Ruby Wax: A Comedian Now Waxing Mindful On Mental Illness

“People who say … they’re perfectly fine [are] more insane than the rest of us.”

The above quote is taken from a recent TED talk, “What’s So Funny About Mental Illness?,” by Ruby Wax, an American comedian who started a successful career in the U.K. in the 1980’s.

In more recent years her career stalled a bit, however. And, as explained in The Telegraph, “Her rise and fall took place against the backdrop of her depression; every five years or so a creeping sense of paralysis would sneak up on her.” Following the birth of her third child in 1993, she had her first major breakdown. About five years ago, another major episode landed her in the hospital.

But Wax has let neither her condition nor the lack of available work keep her down, so to speak. She and friend Judith Owen, a singer/songwriter who’s also battled depression, created their own show, one they inaugurated at various mental health facilities. Along the way, Wax unexpectedly became a celebrity “poster child” for depression. From the TED blog:

Comic Relief put my face on a poster. I was in the Tube, and there was a poster of my face with the word DEPRESSED stamped across it. When I saw it, I almost lost my organs out of my nose. I tried to stand in front of the first poster and block the view. And then, down the escalator, there was another poster, and another. You know how they do that? And by the time I got down to the platform I thought, OK, well, I’ll write a show and pretend this was my publicity. I’ve always said to myself, if you’ve got a disability, use it.

So they branched out even further. Their newly beefed-up show Losing It expanded to other venues, including an extended run last year at a theater in London’s West End. The Guardian describes it:

The first half of the show was pretty much what you might have expected: a funny (mental illness is a much-underused comedy resource) and informative tour of depression, with a little Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) thrown in for good measure. The second half, a question-and-answer session with the audience, was anything but.

‘We wanted to give people a chance to share their experiences and ask questions,’ says Wax, ‘but we only imagined one or two people at most speaking out before it petered out with everyone making for the exit. Rather than finding it hard to get people to talk, our real problem was getting them to shut up.’

Another recent accomplishment of Wax’s is the establishing of website Black Dog Tribe to help those with mental illness find help and support.

On a more personal level, she’s been working on her Master’s in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. Mindfulness is what she uses to decrease her own ruminating—though as she says (in the TED post):

…not in a guru Buddha let’s-eat-a-cauliflower way. I throw my attention to a physical sensation, to a sound, focus on my feet on the ground, as opposed to this … endless mental loop tape … because the mind can’t be in two modes at once. It can’t think and also sense something at the same time. It’s a trick you’re playing on yourself, on your thinking. If I throw focus from my rumination to one of my senses, it brings the cortisol down. Other people might say, ‘I’m going to focus my attention on my cat or put Vivaldi on.’ I don’t care how you learn to flip your dial when you need to.

…We need better words. ‘Mindfulness’ sounds like something Martha Stewart says: ‘Be mindful when you serve the chicken at a dinner party.’

…And the bitch of it is, you have to do it every day. Feel your breathing, feel your feet on the ground. It’s attention on attention. When you do it regularly, your neurons are rewiring…

Notably, she says she actually got into mindfulness because she’d become fed up with shrinks who weren’t so helpful.

The TED talk: “What’s So Funny About Mental Illness?”

One thought on “Ruby Wax: A Comedian Now Waxing Mindful On Mental Illness

  1. Great topic–reminds me of a poem I love by jane kenyon called “having it out with melancholy”–not exactly a knee slapper, but all about trying to find the moment one can exist in…

Your turn to talk...