As a self-confessed poster girl for mental illness, Ruby Wax was treated in the Priory for severe depression and now she uses mindfulness training to keep her mood stable.
The central tenet of mindfulness is being in the moment and the NOW festival is championing the arts as a way of being completely aware of the moment and enjoying what it brings.
Wax studied mindfulness at Oxford University with renowned pioneer of the technique Professor Mark Williams. ‘If I practice everyday I can see my emotional landscape a bit clearer and see when my depression is coming back in its early stages,’ Wax says. ‘I only had my depression once it overtook me and then it was too late so now I can see it early and do something about it and get over it’.
Sometimes she does it on the Tube for only three minutes. ‘It’s just observing your emotions and thoughts but with practice you eventually start to notice thoughts just come and go, they don’t stick and they’re just ambient noise. It means I can shut down my thoughts and sleep. The thoughts are always there, they can’t shut off but they become less prominent.
‘Mindfulness is my substitute for therapy now and it’s free,’ says Wax. ‘Some people do Tai Chi, other people have that skill naturally to be able to calm it down before it overtakes you but not people that are driven, otherwise they wouldn’t be driven.
‘When you’re driven you don’t have any gauges for when you are going too far until something like a breakdown or a depression happens so you keep pushing it and pushing it. Now I can see the point where I am not just being creative but heading for burnout then I put the brakes on and clear my brain. Doing the mindfulness helps me see the signals early’.
Has mindfulness training changed how she deals with her mental health? ‘Now if I feel the early signs of depression coming on, instead of what I used to do which was just work harder, act normal and have a thousand dinner parties and invite people I don’t even like, I cancel everything and go somewhere on my own so my cortisol [stress hormone] levels can come down. Then I can get over it quicker. Last time I went to a retreat that cost £29 a night. I don’t want to pay for an institution once it’s got really bad because that is expensive so I catch it early and manage to save some cash’.
For Wax, it would be a great thing if the subject of mental health went the way of the gay movement. ‘If spontaneously, mental health problems could become like the gay movement and people just ‘came out’ about having mental illness – and there are more with mental illness than gay people – then everyone has to deal with it. It’s the same thing as ‘coming out’ because it’s nothing to be ashamed of,’ she said.
How can we be more open about mental illness then? ‘It’s only okay to say ‘mad’ if you have mental illness yourself. It’s like calling a black guy a derogatory name, if you’re black you can do it, calling yourself mad if you’re mentally ill is the equivalent of making a Jewish joke when you’re Jewish. But if you’re trying to comfort someone, one thing not to say is ‘Perk up,’ that’s the first commandment – it’s like saying that to someone with cancer’.
Find out more about mindfulness in Healthista’s Healthypedia
Ruby’s pics by Belinda Lawley
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