Ruby Wax on anger, optimism and taking ownership of your crisis
September 28, 2020. Series 2. Episode 9
TV presenter, best-selling author, mental health campaigner and academic – Ruby Wax is a woman always on a mission. That she’s achieved so much whilst managing clinical depression and the burden of a deeply troubled childhood, makes her all the more remarkable. In this episode Ruby talks with power and honesty about how she confronted her demons to reach a deep understanding of what makes her brilliant, but at times troubled, mind tick. And – after travelling far and wide to research her inspirational new book And Now For The Good News – To The Future With Love – she also speaks movingly about how she found hope for all our futures in the most desperate of places.
Ruby’s Crisis Cures:
1. Community: ‘Not just a wine tasting club, but where you genuinely talk to each other’.
2. Compassion: ‘When I’m in a queue sometimes I’ll find somebody in a really bad mood, and I’ll start talking to them or somebody who’s giving me grief. It’s just an experiment… I’m trying to exercise those [stress] muscles.’
3. Mindful exercise: ‘Tai chi, Pilates, Yoga… but not something mindless. You have to notice what’s going on in your body.’
And Now For The Good News…: https://amzn.to/3S77UGt
Frazzled Café: www.frazzledcafe.org
Host – Andy Coulson
Producer – Louise Difford
00:00:00.00 Intro music
00:00:19.05 Andy Coulson:
Hello and welcome to Crisis What Crisis? a new podcast designed to be a useful field guide as we all try to navigate and come to terms with a dramatically changed world. Whether it’s personal, professional or both, crisis is without doubt, the new shared experience. I’m Andy Coulson, a former newspaper editor, Downing Street Director of Communications and one time inmate of HMP Belmarsh. For the last four years I’ve been putting all of my experience, the good and the bad, to use as a strategic advisor to business leaders and I can tell you that the bad has been just as useful as the good. And that got me thinking that there are plenty of great podcasts out there where you can hear stories of success, there are far fewer where you can benefit from the experience of those whose lives have properly unravelled.
00:01:07.02 Andy Coulson:
So, in Crisis What Crisis? I’ll be talking to the embattled, shamed, courageous, ruined, damaged, resilient, unlucky and lucky survivors of crisis. Some names will be familiar, some less so, but all our guests will talk about their crises honestly, often with humour, but always in the hope that what they have to share might be useful to anyone facing down their own demons and challenges. Put simply, these are crisis stories worth sharing. If you agree and enjoy what you hear, please do give us a rating and review, that way even more people will hear them and that, in the end, is what it’s all about.
00:01:43.20 Andy Coulson:
Crisis What Crisis? is generously supported by Myndstream, a brilliant company who harness the power of music for personal wellbeing. Whether it be music for meditation, to help focus, sleep, stress relief, yoga and fitness, rejuvenation, even grief and loss, Myndstream is there to improve human performance. I’ve tried it, it works, and I’d recommend having a listen to the Myndstream catalogue yourself. Just search Myndstream, that’s mind with a Y, on Spotify. Thanks again for joining me.
00:02:17.08 Andy Coulson:
I’m absolutely delighted to say that my guest today is Ruby Wax. To try and summarise Ruby’s astonishing CV is an impossible challenge, so rich and varied are her accomplishments but I’m going to give it a go. The daughter of a Jewish couple who fled Austria and the Nazis in 1939, Ruby had what, one might describe with understatement, as a difficult childhood growing up in Illinois. She studied psychology at the University of California but dropped out and instead headed to Glasgow and drama school.
00:02:50.22 Andy Coulson:
In 1978 she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company where her comic genius was spotted and nurtured by her friend, the great Alan Rickman. Roles on TV followed including the sitcom Girls On Top and later of course, Ruby became Britain’s best interviewer. Her encounters with the likes of Imelda Marcos, Donald Trump, Madonna, OJ Simpson and the Duchess of York were, still are, a masterclass, I think, in how to encourage a celebrity to reveal their true selves. She led the way where others like Louis Theroux, frankly, have followed.
00:03:26.16 Andy Coulson:
But Ruby’s journey was punctuated by crisis, much of it caused by a long running battle with mental illness which manifested itself with depressions that Ruby describes with these words: An empty space whoever you were, whoever lived in your skin has left the building, vanished. After a severe breakdown and a spell of treatment at the Priory Clinic, Ruby came to understand that a life in showbiz was making her problems even more acute. So she took two decisions: to come off our TVs and to throw herself into mental health campaigning. First as a student, she gained a Masters in Mindfulness based cognitive therapy from Oxford and then as an academic, counsellor and author. She was awarded an OBE for services to mental health in 2015.
00:04:17.01 Andy Coulson:
Ruby’s books, including, How Do You Want Me? Same New World and How To Be Human, are manuals really for anyone wanting to understand who we are and why on earth we do the things we do. Her latest book, And Now For The Good News… To The Future With Love, delivers some much needed positivity at a time of national, global crisis. It digs out the good stuff that’s going on around us, even now, in business, education, food, technology and elsewhere. If you need an injection of optimism go and get yourselves a copy. Ruby, thanks so much for joining me. How are you today?
00:04:54.03 Ruby Wax:
Well now I’ve heard about this person I’m pretty perky. I never listened.
00:05:02.05 Andy Coulson:
I think I’m right in saying that you often start your day by joining, I assume at the moment virtually, a group of people facing varying degrees of challenge in their life for a coffee and a chat. This is your Frazzled Cafe concept, right?
00:05:17.11 Ruby Wax:
Yeah, it’s in the evening, every night at five thirty. And it got me through Covid because it was a community, about fifty to a hundred, and we spoke from the heart. You know, that’s the rules, we don’t talk about the news and people want to feel heard. And by the way, we got rid of the kind of them and us concept. So all colours, all ages, everybody would go, ‘Oh yeah, I feel like that too’ and we totally focused on each other which in real life you’re distracted, everybody’s distracted. Now, your piece of media is in front of you, you can’t do it in a way. You can’t pick up the phone because we can see you. And it got me through and I still do it three times a week and I feel like we’re a little tribe. People really want to talk, they want to talk straight, they don’t want to do this kind of endless air-talk anymore.
00:06:13.24 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, because you do that so frequently you obviously have a finger on the pulse of the nation, to a degree. The Ruby index is something that our prime minister should perhaps pay a bit more…
00:06:27.07 Ruby Wax:
He should listen in.
00:06:27.19 Andy Coulson:
…attention to. How frazzled does the UK feel to you right now?
00:06:35.16 Ruby Wax:
I think they’re traumatised. You know, it isn’t always expressed, some are kind of funny, some feel guilty because they don’t feel anything. Others have kids in their house and now they’re probably out of the house. Some haven’t left the house for months. Some are really ill, your heart bleeds for them. There is no answer, this isn’t therapy but I know from my book it’s community is the answer. When we get out of here we won’t survive on our own. It’s going to be… you know, humans were born to mingle.
00:07:10.01 Ruby Wax:
So I’ve already seen it in some town halls where now they use those town halls and instead of organising the next tombola or the fair where they bring their fancy goats, they are now organising clean ups. You know, they pick up the rubbish, they knock on the doors of people who maybe can’t get out of the house. And there’s a feeling of well, it’s compassion and that’s quite good for your health. So I’ve seen it.
00:07:34.17 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, and your sense is, from those conversations, that there’s a sort of permanence about it. You think that’s a real change and it could be a lasting change?
00:07:43.04 Ruby Wax:
Well there was a girl, you know, some of these people say, ‘Oh I’ve never spoken before because I don’t really feel like I exist’ and then everybody is looking at them or doing the clap thing and they’re looking up, they’re looking and she says, ‘Oh, now I feel like I exist and that I matter’. So there was a girl who was really shy yesterday who said, ‘Because I practice listening on this I went up and met somebody face to face because I use this for practice wheels I really connected with them.’ You know you don’t have to… when I was with people in the real world I didn’t connect sometimes as much as I do on Zoom.
00:08:18.22 Andy Coulson:
Yeah. So your book And Now For The Good News, which I really enjoyed.
00:08:24.14 Ruby Wax:
00:08:25.22 Andy Coulson:
Suggests at the end that perhaps some people are, a feeling that is accelerated by Covid, you clearly don’t, that the end is not quite so nigh. You are optimistic about the future, aren’t you?
00:08:45.01 Ruby Wax:
Look, I’m not a politician, I don’t know what’s going to happen and nobody does, to be honest. We’re not soothsayers who read pig entrails anymore. And if they say they know, they don’t know. So the point is, I’m not saying ‘oh let’s show somebody who found a fiver in a sausage roll’, that’s not happy for them. But I went around the globe and saw with my own eyes where they really do community. Where they really are changing how business is done and where they, where education is now reinvented.
00:09:20.07 Ruby Wax:
Okay, it’s not all over but just to know those spots are growing gives me a little bit of hope. And I think if people understood this is really happening, they might not grow. Who knows if the world ends but I know they’re there. So we can take some of those techniques of what they’re doing and apply it in our daily lives. I mean, you can’t move to… Unilever is doing incredible things, Ben & Jerry is working with refugees, Dove is working with women who have body dysmorphia. They’re really trying, some of these companies.
00:09:52.14 Andy Coulson:
You clearly have more faith in business than you do in our politicians. I mean, your book…
00:09:58.19 Ruby Wax:
I don’t understand politics.
00:10:00.18 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, I mean, your view is that we won’t find any of the answers from our politicians.
00:10:09.07 Ruby Wax:
We might do. I mean, again, I’m not a soothsayer, how do I know what’s going to happen? But at this moment in time if one of us changes slightly and then we do form, I’m sorry to go on about these communities where we care about each other, and I mean, look, when we were all banging our pots and pans on Thursday nights, that’s community. You know what the feeling is? You’ve got everybody’s back. It’s not going to happen maybe every Thursday and it already stopped.
00:10:38.03 Ruby Wax:
But if we form a kind of unit that influences what happens in politics. I can’t stress it enough, I really think it’s from bottom up rather than top down. I think a lot of people, it’s jobsworth, they just want to get in. I’m disheartened about it and there’s a reason but what’s interesting is that business has now got more money than the government. And if they switch their paradigm it might become really interesting. They don’t need to make deals with other countries except to sell and they don’t have to win office every four years. And they don’t have to BS.
00:11:20.05 Andy Coulson:
And also business, in some ways, is getting more political as well. You mentioned Patagonia who are an amazing business in your book. And they’ve got some headlines this week because they’ve been stitching the words, ‘vote the arseholes out’ into their shorts which is pretty punchy stuff, right?
00:11:37.19 Ruby Wax:
I love them. Well, I went to work with them and they’re in Ventura California, now you’re going to roll your eyes and go, ‘oh they’re the only ones’. They’re not the only ones, it’s just they’ve been doing it for forty years. The employees all choose an environmental cause and that becomes their commitment they work for the local population. They have schools for their kids between the buildings. So they say when they look down and they hear them laugh they know what generation they’re working for. It’s 95% is recyclable. I have a jacket made out of plastic bottles. They give, 10% of their profit back. They really walk the talk and they make sure that the supply chain is treated fairly. Everybody puts their profits together and shares the bonuses. Everything is good about this. And when you go there this is the country I want to live in.
00:12:29.06 Ruby Wax:
You know, and I’ve seen other companies, there are some in… I was just talking about Anglian Waters, there’s a place that won the award for the most deprived area, Wisbech, there was illiteracy. Girls got pregnant because there were no schools. It was desolate, I mean, I saw it. So they went in there, they built schools, they built community centres, they built homeless shelters. They went door to door, they trained some of those boys who didn’t bother going to school because they needed the dollar a week picking, making potato chips. And some of them are interns now. Now, if you see it with your own eyes again, it should give you, it gives me hope.
00:13:13.15 Andy Coulson:
Ruby, do you mind if we go to the middle, if you like, of that summary I gave at the start. This podcast, as you know, is focused on crisis but I’ve noticed that that’s not a word that you use very much. Did it feel like a crisis when the direction of your life changed so dramatically? Or is that the wrong word?
00:13:36.00 Ruby Wax:
Well, you know things like crisis, breakdown, they’re kind of empty to me. I mean, I have a curious nature and I have a nature that reinvents itself. I think I happened to have depression. You know like you might have diabetes but I don’t ask you about it. I am on antidepressants, I happen to have depression, it doesn’t make my life. People say do comedians have depression? I go, ‘it’s one in four people have something wrong. There’re not that many funny people. But I think to say depression holds you back, I think I would have done this, I would have been more interested in science when I was younger but I was so traumatised I couldn’t think clearly.
00:14:22.06 Andy Coulson:
Well that was the initial direction you took, right? I mean you…
00:14:25.05 Ruby Wax:
Yeah, psychology. Yeah, but then I came to the UK, I wouldn’t say depression held me back. I had it once every three to five years. As you get older it accelerates. But a lot of my decisions in my life weren’t because I had a breakdown, they were because I had a terrible home life and I wanted to prove that I could, that I wasn’t a loser, which I was dubbed, a loser.
00:14:52.23 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, I know to understand that time you’ve got to go back… when I say the time, the decision to change your life, you’ve got to go back to the beginning and your upbringing as you mention. You use humour brilliantly but the facts of that story, of your upbringing, are harrowing. And I hesitate here because I think it’s almost a sort of height of rudeness to criticise someone’s parents but they were difficult people, to put it mildly, and at times deeply corrosive in terms of you and your state of mind as a child and consequently as an adult.
00:15:31.17 Andy Coulson:
Do you… that sort of ownership piece, you took full ownership of that. You do take full ownership of that. How important do you think that is? Because this podcast is about sort of practical lessons, if you like, or practical advice for people going through crisis. How important is that ownership piece from your perspective?
00:15:51.22 Ruby Wax:
Well you know, we don’t know if it’s nature or nurture that defines who we become. So if I had a brother and sister, chances are four of them might not have depression. So I can’t tell, I think I had the gene for depression and then I won the lottery as far as parents who were dysfunctional. But they were so dysfunctional that when I was in the RSC Alan Rickman said, write it down. And it was so horrific that it was funny. And then when I wrote my first book, How Do You Want Me? Carrie Fisher was my editor and she said ‘God, your family’s almost as bad as mine.’ And you can’t get a better review.
00:16:33.13 Ruby Wax:
And their lines were so nuts that, well, I didn’t even have to edit them. Of course it annihilated me as a kid but because I had one skill which was to flip it into comedy it saved me. Because I think if people know that and they keep it in you haven’t got a chance. But I could turn it into entertainment and it made people laugh. I mean, those are still my mother crawling behind me on a carpet, a shag pile with sponges in her hand going… She made me take showers out of my building because she didn’t want me to bring in anything. We had three showers. So she’s crawling behind me, this was filmed, and she said, ‘Civilised people don’t bring sand in the building’. Some lines you just go whoa! Where did you get that? It’s endless and I think it made my comedy career in the beginning. But that’s the funny bit. The sad bit is maybe I would be like this anyway but I was deeply affected by that kind of abuse, not by cleaning the sand, that was the fun part.
00:17:43.05 Andy Coulson:
You were in a brilliant episode of Who Do You Think You Are? And in it you discovered for the first time I think, obviously, the full horror of what your parents had been through in leaving Austria. But also that other relatives of yours, or ancestors of yours, also suffered from mental illness. So where did that leave you in terms of that kind of nature, nurture argument?
00:18:14.12 Ruby Wax:
Isn’t that remarkable, that I’m obsessed with mental health and then… I mean, I’m telling you one year of doing genealogy is worth fifty years of therapy because I can see some traits that were passed on. If you go way back… it happened at, first of all the guy said how my father got out of Vienna which was he got on a plane with no money, then he gets on a boat as a stowaway and he doesn’t get caught, to go to America. And my mother was a beauty, I mean seriously beautiful and she had a degree in economics and spoke six languages and studied classics and had a job. And suddenly she gets pulled out and I saw the synagogue they married in and it was bombed the night of Kristallnacht so they had to flee. Well, you see the reality and then going way back… because my mother never mentioned I had any relatives…
00:19:15.11 Andy Coulson:
They’d completely erased their past with you, right? It was never discussed.
00:19:17.12 Ruby Wax:
Nothing, they said everybody’s fine. Well my dad told me he was an aerobics teacher at some point and he was in jail. So I go to the archive and they hold up a picture and they say ‘Who do you think this… this is your great, great aunt Olga, what do you think she did?’ And I said, ‘Was she an actress?’ And they say, ‘No, she was insane.’ So I said, ‘Well was she an actress part of the time?’ And they said, ‘No, she was in an insane asylum…’, that’s what they call it, ‘…for thirty years.’ Then they held up another photo and they said, ‘This is your great, great, great aunt Bertha, what do you think she did?’ And I said, ‘Was she an actress?’ And they said, ‘No, she was insane too.’
00:19:56.24 Ruby Wax:
So they take me to the asylum. Well, and I heard what the Nazis did to people in an insane asylum. And then they took me to where Olga was buried but there was no gravestone but there were two gravestones next to her. So I said, ‘Well where’s hers?’ And they said, ‘Well maybe your family was ashamed and nobody bought her one.’ And so after it was aired I did buy Olga a big tombstone and to say I’m really proud of this woman. But I get it, I get why my father was so angry. He probably had mental illness. My mother, seriously, I didn’t know that, I thought she was doing it to spite me, was really mentally ill. And you can only say, well I forgive you, because I have to forgive me. We were ill and there’s suicides on my dad’s side. But there’s also people that were just businessmen on his side. I couldn’t find anyone who did business on my mum’s side, we only went to the insane asylum.
00:20:58.02 Andy Coulson:
I mean, did you think were, that they themselves, were in a perpetual state of crisis?
00:21:04.19 Ruby Wax:
Yeah, and I don’t think it was… I’ve met holocaust people and they’ve said ‘There were some of us who thrived’. And again, it’s genetic, they aren’t all in an institution. Some people, again, are resilient in a crisis. And other people if they have this gene they will flip. So clearly it was genes but it’s not always.
00:21:31.03 Andy Coulson:
Do you think the resilience bit is genetic, potentially, as well?
00:21:33.23 Ruby Wax:
Yeah, I do, I do.
00:21:35.12 Andy Coulson:
So it’s not just the kind of what might cause the problem but your inability to get through the problem. Because you know for all your parents’ faults they clearly, also were resilient, would you agree?
00:21:53.14 Ruby Wax:
They had chutzpah, and I understand where I get it. My dad had pushed like, they said this is one in a million. And I have this anger…
00:22:02.22 Andy Coulson:
Because he was a very successful businessman, right?
00:22:04.16 Ruby Wax:
Yeah, I thought he was, he was successful, yeah, I mean he had nothing and was kind of middle class in America. But he wouldn’t take any crap, you know, he was a businessman who was ruthless. I always think of that scene in The Godfather with the horse’s head, that my father would have thought that’s a greeting card. So I understand where I get my anger. I went to Oxford and learned mindfulness in order to, you know, because our brains are there’s neuro-plasticity and I still have the proclivity to jump but I happen to have a technique, it doesn’t work for everybody, that I can see when a thought is coming. And by observing the thought I can, not repress it, but deal with it.
00:23:01.05 Andy Coulson:
When you say jump what do you…?
00:23:02.22 Ruby Wax:
I mean attack. Sometimes I have the impulse to attack the way I used to. But I sit in a closet and do mindfulness for forty-five minutes every day for a reason. It gives you a six pack as far as… your temperament sort of stays the same but I do practice thoughts more as something transitory. You know they come they go, if I want to attack you it’s because of nothing you’ve done but something’s triggered me. And that’s taking responsibility. I don’t have to attack you; something came up in me. Listen, I’ve practiced this a lot, it doesn’t work 100% I still might go for you but I’ll get calm faster than I used to before.
00:23:46.22 Andy Coulson:
So when you say go for you, how does that sort of manifest itself?
00:23:51.09 Ruby Wax:
Oh road rage, you know, road rage, anger, you know, nothing… it tastes delicious. I didn’t do it to friends but I do it to traffic wardens. I’d like, just rant like an animal at them. And you know, and it would feel so good until I got home. And then I got backwash because the poison comes back in. And they probably thought she’s insane but while you’re doing anger and rage that’s why I think the human race is kind of addicted to those really basic emotions. Is they taste delicious like a cigarette or cocaine. It’s an addiction, it’s a kick but we have to kind of realise where our tipping point is. Because all of these things store up that cortisol which eventually breaks down your mental health and your physical health. So for the sake of me living a little longer and not having acid reflux, I thought practice mindfulness. You know what I mean, I have that I want to go for your throat if you piss me off.
00:24:55.17 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, because I’m really interested in talking to you about what you consider to be the right approach to these kind of problems from a treatment perspective. Because I think you’re also, I hope I’m right when I say this, you have some concern about the kind of amateur status, if you like, of some therapists that are in the marketplace, if I can put it that way.
00:25:20.15 Ruby Wax:
Everything’s appropriate at a certain time in your life. So I had therapists for thirty years. They must have done a great job because I could get the story out and I wouldn’t choke on it with fury. And they are very loving, that’s the job to contain you. At a certain point you have to keep saying the story to get it clear because a lot of it you think is this my imagination? It’s so horrific and my parents would say, ‘You’re making this up, we never did that to you’ for a lot of people. So I love those therapists, more or less, luckily I didn’t get one who got a degree the night before.
00:26:00.03 Ruby Wax:
But I have depression and that, I don’t think, that’s an illness, you can’t stop that with therapy. It’s like you can’t stop Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia, you have it. So when I got depression fifteen years ago and it was a big one, there was no epiphany because as I said when you have depression you have no mind, that’s why it’s a waste of time, for me this is just my opinion, to do therapy because you’re out of town. I mean, you can’t decide whether to have a manicure or jump off a cliff, it’s the same.
00:26:38.07 Ruby Wax:
So you have to wait for that to pass, you know, like the devil leaves town. While I was there and I was studying psychotherapy but I had to drop out because I was too ill, I was researching what kind of therapies there were available that had really empirical evidence that they worked with the majority of people and it was mindfulness and cognitive therapy. We weren’t taught that when I studied psychotherapy and I never heard of mindfulness. So I thought okay, we’ll try it. So Ed used to come to pick me up from the priory.
00:27:14.16 Andy Coulson:
Ed’s your husband?
00:27:15.09 Ruby Wax:
Yeah, and I’d put a coat on over my pyjamas and sort of everybody wished me, they’d say ‘you’re so brave’, which is great coming from my people and he took me a four week mindfulness course. I, of course, just sat there gormless but I got the idea toward the eighth week, there is no miracle, but I got the idea. And the science became so interesting about what happens when you do practice with these muscles. So I decided I’d find out more again. Look at that Rottweiler instinct which works sometimes and sometimes you bang into a wall and crash.
00:27:53.03 Ruby Wax:
So I found Mark Williams, who was a creator of Mindfulness based cognitive behaviour therapy, he was at Oxford. I think he took pity on me. He knew I was really ill and I think he started to teach me individually about mindfulness. And then I said, ‘this is so interesting about what happens in the brain’ because I’m practical, I don’t believe in angel cards, sorry. And I said ‘I really have to learn this but the biological, the neurological aspects, why does it work on some people?’ So he said ‘You have to get into Oxford and get your masters.’
00:28:30.24 Ruby Wax:
Again, Rottweiler. I got in and I said in my interview ‘Listen if you don’t let me in I’m going to study this anyway’, people like a challenge. And then I studied it and in order to study it you have to walk the talk. So I did it. And it’s very slowly, it’s like when you, it’s exactly like you go to a gym, how many sit ups do you need for that six pack to start showing? Eventually it does but some people it’s…. But it ain’t on the first day. So gradually, gradually you start to understand the notion of observing thoughts. Of slowly, slowly and then the next day you’re screwed again. Don’t think I don’t wake up in the morning and there’s a shit-show going on. Just horror, horror, voices saying ‘you’re a jerk, your book’s not going to sell, you’re a failure’, horror.
00:29:23.04 Ruby Wax:
But because I sit through it and if you listen, eventually you’ll notice the radio changes in a few seconds, suddenly that’s all gone. If I had engaged in it my whole day would be ruined. A bit of me says these are all recordings, you know your parents might have said you’re a flop, whatever. These are not the case, they might be but not 100% and that’s cognitive therapy, it’s together. Cognitive therapy means you watch your habits of thinking and then you yourself go, ‘every time somebody doesn’t email me back it’s because they hate me’. And you write that down and eventually your mind brocks, it figures out, remember that word? It figures out every, always my reactions are negative.
00:30:16.09 Ruby Wax:
And just by seeing that you start to, well you’re aware and awareness if everything. If you’re not aware you can go to a therapist for a hundred years and just spew out your information, nothing will happen. When you finally go, ‘ah, that’s me and it’s okay’, or ‘that’s me in this second’, then you’re free. Does that make it clear?
00:30:39.03 Andy Coulson:
Yes absolutely, your decision to throw yourself into that, and this is not an easy thing to do, right. It’s not like you’re saying you’re going to go and do a two week course; you are throwing yourself into a proper commitment into understanding a deeply complex subject matter. This is just, by the way, the academic part of what you’ve done, there’s a whole mass of other stuff. On one hand you can look back at it now, because you’ve made such a success of it, and I don’t mean, it is a commercial success, but I mean a success for you, but that must have been a big decision. Because although you’d identified that showbiz was not a healthy place for you to be the pull of that, even as you are dealing with your problems must still have been very strong. The idea of saying ‘I’m going to totally change my life’.
00:31:31.22 Ruby Wax:
No, I didn’t decide… yeah, I was thrown out of it.
00:31:37.07 Andy Coulson:
Is that how you see it? Or is that absolutely what happened?
00:31:41.05 Ruby Wax:
Well it was a mutual agreement. I started to hit depression while I was on TV and that made it really difficult as to who exactly I was talking to. Not so much for my interview one to ones because I adored those, but I started to do a daily show and then I did some horror shows that are just a sell-out, some game show. And I couldn’t think of any funny lines which meant my brain was shutting down. Somebody actually had to tell me funny lines over the speaker and panic was in. And when I say you imitate who you used to be. So it showed, I lost my mojo. And coincidently, whatever, I was replaced. And that really tears your insides out because your ego… but look what happened. It’s like my dad escaped from Germany and look what happened. So I’m used to failure. I’m used to failure.
00:32:38.12 Andy Coulson:
Right, but it’s just that, you’re very self-deprecating about all this. It’s an incredibly brave decision as well, right? Because yeah, you could say they threw me out but the truth is…
00:32:51.21 Ruby Wax:
Yeah, I could have gone on Love Island…
00:32:53.04 Andy Coulson:
The truth is Ruby, you could have gone on longer and maybe something would have clicked or something would have happened. I mean, by the way your method of interviewing has become, as I touched on in the intro, has become now, you know, a method that’s been deployed by others very successfully. Not that they’re not brilliant themselves.
00:33:10.03 Ruby Wax:
You don’t think that bothers me?
00:33:12.00 Andy Coulson:
Well, does it?
00:33:13.08 Ruby Wax:
Yeah, when you say it I get an acid burn in my stomach. But again it’s my human reaction. I don’t like losing. But I have to say so what am I going to do about it? If I was still on TV now, right I would have been on wherever you eat a cockroach on an island and probably harmed myself in some way because I’m too smart. I would have caught myself going look you loser. Eventually because as a woman you’re not allowed to age on TV, it’s just not permitted but I’m not… I have a different technique, just keep moving forward. If I was doing it now it would be a tragedy. There would be such unhappiness. I wouldn’t come out of an institution; you could visit me in there but because maybe it’s life… I know when there’s a life raft, my dad knew how to get on a ship, I jumped on that neuroscience like a mother. And it was totally exciting, more exciting that television.
00:34:16.15 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, well look, all I can say is thank god you did make that decision. And I don’t say that lightly right, because this is a podcast that we’ve talked to a number of people now who have, I think, confronted mental health issues in a way that not to overstate it, but I think you’ve played a huge part in changing that conversation and making that something that people thought… because of who you were on TV and because people recognised that you had that choice and you chose to do amazing things, one of which of course is the book, which I’d like to talk about now.
00:34:51.09 Andy Coulson:
You, in the book, it’s an optimistic book and it’s a book about optimism but you also, interestingly, totally immersed yourself in the crisis environments. So you know, you took yourself off to a refugee camp in a Greek island, Samos. And you properly spent a fair period of time there living with people who were experiencing visceral crisis. Tell me a bit more about that.
00:35:23.14 Ruby Wax:
Well before we jump to that do you mind me saying… because that’s the end of the book. So it’s sort of a journey. In the beginning just to break there’s many chapters on business and community and tech, is that people roll their eyes when they say about education. ‘Oh our kids, you know, one in three’. It’s true. So I did visit schools, believe me, Finland’s pretty impressive. But in the UK and the point of the book is not to say well, it’s useless, there are places that are green shoots of hope. So there are some state schools that I visited in the UK, just before I get to why I went to Samos, where these kids are from really disturbed neighbourhoods and it’s a state school and the teachers teach them empathy. That’s no easy feat and they teach them what I just said before.
00:36:12.17 Ruby Wax:
There was a little kid, he was always bullied. So now when the kid starts to bully he walks away because he imagines what it’s like in the mind of the bully, how agitated he must be. So he learns kindness to himself and therefore kindness to other people. Then they learn how to self-regulate with mindfulness really. And then at the end I do World Savers where I’ve found some movements that I think are so impressive because they’re not done through big organisations, you don’t have to go on TV and dance. There’s girls and some guys, they’re all in their twenties and they go, literally, to these islands. I happened to go with them to Samos. And I wanted to be around them because they glowed. They just, they were pure goodness and that’s catchy. So in their love, their hub, I started to be able to see these refugees as humans. I mean, not on TV.
00:37:09.17 Andy Coulson:
And hear their stories, right? And the stories are unbelievable. So you know a twenty year old, just to give the listeners some context, you’re with, two examples a princess, who I think is a twenty year old Congolese girl whose child was killed in front of her. There was an Afghan lady who you met, whose eight year old son was taken away from her and tortured, brought back to her but who is still waking every night screaming. So these are, as I say, visceral stories of crisis. When you looked at those people where did their resilience come from, do you think? Where is the resilience, because that place is full of resilience, right? Where’s all that coming from, from your analysis?
00:38:01.04 Ruby Wax:
Tell me, I don’t know. We’re whining here about you know, not about the pandemic because I didn’t write this story in the pandemic and they’re living in garbage bags and no hot water and a disaster. I was sort of there to say where are you getting your resilience? I mean to me that’s a human race when it’s the most impressive. They do work together, you know, those guys stick together, not that that saves them but I don’t know, there’s no older people by the way. So they’re young. I think they don’t make it in these camps. But part of the reason I go visit them, or went with other charities, is if you want to see humans at their best and feel better about it, go take a look and work for a charity. I never did it…
00:38:51.05 Andy Coulson:
So there wasn’t a sort of kind of common characteristic that you can identify in a place like that? Your feeling is that frankly, a lot of it is luck?
00:39:01.16 Ruby Wax:
Look, they hate it there, how many died at sea? You know, I met people their families were, they didn’t make it. And there were stories of escape. So I met the survivors. You see, now, I could get really upset. Yeah, they broke my heart and they gave me faith in the human race. So I encourage people, they don’t have to go to Samos, but go clean up somebody’s neighbourhood. I can’t believe I’m saying this, because I was quite an aggressive person but even if you don’t think you care that oxytocin, that bonding hormone, does switch on. Like it did the night we all banged the pots and pans. And I think that’s the hope for the future, is that if we contact those feelings you’re carrying it then, you’re a carrier.
00:39:54.10 Andy Coulson:
So crisis for the younger generation, if you like, which is a big conversation at the moment, obviously. I think a lot of people are recognising that what’s happened with the pandemic is going to impact the younger generation in different ways, not least economically. You’re a mum of three, your kids are adults now but although we’re talking more about mental health, do you feel like the fundamental direction is changing? You’ve talked before about the sort of loneliness epidemic. You really feel that that is improving?
00:40:33.23 Ruby Wax:
You know I the reason I wrote the book is because there are statistics in here of how many kids are involved, how many kids are really concerned about the environment. That’s why I wrote the book to find out the exact figures. I may meet a kid tomorrow and they’re a criminal. You know, again, I only have, I researched it and I’ve chosen to see younger people who are creating their own start-ups or doing really wonderful things, knocking on people’s doors and helping the elderly. I don’t know if that’s going to mass produce, I don’t know. But so far, since my generation, this generation is doing something.
00:41:16.20 Andy Coulson:
Because the alternative narrative of course is that, and you’ve painted a positive picture of technology, which is all entirely valid, but of course the big picture narrative on technology is that it’s ultimately divisive. That it’s sending our kids into their screens, that they’re, that it’s breaking down those kind of bonds that you identify as being so important.
00:41:40.24 Ruby Wax:
But look at this, look at what we’re doing.
00:41:42.11 Andy Coulson:
Knowledge is not pro-community, it’s ultimately kind of break down communities. I mean, you obviously no one knows long-term, but your sense is that those green shoots are going to win in the end.
00:41:56.02 Ruby Wax:
As I say, I don’t know who’s going to win but Berners, Tim, who invented the World Wide Web, I even spoke to him. This was his idea; his idea was for us to connect. Then the sales, the marketers came in, the data hackers and saw there’s money in them trees. And so I talk about how Zuckerberg, he started off meaning well with his Harvard classmates, they just wanted to see who’s dating who. The guy who did Instagram just wanted to show where he was on holiday. The minute the buck or the pound comes in they lose it.
00:42:35.02 Ruby Wax:
Now that’s maybe the world we live in and maybe that’ll still flourish, like in business don’t tell me what percentage of shysters, especially if you’re well educated and you know algorithms. So the same amount, there’s just as many corrupt coders who work in order to get, actually, your soul. What do you want? And they’ll flip it up onto your screen and they’ll keep flipping it up. Those are subtle persuaders. So that’s going to happen when are we going to talk about oh my god, this is key… but if you take your focus to where I found things they’re there, that’s all I can say in the book. Take a look there’s some really interesting things coming.
00:43:18.00 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, I mean, your optimistic analysis I think is born out. And it’s borne out, I mean this week, you’ve got the new boss of BP who’s on the Today Programme talking about utterly transforming that business. I mean, there’s a lot of people in his industry standing back and saying, ‘oh really? Good luck with that one mate.’
00:43:38.19 Ruby Wax:
Okay, but let’s cut that out.
00:43:39.18 Andy Coulson:
00:43:42.09 Ruby Wax:
It’s a step.
00:43:43.00 Andy Coulson:
It’s a big step from a very big company. So the world is, there are real signs that the world is moving that way. Look, you write in your book, and I think this is rather brilliant, it’s not, now I’m going to quote from the book, ’It’s not our academic brilliance, talent or success that defines a great human being, it’s our ability to feel compassion. We need to remember how to reconnect to one other. Remaking society towards human ends rather than towards the end of humans.’ I think that’s rather brilliant. I mean…
00:44:12.21 Ruby Wax:
Where did I write that, what page is that on?
00:44:15.18 Andy Coulson:
I can’t tell you which page it was, I think it was towards the end.
00:44:17.22 Ruby Wax:
00:44:19.09 Andy Coulson:
I think it was towards the end. You know, that, in the end, is all about this point of connection and how do we now, do you think, or let me put it another way… What’s your plan now, for pushing that narrative even harder? What else can be done? You talk about the green shoots in your book but what else can be done? What would you love to see happen towards making that statement more of a reality?
00:44:56.07 Ruby Wax:
You know again, I’m only an individual, but I think if I surround myself with people who I think are walking the talk, it makes me more powerful. So I’m going to move to Findhorn next week for a month and work in their gardens and pick, first of all I’ve never been in a vegetable garden, but the food you pick goes to a food bank. And then I’m going to work with a guy who does wild things where he takes elderly people and shows them about nature. And don’t think I haven’t signed up to go to Lesbos. I’m going to be around this stuff and my next book is about finding meaning in a world without any. I wrote this book so that I could walk the talk. I wasn’t going to ignore them and then try and get my own TV show. Listen, if I had a skill I’d go to Patagonia.
00:45:48.24 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, I mean, by the way, the book would be a brilliant TV show. If you’d been filmed, maybe you did, I don’t know, but if you’d been filmed having the conversations that you had for this book, because this has not been you skimming the surface, you’ve been immersing yourself in these worlds.
00:46:04.12 Ruby Wax:
00:46:04.13 Andy Coulson:
So you in the refugee camp talking in the way that you talk in the book, incredibly powerful television.
00:46:11.12 Ruby Wax:
I’ll tell you why I’m dubious but it just might me because I’ve been burned a little by TV, is when there’s a camera there there’s a few like, I don’t want to mention names, but certain charities, when they film a celebrity talking to a person in distress I looks like, ‘Look how well I’m doing and I’m crying with them too. But it’s really important that you give money.’ I’ve been on those shows. ‘Really important that you help these people.’ It’s inauthentic. It’s, this is garbage. I mean, we can see these people suffering on TV, you don’t need me to take you there. But you can read about it and it’ll kill you because there’s no bullshit when you’re writing.
00:46:59.21 Andy Coulson:
Ruby, thank you so much for your time, I’m going to end, if I may, by asking you for your crisis cures which we do with every guest on the podcast. So these are three things that help you through the dark days. The only rule is that it can’t be another human being. What are yours, please?
00:47:19.14 Ruby Wax:
I’d invented Frazzled, I talk to people who now become my people because they’re the real deal. So I don’t care if you’re in a community or it’s your street, find community. You know, the Quakers did it, the people sitting around the fire did it when we started. Find it, not just a wine tasting club but where you genuinely talk to each other. Community compassion, find something that touches your heart and that’s not too hard. You can just open the door for somebody once or look at somebody and…
00:47:56.04 Andy Coulson:
Can you give me something more specific for you, in terms of the compassion?
00:48:00.01 Ruby Wax:
What do I do? Not as extreme as going to Samos. When I’m in a queue sometimes I’ll find somebody in a really bad mood and I’ll start talking to them or somebody who’s giving me grief. It’s just an experiment, I really don’t care but I’m trying to exercise those muscles. So I’ll go ‘So what’s going on with you?’ Or on the telephone when they’re a real bitch I sometimes just practice turning them around. And sometimes the people you think are jerks end up like your best friends.
00:48:34.16 Andy Coulson:
What’s the rate of success out of interest?
00:48:36.16 Ruby Wax:
Pretty high. Pretty high. I mean, I did this kindness offensive thing where we… it’s another World Saver, where we gave things free to people on the street. It was like a sixties rebellion thing. And you’d see people go like, ‘Get out of here’ and so if you held your ground because you felt like you had to attack back and went, ‘I’m telling you these flowers are free’ and they couldn’t believe it, they’d go, ‘Oh no, it couldn’t be. What do you want, how much money?’ So you felt their anger. And eventually some of them understood I’m giving them something and then not charging. Well, their faces become childlike; I got off on that. You know, if you let somebody in the queue or somebody doesn’t have enough change, if you do these little acts you feel better.
00:49:24.05 Andy Coulson:
So connection, compassion, what would be the third thing?
00:49:28.00 Ruby Wax:
What I do?
00:49:30.05 Andy Coulson:
So you mentioned earlier, forty-five minutes a day of mindfulness?
00:49:33.09 Ruby Wax:
Yeah, yeah but it’s not for everybody. But you could do Tai Chi you could do… it depends how you do it, yoga, but not to show off and tie your ankles over your head. If you really go in your body, martial arts does it too. And practice that, those vicious, those critical thoughts, actually cool down a little bit. But it’s not going to happen after twenty-four hours. Any time you get into your body your brain can’t gabble and feel something physically at the same time. So they’re training athletes, it’s the way to sit, feel what arm they need, let’s say if they’re playing tennis, sense the muscles and then when they go on the court they’re not thinking about their wife wants a divorce or they forgot where they parked their car, they’re just present.
00:50:24.07 Andy Coulson:
So they’re smacking tennis balls into the line judges, yeah.
00:50:27.00 Ruby Wax:
Yeah, but it’s the same thing. Tai Chi, Pilates, yoga, physical… not something mindless, you have to notice what’s going on in your body. If you do it mindlessly you might as well be… you know if you’re playing piano and smoking a cigarette and on the telephone you’re not going to learn piano.
00:50:45.19 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, Ruby, amazing. Thank you for giving us some time for the podcast but also thank you for everything that you’re doing.
00:50:52.18 Ruby Wax:
00:50:53.09 Andy Coulson:
As I said earlier, I think its value is enormous.
00:50:59.06 Ruby Wax:
It’s great talking, thank you, I appreciate it.
00:51:02.16 Andy Coulson:
Thanks for listening to Crisis What Crisis? Do feel free to send us your feedback, you’ll find our contact details and show notes giving you the key insights from our guests at crisiswhatcrisis.com. There are more useful conversations on the way so please do subscribe and if like what you hear give us a rating and a review, it really helps. Thanks again.
00:51:25.13 End of transcription