Comedian Ruby Wax has suffered from depression all of her life, but it wasn’t something she went around advertising, especially during her days as a television personality known for conducting outrageous celebrity interviews on the BBC. But now she’s built a whole new career as the “poster child for mental illness.”
It started by accident. The charity Comic Relief was conducting a fund-raiser, and someone who knew about her illness asked her if she would agree to have her photograph taken for the campaign. She thought it would be a little photo on a brochure, but the next thing she knew, there were posters of her plastered all over the London Underground. The posters broadcast this message: “This woman has mental illness. Can you help her?” Her condition was secret no more. “I was outed by Comic Relief,” Wax says.
The Illinois native, who is better known in England than in her homeland, could have retreated to her bedroom or walked around with a bag over her head. But the unabashed Wax embraced her new identity and did what she does best. She created a solo performance called “Out of Her Mind.” The show, which explores what Wax calls “the tsunami of depression,” makes its New England premiere Nov. 12-13 at Oberon in Cambridge.
Wax first performed “Out of Her Mind” for patients in psychiatric institutions. She brought along her friends for moral support. Since she began her career in England as an actress, her list of besties includessuch notables as Alan Rickman and Ian McKellen. “Nobody could tell the difference between my friends and the inmates,’’ she says. At one point during the show, a patient turned to McKellen and made a crude, derogatory comment. “He said, ‘I think Ruby is good.’ She said, ‘Not her. I love her. I’m talking about you.’ ’’
Wax makes it clear that she is not talking down to anyone, especially those who suffer from mental illness. “They are my tribe,’’ she says. In fact, she has one condition when she performs in a hospital: She has to be allowed to spend the night. “It is a comfortable and thumb-sucking place,” she says. “It is my replacement for Mommy.”
The fast-talking, wisecracking Wax knows the ins and outs of such hospitals. The child of Jewish immigrants who left Austria to escape the Nazis, she grew up in a suburb of Chicago. She says she was depressed as a child, but her condition went undiagnosed.
“They didn’t have a name for it,’’ she says. “They thought I had mono or Epstein-Barr.” Her mother also suffered from the illness. “The doctors said she was having a change of life, and I thought, Yeah, for 87 years!’’
Wax, who has spent her adult life in London and is married to British television producer and director Ed Bye, was officially diagnosed with depression about 20 years ago while she was pregnant. She has always been terrified of passing the illness on to her three children. Now adults, they are all healthy. “I picked my husband on purpose for two reasons. A, he is tall. And B, he has good genes. He’s a stoic Englishman.”
When her children were growing up, Wax was in the spotlight conducting notorious television interviews with the likes of Imelda Marcos, Madonna, and Pamela Anderson. She was also in and out of depression. In her show, she recalls having a breakdown at her daughter’s soccer match. She was admitted to The Priory, a mental health hospital in London. “I lost it at my daughter’s sports day,’’ she says. “I felt in isolation there. I didn’t fit in with the herd of people eating their sandwiches made of cucumbers. I had that sense of being a freak.”
Dr. Andrew Leuchter, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, says he was moved by the show when he saw it in Santa Monica. “There are a couple of dangers when someone puts on a show about mental illness,” says Leuchter, who also participated in a panel discussion with Wax. “One is that people won’t take it seriously because it’s the subject of a show. The second is that people will say it is really a celebrity illness or only affects people who are really far out there. But Ruby very successfully puts an everyday face on things when she talks about her day-to-day struggles and how hard it is to be a soccer mom when you are struggling with depression.”
Leuchter is just one of a pool of experts that Wax gathers together wherever she performs. “She’s turned her show into a bully pulpit, not just to entertain but to help people and make a difference in their lives,” he says.
Wax does not mute her enormous personality onstage, but she provides information along with hilarity. The first half of the show, she says, is really about malaise, the everyday worries that plague everyone, even those who don’t suffer from mental illness. But the second half focuses on the depths of depression and what it is like to be on your knees, unable to cope. She spent years trying to escape her demons. “I would feel the early shaking of the earth, and I just got busier and busier trying to outrun it,’’ she says. “I had millions of dinner parties, inviting people I didn’t know. I would get drunk and end up telling stories about my dead dog.”
But like many folks who struggle with the illness, she couldn’t run forever. A deep depression, she says, “is like a hundred different voices in your head, like the devil has Tourette’s. Forget a dinner party. You can’t even get up out of a chair.” What does it feel like? “It doesn’t feel. You can get rid of that word,’’ she says. “Your personality is gone. You can’t remember having it. And you can’t decide whether to have a manicure or jump off a cliff.”
Susan Smalley, founder of the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center and professor emeritus of psychiatry at UCLA, says the show raises awareness about society’s last taboo. “Ruby makes people feel that they are not alone,’’ she says. “It is not this horrible secret. It is part of life.” Smalley first met Wax at a TED Talk conference in Edinburgh and has also participated in post-show panel discussions.
‘We don’t know how to shut down. We don’t have any breaks. We have to learn mindfulness the way you learn tennis or calculus.’
Wax holds a question-and-answer session with the audience after every performance, and she says it usually turns into a kind of group therapy session. “What surprises me is how open people become,’’ she says. “These big macho men from the North have said they’ve been on medication for 20 years and never told their wives. There was a woman who hadn’t come out of her house in 20 years.” Often, she calls on therapists in the audience to offer advice, and she has arranged for clinicians to hold weekly walk-in sessions in London so that people can get help.
And she has turned to academe herself. She recently graduated from Oxford University with a master’s degree in mindfulness cognitive behavioral therapy. She also just published a book called “Sane New World,” which is about using mindfulness to quiet the mind and stay healthy. “We don’t know how to shut down. We don’t have any breaks,’’ she says. “We have to learn mindfulness the way you learn tennis or calculus.”
She says the practice keeps her centered, but she makes clear that it is not a cure-all. It is just one tool to help those who suffer from depression — and those who simply suffer from the stress of 21st-century life. “I haven’t had a depression in seven years,’’ she says. “If I get the feeling starting to come on, I have to stop. You cannot have the dinner party. You can stop e-mailing, because nobody cares if you answer. You can stop the desperation of everyone knowing what you have for lunch on Twitter.”
So is she going to put up a shingle and start practicing therapy? Of course not. “I take this stuff to the masses,’’ she says. “I don’t work with individuals.” She’s rehearsing a show based on her book. She has given a speech in Parliament and would like to see a movement to destigmatize mental illness. “The gay people did it in my lifetime,’’ she says. “They changed the stigma. Why can’t we do it? I think we should use what the gays used, their rainbows and their stilettos. They must have put them in a locker somewhere. I can’t organize it, but I am encouraging people to march.”Patti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.