Ruby Wax: Taming the Black Dog

Ruby Wax

Ruby Wax - Credit: Archant

If Virginia Woolf invented stream-of-consciousness as a literary form, then Ruby has perfected it as a conversation style. Katie Jarvis spends some time with the far-from flaky Ruby Wax

Ruby Wax (Photography: Catherine Ashmore)

Ruby Wax (Photography: Catherine Ashmore) - Credit: Archant

You know, it’s hard. So hard to tell when people are crazy-crazy; or when they’re just zany-crazy. It’s OK. I’m using those words – those non-PC words - because Ruby Wax, mental health campaigner, does. She talks about the ‘normal-mad’ (most of us) and the ‘mad-mad’ (the one-in-four with some kind of mental-health problem). As well as people being ‘nuts’. Terms Marjorie Wallace doesn’t tend to use.

Ruby Wax graduates from Oxford University’s Kellogg College, with a master’s degree in mindfulness-b

Ruby Wax graduates from Oxford University’s Kellogg College, with a master’s degree in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy - Credit: Archant

And you love Ruby for it. If there were a George Cross for mental-health bravery, she should have it pinned straight on her chest, because she confronts depression (her own and other people’s) head on.

'Sane New World' by Ruby Wax

'Sane New World' by Ruby Wax - Credit: Archant

“A woman I was with yesterday said a really good thing,” Ruby tells me. “She said that, when her daughter has it, they all ask her, ‘How’s the depression?’”

She takes a few seconds to marvel at this. “Why didn’t I think of that! Rather than, ‘Perk up! Do something about it!’, they’re verifying that she has it. And she loves to talk about it! Now that’s not going to make it go away but I thought what a great suggestion that was. ‘How’s the depression doing today? Is it bad? Is it worse?’”

But let’s go back to my original question. I want to ask her: What is depression? Is it something that stops you being yourself? Or is it actually part of what makes you ‘you’?

Because when you look back at the TV programmes she used to do – Ruby Wax Meets, for instance – and you see her stuffing some kind of massive burger into her mouth, and spitting it all over the place while talking to Sandra Bullock; or attacking Madonna with a white fur coat-cum-pitbull, lying on a bed at the Ritz – there are moments when it feels more like a case study than jovially eccentric entertainment.

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And it can still feel a bit like that. Like when I’m watching her being interviewed, on stage, as part of Cheltenham Literature Festival. The interviewer, Professor Dany Nobus, is a world authority on Lacanian psychoanalysis, for goodness sake. (Whatever that is. Clearly, it means he knows about brains and should be able to cope.)

But it’s not easy. As well as being utterly brilliant and compelling, Ruby goes off on tangents, answers questions he’s not asked, and wrong-foots him by explaining – after saying particularly interesting things – that she was just joking. In short, there are times when he looks like a man who’s accidentally climbed into a washing machine and pressed the spin cycle.

He’s holding a copy of her latest book – Sane New World: Taming The Mind – which, among other things, talks about how the modern world can make us mad – mad with envy; mad with wanting; mad with not matching up to its standards. Viz HELLO! magazine, with Lord and Lady Pomkelson Pompel Pomp sipping champers with their smiling teeth, making us all envious of their happy marriage, stately home, and huge piles of gold. Or Stephen Fry’s extravagant twitter following, which makes David Beckham look like that nerdy kid no-one wants in their rounders team.

“You’re quite critical of contemporary living,” Dany Nobus ventures, quite reasonably.

Ruby looks at him as if he has just climbed out of the drum after a particularly vigorous 1600 rpm finish.

“That’s the comedy bit of the book!” she says, incredulously. “When I talk about how people decorate their bathrooms [ie bathroom envy]… Did you think I was serious?”

And yet. When it comes to the audience question-and-answer session, this same talk is sincerely moving. And it completely gets what Ruby Wax is about.

“Dany doesn’t understand,” someone says, sadly, apparently dismissing the professor’s years of academia without a second glance. “If you live through it, you know it.”

A woman stands up and tells Ruby she has a male (not the usual female) critical voice inside her head. “I can’t even tell what accent mine speaks in,” Ruby tells her, deeply impressed. “Either you’re really ill or a genius.”

Finally, disturbingly, a quiet voice fills the silent marquee. “I’m not in a very good place right now. I’m trying to cry out. I’m not very well and I just want some help.”

It’s frightening to hear that. Moving. Troubling. And it brings home, through all the comedy, what Ruby Wax is talking about. The dreadful challenge of mental illness, even in this, the ‘advanced’ 21st century.

“Can you all turn round! Everybody look at them [the speaker],” Ruby says to the audience, eliciting varying reactions of shock and surprise. As always, she’s confronting demons – hers and other people’s. But, also as always, she’s offering back-up, too. “No one is as lonely as when you think you are the only one,” she adds, gently, to the tormented soul. “After I sign the books, you can come and talk to me.”

Ruby Wax has just done two television interviews, a radio interview, and a piece with a Sun journalist; and I’m beginning to feel a bit sorry for her.

“Would you like five minutes,” I ask, “before I do my interview?”

“Yeah. That would be great,” she says. And, on a sofa in a public room, surrounded by people but in a world of her own, she raises her hands to her head and closes her eyes. She’s not meditating exactly. (Though I’m not sure I know the difference.) She’s practising mindfulness. She has, she says, done every therapy under the sun. Even rebirthing. (Good Lord.) And while she knows that mindfulness isn’t for everyone, it’s a technique that’s got her to a functioning state after years of chaotic mental living. It’s something I’ve come to talk to her about, along with her new book.

“Who are you writing this for?” she asks.

“Cotswold Life magazine.”

“I know Cotswold Life! I lived in the Cotswolds and I’m going back to the Cotswolds tonight but it made me crazy because I had to keep fixing drains. And things kept breaking down so I was as stressed in the Cotswolds as I was in London.”

Interesting. Most people move to the countryside because the pace is so much slower.

“You know – I’m going to stay at a friend’s house tonight [Reggie Heyworth of Cotswold Wildlife Park]. I don’t want my own house…

“But again, I look in those [Cotswold Life] magazines and it just stokes my envy. When I got to this country, everything was £2.50. All those houses. And I thought, ‘Oh my god! I want them all!’ And I still look and think I want them all. I had a really nice house. It flooded the first day I moved in – you know that big flood? So my furniture sailed out of the window and I was in wellies up to my knees and thinking, ‘Why is it so warm in here?’ Then I realised it was the under-floor heating.”

If Virginia Woolf invented stream-of-consciousness as a literary form, then Ruby has perfected it as a conversation style. You can follow it, in the same way that you can follow a dandelion seed on a breeze: for a while; not often fully catching it; thrilled when you do.

Part of it is that her brain is so quick. She’s incredibly bright. And that’s a facet that her book – the aforementioned Sane New World: Taming the Mind – demonstrates to perfection. It is (as Dany Nobus described it, before he got washed), part-moving personal account, part-neuroscience, part-self-help.

She decided to write it, she says, “because I wanted to find some shelter from the constant hurricanes of depression, which left me depleted and broken.” It’s also an attempt to come to terms with a childhood blighted by her mother (who sounds, if Ruby’s memoirs How Do You Want Me? are anything to go by, to have had competitively bad issues). “Friends would come over and there my mother would be, perched on the lampshade, a vulture with a Viennese accent, waiting for someone to drop a crumb,” Ruby writes. “When they did, she would swoop across the room screaming, ‘Who brings cookies into a building?’ Everyone would run away terrified. It got much, much darker later but I am not going to talk about that here.”

Her post-school options, she explains, were a career as a comedian or a serial killer. Comedy paid better.

It’s not a book purely for the depressed, however. In fact, she makes the thought-provoking point, à la The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, that people with depression can teach us all something about ourselves. That we’re missing a trick not talking about it.

“Yes, because everybody has a little of everything. So the one thing I was amazed about, when I talked to normal audiences, was to find out that they had voices in their heads, too, that were nagging and going, ‘I’m an idiot; I’m stupid; I gotta; I gotta; I shouldn’t’. Like a nagging mother in their head. When they said they had it, my heart was warmed. I thought – my people. It wasn’t just the one-in-four. And nobody – nobody that I’ve ever met - has a voice that says, ‘What a wonderful thing I’ve done and may I say how attractive I am today!’ And so that really gave me such solace, to know we’re all screwed.” Quite. With the possible exception of Russell Brand, maybe.

But why do we shy away from mental health so much? Even mock it. (As we speak, Tesco and Asda have withdrawn fancy-dress mental-health outfits.) Are we scared of it?

“I don’t know if people are nasty to it. A lot of people don’t believe it. They think you’re being a wanker - don’t say wanker. Self-indulgent.

“If somebody had Alzheimer’s, you wouldn’t tell them to please remember what they were doing yesterday. That’s why my book has so much about the brain. If something goes wrong, there’s a reason for it. It wasn’t because you got up one morning and thought: Should I play golf or should I be depressed?”

Her book is particularly fascinating in its sections on neuroscience: filled with clarity and simple (but not overly so) explanations about the things going on inside our heads. She enrolled in UCL, followed by Oxford University to learn all about it.

What was it like, being with students again?

“I told them I had a disease that made me look really old. Then they liked me because I had a car.”

The point she’s trying to make, though, in Sane New World is that people think they have no control over their state of mind. But they do.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is her way of doing it. It’s a technique that helps you manage your mind. It’s all about intentionally focusing in on the present moment; standing back, gently watching your own thoughts and feelings, anchoring yourself, non-judgementally. “Thoughts are not who you are, they’re habitual patterns in the mind, nothing more and as soon as you see them that way, they lose their sting.” Accompanying all her teaching and advice are apposite vignettes from her own life – some of them funny (the panic dinner party, where she frantically goes shopping for food 10 minutes before guests are due); some of them sad (where she spent her three children’s childhoods on her mobile phone. “I remember one of my kids once trying to get my attention to show me his dead hamster and help him deal with the funeral arrangements. I couldn’t pull the phone away…”)

I can see, as we speak, that she’s getting quieter and quieter. Tired, maybe. She’s had a long morning. So I skip down a long, unasked list to my final question. What’s next?

“The show of this [book]. We go to Cape Town first, and then it will go on tour in England and then probably Australia; and then America. A one-woman show, like my last one.”

Blimey, Ruby. Put yourself under pressure, why don’t you.

She shrugs. “I have to say this stuff. I’m like the translator between the scientist and the moron. I understand what they’re saying – not fully; but I can translate it. I want to show people a way to tame their mind.”

But it’s more than that, isn’t it, I suggest. It’s not just about taming your mind. It’s about making that a perfectly normal, acceptable thing to do. That’s Ruby Wax’s fantastic achievement.

“Yeah,” she agrees. “And not making it sound flaky.”

Too true. It may sound mad, crazy, hectic, frantic, at times. Brilliant, bold, brave and boundary-pushing. But definitely not insipid. No way flaky.

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Sane New World: Taming the Mind by Ruby Wax is published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton, price £18.99. For more on Ruby, visit www.rubywax.net

This article is from the January 2014 issue of Cotswold Life.

For more Katie Jarvis, follow her on Twitter: @katiejarvis

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