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What I've learned: We catch up with comedian Ruby Wax

The comedian reveals how mindfulness has helped her overcome mental health issues

Published 30/01/2016

Ruby Wax
Ruby Wax

Ruby Wax was born in Illinois as Ruby Wachs, the daughter of Austrian Jews who moved to America to escape the Nazi threat. After a difficult childhood - she has described her mother as suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness - Wax moved to the UK, where she pursued an acting career with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Preferring comedy, Wax (who refuses to reveal her age, but is thought to be in her early 60s) moved into TV, conducting interviews with the likes of Imelda Marcos, Pamela Anderson and OJ Simpson on her BBC series Ruby Wax Meets ... in the mid-1990s.

In recent years, Wax has found a new voice as a mental health advocate, speaking about her own experience of depression. She completed a Master's degree in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy at Oxford University, and has published two books on the subject. Her first, Sane New World, was accompanied by a successful one-woman show, and she plans to do a similar tour of her latest book, A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled. Last year, she was awarded an OBE for her services to mental health.

Wax lives in London with her husband of 28 years, British producer and director Ed Bye. They have three children, Max, Madeline and Marina.

When I first heard about mindfulness, I thought it was another flake thing, a New Age thing. But then I researched the science. What's most interesting to me is how your mind works and how you can make it work to benefit you. You can work your body so I assumed you can work your mind.

Everybody lives on autopilot. It's part of the human package. If you weren't on autopilot, you'd never get out of your house. The problem is that we can't get off autopilot. If you work all day, you take that home. It's hard to pull the brakes.

I think it's prestige to be busy. When people ask, 'are you busy?' if you say no, good luck ever being invited out again. It's all the rage.

When did we start getting so busy? Well that was when there started to be so much stimulation. There's always something else to buy or something else to eat - our community has widened, now it includes people like Cara Delevingne, and because there's so much comparison all the time and there's too much information, our minds are always slightly riled and we're anxious.

We all have those critical thoughts in our head, 'I can't' or 'I shouldn't'. Some people have, 'oh my god, I'm a bit dim, I'm never gonna get this work done', other people have anger, where you think, 'everybody else is an idiot'. For me, it's that it's somebody else's fault. Whatever you think in your own head about yourself, you project on to others outside of you.

Mindfulness is not a magic pill, but you can see (an episode) coming. When I was writing the book, I could actually write about my depression, which I could never do before. There is that little bit of distance, it doesn't mean you don't have it. But if you don't get stressed about stress or depressed about depression, it goes faster, because you don't punish yourself for having it.

They didn't have a name for depression, or for what my parents had, when I was growing up. I just thought I was falling asleep once in a while and couldn't get up. They thought I had glandular fever. If I had known, I'd have been relieved because I'd have thought 'now I know my onus', and then they could start medicating you or dealing with it.

Depression is not 'being sad'. It feels like you're in a coma except you're awake. It's very hard to move around, you can't concentrate, and the thoughts get so loud that it's just white noise. It's like being a block of cement - your personality leaves, and there's nothing to replace it.

Because of (my childhood), I changed how I raised my own children - I learned everything my parents didn't do. I think mindfulness would have helped me, but it wasn't invented. I just tried to survive, and when I didn't, I felt like a failure.

Growing up, I didn't picture myself at Oxford. I wasn't academic at all, I got D grades. I only did about six months at college. I wasn't smart enough so I didn't flourish.

This book is for everybody, including those who may not be struggling with mental health, but who are just frazzled. I'd hope the reader would laugh, but that they'd think about how they can navigate the noise. That's what I do, make the science accessible through humour. If you're a humorist, then you can get your message across because humour is the greatest foreplay.

I don't think a lot of people are honest in their comedy, I just think that's my signature, and then the audience can identify with it. When I do my show, it has a beginning, middle and end. It's not 'hey, funny thing happened to my cat', I'm giving you my journey.

If I'm having a dark day, I sit and do a mindfulness exercise. You only have to do it for a few minutes, and those toxic hormones can come down.

If you want to talk to your kid or you're on holiday, focus intentionally. Otherwise, you'll have to watch life on a video.

  • A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled by Ruby Wax, published by Penguin, £9.99

Belfast Telegraph

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