Ruby Wax: 'When Belfast people open their mouths I just get it and I hope it's the same vice versa'
Ahead of her show in Northern Ireland later this month, Ruby Wax tells Lorraine Wylie why she loves visiting here and how mindfulness has helped her cope with depression
The nasal, American twang is instantly recognisable. "You know, I love Belfast," Ruby Wax drawls. "I've been over a few times and coming from Chicago, I think our two cities must be twinned."
A link between Belfast and America's 'Windy City' is not immediately obvious. Mind you, with over two hundred pageants every year, Chicago does love its parades.
Ruby enlightens me.
"You know, when people in Belfast open their mouths, I just get it and I hope it's the same vice versa. I think, in some places people are naturally funny and in others they aren't. The kick is, Chicago and Belfast people share the same sense of humour."
Sparky, self-deprecating, often embarrassing, Ruby has found a new direction for her comedy. Now as 'poster girl for mental health' she's bringing a little light relief to the more sombre subject of depression. A lifelong sufferer, she knows how it feels, or perhaps more accurately, doesn't feel.
"There is no feeling, whoever you were who lived in your skin before, has checked out, vanished," she once blogged.
For a long time, her illness went undiagnosed - "People thought it was glandular fever," she said in a previous interview - and she would be buffeted through a four-yearly cycle of frenetic spikes of energy followed by slumps of "nothingness" where the pain was unbearable. "I've spoken to women who've had depression and cancer and they've said the cancer was easier to deal with," she also said a few years back.
A lifelong sufferer, it wasn't until her last episode, "a tsunami of depression" landed her in hospital (the Priory, an independent clinic) that she realised the condition was: a) more common than she'd imagined and b) she decided to go down the Mindfulness route.
Three books, a one-woman show, a Masters Degree and an OBE later, it seems Ruby has finally found a way to give her head peace.
"Mindfulness teaches you to pay attention to your thoughts," she gets out before a cough interrupts. Interviews can be thirsty work but promoting an upcoming tour, as well as a new book, How to be Human, can be relentless. She must be feeling parched.
"The thing is, everybody has thoughts," she goes on. "I mean, if you didn't, you'd be dead, right?! Thoughts are there all the time and they're usually giving us bad reviews. Young people in particular find it difficult. It's that old chestnut called 'comparison'. I mean, it goes way back. We've always compared ourselves, maybe with the neighbour or the Prom Queen. The trouble is that in today's world, the Prom Queen can live as far away as Russia. You can't keep up with the competition. It's too much. It's the world we made, we just didn't make the equipment to help us keep up. We're adjusting to what's out there. If you didn't do that, you'd be Trump, you know, believing everything's fine."
Feeling 'frazzled' may be a common complaint but mental illness is a whole different ball game.
"No, they're not the same thing, that's for sure. You can't compare them. That's like saying a twisted ankle is the same as a broken leg. Mental illness is as real as physical illness, only it's in the brain. It is not feeling sad, feeling sad is natural, we're supposed to feel sad."
In recent years, mindfulness has become a bit of a buzz word with celebrities touting it as the panacea for modern ills. In truth, there's nothing new about mindfulness. Rooted in Buddhism philosophy, the technique has been around for over two thousand years. In contrast, cognitive therapy, pioneered by American scientist Aaron T Beck in 1969 is more recent. A decade later, therapists Zindel Segal, Mark Williams and John Teasdale came up with Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).
So how can it help?
"It (MBCT) helps us control the release of chemicals that can make you nervous or even drive you insane," the comedian explains and gives me an example. "I use mindfulness to bring down my adrenalin and control my nerves before a show. If I didn't, I'd forget my lines, my mouth would go dry and my heart would start racing. Believe me, that's not an appetising sight."
So far, since practicing MBCT, Ruby says she hasn't had a major episode of depression. Instead of a sudden ambush, she can now see it coming and take steps to avoid a full-on attack. It's worth pointing out that MBCT is not a replacement for prescribed medication. It's merely an additional weapon in the arsenal. As she writes in her book, A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled: 'Let me make it clear, I still take medication for depression, just as you would for any other illness. However, if antidepressants carried a guarantee, no one would ever relapse, yet most of us do, many times. That is why I've added meditation to my medication. Think of it as wearing two condoms, double protection.'
An only child of Jewish parents who fled Austria to escape the Nazis, Ruby's early life was far from idyllic. Between her mother's 'whoopsies', (the term her parents used to describe her mum's hysterical outbursts and obsession with cleaning) and her father's violence, it would be easy to blame her parents for her later depression. Yet the issues are much more complex and, to date, the jury is still out on the nature/nurture factor.
Growing up an only child in Evanston, Illinois, Wax says that she was "an introvert". Her mother was an obsessive compulsive housewife who covered every available soft furnishing in plastic. Her father sold sausages and was a strict, sometimes violent, disciplinarian.
She has since said that she thinks her mother too suffered from some form of mental illness. "She could have been saved, that's the sadness. A couple of little drugs …"
She says that she first started trying to be funny when she was 16 and wanted to attract boys. With typical brashness, she says: "I was not attractive to boys and I wanted to be, so I started to be funny."
After dropping out of university in the US, she moved to the UK and studied at the Royal Shakespeare Company. She went on to write for shows such as Not The Nine O'Clock News and Absolutely Fabulous but her big break came in the mid-1990s when she was given her own BBC show Ruby Wax Meets ...
Married to Ed Bye, the couple have three grown-up children - son Max and daughters, Maddy and Marina - and today Ruby's life is a round of writing books, speaking engagements and shows. A hectic touring schedule isn't exactly the definition of relaxing. I wondered whether the stress of it all wasn't a one way ticket to 'Frazzledom'.
"No, I love my tours! It's like getting on a train, you don't have to do anything but sit there and go where the train takes you. I also love my one woman show, especially the second half when I get to interact with the audience and people tell me their stories or say 'Hey, you know what? I get what you mean', it's so good and can be very cathartic."
Like other celebrity campaigners, Ruby Wax is determined to remove the stigma of mental health. Personally, I'm fortunate never to have suffered depression and have no experience of any mental health issues. But, I do know about stigma, especially the type that, even in our enlightened society, often surrounds epilepsy. The fear of a seizure is enough to frazzle any sufferer so I ask Ruby whether she thinks MBCT might alleviate the anxiety.
"You know, I'm doing another programme about how they're looking at putting an implant deep inside the brain to prevent seizures," she says.
Oh really? I feel quite excited until ...
"Yes, it'll happen, but probably not in our lifetime."
There's no mistaking Wax's passion or sincerity. But the humour is never far away.
When I suggest, I might struggle to re-train my brain, citing the proverb, 'You can't teach an old dog new tricks', she snorts and laughs.
"There are no old dogs now!"
"Oh, that makes me happy," I laugh.
"Good, then maybe I should charge you." She jokes. At least I think it's a joke.
Ruby Wax Frazzled tour is at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Shaw's Bridge, Belfast, May 22. Tickets available from Ticketmaster. A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled is available now, Penguin Life, £6