Liam saw Ruby wax talking at the Cheltenham Science Festival last week and has written about his experience…
On Friday 15th June, Cheltenham welcomed Ruby Wax to its esteemed annual Science Festival, to talk about all things mental health. Ruby has a number of projects ongoing currently; notably filming a new mental health show for Channel 4 with Stephen Fry, and the continued expansion and promotion of her social networking site BlackDogTribe.com.
Ruby took to the stage in the jam-packed EDF Energy tent which was flapping somewhat in the winds and rain of a typically inconsistent British summer. Joining her on stage to co-host the evening was Dr. Mark Lythgoe, co-director of the festival, who kicked off the evening by discussing Ruby’s early life and career.
As a child, Ruby would lay bed-ridden for a number of days at a time; not leaving her room, let alone her house. A difficult relationship with her parents propelled a desire to leave her home in Illinois, Chicago, and pursue an acting career in England. At that stage of her life, Ruby’s desire and drive to make a success from what she self-deprecatingly refers to as ‘no real, discernible talent’ – kept her inner demons at bay. Her resistance to a return to Illinois and a blossoming friendship with now-international star Alan Rickman helped a TV career to surface. Whilst Ruby’s infamous scatty, loud, American personality became her on-screen ‘trademark’, she admits that the eccentric output stemmed from an inner anxiety and nervousness which had a real grapple on her.
Ruby does not recall a particular incident or trigger for the decline of her mental health. She has suffered from sporadic, forceful episodes of depression throughout her life – which she likens to a ‘tsunami’. However, agreeing to a photo shoot for Comic Relief a few years back inadvertently made her the ‘poster girl’ for mental illness. She was not fully aware of how these photos would be utilised, until a journey on the tube sprang a ‘mortifying’ shock: her face was plastered on posters spanning the whole underground, and indeed the whole of London. After the initial shock, she soon embraced this association, owed to an overwhelming public response.
Ruby, though, is keen to note that depression is not a ‘celebrity’ illness, and certainly not a glamorous or fame-exclusive struggle. Her willingness and openness in talking about mental health is not motivated by self-publicity; rather because Ruby claims an additional sense for identifying and empathising with other people affected by depression: “You can see it in their eyes. When you clap eyes on someone else with depression, it’s a relief – you know you’re not making it up”, she declared, to an attentive audience; many of whom were battling their own ‘black dogs’.
Throughout the talk, Ruby’s interaction with Mark Lythgoe, and the audience – who had the chance to ask their own questions – produced some humorous moments. Ruby’s incorrect assumption of Mark’s sexuality left Mark blushing and the audience roaring – Mark is indeed straight, to which Ruby quipped that she liked him less as a result. Consequently, each audience member after this felt compelled to introduce themselves with not only a name, but their sexual preference, to avoid similar confusions. Though, for as many funny moments – and Ruby’s quick-wit is truly an art form – there were some very sombre, thought-provoking comments.
Ruby’s last episode was five years ago, and she describes how she was unable to leave her chair at the depths of her depression. She recalls “turning into this ‘thing’ with no mind” and that her brain had become “an object of shame”. Depression, she says, dehumanised her, and left her feeling she had lost her soul – a sentiment which had large portions of the crowd nodding in recognition and empathy. Ruby theorises that you are the last person to know you have depression, recalling an encounter with a friend. She asked, “Do I look crazy to you?” to which she received a very blunt and unexpected “yes”.
Luckily, Ruby has discovered mindfulness, which it became apparent throughout the evening that she could not speak highly enough of. She now studies mindfulness at Oxford University – despite acknowledging that her grades as a teen were nowhere near Oxford-level, again a consequence of the debilitating nature of depression. Mindfulness, she says, is hugely effective for self-regulation, and identifying the early stages of the aforementioned ‘tsunami’. She also championed BlackDogTribe.com and its users as a way of joining together and forming a ‘community’ of people who are struggling: “I always felt like a freak who doesn’t blend... then I found my people. I’m more comfortable with people who are mentally ill than people who aren’t”.
Ruby and audience members alike made some wonderful analogies for mental illness and the workings of the brain. “I always wanted to know how my car engine worked so I could put it together instead of screaming”, said Ruby, a comment which was met with laughter but quite clearly carries a potent underlying metaphor. An audience member who cared for a disabled friend also struggling with mental health issues stated: “It’s harder to look after someone from the neck up than the neck down”. Ruby stated that mental health should be treated holistically; i.e. not only with medication, but also with therapy. She likened medication to Viagra, pointing out that Viagra is all well and good, but you need a relationship for it to be useful. Again, a witty analogy; but real food for thought in regards to mental health treatment and recovery. She also suggested mental health support and intervention at an earlier age; reckoning that supplying trained professionals to schools would be hugely helpful for children with depressive tendencies and behavioural struggles.
On the subject of therapy, Ruby was keen to sing the praises of small institutions – she admires their work so much that she took an early adaption of her play “Losing It” to various institutions across the country on an unconventional tour. She wasn’t so keen to celebrate a more famous institution though: “The Priory is pretty shabby and the fish taste like the chicken”.
As the questions from the audience drew to a close, the overriding feeling in the EDF Energy tent was of hope: Hope that mental health, whilst a hidden disability, is something that is slowly garnering more attention, more awareness, and hopefully soon, more acceptance. Ruby was visibly enthused when talking about the recent parliamentary debate on mental health and the brave openness displayed from MPs Charles Walker and Kevan Jones. Ruby stated that telling someone with depression to “perk up!” is one of the most futile and nonsensical pieces of ‘advice’ that could be given.
The talk, living up to the festival’s billing, also had a scientific slant – Ruby spoke with panache about the hippocampus of the brain, memory, the chemical serotonin, and the inner workings of the mind. To combine and balance science, anecdotal evidence and wit is no mean feat: Ruby’s injection of humour in such a delicate and sensitive subject was finely crafted.
Ruby continues her hard work crusading for mental health awareness; and hard work has become her saviour on a number of occasions. Recalling her earlier TV days, she states: “I really think I would’ve committed suicide if I wasn’t so busy, so driven”. She is likely to be kept busy on the strength of her mental health talks and the ongoing success of BlackDogTribe.com: there is a hankering for knowledge and understanding from a public that is thankfully – albeit belatedly – starting to come out of the woodworks and talk about mental health.
By Liam McKinnon for BlackDogTribe.com.