BY JEAN WEST
“I’m a bitch; rage is my drug of choice,” asserts Ruby Wax before a sold out audience at Edinburgh International Book Festival.
She then shoots back about 4 billion years to make the point that this is OK.
Our neurology is part “brilliant and part savage”: “If you understand this about your brain, the happier you will be!”
A more than plausible spiel ensues which encourages others with similarly pathological traits and trigger happy emotions to take heart, breath and stand at ease.
But not before more rapier wit: “That’s why there are women who would like to follow Heidegger but also screw the plumber.”
American born Wax is a British comedy institution. She once used ready humour to channel her own racing thoughts and hyperactivity to avoid self-destruction – turning herself into an unstoppable machine, like so many of us still choose to be.
But then it all caught up with her, she cracked-up and had a series of breakdowns.
However, instead of admitting defeat, she ripped herself off the floor and garnered oceans of strength to figure out why.
Her desperation and a number of Priory admissions for depression and bipolar, birthed invention and she became a woman of letters – with a post-graduate qualification in neuroscience and cognitive behaviour, from Oxford University no less.
Today, she explains how mindfulness, and its code of observing emotions without judgement, struck a cord and helped navigate forensic exploration of the reasons for her state and her ultimate happiness.
After three books on mindfulness, the comic and mental health campaigner jokes about how she found herself a Buddhist monk and neurosurgeon “on Tinder”, and, written in collaboration with them, is now promoting her fourth, How To Be Human: The Manual, to a very satisfied crowd.
So, back to being a bitch. She tells us that it is not all her fault. Apparently, four out of five of our thoughts will be negative. This is down to traits developed in prehistoric times so that man could outwit danger and keep on top in the survival stakes. The notion that evolutionary conditioning still defaults to the driver’s seat assuaged her of some guilt and helped her move forward.
To ripples of giggles, she asserts that the self-discovery book Eat, Pray, Love, would never have been written in those days. It would she insists have been called “Eat, Fuck, Kill.”
Using sharp-shooting comedy, however, she explains why fast-reflexes and animal instincts are only part of the story; and how we can learn to let them take a back seat and make way for calm, compassion and ultimately forgiveness.
This tends to involve becoming conscious of the breath or your feet on the ground. Yoga, Tai Chi and pilates do something similar, she says.
I like this new Ruby Wax, mainly because she hasn’t turned into some holier-than-thou, proselytising guru.
She admits mindfulness is not for everyone, and confesses that she doesn’t sit for hours on “a gluten-free cushion.” Even the monk likes his comforts; Gelong Thubten, who is linked to Samye Ling monastery in the Scottish Borders, has, she says, developed a penchant for travelling business class- “I’ve had to whip him back into his cage.” As for the neuro-scientist, Ash Ranpura, she pokes fun and says you can’t understand anything he says – but that he is good looking!
Wax threw herself into understanding the business of the brain long before an incredibly revealing Who Do You Think You Are? programme, the hit series that explores the genealogy of celebrities.
The producers of the TV show never tell participants precisely what is in store in order that they can later record faithful emotion. Wax, whose parents fled Vienna for the United States in 1938, “took the war with them”, according to the comic, who had a dysfunctional upbringing as a single child with volatile caregivers.
Travelling to central Europe, she was to learn that her father was jailed in Vienna for being a Jew (he had only told her he was an aerobics teacher), who escaped and stowed-away on a ship to America.
Her volatile, obsessive mother, studied at university and was “unbelievable looking, she made Greta Garbo look like a dog…but insane.”
She also learned that a great aunt, Olga, and grandmother, Berta, suffered insanity too and were institutionalised.
This was a shock because her naive imagination had always hoped they were actresses.
Wax went on to buy Olga the biggest tomb stone she could get her hands on after learning that her grave had never been attended to because of family shame.
The programme explained a lot and one might be tempted to ask why the comic didn’t just throw her hands in the air and give up, conceding to the inevitable impact heredity.
Mindfulness must have helped, allowing her to watch the story, and her refreshing openness to new science that suggests genes are not fixed, as once thought, and can be switched on and off by the environment, brought her hope.
If you change the environment, you can change the mood, she now believes. Thankfully her own children are robust and happy.
The new literary venture solidifies her own new found health and she doesn’t seem to regard science and spirituality as incompatible, lacing both together with irreverent fun.
If her approach is a recipe for healing the wounded brain, Wax is a shining testimonial; healthy and vibrant, with tools to share about how to step aside and just watch and wait as the red mist passes.
Yes, she might still get the odd bout of depression, but with exercises she shares in the book about how to stay rooted to the earth, and a prescription of antidepressants, it lasts only five days not five months.
Despite, or perhaps, because of all this, she remains as funny as heck.
An earlier quip, when we heard sirens outside about them “coming to take her way” because “I have mental illness” – makes us all smile.
It looks entirely unlikely to happen anytime soon.
How To Be Human: The Manual is published by Penguin Life £14.99.