There’s a song by Smokey Robinson, Tears of a Clown, that for many years has summed up comedian, writer and mental health campaigner Ruby Wax. After leaving her native America and landing on English soil in 1977, her career in the UK has been a successful one. Throughout my teenage years and beyond, Ruby’s unique sense of humour has had me roaring with laughter. However, it was in 2013, that Ruby’s comedic mask began to slip, after struggling with yet another bout of deep depression she set out on a journey of discovery picking up a qualification in Psychotherapy on the way and more recently a masters degree in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy from Oxford University.
She describes it as her ‘aha’ moment, when she realised that her success was simply armour covering up the chaos inside her. “I thought it would be a good time to reinvent myself and while I was at it, find out who exactly had been inhabiting my brain all those years,” says Ruby.
Outrageously witty and smart, the much-loved comedian, Ruby will be hanging up her cap and gown to return to the stage with her one-woman show Frazzled. Her mission is to bring mental health awareness to the masses. In her show, she explores a scientific solution to modern problems: mindfulness, based on her best-selling book, A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled.
“The first half is a comedy show,” says Ruby, “it’s my job to make everybody feel good, people will find it funny, it isn’t a lecture. Who wants to pay to be bored? In the second half it’s more interactive, with the audience having more of a conversation with each other, I’ve
done it 180 times now and it works well.”
Frazzled, is a word I would use to describe myself after a stressful week at work, followed by navigating a shopping trolley with a wonky wheel around ASDA on a Friday evening, only to return home to the kids who immediately (before I’ve unloaded the shopping) start asking “what’s for tea?” That is when I’m stressed out, or maybe I’m frazzled…
Ruby is quick to correct me, “Frazzled doesn’t mean stress,” she says, “we need stress. But being frazzled is when you’re stressed about being stressed. It’s when a person’s thoughts are making them ill, rather than the real situation.” Her delivery in the book regarding her struggle with mental illness is as candid as Ruby, “I wanted to be honest.”
After reading her last two number one best-selling books (Sane New World and A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled), it’s evident that to Ruby honesty is key. She bares her very soul. Leaving no emotional stone unturned. Many of her experiences are downright tear-jerking, and just when you think you’re on the verge of an emotional breakdown she picks you back up with her comedy flourish. This lady’s strength lies in being able to inject laughter in times of great sorrow. “I wish I could write normally,” she says “but my writing always comes out as comedy, I think it’s due to my dyslexia and luckily I can make a living out of my flaws and disabilities!”
With the huge success that has followed her book and tour Frazzled, Ruby has opened a chain of Frazzled Cafes, a place where people can meet on a regular basis, have a brew and talk with like-minded people. “They’re spreading,” says Ruby, “it’s the perfect place to go if you don’t want to bother your family or friends. They meet every two weeks and have a great support system. If you have feelings of stress or anxiety, it’s important. One of the cures is to have a social network that you can be honest in. Most of the time people will ‘fake it’ and that’s just another problem on top of everything else.”
When Ruby took the bold step of moving from the comedy arena into the world of academia, it was life-changing. For many people change is a frightening concept, especially if
you suffer from anxiety and depression, so what advice would Ruby give to anyone who wishes for a life transformation?
“You have to let it sink in, it’s not going to be an ephinany at two in the morning, sometimes you may look back at your childhood. From being a kid, I was always interested in the mind, so you may have to look back at what used to turn you on before you started ‘hacking’ away at making money. It might be something you do on the side, but if you starve yourself of what you’re really interested in your life will be miserable.”
The path of mindfulness was an obvious choice for Ruby, “I saw the science of it and then I had to get the proof of it. I wasn’t that smart as a kid, but, when you’re really interested in something a light comes on. If they’re teaching it at Oxford, it’s not witchcraft.” Ruby openly admits that mindfulness isn’t for everybody, her professor, Mark Williams, who Ruby describes as ‘smart and humble’ invented it, “he wrote the book that I copied!” she giggles.
EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT IT, BECAUSE IT’S WHAT KILLS YOU. THERE IS NO BIGGER ISSUE
“For anyone who has the depressive gene young it will help them to nullify it. It helps kids realise when their brains are going into overdrive and shows them what they can do about it. Evidence is that kids do better in exams, when they are well-adjusted.”
Initially I believed the art of mindfulness was more suited to folk who wore felt shoes, parrot earrings and smelt of sandalwood. However, I couldn’t have been further from the truth. In a nutshell, it’s a Buddhist discipline which enables you to regulate your thoughts, to help you focus on the here and now while pulling your mind away from those nagging inner voices.
Mindfulness has played a huge role in Ruby’s recovery, but how on earth, when you’re frazzled and busy do you find time?
“Your brain is a muscle and it’s a pain in the arse,” laughs Ruby, “it’s just like going to the gym, you need to exercise it, even if it’s just one minute a day it can mean that you can pull your mental state back into neutral.”
“While you’re brushing your teeth or picking the kids up, you can do it. It’s about really focusing on what you’re doing, it anchors your brain down, you’re still chatting ‘up there’, but it’s quieter, the voices aren’t so loud. It’s a habit and if you skip it, don’t beat yourself up. Taste the coffee, that’s all it is.”
Ruby’s approach comes from a scientific and spiritual view-point, in her latest book How to be Human: The Manual, she enlists the help of a monk and neuroscientist, the book tackles a wealth of questions from evolution, thoughts, emotions, through to sex, addictions, and the
future. Filled with witty anecdotes from her own life and backed up by smart science and practical mindfulness exercises it’s the only manual you need to help you upgrade your mind as much as you’ve upgraded your iPhone. “I took it further than Frazzled, it’s not just about
mindfulness, it’s about everything!”
In the past mental illness has been more a taboo, seen as a weakness, now it’s more recognised as a medical condition. Awarded an OBE for her services to mental health in 2015, does Ruby believe we have a long way to go to shake the stigma?
“It’s getting better. It’s unbelievable. Everybody’s talking about it, because it’s what kills you. There is no bigger issue.”
Despite her incredibly successful life and career, Ruby’s life has been pitted with depression, and to this day she’s never sure if or when it will return, so I wondered she how she tackles it if she feels herself sinking again…
“I can tell when I’m getting sick, when I’m going over the edge. I used to work harder because I’d be too embarrassed and would feel so weak. If I was working in front of a computer screen, I’d beat myself up if what I was working on wasn’t funny, now I shut the computer down and change the scenery quick! Stress can be good and motivate you, but you’ve got to realise when you’re getting frazzled!”
Ruby Wax is performing at:
- Lyceum Theatre in Crewe on Wednesday 6th June, 7.30pm
- Pyramid Parr Hall in Warrington, Thursday 7th June, 8pm
- The Grand Theatre in Blackpool on Thursday 5th July, 7.30pm
…with her one-woman show, Frazzled. For bookings visit wyp.org.uk.