Kathy Walton talks to comedian, writer and mental health campaigner Ruby Wax about staying sane in a mad world.
i catch up with Ruby Wax, who’s in the middle of a national tour, as she’s finishing a late breakfast and preparing for her next speaking engagement. It’s not entirely a comedy gig, although her trademark humour is bound to creep in. She’s out on the road to promote Sane New World, her book on mindfulness – the discipline she credits with ‘rewiring her thinking in today’s frenetic world’.
It might seem an odd subject for a comedienne, but Ruby has famously been on a lifelong journey through what she calls “hurricanes of depression, which left me depleted and broken.”
After several breakdowns and years of fruitless therapy (she once caught her therapist eating a sandwich behind the couch), Ruby was in her forties when she found herself in an underwater cage with the actor Richard E Grant, being used as ‘celebrity shark bait’ for a TV programme she hopes we all missed. Deciding that this was the moment to walk away from show business and wean herself off fame, she studied for a degree in psychotherapy “to figure out exactly what they were charging £80 an hour for”. Fascinated and hungry for more, she then gained her master’s degree in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy at Oxford University, before writing Sane New World. She has become something of a poster girl for mental illness in the UK.
It is a far cry from the Ruby Wax we thought we knew; the in-your-face nosey parker who once persuaded the Duchess of York to open not just her front door to the nation during a tv interview, but also her underwear drawer.
In real life, Ruby is quiet, well mannered and very serious about mental illness. She is pretty in a quirky way and has dainty hands, which I admire but which she dismisses as “old and withered.” Maybe taking a compliment at face value is something she’s still working on.
“I’m not at all brash,” she insists. “That’s just the side of me I get paid for. I can be really happy for the cameras but I couldn’t be like that all the time.”
So what is it about comedians and depression?
“I won’t go there,” she says sharply. “Comedians may be narcissists, neurotics or self-obsessed, but that’s not depression. They don’t get depression any more than anybody else. One in four of us gets it. I’ve seen them in poor parts of Wales and rich places here.”
Chicago-born Ruby came to Britain in the late 70s to study drama and began her acting career with the Royal Shakespeare Company before being discovered by the BBC. She went on to write and perform in her own hugely popular television shows, was script editor for Jennifer Saunders’s hit series 'Absolutely Fabulous' and married a BBC director. The two are still together, live in an elegant house in London’s Notting Hill and have a son of 25 and two daughters of 23 and 20.
So why does a woman who must have more ticks than most of us have boxes get so depressed?
“It doesn’t matter that you have ticks” she says indignantly.” If that’s all it took, everyone would be okay and therapists would be out of work.”
She emphasises, too, that sadness and depression are not the same thing and her tone suggests that she’s had to explain this a hundred times before. The former condition is a normal response to a sad event such as a bereavement, which will pass, while the sort of debilitating depression that put her in the Priory clinic is a mental illness that requires help.
“People who confuse the two make me angry. It’s insulting, like asking someone with Alzheimer’s where they left their key. Depression isn’t like a bad hair day.”
And as if to prove her point about the ignorance surrounding mental illness, she almost snaps when I ask if having an enduring marriage and three healthy children have helped her accept her lot in life.
“I don’t accept my lot in life because you have to work at it and find things that compensate.” One of her compensations is that she has learned to focus on her children, rather than obsessing about her career and there is genuine warmth in her voice when she tells me their names (Max, Maddy and Marina), and that the book is dedicated to them along with her husband, Ed.
'Sane New World', recently released in paperback, is a manual of mindfulness techniques designed to help us reconnect with the present in today’s chaotic world. The trick is to ‘self-regulate’ the early signs of full-on depression or burnout before we are felled by them. As self-help manuals go, it is clear, entertaining, often moving and peppered with the sort of humour that made Ruby famous. It also leaves you with a feeling that what it says actually works.
Ruby is quick to tell me that the book is not autobiographical, but even so, she can’t resist writing that her early life was “the type of background that usually leads to a career as a comedian or a serial killer; I went for the comedy”.
She likens her mother to a vulture perched on a lampshade, waiting to swoop on anyone who dared drop so much as a crumb on the floor and even jokes that she wishes she had prosopagnosia (the ‘face blindness’ syndrome that means you don’t recognise anyone, not even your mum).
Ruby’s late mother’s own life wasn’t easy (she was smuggled out of Nazi Austria in a laundry basket, for example); she thought it was character-building for her only daughter to be told she was useless, and spent her own life dogged by anxiety. Today Ruby is philosophical about her mother’s problems (“not anyone’s fault”) and, although she has studied Freud, Klein and Winnicott – all therapists who explored our early relationships with our mothers – she insists that depression is not necessarily passed down, either by nature or nurture.
“I don’t know how my parents saw the world, but depression is not about your parents,” she says. Instead she believes depression is fuelled by the cacophony of critical inner voices that constantly fill our minds with self-doubt and loathing “like the Devil with Tourette’s”, plunging us into a pit of despair.
Her personal demons whisper the same things as everyone’s demons: I’m a failure, I’m ugly, everyone hates me, but now, thanks to mindfulness, she manages to ‘cool her system down’ and muffle the voices before they sabotage her sanity.
For someone who claims never to have had any religious beliefs, Ruby is now positively evangelical about the benefits of mindfulness for everyone, not just those who have mentally unravelled – which is why she’s on tour. When she’s giving a book talk, she takes questions from the floor and says that there is no shortage of them, particularly from men, who may never have opened up before.
“The audience is the best part of my show. People make connections with each other, it’s really uplifting. I had one guy who asked what he should do about not sleeping and this other guy offered his suggestions and they met up afterwards. I’m like a dating agency!”
Optimistically, Ruby ends her book by saying that while she still gets depressed, “I am happier or at least more content than I have ever been before.”
Plenty of things make her happy, she tells me – her kids, La Prairie cosmetics and candles from the White Company – and she also relishes the camaraderie between fellow sufferers (“you mustn’t call them mad unless you are one of them”), whom she refers to affectionately as “my kind of people…”
Ruby Wax will be talking about Sane New World at Dr Challoner’s Girls’ School, Cokes Lane, Little Chalfont, at 7.30pm on Wednesday 28 May.
Tickets, at £15 (which includes a copy of the book), are available from Chorleywood Bookshop, 4 New Parade, Chorleywood (01923 283566) or from www.chorleywoodbookshop.co.uk