Comedian Ruby Wax turns academic
If your perception of Ruby Wax stems from her TV persona of the late 80s and 90s - the brash, hyperactive American, haranguing unsuspecting celebrities until she got beneath their glossy, perfect exterior - you'd be surprised to talk to the Ruby Wax of today.
Wax, whose career spans the fields of actress, comedy writer, interviewer, stand-up comedian and corporate speaker, has reinvented herself as an academic, having recently completed a master's degree at England's esteemed Oxford University.
This is the woman who gained notoriety with her 90s' TV show Ruby Wax Meets . . ., which featured jaw-dropping insights into what goes on behind celebrity closed doors. She rummaged through the Duchess of York's underwear drawer, got OJ Simpson to act out a stabbing with a banana and wore Pamela Anderson's famous red Baywatch-swimsuit.
She achieved similar outrageous feats with Imelda Marcos, the Spice Girls, Liza Minelli, Jim Carrey, Goldie Hawn, Sharon Stone . . . it seemed there wasn't a star Wax couldn't get the better of.
But these days she is no longer interested in getting under celebrity skins, or even being a celebrity herself; instead she is interested in the brain: How it works and, more importantly, what happens when it doesn't.
With a master's in neuroscience and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Wax has now published a book on the subject, Sane New World: Taming the Mind.
She says the book is "an instruction manual on how to get through the 21st century", a way to quieten the critical voices we all have in our head and a way to regain control over the stresses and complications of our ever-changing world.
While not specifically for people with mental illness, Wax wouldn't have come to study mindfulness had it not been for her own struggles with depression.
It wasn't until after the birth of her second daughter in 1994 that Wax was actually diagnosed with mental illness, but she believes it has been a part of her life since childhood. After her diagnosis, she was prescribed medication and spent time in London's Priory clinic after severe bouts and breakdowns. Intending to keep her illness to herself as much as possible, it was purely by accident she became the "poster girl" for depression.
Writing in Sane New World, Wax tells of how she posed for a picture to be used in fund-raising material for British charity Comic Relief. Unbeknown to Wax, the photo was going to be used on a poster which popped up all over the London Underground stations with the caption: "This woman has mental illness. Can you help her?"
Wax writes she was "mortified" at first but then decided to turn this "outing" of her illness into a positive thing. "I decided to write a show and pretend the poster was for my publicity," she writes. "I thought ‘Ruby, if you've got a disability, use it'."
She toured Losing It at more than 50 mental institutions around the United Kingdom, before transferring it to theatres and the Edinburgh Festival. The show evolved into her one-woman show Out of Her Mind, which she still performs around the world (most recently in Australia). Split into two parts, the first half involves Wax talking about her own mental illness; after the interval she encourages the audience to talk about their personal experiences.
Wax says rather than feel a burden of responsibility from facilitating these "group therapy sessions", she is happy to hear about other people's problems.
"I feel like I'm with my people," she says, on the phone from Sydney during a break from the city's recent Writer's Festival. "If someone tells me they're perfectly fine I kind of glaze over, but if they tell me about their stuff, I feel like I'm with my people, my tribe."
Wax last month performed Out of Her Mind in Melbourne and found it was mostly the male audience members who spoke up.
"I guess because the women get together and talk so much but the men have to keep this macho thing going, so they felt kind of relieved that they could open their mouths and ask questions," she says.
Perhaps inspired by the openness of her audiences during her Losing It and Out of her Mind tours, and the increasing knowledge of just how many people are affected by mental illness, Wax's interest in the workings of the brain grew.
After her last spell at the Priory she "wanted to find some shelter from the constant hurricanes of depression which left me depleted and broken", she writes in Sane New World. "If I learnt how my own engine worked it might prevent me getting stuck in the middle of nowhere, shrieking for someone to come and fix me. I would provide my own AA service."
Wax enrolled in a post-graduate course at London's Regent's College of Psychotherapy, training to be a psychotherapist. She completed 200 hours of the 400 intern hours she needed to gain a full qualification and writes "I learnt that we're all such delicate creatures and many of us are in pain and it takes such bravery to just go on living".
But rather than ignite a desire to continue as a therapist, Wax realised she was more interested in finding out about the science of the brain. She sat in on a neuroscience course at University College London and began to learn about mindfulness, a psychological therapy developed by Zindel Segal, Mark Williams and John Teasdale, based on Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction programme.
The basic principle of mindfulness is awareness - acknowledging thoughts and feelings, both positive and negative, and accepting them without attachment or reaction.
"I did a lot of research on what has the best results in clinical trials as far as dealing with relapses of depression and for OCD and anxiety and stress, and the winner happened to be cognitive therapy and mindfulness, along with [medication]," she says. "That's why I went into mindfulness, because I liked the scientific evidence with it."
The only place to study MBCT alongside neuroscience was at Oxford University, so despite her only formal science qualifications dating back to high school, Wax talked her way into a place on the master's course.
"It was kind of hard," she says. "I didn't always love it. You just have to sit there for 12 hours a day because you don't go all the time. It was completely interesting because I never would have sharpened my brain [otherwise]. But it just shows that if somebody like me, who really screwed up as a kid and couldn't concentrate, can suddenly get concentration then there must be something about [mindfulness]."
Part of the master's course was a 10,000 word dissertation and, so, never one to shy away from a challenge, Wax decided to use her research to write Sane New World at the same time.
"I tried to do a kind of Bill Bryson on it. I'm giving the information but I'm giving it a comic spin," she says. "I really don't want to write a memoir. I'm not a celebrity in my mind. Let's get on with teaching people what I think is so exciting."
She has no doubt mindfulness has helped with not only her depression, but also fear of failure and pre-show nerves.
"When I use it . . . I've never forgotten a line. I used to go dry before and I'd forget where I was going but that just doesn't happen because I get my heartbeat down so I'm clearer and much cooler, and an audience like that. If you get nervous they smell failure and they join like a pack of animals. So I have to cool down and then they cool down."
It also helps give her an early warning system for when her depression is threatening to take over again. "It's hearing the pitter patter before it washes over me completely," Wax says. "It usually takes you by surprise . . . If I sit and anchor myself I can hear early warnings, it's like the weather is changing."
Wax believes mindfulness can also be beneficial to the three out of four people who will not be diagnosed with a mental illness in their lifetime. "It's for everyone because we all share the same equipment, we suffer, we laugh, we rage, we bitch, we're all vulnerable, delicate creatures under our tough fronts."
Sane New World explains how the changes in culture and society mean the survival tools our ancestors once relied upon - the fight or flight response, for instance - are now doing more harm than good.
"We're busy for a reason, otherwise [the human race] wouldn't have progressed," Wax explains. "The busy-ness has got us where we're going but the point is nobody gives you the instruction manual to break when you need it. Busy is great, but it's not great when it keeps you up all night, when you burn out."
Mindfulness uses neuroplasticity - changing the way we think and rewiring the brain to self-regulate our responses during times of stress and busy-ness.
"With mindfulness practise, you eventually tame, calm and befriend that bucking bronco of a mind, gently taking the reins and steering it where you want," she writes. Like any exercise which aims to reshape and retrain a major muscle, mindfulness is not easy. It takes a lot of practise - and a willingness to confront those inner voices and deep-seated fears.
"Nobody wants to look in and hear that screaming mind," Wax says. "This isn't for the faint-heart", but she believes it will be beneficial to those looking for a way to stop their "critical voices" getting in the way of a happy, fulfilled life.
"When the mind gets agitated and negative, if you are patient and gentle with yourself, it eventually settles down and you experience something we call peace and, at best, happiness," she writes. "It means when your mind does what all of our minds do, which is change - change constantly and never stop chattering - you don't fight it, but rather understand and accept it for what it is."
Sane New World: Taming the Mind, Hachette New Zealand, RRP $39.99
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