Ruby Wax: I’m not as well as I thought I was

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You probably know Ruby Wax as a brash, forthright, no-holds-barred American comedian. You might not know she has also acted with the Royal Shakespeare Company, toured the world filming television documentaries – and has on two occasions spent time in a psychiatric clinic.

Ruby has documented her latest stay in a mental institution in her book I’m Not As Well As I Thought I Was which is out in paperback.

She has also turned her experience into a stage show which she will be performing in both Nottingham and Derby. She admits she found the process difficult.

“(The stage show) can’t be similar to the book because it has to have movement and it has to stay snappy. You’re getting a theatrical version. It’s like watching any show. It’s very beautiful and it works. You take a journey with me rather than reading about it.”

Some comedians these days look to unusual material for their live shows. January’s Country Images interviewee Ed Byrne’s show Tragedy Plus Time is about the death of his brother.

So, I ask Ruby, can a show about mental health be funny?

“I don’t do tragedy and I’ve done this kind of show for maybe 30 years. I don’t use something like death – I use my mental state and if that’s not good, it’s not good. But it’s always a springboard for people saying ‘oh that’s like me, that’s my story’.”

Ruby Wax OBE was born Ruby Wachs on 19 April 1953 and was raised in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago. Her parents Edward and Berthe were Austrian Jews who left Vienna in 1938 to escape the Nazis. Her father changed the spelling of the family surname when they arrived in Illinois.

She majored in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley but left after a year without completing her degree.

She moved to the UK and studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow.

When she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company she appeared alongside acting legend Alan Rickman. “He said you’d better start doing comedy because you’re a cr*p actress!” recalls Ruby who agreed with him.

“My skin felt really uncomfortable, especially with an English accent.”

So why did she want to go into acting?

“It was a fantasy. Every child wants to be maybe not a classical actress but they want to be famous. I wanted to do Shakespeare. But it was an illusion.”

She took Rickman’s advice, auditioned for the BBC and appeared in an episode of the satirical TV show Not The Nine O’Clock News. That led to her appearing in the ITV sitcom Girls On Top. She played loud-mouthed, gaudily dressed American actress Shelley DuPont and appeared with Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.

Ruby wrote the scripts with Dawn and Jennifer and later became script editor on their biggest hit Absolutely Fabulous.

Her career changed direction again when BBC bosses decided she should present documentaries. “I did Louis Theroux-type documentaries before Louis. I interviewed snake handlers, women who sold their ex on the internet, I did Russia during Glasnost – really interesting. They let me do what I wanted. And then they said do celebrities which was never as satisfying.”

She interviewed everyone from Donald Trump to First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos, OJ Simpson to Madonna. She cites Carrie Fisher who played Princess Leia in the original Star Wars films as the best person she interviewed.

“She was really smart and we became friends. It was a great relationship. If someone’s really funny or witty, then I pick it up.”

But throughout her career Ruby has suffered from depression. She didn’t realise she was going through mental health problems until she was pregnant with her third child.

“The doctor mentioned it and I was surprised. I wasn’t expecting that.”

In I’m Not As Well As I Thought I Was, Ruby explains she had a difficult relationship with her parents. Her mother was “disappointed that I wasn’t beautiful and didn’t have a model-like figure” while her father “told people he only sent me to drama school because it cost less than having me committed to a mental institution”.

She describes a session with a psychiatrist who proclaims she was never taught by her parents that she was valuable in her own right.

“It’s not a guide to how to be a great parent,” says Ruby. “They just shouted a lot and tried to punish me like the way you train a dog. They thought that was right. They didn’t know any better.”

Ruby says she didn’t find it difficult writing about her second visit to a psychiatric hospital.

I’ve spent a lifetime creating a ‘front’ to give the illusion that all is well. It wasn’t and it isn’t.

“I was really good at recording what happened because I can’t make up stories. I don’t have fiction at my fingertips. I wrote it pretty quickly after I got out.”

Her first incarceration in a mental health clinic left her with “a depression the size of South America”. It took her five months to recover. Twelve years later she sought help again and “the veil of doom” seemed to be lifting after five weeks.

She says in the book: “I’ve spent a lifetime creating a ‘front’ to give the illusion that all is well. It wasn’t and it isn’t.”

She agrees that it’s a common problem: “I think everybody has a front. We show that everything is okay. Otherwise it would be a mess. It’s just that when you work with famous people you get a bigger front and you want to defend yourself against possible criticism.”

Ruby has been fascinated with mental illness since she was young and discovered she came from a long line of mentally ill relatives. She has been open about her struggles with bipolar disorder and depression, making an online series on mental health issues for the BBC and working with mental health charities. In 2015 she was appointed an OBE for services to mental health.

When I ask whether enough is being done these days to tackle the problems of mental illness, she replies: “I’m doing as much as I can. I have my Frazzled Café charity where people can talk about what’s going on for them. I think that’s a good way of not burdening your friends or your family. There’s no more I can do. I think the public know there’s a problem.”

Ruby Wax [image: Charlie Clift]

But what needs to be done in this country to make things better?

“I don’t know. I don’t make political statements. I think everybody has to do what their mission is. I’ve written books, I’ve talked about it, I’ve created charities, so that was my mission.”

Ruby praises her husband Ed Bye, a television and film producer and director, for standing by her and being her rock. Now, after two spells in an institution, is Ruby more positive about the future?

“No. I have this disease. It’s going to come again. It’s just when it’s going to come. Usually when I’m okay I’m quite positive. I happen to have a glitch, that’s all. When you have a glitch you don’t see the world clearly. The lenses are blurred.”

But she has no worries about the possibility of having to call off any dates on her tour: “I’ve been touring for five years and I’ve never missed a show. I enjoy doing it – I’m not being forced to do something I don’t like. I’m really happy on tour and meeting people.”

If anyone reads Ruby’s book or goes to see her show, what would she like them to take away from it? With her tongue firmly in her cheek she replies: “They would think how talented I am!”

  • I’m Not As Well As I Thought I Was by Ruby Wax is published in paperback at £10.99 by Penguin Life
  • The I‘m Not As Well As I Thought I Was live tour by Ruby Wax and Impatient Productions visits Nottingham Playhouse on Wednesday 29th May and Derby Theatre on Thursday 12th September

* This article originally appeared in Country Images magazine

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