Always on a mission, Ruby Wax’s latest venture saw her travel the globe in search of ‘good news’ and hope. She tells Gabrielle Fagan all about it.
Ruby Wax has never been afraid to swim against the tide, finding fame as a comedian and showcasing her sharp one-liners and sarcastic quips on Nineties TV series like Ruby Wax Meets.
She’s been open about her struggles with depression, and in more recent years has become an acclaimed campaigner for mental health awareness.
Even so, her latest cause – trying to persuade us that there is some ‘good news’ and hope to be found, at a time when the world seems beset with gloom and fear – seems a challenge.
“I know what you’re thinking, is it some kind of macabre joke? Has she been in a coma? How can Ruby Wax write a book about good news when the world is facing the worst disaster since the plague?” says Wax, whose book is chirpily titled And Now For The Good News…To The Future With Love.
It’s the result of three years of research by Wax, 67, who visited a huge array of organisations, businesses and communities trying to work in different, kinder ways and promote more people and planet-friendly attitudes.
The pandemic has actually made the book all too timely, she believes, because “we need hope so that we can overcome the fear and the bad news agenda that is besetting us all the time and makes us so stressed. We need to know even more that there are positive things out there,” says Wax, “and what’s possible if we look at the world differently.
“Even making tiny changes can add up and promote change. My book offers a directory of possibilities for people.”
Her quest for “green shoots of hope” took her all over the world. “I figured there must be innovators that are creating a new paradise, and I’m going to find them.”
In Finland, she visited progressive schools where empathy and wellbeing are taught. She was particularly impressed by outdoor clothing company Patagonia, based in California, where there’s an on-site creche for emplyees’ children: “I’d work there tomorrow – there’s such an air of joy and you can hear the children laughing and people work harder as a result.”
While she feared she’d be “out of my mind with anxiety” joining volunteers at a refugee camp on the Greek island of Samos, the opposite happened.
“Talk about happy, you’re facing people who really need you and the minute you turn on that kindness and compassion thing, your whole body feels good, and people return that goodness,” she confides.
“I did all these things because I needed to walk the walk, to really see people who are living and working in different ways and those who are helping others.”
Her most emotional moment came at a school in Hertfordshire, where children, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, learn about emotions as well as academic topics. “They practise mindfulness and how deal with issues like bullying in a thoughtful way. At the end of my visit, they gave me a card and 600 of them sang to me. I don’t cry, but that brought me to my knees in tears,” she recalls.
It’s a far cry from the glamour of those days in television as an award-winning chat show host and presenter, which she left without regret. “I don’t miss it at all, because I’m not that person any more. I’m like a butterfly who came out of a cocoon. I would have been finished at some point anyway, but luckily I reinvented myself.”
Wax studied psychotherapy and in 2013 graduated from Oxford with a master’s degree in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.
“It would be tough for someone to take my job now, whereas in TV, you’re replaced all the time. There’s always a blonde coming up the track behind you. Nobody can take away from me what I do now, because I studied and can switch it into comedy,” says Wax, who’s written three books on mental health which she transformed into hugely successful stage shows.
She delivers speeches and advice on mindfulness in the workplace to major organisations, from Facebook and Apple to Google, and in 2017 launched her Frazzled Café charity, where people can meet at designated cafés and share their stories and struggles.
She’s been joining sessions via Zoom during lockdown, which she says has been hugely therapeutic.
“We’re all strangers on there, all colours and ages, but we have a united purpose to listen to one another. There’s no distractions and everyone’s honest. There’s none of those crap dinner party conversations, where it’s like, ‘This is my job, therefore I am…’.
“Nobody asks what you do and we don’t talk about the news. You can feel compassion coming off the screen and it really calmed my heart down, so all the hysteria of the day would go. Talking is a way of calming the chaos. Human beings were born to bond and this is the proof.”
She believes a positive effect of the pandemic is that more people have discovered how showing kindness and compassion to our neighbours and community “makes you feel good – and that motivation can spread like a virus but in a positive way and help us feel connected.”
Wax safeguards her own mental health with “mindfulness and medication” and is adept at recognising warning signs of a depressive attack. “I cut off from social media, leave town, and don’t socialise… now I know it’s a disease and when it’s coming, I take care,” she says.
She says her parents – she’s previously described growing up in an emotionally abusive family – would have been astonished at the girl they called a ‘loser’ achieving so much.
“When I explored my family history through TV’s Who Do You Think You Are?, I understood more about them escaping Nazi-controlled Austria and that so many of my relatives were mentally ill. My mother, I realise, was mentally ill rather than mean. I sort of forgive them now,” she says philosophically.
Her husband of 32 years, television and film producer Ed Bye, has been unwavering in his support, and accommodates her long absences to write and travel.
“He’s very important to my happiness – whatever I do, like this book, he’s got my back and is behind me. He knows I can never stop trying stuff and experimenting,” Wax says fondly. “I never thought my marriage would last this long, but he’s such a nice guy, and ‘nice’ isn’t really something that’s included in my gene pool. He brings the niceness, I bring the humour.”
They have three children, and Wax adds with a smile: “I chose my husband for his seeds of sanity. I think I come from a long line of madness but his family were military and could deal with life in the trenches, so I thought with that background, he could probably deal with me. My kids are totally normal, so it obviously worked!”
She will soon set off to live in Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland, for a new book about “finding meaning in a world without any. I want to find where I can have a better life and know what makes me happy.”
It will mean another stint away from her home and family, but she’s as focused as ever on experiencing and writing about different ways of living. “I’d like to have ‘she tried’ written on my gravestone,” Wax says simply.
And Now For The Good News… To The Future With Love by Ruby Wax is published by Penguin, priced £14.99. Available now.