Ruby Wax: I'm happier and calmer but don't call me mellow – I don't like that word
She may not have mellowed – but Ruby Wax is happier, calmer and knows when to hit the brakes. She talks to Hannah Stephenson about rage, marriage and avoiding burn-out
ALWAYS outspoken, frequently blunt, Ruby Wax made her name in the UK through her acerbic wit, channelling her anger and cynicism into comedy. Yet the spiky comedian, writer and mental-health campaigner, whose battle with depression has been well documented, has learned to develop an inner calm with the help of mindfulness, which she's practised for some time.
"Most importantly, it's helped me sense a depression coming before it hits... This doesn't mean I dodge it but now I'm ready for it. When I sense the tiny, far-off footsteps of despair, I batten down the hatches, swiftly unplugging from any contact with the rest of the world, both onscreen and in person," she writes in her latest self-help tome, How To Be Human: The Manual, which she penned with the help of a monk and a neuroscientist.
Today though, Wax (64) stops short of saying that she's mellowed.
"I don't really like that word. It shows an overall losing [of] your edge. I think my edge is better – but then I pull it back more. I still get angry about stuff but it subsides quicker," she continues. "If a traffic cop stops me, the full reptilian rage will hit, but it will go down quicker.
"Rage is addictive and it tastes good. You can repeat the story to regain the anger, but now I put the brakes on and don't repeat the story, unless it's funny. If you can turn it into comedy, your body's in great shape."
Following her one-woman Frazzled tour, based on her previous book, she'll be working on a new pilot show with material based on How To Be Human, which delves into evolution, why we think what we think and feel what we feel, exploring emotions, addictions, relationships, and a lot of other stuff in everyday life.
The monk and the neuroscientist will feature in the second half, in conversation with Wax, who herself has a master's degree in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy from Oxford University.
It may all sound a bit dry, but Wax is terrifically funny as she recounts her own flaws to get her points across in a laugh-out-loud way.
She says of her husband, TV producer and director Ed Bye: "I chose Ed because he had Grade-A sanity genes and I felt that would break the chain of thousands of years of Wax madness in one fell swoop."
They've been married for 28 years, after meeting when he directed her in the ITV comedy Girls On Top, with Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, and have three grown-up children.
In an age when more than one-in-three marriages ends in divorce, and celebrity partnerships are ever more tenuous, how has it worked for them?
"We have totally almost independent lives," she says simply. "He doesn't question what I do and he's funny. I mean, if I want to go out for dinner with my friends, I don't automatically have to bring Ed. I ask them if they want Ed to come. Ed doesn't even know some of my friends. I'm not a couple."
They have worked and lived together in relative harmony – but there have been many negotiations along the way.
"Life's a deal. Ed will cook and clear up when we have people over, but I invite everybody and make sure we pull this off, that everybody's happy.
"If something goes wrong, I'm the first person on the phone to really hit it hard, because I'm aggressive and he's not. If you have a situation where somebody has to be English, he steps in. You don't need an American to get on the phone and say, 'My phone hasn't been working for eight months' – it would be like letting loose an animal."
She took action to pre-empt the sadness she knew she would feel when the last of her children left home, booking her place at university before the last one exited, to avoid empty-nest syndrome.
"I kind of know when the party's over," she confesses. "But I am devastated - I want my kids to live at home now. They live 10 minutes from me but I love having all my kids at home."
Her own childhood was an unhappy one – her mother Bertha had OCD and was prone to screaming rages and hysterics, while her father, Edward Wachs, a wealthy sausage skin manufacturer, was angry and violent towards both wife and child.
For years, Wax believed her parents' relationship was horrendous. But some explanation was provided when she took part in the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? last year, and discovered the terror they had suffered as Austrian Jews at the hands of the Nazis just before the Second World War, which may have pushed them to the edge of sanity.
"The discovery didn't traumatise me. I found it really uplifting. If something's an epiphany, that's a good deal. I understood my roots. That's worth 50 years of therapy."
She admits it changed her feelings towards her parents.
"Now I understood who they were as people, as opposed to cartoon-like parents. I got an insight into what they were like when they were young. It helped me understand them and I don't have any animosity."
They escaped to Belgium and eventually stowed away on a boat to the US and ended up settling in Chicago, where Wax was born, although she has lived in the UK since she was 18.
Practising mindfulness has made her happy and calmer – except when she's handed a traffic ticket – and more able to focus her mind where she wants it to be.
Yet she admits that some of the time, she still goes through life at a mad pace.
"If I need to, yes I do, but when I start burning (out), I might notice it quicker and get out of there. It's like when you party hard, you know it and you have to go rest. Whereas a lot of people think it's endless and keep pushing. It's kind of like addiction.
"I have the facility to work really hard, but then I can tell when I'm starting to burn out – and then you gotta pull back. I know when I look tired – you don't have to tell me."
When she's going down mentally, she says she can't think. "It's like brain fog. It's like a car that's caught in mud. I used to push and push and then you really break the engine. But now I'll go, 'No, the brain is filled to capacity'. The trick is to learn to back off."
:: How To Be Human: The Manual by Ruby Wax is published by Penguin Life, priced £14.99.