A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled - Ruby Wax (2016)


Who am I?

For those of you who have absolutely no idea of who I am, here’s a short synopsis of my life so far …

I’m not one for blaming my parents for my depression (the nature/ nurture argument is ongoing), but here is a little background on them which may show I didn’t have a chance. Both of them escaped Austria in a bit of a rush: had they not stepped on it fast, I wouldn’t be writing this now because I wouldn’t exist; you’d be reading blank pages. Luckily, I come from a long line of Jewish people who spent their lives fleeing one country for the next, carrying our grandmothers and our coffee tables on our backs. The minute we set up camp somewhere, we’d have to flee again. I’ve inherited this syndrome of always moving on, searching for safety; trying, but never managing, to find home.

Once my parents hit those American shores, my father set up a sausage-casing empire and became known as the Casing King of Chicago. He was feared by all, especially those who were farm animals of the pork variety. Without going into too much detail, casings are made from pig intestines and encompass the blended-together bits of animal to make up a sausage. I was all set to inherit his empire, but politely declined.

My mother had a fear of dirt and spent most of her life on her knees chasing dustballs. Her method of child-rearing was based on Grimm’s Fairy Tales, in which children are cooked in a pie for not washing their hands before dinner, after having had their thumbs snipped off for good measure. For more details on my parents, such as how my mother used to hunt down crumbs across enormous land masses, I point you to my first book, How Do You Want Me?

My parents neither spared the rod nor spoiled the child. Whenever I was punished, I secretly made a list of how much money I would charge them for each mental assault. The bill was enormous. I was never reimbursed, but they did send me to summer camp, and paid to have my teeth straightened. I thought that was nice of them, so I reduced the debt.

I was happy for two months each summer, learning the spirit of competition, from tossing a javelin to the extreme sport of canoeing. We were told, if we were losing, not to be afraid to use a handgun. It was called Camp Agawak, which probably means ‘go for the jugular’ in Native American; and the message was: Beat the opposition at all costs. Conquer! Conquer! Conquer!

Meanwhile, in high school I was the class joke and was, charmingly, called ‘Tusks’, as my front teeth resembled those of a wildebeest. I had to wear braces for ten years to move them back into the same time zone as the rest of me. Needless to say, I was not an attractive child. Yes, I know it’s hard to believe, looking at me now.

As far as becoming a performer was concerned, I was not an instant success. In high school I was cast as ‘Earthworm’ in Hello, Dolly!. (It was not a big role.) But, with absolutely no experience or talent in my pocket, I moved to London, completely deluded, to become a great classical actress. I lived in a bedsit for the first ten years. The decor made it look like someone had haemorrhaged in there, and there was no heating, so I had to straddle my hairdryer to survive the frozen winters. I auditioned for every drama school but failed to get a place, despite the fact that I did a brilliant (in my mind) Juliet in a cardboard wimple that I made myself. (Never wear one: it’s impossible to walk through a doorway without ripping your neck off.)

Jump cut … I ended up, through sheer drive, getting into the Royal Shakespeare Company; through sheer drive, I made a career in television that lasted twenty-five years; through sheer drive, I married and created a family … and I drove myself so hard with that same sheer drive that, seven years ago, I crashed, burned and drove off the cliffs of sanity. Shortly thereafter, I was institutionalized and sat on a chair for months, too terrified to get up. I had suffered depression all my life, but this episode was the Big Kahuna.

My ‘aha’ moment came when I realized I had used my success as armour to cover the chaos inside me. I’d created a fabrication, like those smiling cardboard cut-outs of showgirls in Vegas. I was just a front; and, behind the front, no one was at home. I have noticed that celebrity is a fantastic antidote to a dysfunctional early life. However, after this deepest of deep depressions, I thought I’d cut the cord of show business and move on, which was smart, because I was, in any case, becoming less popular. (I knew things were slipping when I found myself cutting a red ribbon to open a Costa at Heathrow. Terminal Three.)

I thought it would be a good time to reinvent myself and, while I was at it, find out who, exactly, had been inhabiting my brain all those years. Jump cut, again … I started to study mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. I never do anything by half, so I did it at Oxford University and got my Masters, too – and before I forget, did I mention I was awarded an OBE this year? So maybe it was worth all the agony … but probably not.

A Mindfulness Guide for the FRAZZLED

‘What does she mean by this title?’ ‘Why has she picked this topic?’ ‘How much do you think she’s being paid for writing this book?’ ‘Do you think anyone will buy it?’ ‘How old is she saying she is now?’ ‘I never liked her TV shows.’

These are just some of the comments I’ve overheard from people who read my last book, Sane New World. Let me answer the first question: what do I mean by the title?

A neurobiologist might say that someone is ‘stuck in a state of “frazzle”.’ They mean that, for this person, constant stress is overloading their nervous system, flooding it with cortisol and adrenaline; their attention is fixed on what’s worrying them and not the job in hand, which can lead to burn-out. (I swear I didn’t know that ‘frazzled’ was a technical word when I came up with the title of this book, so I must be incredibly smart and intuitive.)

Second question: why did I pick this topic? Well, I have spent most of my waking hours (and some of the sleeping ones) in the Land of Frazzledom, so I feel qualified to act as an expert tourist guide, pointing out some of the more notable swamplands of confusion and self-doubt. Take comfort in knowing that you are not alone in these lands. I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re all in this together: many reside in the Land of Frazzledom, and we’re all trying to find some kind of exit route. I’ve also decided that, rather than spending our time complaining, or pointing our finger at problems outside in the world for making us feel so unhinged, we need to learn to navigate those sharp rocks of uncertainty and bewilderment. In this book, I’ll give you some recommendations for the best holiday destinations to rest and refuel.


It’s November, I’m in the Ritz Hotel, London, and my mind is in a kind of haze; a thick, grey fog. I’m not sure what brought me to this event, or even how I got here. I ask what charity it’s in aid of. A large, moustachioed woman in a cat-hair cardigan tells me: ‘Save the puffin’. She happens to be the spokesperson for the charity and later gives a moving speech, in that ‘wee’ Scottish brogue, about how difficult it is for puffins to land on the rocks in the Orkneys because of the strong winds, and that once they have managed to land and lay their (one) egg, they have big problems stopping it blowing away. No mention of global warming, just that the birds can’t land there any more.

The world is melting down, and I’m listening to someone talking about how hard puffins have it. I have to restrain myself from shouting, Why don’t you just ship them all to Miami? End of problem.

Every three to five years, this fog would come down and I would have a spell of depression … but they didn’t have a name for it back then. It was called ‘having a turn’ – or a ‘whoopsie’, as my parents liked to call it. So, for example, they would say my mother was having a ‘whoopsie’ when she was cleaning the ceiling with a wet wipe. I could never tell when I’d flipped, but a big clue was that I’d end up at events like the Save the Puffin one I’ve just described above. I probably kept up a frenzy of activity to show the world and myself that nothing was wrong with me and that my behaviour was perfectly normal. I was trying to disguise the fact that I had lost my mind. It was like putting a plaster over a tumour.

Another time, shortly after the puffin event that November, I found myself about to do a scuba dive under Brighton Pier as part of my diver’s licence. I was frozen blue, my teeth were clanging, weights were being added to my belt … and then I dropped in a straight line to thirty feet below and found myself looking at a shopping trolley and a flip-flop. Where were the reefs? The parrotfish? It seemed to me that other people got those things in their life, but all I got was a trolley and a flip-flop …

Now, a little background on how I came to study mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. The only reason – and, I repeat, the only reason – I went for it was because of the impressive scientific evidence proving that it has the highest success rate in treating a whole pot-pourri of physical and mental disorders.

I chose to study it because I had been taken to the cleaners by every psychological intervention known to man (and woman), from plain vanilla therapy (where I talked about how nuts my parents were for so long I turned it into a one-woman show) to alternative therapeutic bizarreties such as hitting a pillow with a bat for three days while calling it Daddy, then giving it a funeral, burying it and mourning it. I’m ashamed to say I did do a session of rebirthing, where they stuck me in a bathtub with a snorkel and, afterwards, pulled me out by my heels. (It was just as bad as the first time around.) Don’t get me going, but I also went to a person who wore medieval attire and said she channelled Merlin yet spoke in her own San Diego accent, albeit with some ‘thou’s and ‘m’lud’s thrown in. Her husband, in jerkin, tights, and octopus hat with jester bells, served mead. (I could go on, but it’s for another book.) Call me crazy, but after all this, I decided that science was the best way forward.

So, after my last bout of depression seven years ago, I promised myself I’d learn to somehow lasso my wild mind and take some action. Obsessed, I plunged into research mode, scouring science journals and papers. Here’s what I found. With depression alone, for those who’ve had three or more episodes, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy yields a 60 per cent chance of preventing relapse. What really hooked me was the fact that you do it on your own: no running to shrinks shouting, ‘Fix me!’ at all hours … and the best news of all is: it’s free (being a Jew, for me that’s half the cure). Initially, I thought that ‘mindfulness’ meant sitting erect on a hillock, your legs in a knot, humming a mantra that was probably the phone book sung backwards. But I was still prepared to give it a whirl.

Let me make it clear that I take medication for my depression, just as you would for any other physical illness. However, if antidepressants carried a guarantee, no one would ever relapse, and yet most of us do … many times. This is why I’ve added meditation to my medication. Think of it as wearing two condoms: double protection.

I hope I’m not sounding too evangelical; mindfulness works for me, but each one of us has a different fingerprint and you should follow whatever works for you. If you want to crawl to Lourdes and smooch Our Lady’s feet and it makes you feel better, go for it.

Anyway, I happened to have recently received my Masters in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy from Oxford. (Can I please start calling it MBCT? It gets tiring spelling it all out the whole time.) So that’s why this book is about MBCT.

What’s between the Covers?

Chapter 1: Why FRAZZLED? All this evolution, and we’re still not perfect. Even though we’re up on all twos, can miraculously balance on seven-inch heels and have the largest brain of all in the animal kingdom, we’re still half cooked.

This chapter is about us, and why our wisdom isn’t up to speed.

Chapter 2: Mindfulness: Who? What? Why? What is this thing called mindfulness, and why would we need it? What, in our own brains, is keeping us from that elusive concept ‘happiness’?

Chapter 3: How Our Brains Work and the Science behind Mindfulness In this chapter, I show off how smart I am, giving neurological evidence as to why MBCT is so effective when dealing with stress. By stress, I don’t mean you had a bad-hair day, I mean the stress that eventually helps to shorten your life.

Chapter 4: A Depressing Interlude I had a bit of a depression after writing Chapter 3, so, after a long gap, I wrote Chapter 4 … It will all make sense when you read it.

Chapter 5: The Six-week Mindfulness Course MBCT is normally taught in an eight-week training course. After that, it’s up to you to practise what you have learnt. It’s no longer about running to someone and asking them to help patch up your broken psyche; now you are in charge. I’ll provide an easy and amusing six-week MBCT course. (In case you’re worried, my interpretation of the course has been approved by my professor at Oxford, Mark Williams, a co-founder of the discipline of MBCT; I didn’t just make it up last night and think, ‘What the hell, who’s going to find out?’)

Chapter 6: The Social Mind: Mindful Relationships This chapter is all about using mindfulness to improve relationships with friends, family, community, country and the world. We only survive and flourish because of others, so I’d say that skilful bonding is probably the number-one skill to go for. Basically, this chapter contains my top tips on empathy.

Chapter 7: Mindfulness for Parents, Babies and Children In this chapter I will offer some mindfulness exercises for parents to use with their children, and for parents to use on themselves. (Before we even get to the kids, we have to fix the parents. If they aren’t aware of their own issues, their kids don’t stand a chance.)

Chapter 8: Mindfulness for Older Kids and Teenagers If you try to give any advice to your teen, you’ll be as effective as an irritating, buzzing mosquito that just won’t die. The only way they’ll deign even to think about the benefits of being able to focus their mind and lower their stress level is if they suss that it’ll help them to deal with peer pressure, exam pressure and every other pressure that breaks out during that hailstorm of hormones. I’m also including a bit about mindfulness in schools: the successful and widely used .b (dot b) programme.

Chapter 9: Mindfulness and Me In this chapter I’ll be putting my money where my mind is by having my brain scanned before and after an intensive silent retreat which involves seven hours of mindfulness practice a day. I’ll be keeping a journal throughout my silence … unless they take my pen away.

Appendices A couple of scientific bits to back me up.

… and finally, some Notes from a Madwoman: Throughout this book I’ll be dropping in snippets of personal stories. When I do this, you’ll know, because it will look like this.