Ruby Wax has a glittering CV: she has interviewed everyone from the Duchess of York to Donald Trump for her TV series, has written bestselling books, and was the script editor for Absolutely Fabulous. A long-term sufferer of depression and bipolar disorder, in 2010 Ruby took a Masters in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy at Oxford. Her latest book, A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled, is the follow-up to Sane New World, which explained neuroscience and mental illness clearly and wittily. She was awarded an OBE for services to mental health in 2015. Originally from Illinois, Wax arrived in Britain in 1977. She lives in London with her husband, TV director and producer Ed Bye, and has two daughters and a son.
I’ve always had an interest in psychology – I stole a library book when I was 12 called This is Mental Illness that I’ve never returned. I started a degree in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, but dropped out. Then I came to England – I was trying to get away from my parents and thought I’d only be here a while – and against the odds got into acting school. But I always knew I’d go back to studying the brain – for self-healing as well as helping others.
This idea that you can change the way you think is relatively new. Everyone talks about the brain but it’s only recently that people started talking about the mind. It’s the mind that changes the brain’s neuroplasticity – its ability to reorganise itself. It’s like learning the piano – your fingers haven’t memorised the notes; it’s your mind. It’s the same thing with focus. You can manipulate your mind to choose where you focus your attention and remain present. This is what mindfulness does.
I discovered mindfulness ten years ago and was initially dubious. I’d already tried so many ways to control my depression that hadn’t worked. But the evidence that mindfulness works can be picked up on a brain scanner on someone who’s only done it for a few days.The key is honing in on one of your senses. It’s having a coffee and noticing the taste, or being in the shower and noticing the water. But you can’t do it once and say “That didn’t work”. It’s like doing one sit-up and expecting results.
I’m pretty sure my mum had OCD but never received help. She had a fear of dust, for instance, so she’d be crawling behind me in the house with a sponge in each hand and two stuck to her knees. Everything in our home was wrapped in plastic. I didn’t know that was crazy; as an only child, I assumed that was normal. Both of my parents fled Austria and the Nazis in 1939. They brought the war with them into our home, and I grew up in emergency circumstances. The sheer drive that got me into the Royal Shakespeare Company – I really wasn’t a good actress but I went at it full-throttle – is one of the reasons I’m mad. But it’s helped me to survive.
I had postnatal depression after the birth of my youngest child. That’s when I realised I needed help. None of my children knew I was having problems, as my husband protected them. Because of my work, I could pretend I was off doing TV when really I was in the Priory. I told them the truth when they were 16. I married a normal person who has ensured that my kids are also normal.
Anxiety isn’t new. What is new is that we have to deal with more anxiety-related issues. Let’s say you’re in a war zone and your cortisol – your “stress hormone” – keeps bubbling away. It’s saving your life. But in day-to-day life, constantly checking emails and multitasking might be slowly killing you. This is why we feel so frazzled.
There’s still such a stigma surrounding mental issues. The brain is just an organ and sometimes it breaks down. If you broke your arm, people wouldn’t react in the same way. I’ve spoken to women who’ve had depression and cancer, and they say depression was harder to deal with – and that’s partly down to the stigma.
Being honest and talking about how you feel, that’s what binds humanity together. I discovered this while I was touring the shows of my last book, Sane New World, and my latest book, A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled. We asked the audience if they wanted to share their thoughts, and they talked and talked. That’s why I decided to open the Frazzled cafés. The first one launched earlier this year in London and we’re now opening more. You apply through a website and it’s for the frazzled – for those who are finding it hard to deal with day-to-day life. There are 15 people in each location with a trained facilitator and you meet every two weeks. When I leave one of these groups, it’s the only time I feel grounded.
Growing up, I always felt freakish and lonely. Unless I’m with a really close friend or with a group in the Frazzled café, I feel pretty alien. It doesn’t get in the way of my life so much now, but it would be nicer to feel more connected. When people say “This is who I am” I feel safer.
I’m still on antidepressants – although, one day, I might come off them. I’m at my happiest in Cape Town with my family around me. I have a place out there and I love it – the sun always shines. I’d like to have sunshine here but I came to the wrong country for that!
A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled is out now in paperback, £8.99 (Penguin Life)
Mind ControlThe World Heath Organisation predicts that by 2030 more people will be affected by depression than any other health problem. Around half of people with mental health issues will have experienced an episode by the time they are 14.
According to the Office for National Statistics, nearly a fifth of UK adults experience anxiety or depression, and a higher proportion of women than men. Figures suggest the 50-54 age group is most affected.