Ruby Wax is recovering from multiple addictions. One of them, described in her new book, Sane New World, is an inherited addiction to lateness. And she does indeed arrive late for our interview, despite having a car dispatched for her. But there is a bigger addiction that she is tackling, one suggested when she keeps her sunglasses on indoors as we are introduced: Ruby Wax is hooked on celebrity.
Still, the shades soon come off and, over the course of the hour we spend with her, it becomes clear that Wax is making heroic progress on her recovery. At the same time she is learning how to deal with the “rollercoaster” of depression that she has been riding for most of her life. It took her many years even to recognise she suffered from depression. “I just got to sleep for a few days at a time thinking I had a virus,” she says.
Sane New World, the latest staging post on her journey, is about “taming the mind”. It’s a combination of neuroscience primer and self-help manual, peppered with confessional memoir. It draws on the psychotherapy degree she took at Regent’s College, London, “to figure out exactly what they were charging £80 an hour for”, and on her subsequent masters at the University of Oxford’s Mindfulness Centre.
Wax is keen to stress that the book is not just for the “one in four” of us who is said to suffer from some kind of mental illness; or the “mad-mad”, as she puts it. It’s also for the “normal-mad”: all those who belong to the “flying by the seat of our pants school of thought when it comes to living our lives”. In other words, everybody.
This is not what many would expect from the comedian who, at the height of her fame, fronted the ubiquitous Vauxhall Corsa TV ad campaign in the mid-1990s, personifying the “small car with the big personality”. Wax started out as a serious actor, spending several years at the Royal Shakespeare Company, having come to Britain from her native Illinois to study drama. In the 1980s she moved into comedy, playing a brash, loud-mouthed American in the sitcom Girls on Top, co-written with Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French. It also introduced her to director Ed Bye, who became her third husband and the father of her three children. The character morphed into her now familiar persona as an interviewer whose subjects included Imelda Marcos, Sarah Ferguson and Liza Minnelli. But following the almost universal law of gravity in show business, Wax disappeared from mainstream TV after her last BBC series in 2003.
A decade later, Wax is the centre of attention in the hotel lounge where we meet, but there is no sense of performance. She is as natural as it’s possible to be in the situation, tucking her feet up on the sofa, drinking tea and eating toast with honey. She arrives casually dressed without full make-up, despite vanity being one of a number of flaws that she admits to in her book.
She recalls Jennifer Saunders telling her that she was delusional if she didn’t realise it was obvious she’d had “work done” but then tells us she has never had a facelift. But “I don’t want to turn into, you know, like some of those old feminist ... ” She leaves the image incomplete. “Why let yourself go? I mean, you feel better when you look better.”
Wax is brutally honest about just how badly she chased status and approval through her professional life. But she thinks of this as “an illness, like being a drug addict. If you get a taste of it … anybody, they chase it.”
We ask if she knows of any fellow celebrities who have resisted this crack-like addiction, and she struggles. “I think they’re a rare beast,” she says, searching for exceptions to the rule before finally nominating Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam. “The real talented ones”, those who “aren’t depending on their beauty”, might be OK, she suggests.
Wax says that her own self-esteem became “too dependent” on the attention celebrity brings with it. “Nothing else gives you the buzz. It’s dopamine, you know.” This is typical of the way in which her descriptions of her mental states make use of the biological lexicon, with terms such as “neuron” and “cortisol” making frequent appearances.
“I’m weaning myself off. I used to need 4,000 people looking at me, now I’m down to 400, so it’s baby steps.” Like a recovering alcoholic, however, she is aware that another taste of the limelight might trigger a relapse. “So I push away from TV,” she says.
In one sense, she’s relapsed before. During her psychotherapy training she couldn’t resist returning to TV in 2006 as a corseted, whip-holding master of ceremonies, presiding over F-list celebrities performing trapeze on Sky’s Cirque de Celebrité. She ended up reading an autocue “with tears pouring down my face while cranked in a hideous smile, eyes dead”. In retrospect it seems clear this was a poisoned chalice she should never have taken.
“Yeah, it was the crack,” she says. Is she confident she could handle it now?
“I don’t know if I could,” she admits. But she is sure that “there’s certain things I can’t do any more just because of my mental state. I couldn’t be Graham Norton. I don’t have that persona, and I haven’t got the energy to fake it.”
When it comes to depression, in line with the zeitgeist Wax believes it’s a biological illness that can strike at any time and is “not situation-appropriate”. As such, she sees no connection between her depression and her addiction to celebrity, her outlook or the implosion of her career. We find this hard to believe but she resists any attempt we make to forge such links. “Failure or success has nothing to do with the disease, nothing,” she insists. “Think of it as every other disease. Depression is like cancer, shingles or diabetes, there is no link.”
The first time she really faced up to this “illness” was in the early 1990s when she became severely depressed while pregnant with her third child, Marina. After the birth, Wax checked into the Priory. Recognition of her problems was long overdue. “Fame delayed my visit to the Priory by about 10 years because of this delusion that if the public thinks you’re OK – you’re really OK”, she wrote in her 2002 autobiography, How Do You Want Me?
Although she believes she can’t prevent depression returning, she has learnt to “spot it coming early so I know what to do about it”. One such warning sign, which she returns to repeatedly in the book, is her unusual compulsion to seek out striped cushions. Just now, though, it’s curtains. She can stop herself being obsessive about it some of the time. “But I’m still getting the curtains,” she says.
Her most effective tool for catching what she calls “the early pitter-patter”, the signs that she’s going “off-piste”, is mindfulness, a meditation-based practice that has been adopted and adapted by cognitive therapists to pay attention to mental processes as they happen and learn to stand back from them. She uses one of these techniques before she goes on stage, just sitting and following her breathing “so that my cortisol levels come down so when I get on stage I’m not in that state of love me-love me”.
Wax insists that the techniques she advocates in the book are of no use to the one in four at the time when they are most ill. They might have a preventive role and are also of use to the “normal-mad”. But “when you’re really ill, I wouldn’t use any of them. You’re in a block of cement, just get over it and then you can start being cognisant.”
The only thing you can do at those times, she thinks, is medicate, even though the drugs are horribly crude. “Somebody said it’s like opening the bonnet of your car and throwing oil on everything and hoping it goes in the right place. We don’t know. That’s a mess too.”
She herself has long been on medication but now thinks that “at some point, maybe after this book comes out, I’m going to start weaning myself off to see if I might be the one that can substitute mindfulness. And if it doesn’t work that’s fine too.”
Wax seems to have gained more control over her twin roller-coaster cars of depression and celebrity. Sceptics might point out, however, that she still goes on stage, doing free “walk-in sessions” with clinical psychologist Professor Peter Fonagy, in what she sees as a kind of “AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] but for the one in four”. “I bring in the big boys and give the audience a chance to really ask questions. And that justifies it – me being on stage showing off.”
There may be something of her old addiction sneaking in here, she concedes: “When I really wean myself off, I won’t be on stage.” On the other hand she has a strong sense of mission about informing the public about brain science. “That’s my one gift, that I can make it bite-sized and funny.”
The publication of her book might put her new-found groundedness to the test. She realises that being back in the public eye is a high-risk situation, and is trying to keep calm. “I don’t get excited at all, because the more excited I get, the more that failure is possible.”
That must be hard to do when you are surrounded by publishers and publicists whose job is to tell you how great you and your book are. “That’s all bullshit,” she says. So on a scale of one to 10, how confident is she that if this book bombs, she’ll be cool with that?
“Maybe three? Yeah. I will be sad.”
That doesn’t sound very confident.
“No. But I think it’s kinda healthy for me.” To recognise it? “Yeah.”
This seems a mature acceptance of the limits of self-transformation. As with everyone, completely eradicating neuroses and weaknesses is not a realistic option for Wax. “It’s totally work in progress,” she says, “and I may fall back in a minute into what I was, I don’t know. Every morning when you look in it’s a mess. It’s just a mess.”
But she’s aware of it, and that changes things. “You can’t just go, ‘oh well that’s the way I am’. You just go, ‘that’s a little drive, let’s overcome it’, ‘that’s a proclivity, now let’s work around that.’” Adopting the biological perspective once again, she says: “You’re still the same prototype but you’re playing with your neurons a little bit.”
When asked whether there are some things that seem particularly incomplete, she says, “Oh yeah, I’m so shocked by how old I am.” But she uses her mindfulness practice to keep on top of her regret by watching it arise and letting it “flicker through”.
Wax’s age is still a taboo, which, she says in the book, “will never pass my lips without waterboarding”.
“It’s a block,” she admits. “Actually if you knew you’d be quite impressed by how good I look.”
Is it also true that she didn’t tell her husband her true age until her wedding day?
“Yeah. Walking down the aisle.”
She agrees with our suggestion that it might be liberating one day to be able to say: “This is my age, f*** you if you don’t like it.” After all, what’s the worst that can happen?
“Nothing. It’s just I still have little glitches. I’m aware how nuts it is.”
She declines the invitation to overcome this block for FT readers. Being realistic, she knows she can’t tackle everything at once, and this is one battle she’s not yet ready to fight.
We finish up and say we hope it all goes well with her book. “If it doesn’t, you know where to find me,” she says. She’s talking about the Priory, to which she refers more bluntly as “the asylum”. It’s beyond her means now. “My insurance ran out. It’s not like I’m so high on cash.” But “now I do get a deal at the Priory because I’ve given them so much publicity,” she says, laughing at the absurdity of it. “So that’s where I’ll be if the book goes down the toilet.”
‘Sane New World: Taming the Mind’, by Ruby Wax, is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£18.99). The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England