This book is dedicated to my mind, which at one point left town, and to the rest of humanity, who perhaps at one time or another might have misplaced theirs. Though I personally have gone on a roller-coaster ride of depression for most of my adult life, this book is not exclusively for the depressed. I am one of the one in four who has mentally unraveled; this book is for the four in four. It’s for everyone, because we all share the same equipment: We suffer, we laugh, we rage, we bitch, we’re all vulnerable, delicate creatures under our tough fronts.
In this book I am going to attempt to give a rough guide for where we (the human race) are right now and offer some suggestions that might make our time on Earth a more joyful experience. I’m not talking “everyone in the Jacuzzi” joyful, I’m talking about the almost blissful state you sometimes have when time stops, your body feels like it’s home, and the volume of those internal critics in your mind lowers. I know those voices well, and so many people I meet recognize this dictator barking orders in their minds, keeping them up at night with that tormenting “I should have, I could have” tape playing relentlessly.
Many of us suffer from the pressures in today’s world that drive us from burnout to depression. We are slaves to our busyness with an insatiable drive for money, fame, more tweets—you name it, we want it. The problem is, it’s only in the last fifty to a hundred years that humans have lived with such abundance. We’ve gone from scarcity (when we were probably somewhat normal and had appetites to match) to the limitless demands we have today. You could say that multitasking has driven us mad; like leaving too many windows open on your computer, eventually it will crash. We are simply not equipped for the twenty-first century. It’s too hard, too fast, it’s too full of fear; we just don’t have the bandwidth. Evolution did not prepare us for this. It’s hard enough to keep up with who’s bombing whom, so we have no room to understand our emotional landscapes; our hearts bleed because we hear of a beached whale while the next minute we’re baying for the blood of someone who stole the last shopping cart.
• • •
The reason I decided to devote myself to this inward journey is because I wanted to find some shelter from the constant hurricanes of depression, which left me depleted and broken. Each episode got longer and deeper. I don’t want to blame my parents but child rearing was not their specialty. Friends would come over and there my mother would be, perched on the lampshade, a vulture with a Viennese accent, waiting for someone to drop a crumb. When they did, she would swoop across the room screaming, “Who brings cookies into a building?” Everyone would run away terrified. It got much, much darker later, but I am not going to talk about that here. My point is that this is the type of background that usually leads to a career as a comedian or a serial killer; I went for the comedy.
• • •
Here’s my life story so far:
Ruby Wax was born many, many years ago. She won’t be exact—anywhere from thirty-five to seventy-eight years ago.
Her first word was gargle. Everyone had great hopes.
Her first ambition was to be a mermaid, and when that didn’t work out she decided to be a squirrel. She did this for three years using an old Davy Crockett hat sewn to the back of her pants as a tail. Her dream ended when the tail blew out the window of the car her parents were driving, and they wouldn’t stop for her to collect it. This damaged her, but didn’t stop her.
She then went on to summer camp (Camp Agawak) where she got a special mention in canoeing.
Many years later, after a calamity called her education, she went to the UK to get away from her parents. (For reasons, see her other book, How Do You Want Me?).
Once in the UK, she got into a drama school and after three years of practicing tongue exercises (to get the English accent she has today) she was accepted into the Royal Shakespeare Company, mainly because they liked what she could do with her tongue.
She began her five years there performing small parts that included:
Whore/Nun (Measure for Measure)
Nonspeaking Spirit (The Tempest)
Waitress with no lines (Antony and Cleopatra)
And many others
She got sick of having no lines so she began to write her own shows in which she played the lead and had the other members of the company play her maidservants and ashtrays.
From that point on, a fellow thespian at the RSC, Alan Rickman, directed and helped mold her career as clearly she was not going to be a successful classical actress. He has said many times he would never work with her again.
She then leaped to fame working in television for the next twenty-five years on her own comedy documentaries and in comedy and interview shows.
She wrote and performed in Girls on Top with Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders and Tracey Ullman, which was very popular with gay people, and so she was launched.
Ruby script edited every season of Absolutely Fabulous and also performed in it, the likes of “Menopause Woman” just as an example.
Her own television shows included Wax on Wheels, Don’t Miss Wax, Wax in America, Wax Acts, Wax On . . . All these shows were basically about Ruby and her guests: Jim Carrey, Tom Hanks, O.J. Simpson (who tried to knife her with a banana—look on YouTube), Imelda Marcos (who showed Ruby her new stash of shoes and even gave her some), and too many others to name.
She has recently received her master’s degree from Oxford University, graduating in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in September 2013.
Ruby used her research for her dissertation at Oxford to write this book (with a comedy spin), along with her new one-woman show with the same title and her speech for TED Talk Global called “What’s So Funny About Mental Illness?” Thereby killing three birds with one gun.
BACK TO THIS BOOK
So, after some serious breakdowns, I decided to go back to school to study psychotherapy to figure out exactly what they were charging £80 an hour for. I used to leave my shrink knowing exactly who I was, until I got to the tube station and then I’d forget again. Also, as I knew nothing about psychology; therapists could tell me anything, so how could I tell if they were any good? Once, when I was on the couch, I caught the shrink behind me eating a pastrami sandwich, mustard all over his face.
So I went to study psychotherapy. I got a library card and never discussed my previous life again. I thought, “Let’s give something back to the world.” (I probably didn’t but it’s a good line.) I’ve noticed that many women like myself choose to study therapy when they meet the wild surf of menopause; the hormones dry up, and they realize the chances are low they’re ever going to be hit on again, so they find themselves wanting to care for other people or starting a rest home for stray cats.
A few years later, I decided to go further and learn about what I was really interested in: the brain. My thinking was, if I learned how my own engine worked, it might prevent me from getting stuck in the middle of nowhere, shrieking for someone to come and fix me; I would provide my own AAA service. I’d be able to lasso this wild beast of a brain, stop it from churning away over the same ground, keeping me up at nights; worrying, rehashing, regretting, and resenting.
After much research, I thought mindfulness might help me best as I had heard it gives you the ability to regulate your own mind. (I would say it saved my life, but I’ll get to that later in the book.) I decided to go straight to the horse’s mouth, to one of the founders of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, Professor Mark Williams, who told me that unfortunately I would have to get into Oxford University in order to study it alongside neuroscience.
I scraped together some old school records and managed to excavate my one or two decent high school grades, but most of all I give great interview, so I got into that master’s course. The other fourteen students in my class were very brilliant and looked at me on day one as if they were having an encounter of the third kind; but God dammit, I was there.
So after many decades of agonizing investigation, a master’s in mindfulness, a degree in psychotherapy, and even a small taste of fame, here I am writing this manual on how to tame your mind.
• • •
I’ll go into detail later but I want to mention one fact right away; the gold at the end of the rainbow is that you can change your mind and how you think. This is called neuroplasticity. Your genes, hormones, regions in the brain, and early learning do not necessarily determine your fate.
You can change your mind and how you think.
Scientific evidence has shown that neurons (brain cells) can rewire and change patterns throughout your lifetime as a result of your experiences and how you think about them. So your thoughts affect the physiology of your brain and the physiology affects your thoughts.
Think about sex for a minute. That’s OK, I’ll wait. Once you get an inkling, a whole cascade of hormones is let loose in your body to get you ready to cha-cha. Sometimes it’s the other way around; you’re minding your own business, and for no reason a hormone switches on in your brain and suddenly your thinking goes X-rated.
When your mind changes, your brain changes—and because our brains are so malleable, the sky’s the limit. I remind you that I got into Oxford in my fifties even though I failed to get a diploma from Busy Beaver nursery school (look it up, that was the actual name), proving really anything is possible. But it takes time to alter your habits of thinking; it won’t happen with a weekend workshop called “How to Tickle Your Inner Angel.” It takes intentional concentration and repetition over time. You can change but only if you make the effort not to do the same old thing, the same old way, day in and day out. You, and the way you see the world, are the architect of how your brain is mapped. This is what scientists are giving us in the twenty-first century; way beyond what Psychic Madge can read in your palm.
The brain is like a pliable three-pound piece of Play-Doh; you can resculpt it by breaking old mental habits and creating new, more flexible ways of thinking. Gloria Gaynor was wrong when she sang, “I am what I am.” She will have to change those lyrics, but it won’t be so easy to dance to. What rhymes with neuroplasticity?
THE INNER YOU
If you could look inside your brain and roughly understand where everything is and how it operates, you might not be able to completely know yourself, but with practice you may be able to fix yourself. Learning how to self-regulate means you can sense the early warnings before a full-on burnout or depression and do something about it. So much is known about this idea of self-regulation; it may (and I hope it does) shortly become the buzzword of the decade. We can, with certain practices such as mindfulness, actually have some control over the chemicals in our brains that drive us to stress, to anxiety, and even to happiness. This remarkable organ in our heads holds infinite wisdom but so few of us know how to use it. It’s similar to having a Ferrari but no one gave you the keys.
The reality is that the demanding voice in our heads is not who we are. It plays a very small part in the big scheme of things. What’s really running you is a million, trillion gigabyte–powered engine room in your brain, managed by your DNA, that instructs hormones, memories, muscles, blood, organs, and really everything that happens inside you to ensure that you survive at all costs, and not that stupid inner monologue about why you’re too fat to wear tights.
• • •
My aim in this book is to show you how to become the master of your mind and not the slave. If you learn how to self-regulate your moods, emotions, and thoughts and focus your mind on what you want to pay attention to rather than be dragged into distraction, you might just reach that elusive thing called happiness. We all have it; we just don’t know where the on button is. The organ that allows you to realize the world understands so little about itself.
(Yes, Oprah, I’m available.)
WHY WE NEED A MANUAL
What is our purpose on Earth? Everyone wants to know. So the question is not, To be or not to be? The big questions are, What are we meant to be doing while we’re being? and, How do I run and manage this thing called me? Our primary problem as a species (I leave out those with religious beliefs—they have their own books) is that we have no manual, no instructions that tell us how to live our lives. Domestic appliances have instruction manuals; not us. We’re born with absolutely no information and are reliant on Mommy and Daddy who jam their USB sticks into our innocent hard drives and download their neuroses into us. As I think we’ve agreed, we’re all missing a manual, so I’ve tried to keep it simple.Part 1: What’s Wrong with Us? For the Normal-Mad
In Part 1 of this book I examine why we are all in the flying-by-the-seat-of-our-pants school of thought when it comes to living our lives. We assume the next person knows what they’re doing; they don’t.Part 2: What’s Wrong with Us? For the Mad-Mad
Part 2 is for the depressed, anxious, panic-attacked, OCD’d, overeaters, drinkers, shoppers, compulsive list-makers, and so on. The roll call is endless.Part 3: What’s in Your Brain/What’s on Your Mind?
In Part 3 I familiarize you with your ingredients: the hormones, neurons, hemispheres, regions, and so on, so that in Part 4 you’ll be able to understand what physically happens in your brain when you practice mindfulness and how it can enhance positive feelings, which ultimately bring happiness.
You are your own cookbook. How you work your brain determines if you’re going to become filet mignon or an old soggy meatball.Part 4: Mindfulness: Taming Your Mind
Think of Part 4 as “Wisdom for Dummies.” I’ll show you how to be able to self-regulate your thoughts and emotions to make you the master and not the slave of your mind.Part 5: Alternative Suggestions for Peace of Mind
I would never want to be considered evangelical, so if mindfulness isn’t for you, in Part 5 I give you alternative practices that can help change your brain.
I hope this book helps you let go of the image you have of yourself if it’s getting in your way; I hope I can encourage you to be brave and know that nothing is certain: life flows, changes, and ends. Get over your fear. The only way to find any peace is to let it all go and jump into the unknown. Just jump.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH US? FOR THE NORMAL-MAD
WHAT DRIVES US CRAZY
There may be many observations in this part that do not resonate with you, but we see the world only through our own eyes. I know there are people out there who don’t see the world as I do, but sadly they aren’t writing this book. So if anyone does not suffer from what follows, I apologize if it seems I’m painting the whole human race with the same pessimistic brush. I have reached these conclusions only because everyone I have ever met has complained that these are the areas of life that drive them crazy. I know from the bottom of my heart, they are what drive me crazy.
Why are we so mean to ourselves? What did we do wrong? Why, if we are the best that evolution has tossed up so far, are we so abusive to ourselves? Each of us has a nagging parent implanted in our heads: “Don’t do that . . . why didn’t you . . . you should have . . . but you didn’t,” on an endless tape. (My mother would say she was telling me what a failure I was only because she loved me.) If most of us ever compared our inner leitmotif, we would sue each other for plagiarism, as our internal themes are so alike.
No other species is as cruel as we are to ourselves. We’d never dream of treating our pets the way we treat ourselves. We whip ourselves to keep moving like we would an old horse, until it falls over exhausted; the hooves made into glue. I have asked so many people if they have ever had a voice in their head that says, “Congratulations you’ve done a wonderful job and may I say how attractive you look today.” The answer is no one. I’m sure they’re out there I just never met them.
Once you get an attack of this self-immolation, you’re on the slippery slope to a very unhappy state. Your brain just churns away, chewing over a problem like a piece of meat that won’t go down. There will never be a solution to “I should have,” so you attack, guess who? You. This is why one in four of us is mentally ill.
It’s not our fault that we’re slave drivers to ourselves because biologically we all have this factory-installed chip that compels us to achieve and move forward. Before we even had words, we had an innate drive in every cell of our body to press on at all costs. (Google “selfish gene.”) This is how one cell becomes two, and two becomes three (I could go on but I haven’t got time). Cells keep advancing to the trillion cells that finally make up us and when language came on-line a mere 75,000 or so years ago we started to translate that compulsion to improve with that inner monologue of “I should have,” “I could have,” “I’m going to screw up.” That old familiar tune.
Each of us internalizes the voices in our heads from our parents, who probably meant well, but these sentiments stay in there for a lifetime. It’s because most parents want to protect their children that you get an abundance of “you shouldn’t have . . . you should have,” otherwise the child might put their finger in a light socket and blow up. These corrective voices helped you survive as a child; later in life they can either drive you mad with their constant corrections and instructions or they can help you successfully navigate obstacles throughout your life, giving you a smoother ride.
There are parents who encourage their children with positive reinforcement and calming encouragement: “That’s right sweetheart, you did so well, why don’t we try it again and you’ll be even better?” These children, later in life, may see a close friend passing by who doesn’t acknowledge them, and their inner voice says, “Oh, too bad, Fiona must be preoccupied and she looks so lovely, I’ll call her later.” Those of us with parents trained by the Attila the Hun school of child rearing would react to this incident with, “Fiona hates my guts, that’s why she’s ignoring me. She found out I’m a moron, which I am.”
In my case, I would say the voices were somewhat harsh for a baby; they were less like suggestions and more like commando orders. My mother had a fear of dust so she’d have a sponge in each hand and two stuck to her knees (my mother was completely absorbent) and she’d crawl around behind me on all fours screaming, “Who puts footprints on a carpet? Are they criminally insane?” She probably wanted to protect me, from what I don’t know, but I was hermetically sealed in my house as a child; everything was wrapped in plastic, including my father, my grandmother, and the dog. Both my parents had to escape Nazi Austria in a laundry basket, just before “last orders” was shouted and the borders shut down so no one could leave the Fatherland. This probably is what made her so fearful, which she unconsciously projected onto dust balls. (They’re easier to blow away.) Whatever the case, I picked up the panic in her voice, and that sound has never left my head. So even though I’m not in Nazi Austria, the voices in my head are. Not anyone’s fault.
THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS
Revue de presse
I love this book more than I love Ruby. And that's saying quite a bit...in a loud, funny voice. Yes...I love this book. And I know books. And I know love. And Ruby's book is both. (Carrie Fisher)
Ruby Wax combats ignorance with knowledge, confusion with crystal clarity, prejudice with open-mindedness, rigidity with humour and slays the dragon of stigma in this superb introduction to the twenty-first century science of the mind. This book will be a turning point in our battle to bring parity of esteem to mental and physical health. Explaining in simple language the nature of mental disorder and describing evocatively what you can do about it, is a substantial contribution to making our society a better place. This manual for living must be read by everyone. (Peter Fonagy, Freud Memorial Professor of Psychoanalysis at UCL)
Ruby Wax is at her best in this wonderful book. Its acute observations are both extremely funny and deeply moving. Many people will be grateful for her courage, openness, humour and wisdom. (Mark Williams, author of Mindfulness)
In Sane New World, Wax touches upon her own anxieties and fears with honesty and humour...it royally hauls a stigmatised fact of life kicking and laughing into the open. (The Times)
The book does succeed as a 'life manual' exactly because it is Ruby Wax who has written it...her life-affirming humour carries it through on a tide of quirky jokes and separate anecdotes from her life. (Daily Express)
In this book, she puts her hilarity in service of the important message that we can change our own minds to live better lives. Her disquisition will be wonderfully helpful to those whose minds need changing, and wonderfully entertaining to everyone else. (Andrew Solomon, author of Far From the Tree)
Ruby Wax is brave, generous and hilarious - the perfect guide on a tour of the brain and how it workings affect our overall well-being. And she is passionate about our collective need to tap into the power of mindfulness to help still our minds in an age of speed, hyperconnectivity and distraction. (Arianna Huffington, New York Times-bestselling author of Thrive)
Finally -- a map for the troubled human mind. And it's funny. (Caitlin Moran, author of How to Be a Woman)
A very funny book about how to be calm and poised and not bonkers. (Helen Fielding, author of Bridget Jones's Diary)
Wonderful, painfully funny and instructive. (Allison Pearson, author of I Don't Know How She Does It)
I was both amused and educated by Ruby Wax's self-help look at our brains, and the ways they're out to get us, and what we can do about it. She's a smart and funny writer on a mission to help us help ourselves. I was impressed. (Neil Gaiman)
Witty, wise and thought-provoking. (Nigella Lawson)
Use this excellent book to navigate your mind and this world with new ease and wonder (Russell Brand)