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Ruby Wax on spending five weeks in a mental health clinic last year

The comedian, writer and mental health campaigner says this bout of depression surprised her. By Hannah Stephenson.

(Penguin Life/PA)

When Ruby Wax set out to research her latest book, she didn’t expect to end up in a mental health clinic.

The forthright and funny bestselling author had planned to write a book after lockdown about the extreme journeys people take to find an antidote to their frazzled lives.

But Wax – who says she’d previously been depression-free for 12 years – also found herself charting her own mental health crisis, which saw her spend five weeks in a clinic last May with a “typhoon of mental torture raging inside”.

The resulting book, I’m Not As Well As I Thought I Was, is a typically sharp read, full of wit and brutally honest observations as she records her adventures before the depression took hold – including a month-long silent retreat, swimming with humpback whales, working at a refugee camp in Greece, and joining monks at a Christian monastery.

Today, wearing a T-shirt which says ‘Carrie Fisher – Wishful Drinking’ (she and the late actress were good friends), she can’t explain why the depression took hold again, but reflects that she comes from a long line of ancestors who had mental illness.

“You can’t say that going on these journeys caused the depression,” says Wax. “It’s just a coincidence, because you can have depression when you’ve won an award or you’ve won the Olympics. I can never say, ‘This was the reason’.”

She recalls the Repetitive, Transcranial, Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS) treatment she had in the clinic, where what looked like a bathing cap was put over her scalp and strapped under her chin, before a piece of machinery resembling a 1950s hairdryer was lowered over her head to stimulate the brain.

“The intensity goes from fast skull hammering to it sounding like someone is drilling into cement to break up the sidewalk; I am the sidewalk,” she writes.

In the 12 years previously, she’d had what she calls little spurts of darkness, but managed to recognise the signs and ward them off. This time though, the depression sneaked up on her, she recalls.

“Suddenly you get numb. You can’t really feel your body and you are out of commission. You’re just gone and you’re really scared because you may walk in front of something, you can’t tell…

“Depression is not situation appropriate. It just happens. It’s like saying, ‘When do you get Alzheimer’s?’ You don’t know. It’s a disease,” she adds.

It subsided almost as quickly as it arrived. “When it’s gone, it’s gone,” Wax says with a shrug.

Historically, her depression had not lifted as rapidly, she recalls. “I used to have to stay in for months. Nothing happens that quickly.”

Nor can she remember leaving the clinic. “Your brain blocks it out. You don’t want to remember. I just had to remember because of writing the book, but that’s not really remembering. That’s just getting it out.

“I was fine because the rTMS worked and I went bicycling 24 hours later through Italy with two girlfriends, so I was really good and had a great summer.”

Two months before the episode, her husband of 35 years, director and producer Ed Bye, with whom she has three children, was diagnosed with prostate cancer and needed surgery.

She admits she “fell apart” and writes in the book: “My world collapsed. I never thought about it but in that moment I realised I can’t survive without Ed” – detailing with acerbic wit what an intolerant, shouty, selfish partner she was during his crisis. But he’s fine now, she reports.

Almost a year on, Wax says she’s been really well. After finishing the book, she went hiking in Japan and made Ruby Wax: Cast Away, a Channel 5 documentary in which she spent 10 days on a deserted island in Madagascar. She’s also planning a stage tour in September.

“I have to memorise a lot of words, so that makes me anxious. But it’s going to be directed, it’s a play. I’m not reading the book. I’m giving myself time to memorise it otherwise it would be a disaster.”

She also hosts meetings for Frazzled Café, the charity she founded to support mental wellbeing, and will be teaching mindfulness over the summer.

Wax is fervently aware of the need for mental health support. She still has therapy, and writes: “I spent a lifetime creating a ‘front’ to give the illusion that all was well.”

With her brash, outspoken comedy style, she shot to fame in the 1980s and 1990s, securing her own irreverent shows, including The Full Wax and Ruby Wax Meets… and conducted wacky, daring interviews with the likes of Carrie Fisher, Jim Carrey, Hugh Hefner and Donald Trump.

She’s asked outrageous questions under the sheets with Goldie Hawn, played Pamela Anderson’s body double while filming Baywatch and beat John McEnroe at tennis in New York (because he let her).

She was a script editor for Absolutely Fabulous and still sees her old pals Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French and Joanna Lumley.

At one point, she admits TV became an addiction as it fed her craving for approval, until she found herself without work at 50. Today, she doesn’t want to engage in ageism discussion, but there’s plenty in the book to fuel that debate.

“It made me re-invent and go to Oxford [she has a master’s degree in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy from Oxford University and an OBE for services to mental health], so I’m really grateful. I was a student in my mind. I knew I had to get a new identity fast.”

These days, Wax turns down a lot of reality TV shows, she reveals.

“I wouldn’t do reality for any amount of money. I have too much pride and I think it’s low life, not for them (the people who take part in reality TV) but for me it would be selling your soul.”

Wax recently turned 70 but doesn’t want to discuss it as the idea of growing old upsets her. In the book, she writes humorously about her arthritic knees and aches and pains, while her mind is still so young.

She says she looks after her mental health in the same way as she has done for some time.

“I do mindfulness for 40 minutes and I take medication. And I give myself holidays now. I give myself a good time.”

I’m Not As Well As I thought I Was by Ruby Wax is published by Penguin Life, priced £18.99. Available now.


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