Ruby Wax: “we weren’t built for happiness, we were built for survival”

The stand-up has long struggled with depression – and now she’s written a book about how to cope

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 24: Ruby Wax attends the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 24, 2016 in Edinburgh, Scotland. The Edinburgh International Book Festival is one of the most important annual literary events, and takes place in the city which became a UNESCO City of Literature in 2004.  (Photo by Awakening/Getty Images)

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Ruby Wax, the TV comedian turned best-selling author, had no final chapter for her new book when she was invited to explore her roots for BBC1’s most recent series of Who Do You Think You Are? The genealogical investigation took her to Austria, the country her Jewish parents fled for America in 1938 to escape the Nazis.

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She had long wondered whether the dysfunctional behaviour of her hysterical mother and volatile father was attributable to the war or something deeper. In Europe, she discovered a family history of mental illness, which she immediately recognised as the “large chorus of maniacs” she had heard screaming in her head for years as she battled severe depression.

The programme, aired last autumn, provided the conclusion to her book. How to Be Human: the Manual (Penguin Life, £14.99) is a humorous history of evolution, explaining how we work and why we do what we do.

Her final chapter is on forgiveness. “You could only forgive them,” she says of her parents, adding: “It was another clearing out of the closet.”

Wax has been clearing out her closet for some time. The classically trained actress, once known for the ITV sitcom Girls on Top and as a TV interviewer, began exploring her inner demons in a 2002 memoir, How Do You Want Me?, before taking a course in psychotherapy.

She became an expert in mindfulness. She sees this in-vogue concept as “becoming aware of what is going on in your mind”, because if you know what is happening you can rewire your thinking to find calm. She later earned a master’s degree in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy at Oxford and has become a respected mental-health campaigner, rewarded with an OBE.

As a spinoff career to this new role she has already produced two books, Sane New World and A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled.

In the new one, she says, “We’re talking about the universe, about mankind.” How to Be Human takes Wax’s wit and adds the insight of Ash Ranpura, a Yale-educated neuroscientist, and Gelong Thubten, a monk she first encountered at a conference “who really knows how to translate this stuff ” and who teaches mindfulness to the likes of Tilda Swinton and Benedict Cumberbatch.

In case these celebrity names or Wax’s breeziness place doubt in readers’ minds, she stresses that How to Be Human is based in science. “I’m not doing a new-age thing,” she insists. The evidence shows “we weren’t built for happiness, we were built for survival”.

But changing how you see the world can revise your biological make-up, potentially undoing damaging childhood experiences. She is convinced “the next zeitgeist will be exercising your brain muscles”.

The book includes the type of exercises Wax uses to keep her own predisposition to depression in check (see below). “Even if you do just one minute a day, it still has an influence. It gets rid of the cobwebs so you can see clearly.”

Her work on mental health includes supporting the charity Sane. “You don’t have to be ashamed. We’re all suffering. We live in a world where if we didn’t have problems, it would be crazy.”

She has also become president of the relationship charity Relate. “We’re social animals,” she says. “People die early if they don’t have their community.” She has even created her own community of Frazzled Cafes – places where people feeling “frazzled” can share their personal stories in a supportive environment.

Around 15 groups already operate UK-wide and a charity is being established to support the work as it grows.

Wax, 64, still appears on stage, performing her last one-woman show 180 times. But learning is now where she gets her kicks. “I love studying this stuff. I get the ‘aha’ moment,” she says.

“I always think my career is going to end and then something catches my interest. Yesterday, I started to read Darwin and I could feel another groundswell.”

Whatever Wax does next, though, will still involve jokes. “I can’t write outside of comedy,” she says. “I don’t have the skill.”

But the reaction to her humorous work on serious issues concerning the mind has been “really positive”, she says, with quiet satisfaction. “People do say it’s helped.”

Ruby’s Top Mindfulness Methods

Clear your head

If you can’t think clearly, imagine your thoughts as cartoon bubbles. Picture reaching out your hand and gently popping them to make them vanish.

Let go of impatience

To combat frustration in a queue, in traffic or when the internet is slow, let go of stress or impatience by bringing your focus to your body. Feel the ground under your feet or the chair beneath you.

Banish painful feelings

Sit and look at the sky. Breathe in and out deeply three times. Imagine you are breathing out all your painful emotions into the sky and they are dissolving. Return to normal breathing. Continue to look at the sky.

Best foot forward

Stand up straight, chest out, walk confidently and smile. Your bodily state reflects your emotions and thoughts; letting go of tension in muscles loosens up the emotions and thoughts, too.

Be nice to others

Perform regular acts of kindness.

Ruby Wax appears on BBC Breakfast and BBC2’s Newsnight on 29 Jan, on ITV’s Loose Women on 30 Jan and on Channel 5’s The Wright Stuff and Steve Wright’s show on BBC Radio 2 on 31 Jan

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By Louise Jury