The American comedian, writer and broadcaster Ruby Wax was diagnosed with clinical depression two decades ago, a condition that had plagued her since childhood. It’s sadly not uncommon. As Wax herself observed during her stage show ‘Frazzled’:
“1 in 5 people have dandruff. 1 in 4 people have mental health problems. I’ve had both.”
When years of therapy failed to provide her with the respite she was seeking she did exactly what anyone else would do in that situation: she studied for two years to obtain a Masters degree in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy from Oxford University.
Since then she’s been appointed a Visiting Professor in Mental Health Nursing at the University of Surrey. been awarded an OBE for her services to mental health, written two books on the subject – ‘Sane New World: Taming the Mind’ and ‘A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled’ and this is her second tour exploring the topics of her books.
Wax was on particularly good form in the first half of the show. Part seminar/part stand-up she “interviewed” herself, clipboard in hand, as she talked about her past mental health problems and how Mindfulness has provided her a bit more stability and a measure of control over her illness.
The point of the show is that we, as a people, have become ‘Frazzled’. We’re overwhelmed by wave upon wave of information that our ape brains were never designed to take and the tsunami of stress that this causes is placing an intolerable strain on our mental and physical health. Wax proposes that practising Mindfulness can offer us literal breathing space.
Wax’s tone was relaxed, witty, frank and playfully waspish. She has said in interviews that since her diagnosis she doesn’t know how to be funny any more, but there was very little sign of that here. She was keen to demystify Mindfulness, explaining theory in simple terms and took the audience through a few straightforward exercises – such as focusing on their breath and taking a moment to listen to the ambient noise of the theatre – to demonstrate the processes involved.
She did have a tendency to lose her thread slightly, which would explain the use of the questions on her clipboard to bring her back on course, but all her digressions tended to add to her wider point. At an hour and five minutes the first half was long, but didn’t feel it and presented a robust and coherent summation of Wax’s proposition.
The Q & A in the second half was a bit more woolly, not helped by the opening question from the audience being about Jeremy Corbyn (for some reason) which put Ruby Wax on the back-foot somewhat.
There also seemed to be some disquiet when Wax freely admitted that she still reliant on anti-depressant medication alongside Mindfulness.
This isn’t surprising, not to me; there’s no therapeutic or pharmaceutical magic bullet for mental illness. The best most of us can hope for is to be mostly well for as long as possible. For Wax constructive use of Mindfulness means that she’s better prepared for the onset of illness and that means a a bout of depression might last for five days and five weeks instead of five months.
I think the world, and the world of mental illness (if they’re not one and the same) are a better place for having someone like Ruby Wax in them. Someone willing to shine a light in the darkest corners of their own mind. Someone willing to speak openly about their demons with humour. Someone willing to stand on stage and be willing to be counted as one of the One-in-Four.
For more on ‘How to be (and How not to be) Mad”, written by someone whose put in the hours, please see my blog: