Ruby Wax talks with Daska Davis
Ruby Wax says she is feeling OK, but that she hasn’t rehearsed yet for her show in three days’ time. In fact she’s already been on the road with her Sane New World tour, most recently in Australia, receiving rave reviews for a show that challenges how society deals with the rising epidemic of depression and anxiety. But you sense with Wax that she cannot help but strive for self-imposed perfection.
Lamenting both of our predispositions towards procrastination, Wax suggests that it’s a fear of screwing up which prevents us from getting on with the task in hand. When it comes to understanding how our minds work, Wax is better equipped than most. Having suffered a major depression that saw her hospitalised, she has earned a Masters in mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) from Oxford University.
It’s a long way from Evanston, Illinois, where Wax grew up the daughter of Jewish immigrants who had left Austria because of the Nazi threat. Wax started but didn’t complete a degree in psychology and moved to the UK to study at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama before embarking on an acting career. Although Wax says that she doesn’t believe she is a really good actress, she started work alongside Alan Rickman and in 1978 she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company appearing in Measure for Measure with Juliet Stevenson.
Wax shifted into comedy and later into documentaries and interview shows culminating in a primetime series, Ruby Wax Meets, in which she interviewed Imelda Marcos, Pamela Anderson and Sarah, Duchess of York, a show that was nominated for a BAFTA. Loud, brazen and outrageously funny, Wax’s interviews were part probing, part performance and hugely memorable.
“My fascination is with how people are thinking,” says Wax. “The shows on celebrities focus on figuring out how their brains work. We are all addicted to fame and accessibility, and whether our lives match up to theirs. It’s like a Rubik’s cube we’re all trying to sort out.
Despite a glittering career and hard fought for success, Wax says she spent most of her adult life dealing with depression and suffered serious breakdowns. Wax’s 2010 stand-up show, Losing It, dealt with her experience of clinical depression, and yet, again, humour simultaneously sweetens and sharpens the delivery of Wax’s hard-hitting and utterly honest outpourings.
At its worst, mental illness saw Wax check into The Priory but at some point she felt the need to understand the cause of her depression. Enrolling to study for a degree in psychotherapy, Wax found CBT a powerful resource to tackle and manage her own mental health.
In 2013, Wax published Sane New World, which she subsequently developed into her latest show that combines a lecture on neuroplasticity, a group therapy session and, of course, a dose of Wax’s razor sharp stand-up routine. “Keeping it funny is the greatest foreplay on earth,” she says. Her mission is to promote understanding of the brain, raise awareness of and destigmatise mental health.
“I love performing my show,” says Wax, “mostly because of the second half where I have the privilege of sitting on stage and letting the audience take over to ask, answer or discuss whatever. For those 20-30 minutes, it feels like I’m with my people, that we’re the same under our fronts with all our vulnerabilities we need to hide. Rather than seeing a large, dark foreboding mass when the lights come up, I can see individual faces and so it becomes a conversation with specific people rather than speaking at a crowd. It’s intimate and feels safe even though there might be 600 people.”
Wax talks about men, mothers, people with schizophrenia talking collectively about their experiences and fears. The outpouring in a non-judgmental arena creates a positive effect which adds perspective that enables them to go forwards, just a little better-equipped for the next day and weeks ahead.
“It’s interesting how it actually works,” says Wax. “The mechanics are always the same but each time the output is entirely different. On that evening, just a little bit, they don’t feel so scared and it’s a relief to realise we all share the same plumbing.” Wax believes it is this open access approach that can enable us to tackle mental health in society and encourage a healthy attitude towards the negative thoughts that many of us struggle with on a daily basis. “People might not hear themselves, or believe anybody can get rid of the criticisms that run through their head, but those issues are not going to go away. With CBT there is no circumnavigating the issues, you tackle it head on.
“I did the show in Australia, and each time everybody nods their head and says, ‘It’s me’, when I talk about my experience. We’re all in it together and we need to tackle it that way. But we need to look at the bigger picture. Mental health has still got a stigma. If you mention it at work, you might find yourself fired. There will have to be legislative change to recognise that if you get sick you can’t think clearly and that needs understanding and support.”
With UK dates for Sane New World throughout this month, and again in the autumn, Wax is already busy working on her next book, Wake The F*** Up – A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled. In true Wax style, there are no subtleties in her command for us to be more conscious about what our minds and bodies are telling us. “It’s about knowing when to shut down,” she says. “We’re so busy trying to operate 24/7, coping with more demands through every device, being overwhelmed with information overload and when the cortisol is pumping and we know we are about to keel over, we need to get the signal and stop. It’s bio-feedback and we need to understand that when our heartbeat is going up we need to take our temperature and adjust accordingly.”
Amongst touring, writing and dealing with, as she puts it, “an irrational compulsion to buy a coat from Zara, whether I need it or not,” Wax was awarded an Order of the British Empire for her services to mental health in January. “I was literally jumping for joy when I got the letter,” she says. “I was so honoured.”
Ruby Wax’s Sane New World tours the UK throughout June, and again in October-November – see rubywax.net for details. Visit thebestyoumagazine.co to watch Ruby Wax’s TED Talk, What’s so funny about mental illness?
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