Comedian and writer Ruby Wax spent years in the grip of depression – but mindfulness changed everything. Now she is a champion for mental health, and here reveals the key life moments that shaped her way of thinking…
I do feel like I’ve been given a second chance, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy.” Ruby Wax is discussing the role mindfulness has played in her life, notably since graduating from Oxford University six years ago with a masters in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, after enduring years of depression.
For Illinois-born Ruby, understanding the inner workings of her mind is both a passion and a prerequisite to life. She first experienced depression at 13 and now, some 50 years later, practises daily mindfulness to keep it, and other issues including anxiety and self-loathing, at arm’s length.
“I can now feel a depression coming, so can do something about it. My last episode was years ago,” she explains. “You don’t need a lot of time, a minute is enough. You’re just training your brain to become resilient, so when thoughts come they don’t hammer you.”
Ruby’s memories of childhood are bleak. She was the only-child of her Jewish immigrant parents who fled Nazi-dominated Austria in 1938, and never dealt with the pain of their ordeal. Her father was violent, and her mother was troubled by OCD, and plagued by bouts of fury.
At 15, Ruby found an escape from her pain – through humour. In 1977 she joined the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, and then won a place at the Royal Shakespeare Company, before carving a career as a comedian, and quickly becoming a staple on prime time British telly in the 80s and 90s.
But by 1994, married to BBC producer Ed Bye, and shortly after the birth of their third child, Ruby fell apart. She checked into The Priory with depression, where she returned a decade ago, before discovering mindfulness.
“Whatever you pay attention to becomes who you are,” she insists. “Mindfulness changes the way you parent, how you are in a relationship, it changes everything. You can re-route at any age, and I think I’m a walking representative of that.”
Here, Ruby shares with us eight key moments in life that changed everything for her...
Starting my research into mindfulness
I had a serious depression 12 years ago and thought: ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I didn’t think there was a cure, but I thought that there must be something else besides medication, so I started Googling. I realised that mindfulness and cognitive therapy had the best scientific results. So I studied a masters in it for two years.
You need to know how your brain works to be in control. It’s like a car; if you break down, you don’t have to scream for help, you kind of know what’s going on. I don’t control my depression, but thanks to mindfulness I can see an episode coming, so I have choices. I can see my patterns of thinking, but don’t always play into them; I’ll hold back before I judge somebody and then I’ll laugh, without them knowing, that they proved me wrong. Rather than assuming everything I think is correct, I know my thoughts are just recordings. It’s not easy to commit to it, but I want to know what’s going on in my mind. I put in the work. It’s not a magic wand. It takes discipline.
Experiencing pure human kindness
I’ve always had a very pessimistic view of human nature – every time something good happens in my life, I seem to get kicked in the behind pretty quickly.
In February 2017, I was travelling home from Victoria Station in a taxi, writing my latest book. I ended up leaving my computer on the back seat and somebody emailed the next day to say they had it. The lady had bought it off a street market, and when we met, she not only insisted on giving me back the computer for no charge, but she gave me two paintings from the art gallery where she worked. It was an epiphany, having an experience when there was no price. It was just human kindness. Compassion is the glue that makes our lives worth living.
I’m going to work in a refugee camp in Greece for three weeks soon, which isn’t something I usually do, but I want to feel compassion. You have to invest in doing good things for yourself and others to feel the positives.
Discovering depression was in my roots
It’s not about thinking happily all the time, because if you try to be happy you’re going to be unhappy.
While filming Who Do You Think You Are?, I travelled to the Czech Republic and discovered that two of my distant relatives had been sectioned in the same asylum. It confirmed that mental health issues were in my family tree. When she was alive, my mother never mentioned her past, or any relatives, so it made me feel better knowing that I came from a long line of depression.
During the making of the show, I also learned the reason for my dad’s anger. He and my mother had fled the Nazis from Austria in 1938 and moved to Illinois. They were literally chased out of the country, which also explains why my mother was also regularly furious and obsessive about cleaning.
[For years] I took on those problems, but after discovering their past I bought my mother a gravestone, and it helped me to close a chapter on my childhood. I felt good for doing that.
Living together but apart from my husband
My husband Ed and I are very independent, and even though we’re together, neither of us thinks of ourselves as a couple, so that was a good match. We’re a unit because we’re parents and are together, but don’t think of us as an ‘us’. I think all couples should do stuff on their own, figure out themselves, then go and save the world.
Realising the positive in negatives
As a child, it felt like my parents were bringing the Second World War into the kitchen every morning. There was a lot of negativity at home. My parents would say ‘why do anything because it ends?’ and would tell me I was going to be a failure. I think it’s why I’m hyper-ambitious now.
Out of five thoughts, four are negative, and there’s a reason for that. In evolution, we have to be on our toes. When you make a mistake, like tripping down the staircase, you’ll remember that so you don’t do it again. If things are fine, we don’t memorise it. We need negatives otherwise we wouldn’t survive.
Understanding that my thoughts are not who I am
Your thoughts can take a toll on you, physically and emotionally. I got depression because my thoughts were overwhelming, and now I doubt those thoughts, because thoughts don’t define you. It’s not about thinking happily all the time, because if you try to be happy you’re going to be unhappy. It’s about recognising when feelings of unhappiness are coming. Whatever is going on emotionally, watch it like the weather. There might be clouds and it might be nice and breezy, but don’t take it as a reality. It’s like ‘there is anxiety, but I’m not anxious’.
Being told I was a crap actress
When I was in my early 20s I got into the Royal Shakespeare Company. In the middle of a play, the actor Alan Rickman said: ‘You’d better do comedy now.’ He was insinuating that I wasn’t so good at acting, and I knew I wasn’t, and while I didn’t like hearing his comment, it was a relief because I wouldn’t have had a long career as an actress!
Then I realised I was a bad comedian too, so Alan became my mentor and trained me for 30 years. Just because you’re the amusing one in the family doesn’t mean you’re a comedian, it just means you’re funny. Being a comedian is an art, and I’ve had to work on it every second since.
Appreciating my body
At Oxford, I was trained to see the connection between the body and the mind. Mindfulness is about seeing yourself as a whole, and a lot of times, when you focus in on muscles or how it feels to move, it brings the cortisol down. When I’m walking, I try to feel the sidewalk beneath my feet, and when I breathe, I’m aware that there’s a body down there, and that the body is the mind and the mind is the body. I consciously make that connection.
When I look in the mirror, I don’t love what I see, and in the past I’ve felt as if my body has let me down, but I now appreciate what I have – I’m flexible and people at my age have pain but I don’t, so I’m grateful!
‘How to Be Human: The Manual’ by Ruby Wax is out now in paperback (Penguin Life, £8.99). ‘How to Be Human: The Show’ is on tour at theatres around the UK and Ireland from 24 April. Find out more at rubywax.net
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