your life, it’s you,” says Ruby Wax. And she’s quite happy to admit that in her life, it was her.

The comedian, actor, writer and motormouth presenter best known for the BBC series Ruby Wax Meets says she was on a rollercoaster of depression for most of her adult life and in the past suffered serious breakdowns. At her worst, she checked herself into the Priory, yet still managed to leave during the day to film interviews, ironically, with people suffering from mental illness, and was answering e-mails with the urgency of Obama checking to see if North Korea had detonated any nuclear bombs. Then when her TV career went into freefall after Celebrity Shark Bait, with Wax and Richard E Grant as the bait, being lowered into a cage among real sharks off Cape Town, she knew it was over.

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“My television career was pulled out like a rug from under me and I was replaced by a younger, but not as funny, version of me,” she says.

Ruby Wax. Picture: Debra Hurford BrownRuby Wax. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
Ruby Wax. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown

While Wax reckons her TV career is over because of her age, she is loath to discuss it.

“I don’t want to talk about my age, or being Jewish, or female or what colour I am, what colour my hair is. I don’t want to be pigeonholed. For instance, I’m a great camper. No-one asks me about camping,” she says.

OK, tell me about camping…

“And canoeing. I’m great at that. And a champion waterskier. I went to the Burning Man festival in Nevada too.” Was it her parents who sparked her love of camping? “Well, they just wanted to send me away, but then I loved it. That’s what Americans have over the English. You learn competition at an early age. Even if you can’t canoe, you will hit someone over the head with a paddle and get ahead that way. I’m great at horseriding too. Archery. Riflery. Swimming. No-one asks me about these.”

OK. When was the last time you canoed? “I recently kayaked in Cape Town. It’s a rule, you have to be in a sunny place to plan a show,” she says, referring to Sane New World, the sold-out show about mental health she will perform in Glasgow today.

At first it was painful, no longer having a TV career, then liberating as she rejoined the human race. Initially when taxi drivers asked her why she was no longer on TV she would say she had terminal cancer, but stopped because letting out her anger on others came back like acid reflux, leaving her feeling toxic and nauseated.

It was in a bid to understand the causes of her depression that she reinvented herself and returned to academia, studying for a degree in psychotherapy as well as triggering reverse empty nest syndrome in her three children when she moved into halls. A masters degree in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy at Oxford University followed and as she learnt, she began practising it to deal with her illness. The result was a dissertation that became a book, then a show, and a 32-date tour.

“My career ended with a bang in that I ended up in an asylum,” she writes in Sane New World, the book in which she brings her wit and wisdom to the subject of the mind, how it can send us mad and how to fix it. By turns entertaining and fascinating, the book is a manual for saner living. Along with car-crash yet funny bursts of “My Story” there’s an explanation of what’s wrong with us and why, a whole section on mindfulness and how to do it for those who’ve never been anywhere near a Californian ashram, and neuroplasticity for beginners. In this section Wax explains how experiences reorganise neural pathways in the brain and how we can re-wire and self-regulate.

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“Sane New World is survival for the 21st century,” she says. “It’s about why we are screwed, the things that are making us crazy, the pressures of today’s world that drive us from burnout to depression. Multi-tasking has driven us mad. The 21st century is too hard, too fast, too full of fear. Evolution did not prepare us for this.”

“We were never like this ten years ago. I’m not complaining about those things; computers, technology. They are here, so the only thing is to learn where your personal tipping point is, when you’re e-mailing for a reason and when it’s addiction, when that kicks in. Me, I’m answering spam now.”

According to Wax the way back to sanity is to use your brain to cure yourself, to develop different parts of it.

“The brain will work with you. You notice your self-flagellation, which comes from when we had to be vigilant. It’s about evolution. Back in the bush we had to be aware. In our minds it’s still partly caveman. That’s why evolution is so interesting. We must look inside the brain and it’s only in the last ten years we’ve been able to do that.”

So which parts of Wax’s brain is she now developing?

“The smart one that never got developed. It increases because you’re curious. You learn something and it changes. I’m not going to go off and become a ballet dancer – I was thrown out of that as a child and my legs are not going to get longer. There are some things you’re stuck with.”

As one of the one in four who has mentally unravelled, Wax charts her journey from the Priory to coping, and having learnt how to apply the tools she has discovered to herself, wants to share them with everyone else. Try stopping her. Intelligent and sparky, she speaks rapidly in short, sharp, wisecracking bursts, laden with irony. Ask her if she believes in other therapies besides mindfulness – fasting say, and she shoots back: “Fasting? Yeah, ’cos that’s good for you. Fasting? That’s real bulls**t.” Then she mellows. “Ok, I think all kinds of therapy are good for you in some way.”

Even when she’s talking about depression she’s funny, and although the show has a serious message, Wax plays it for laughs.

“I wrote a book that’s a comedy version and the show takes the book and condenses it. I’m going for comedy. You can use humour. When I’m well I can make them laugh. When you’re sick, it’s irrelevant.”

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Wax has always used humour to get people’s attention, recognising early that she had a talent for comedy.

“I’m just funny. At school I wasn’t good-looking and the other girls were good-looking, so I did it to get guys. I had something there, the ability to make them laugh.”

Wikipedia has Wax down as bi-polar, but it’s a description she says is wrong. “No, someone needs to change that. I’m not. It was clinical depression. And I haven’t had it for seven years, so how would you describe me now? Cognitive behaviour therapy and mindfulness works for me and I do it every day. The background music is always there. It never goes away. I wake up in the morning and have the full volcano. But if you concentrate on breathing, the cortisol comes down.”

Does she think her depression will ever return?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t had it for years. What can I say?” she says. “The reason I decided to devote myself to this inward journey is because I wanted to find some shelter from the constant hurricanes of depression, which left me depleted and broken. Each episode got longer and deeper.”

Wax’s key message is that you can change your mind and how you think, and it’s all down to neuroscience.

“It’s about neuroplasticity. Never mind your genes, hormones, regions in the brain and early learning, you can change. The brain is pliable and can be re-sculpted by breaking old mental habits and creating new, more flexible ways of thinking. In short you can fix yourself,” she says.

“You can calm the constantly critical voices. People have a voice that says, ‘I’m fat’ for instance. Well, why do they think they’re fat? They stay fat because they kick themselves and give themselves a hard time. That’s not how you train a dog that’s wild. You don’t kick him. You encourage him.”

The child of parents who escaped Austria in 1939 and settled in Illinois, Wax traces some of the voices in her head back to her parents. They don’t sound like an average couple, even using the widest interpretation of “normal” and used to claim Wax was slightly retarded, that something was wrong with her brain on account of her mother being contaminated by a chemical that was released in Austria before they escaped. Graduates of what Wax calls “the Gestapo-school-of child-rearing,” her mother had a fear of dust and dirt that led her to scream things such as: “Who eats cookies indoors? Are they insane?”, while her father predicted Wax would “be a bum and shooting heroin at 50”, despite her protests that people who use heroin usually start earlier.

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“This is the type of background that usually leads to a career as a comedian or a serial killer; I went for the comedy,” she says.

But were her parents as bad as she says, or is she playing her childhood for laughs? “They were pretty bad. They had mental illness. Nowadays you can get drugs to treat it but they just had it. With my mother it was cleaning.” According to Wax, everything in the house was covered in plastic to keep it clean, and her mother once arrived in Europe with only the dress she was wearing because she was chasing the last dustball instead of packing before leaving for the airport.

Escaping her parents, Wax arrived in the UK in 1977, studying at the RSAMD in Glasgow then beginning her acting career with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her TV career took off and she wrote and performed in her own shows for the BBC and Channel 4 and was script editor for Absolutely Fabulous.

“I’ve never had a reaction to anything I’ve done like I have to this,” she says. “I’m talking about something that’s hit the zeitgeist. Everybody wants to know how their brain works.”

Wax is particularly enjoying the Q&A sessions at the end of the show in which the audience stand up and share their experiences.

“They say really interesting things. I like people being honest. Men, particularly, will talk because they have often felt they can’t say anything about their mental illness. The other night a banker stood up and was questioning why he was so driven, then a politician stood up and said he didn’t feel he could keep doing it, he couldn’t cope with it. Why is he so ambitious, why is he so shaky? There are so many questions and comments, one after another. That’s my favourite bit, the audience payback. That’s my people.”

Ruby’s people aren’t necessarily the same ones as when she was on TV. They might know who she is, but they’re more interested in what she has to say about depression and the brain, and a few funny anecdotes about filming with Richard E Grant don’t hurt either.

“I don’t know if they come because I’m Ruby Wax. They’re not coming because I’m a comedian. They don’t care. I think they come because they’ve heard what the show’s about. When you’re involved in something that’s really interesting for yourself, you don’t give a s**t who you are talking to,” she says.

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Wax has already done a stand-up show on mental health, having been“outed” by Comic Relief after she volunteered to pose for a photo to raise money for the mental health arm of the charity. Losing It toured free to mental health hospitals for two years and then sold-out to audiences in London and came to Edinburgh before evolving into her one-woman show Out of Her Mind, which she took to Australia, the US and South Africa.

“That show was an accident because Comic Relief put up a poster on the Underground saying ‘This woman has mental illness, can you help her?’ I saw it and had to leap in front of it to hide it, but there were too many. Then I thought, I’ll write a show about it so it’ll look like it was publicity for that.”

Stimulated by the show and her “mental implosion”, Wax’s interest evolved into wanting to look into the brain itself, and she enrolled to study psychotherapy, which involved doing 200 hours of counselling. Her fears that clients wouldn’t take her seriously were unfounded.

“I worked with the Women’s Trust, with a lot of women from Pakistan, who had been locked in the house of their mother-in-law, and some of them scalded. They didn’t know me at all, never heard of me. If anyone had, they weren’t interested in that. They were traumatised and I listened to them, didn’t talk. Talking is being a crap therapist. If you want someone to tell you what to do, go to your friend.”

Does she talk to her friends?

“Yes, the people I went to Oxford with, I can ask them. And if it’s about me or my life, I have other friends who will help me with 
‘what should I do? Should I write this? Edit this?’ And my husband’s really good too,” she says of television producer and director Ed Bye, with whom she has three grown-up children Max, Maddie and Marina.

“I don’t counsel now. I do the show and the book. I don’t want to be a spokesperson for depression because I’m not the expert. I give different possibilities about how to deal with it. I’m happy being the poster girl for depression, but it’s not my work. All I did was a show and a book and became an ambassador for Mind, the mental health charity, and the British Neuroscience Association. I’m not an evangelist. I’m not taking on society, but it would be helpful if they changed the law so that if you’re ill for six months you’re not sacked.”

Wax’s career focus now is back in academia, studying evolution, with another book in the pipeline: How to Hug Your Inner Ape. “I mean the ape we were, and how to deal with it,” she says. As for television, Wax says that period of her own evolution is pretty much over.

“That’s a shame,” I say. “You were good on the telly.”

“That’s nice,” she says. “But I like what I’m doing now. This is what I do now.”

“But don’t we need more women your age on TV?” I say.

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“You’re not going to get that. Not in this lifetime. I’m not fighting it. That’s not a battle I’m fighting,” 
she says.

So aside from publicising her show, she’s absent from the airwaves. “I love doing TV once 
in a while but the pressure of doing it all the time, I can’t do it. I could do documentaries, one every six weeks, maybe. But, f***ing hell, being on every day, get the hell out of here. Being such a bore on TV and having the nerve to blether on. This is what I do now. I’m a groupie for neuroscience.”

Ruby Wax, Sane New World Tour, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, today;; Sane New World, Taming the Mind by Ruby Wax is published by Hodder & Stoughton in paperback, £8.99.