Comedian Ruby Wax candidly shares her struggles with mental illness…
Psychology has always interested me – when I was 12 I stole a library book called This is Mental Illness that I’ve never returned. I started a degree in psychology at university, but dropped out. Then I left for England – I was trying to get away from my parents and thought I’d only be there a while – and against the odds got into acting school. I knew I’d go back to studying the brain – for self-healing and helping others.
This idea that you can change the way you think is relatively new. Everyone talks about the brain, but it’s only recently that people started talking about the mind. It’s the mind that changes the brain’s neuroplasticity – its ability to reorganise itself. It’s like learning to play the piano – your fingers haven’t memorised the notes; it’s your mind. It’s the same with focus. You can manipulate your mind to choose where you focus your attention and remain present. This is what mindfulness does.
I discovered mindfulness 10 years ago and was initially dubious. I’d already tried so many ways to control my depression that hadn’t worked. But the evidence that mindfulness works can be picked up on a brain scanner on someone who’s only done it for a few days.
Anxiety isn’t new. What is new is that we have to deal with more anxiety-related issues. Let’s say you’re in a war zone and your cortisol – your ‘stress hormone’ – keeps bubbling away. It’s saving your life. But in day-to-day life, checking e-mails and multitasking might be slowly killing you. This is why we feel frazzled.
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There’s still such a stigma surrounding mental issues. The brain is an organ and sometimes it breaks down. If you broke your arm, people wouldn’t react in the same way. I’ve spoken to women who’ve had depression and cancer, and they say depression was harder to deal with – and that’s partly down to the stigma.
Being honest and talking about how you feel is what binds humanity together. I discovered this when I did the book tours for Sane New World and A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled. We asked audiences if they wanted to share their thoughts, and they talked non-stop.
I’m still on antidepressants – although, one day, I might come off them. I’m at my happiest in Cape Town with my family. I have a place there and I love it – the sun always shines. I’d like to have sunshine in London, but I’m in the wrong country for that!