A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled - Ruby Wax (2016)
Chapter 4. A Depressing Interlude
I wrote the last few words up to about here in my book on 9 November 2014. I picked it up again on 25 January 2015. In that gap of time, after a respite of seven years, I had another episode of depression. I was never cocky enough to imagine that it would never return; I knew it would. I just thought that, with the mindfulness, I’d be able to feel it coming. That’s one of the many bitches of depression: because it’s your brain that is ill, you can’t stand back and take an objective, clear view like you could if your foot was hanging off at the ankle. I knew there was no magic pill; all I wanted was to be ready for it when it pounced out of the shadows again. But of course it moves into you so slowly and stealthily that you think it’s just who you’ve become; like a wrinkle you get used to and now think was always there.
I was in America to promote my book and perform my show. Working there has never been good for my health. There are triggers everywhere; mental booby-traps. I associate being in America with it being the land of my failure. Due to early parental mismanagement, I only ever did one thing successfully, and that was to get out. I’m not saying my parents shouldn’t have emigrated to America, because if they hadn’t I wouldn’t be here, tapping on these keys, but whenever I hit those sunny shores, I’m overwhelmed with the feeling that I’m a big disappointment to everyone, starting with the guys at customs control. I won’t go into what happened during the book tour – I’ll have flashbacks and be re-traumatized … oh, okay, I’ll tell you.
I started my journey to publicise my book Sane New World in New York on 5 November 2014. Everyone tells me they love New York; to me, it’s a gang rape on the senses. I want to confess to war crimes after being kept up all night, listening to trash trucks clanging and endless honking. I took the subway late one night after a show, waited two hours for the right train and witnessed bedlam; feral people howled like wolves and some guy, completely naked, was playing air banjo. When the train finally came at 1.30 a.m., I stood crammed into it like the way they cram battery chickens into boxes when they’re being shipped off to be executed. I went to Broadway, where tourists from hell elbow you off the sidewalk to get in front. (In front of what, I don’t know.) Imagine every race in the world elbowing each other. It’s like the Olympics, where every nation brings out their best and sharpest elbowers. It’s not pretty: some countries end up lying in the gutter; others are crushed by the stronger ones. I kept hearing the English saying, ‘Sorry, sorry’; they were almost going backwards they were so bad at pushing. To calm myself down, I went to a nail bar. All of America has been hit by a plague of nail bars where they try to tear your cuticles off and sandpaper the bottom of your feet. (This is a common method of torture used in Guantanamo Bay.) I asked for a back massage and was skinned by a man in two minutes.
From New York, I flew to Los Angeles, where Carrie Fisher interviewed me about my book and, because I’ve known her for thirty-five years and love her, it was like having sex in public. That was the last of the good experiences.
The following morning I was picked up for my first interview in LA. The drive took one hour to get to a mall filled with yet more nail bars. There, among them, was a shoddy vitamin shop. I walked through it, and in the back behind a beaded curtain was my interviewer: a withered man with three hairs and dandruff holding a microphone. He opened with his theory that you can cure prostate cancer with green tea. He then shouted, ‘Make-up!’ as if it was a standing joke, because of course there weren’t even any chairs, let alone a make-up room. The man who held the home camera to film us was near death, his hands shaking so badly I’m sure we looked like a blur. The first question was: which supplements or tinctures did I think cured mental illness? I mentioned something about the brain, and he had no idea what I was referring to. There was a lunatic called Mr Chuckles, wearing a hat with a propeller on top, waiting to go on after me. He told me he was a comedy writer, like me. He had a Looney Tunes smile and a voice like he was sucking on helium. On the way out I was given some free cancer-cure vitamins and a book called I Eat Green Food. The person who was supposed to drive me back ran out of electricity for her electric car and needed to find a plug. That was it. I begged Mr Chuckles to give me a ride back to LA.
My next interview was with a corpse: a woman who had died ten years ago was glued upright in her chair. Her first words were something about lamb chops. I have no idea what else was said. Afterwards, I was driven to the wrong terminal so I missed a plane and had to get a later one that landed in Philadelphia at one in the morning. When I got to the airport hotel they told me they were overbooked, so they got someone to drive me to another hotel on another galaxy in the middle of nowhere. It was worth it to hear one of the great lines of my life, from my driver: ‘Well, the good news is it’s near a Denny’s.’ (Denny’s, for those who aren’t in the know, is a place to get eggs all night after you’ve been up snorting horse tranquillizers.) My room had footprints on the walls and on the ceiling and deep, dark stains on everything.
Having finished a triumphant book tour (I sold four books), I went to Harvard, where I was to do my Sane New World show. Luckily, the theatre I was performing in was about six feet from the apartment I was given, so even I could manage to navigate that gap to get backstage. I know it didn’t help that the audiences were thinning each night. I coined a new phrase for it: ‘the balding venue’. I’d see the little bemused, but not so amused, faces of the members of the audience the moment the show began. They didn’t know when to laugh or cry, because many of my people in America (I know this from my childhood) don’t know that you can do both at the same time. I knew how, because that’s how I lived: by crying and laughing at the same time. It’s a skill set I’ve always had and, fortunately, when I got to the UK I realized it had a name: irony. In retrospect, I should have held up signs during my performance reading: ‘This is funny’ and ‘This isn’t funny.’ Perhaps I should have used a laugh track. One thing was certain: the show wasn’t going well either. At the end of my set I’d hear a few claps and try not to burst with heartbreak. Then I’d run home and hide under the duvet.
I assumed I had that feeling of being empty and invisible because I was alone and it was snowing a lot. (See how you delude yourself when you’re mentally unwell?) Each day it got worse, but I wasn’t aware of what was happening, I just kept thinking it was because it was snowing harder. My fear levels went way up (why I would connect this to snow I have no idea), so much so that I shook when I had to go down the block to buy milk.
I didn’t even realize I had depression when it stopped snowing. To use up the daylight hours, I’d take a taxi (I was too scared to walk) to some herbal treatment rooms I had found which had grungy, bubbling, wooden hot tubs and slime on the floor. Everyone was really nice and didn’t question why I spent my days sitting in reception. There was a woman at the desk who, normally, I’d have used as material for an episode of Absolutely Fabulous; she looked like she was wearing a dream-catcher and had a voice that sounded like windchimes. In my current state I loved her because she was nice to me, asking me every few minutes if I wanted any Yrikikimototo bark tea from Papua New Guinea. She never asked me why I sat in reception for seven days, with no appointment. That’s how spiritual – and bad at her job – she was.
Did I mention that my computer broke down? I went to the Genius bar and they said it was a mystery. Like a computer poltergeist had got into my hard drive and wiped everything I’d ever written. Maybe I unconsciously decided to keep it company, so my brain also got wiped. I bought a new computer in a mall and then decided to buy food from those stores that have bowling alleys full of salad bars. I ended up walking through the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts with my two bags; one holding the computer and all the accessories, the other 500lbs of frozen yogurt and Oreos. At last a taxi picked me up, and I spent the rest of the evening knocking on doors, asking if I lived there.
Eventually, it ended. I don’t know how I got back to the UK, but a week later I found myself on a flight to Norway. I had accepted this gig six months earlier, when it was warm and sunny.
Now it’s early December and I’m on a plane, mentally gone but holding on to a ticket and a change of underwear. After many hours and a few internal transfers, I realize we’re going way into the Arctic Circle to a place I didn’t even know you could travel to without a husky. When I get off the plane it is pitch black (it always is, I found out later). Then, when I leave the airport, my luggage is torn out of my hands by the wind-chill factor (78,965,463) and the skin on my face is ripped off. It’s like having dermabrasion with a chainsaw.
The town they take me to is not made up of cute, white clapboard houses but is a hard-core industrial oil/ fish refinery-looking thing that reminds me of Chernobyl. I’m placed in a minimalist hotel, and when I say that, I mean no furniture and long rooms like in The Shining. They’d given me an all-white suite with a white runway which ended in a dead plant. Did I mention that the heating didn’t work and the restaurant had closed, never to be opened again?
In the morning there was no breakfast so I went into the kitchen and stole food like a squirrel. The sun never rose, not at ten in the morning or one in the afternoon: never. The wind howled all night and the rain pelted on my windows. It was like standing under Niagara Falls with a piece of aluminium foil over your head. At that point, even with the depression, I started to laugh. It felt like a tiny space or chink in my brain had opened up and let in some light. I could see what was funny about all this. I was taken to a concrete Soviet Bloc building to do my show. There I was in this depressing atmosphere, talking to about six hundred people (who were probably depressed) about depression.
When I got back to London they lost my luggage again. For no apparent reason, it had been sent to Copenhagen.
I’m sitting here now in my bedroom, feeling the darkness descend, blocking out all thought. At least when I practise mindfulness I’m able to separate myself a little from all those abusive thoughts which are trying to bomb me to total destruction. With the mindfulness practice, I can say, ‘There is depression’ rather than ‘I’m depressed.’ It’s the little things that count. I’m trying to ride the wave rather than go under. Wish me luck.
Some Time Later
I don’t remember much from then on, except someone suggesting I go to the Priory. I presumed I’d get a special discount for doing so much publicity for them and mentioning them in my last book. (No matter how mentally ill I am, I can always think about discounts.)
Here’s where the mindfulness came in handy. This time, I knew I was ill. I knew I wasn’t being a wanker and making it up. It took me a while, but I knew not to punish myself. It had only taken a few weeks to recognize my depression, rather than months, so I had done well. I submitted to the full weight of mental deadness; I gave in and just let it take me over. I succumbed, forgave myself and didn’t scream at myself to ‘fucking perk up’. I just accepted it. The fact that I could forgive myself for having a disease without also having to deal with the commentary savaging me for having the nerve to have something wrong with me when I have enough food to eat and an actual Prada bag was a start. In the centre of my dead brain I knew this was real and it had got me. For now.
It passed much more quickly than any of my other depressions because I knew not to get anxious about being anxious, fearful about feeling fear, or depressed about being depressed. Just by doing that I could dodge the second layer of pain, because I knew that, while the disease itself is real, that second layer is self-induced. This time, I was only in for a week, then I went home to bed and waited it out. After that, my daughter took care of me, understanding that it was too terrifying for me even to get tea. I also found out, for the first time, that I could write while being like this. So while I waited it out, not knowing if I would ever be ‘me’ again, I wrote this.
10 December 2014
Depressed … no end in sight. I suppose this is my brain saying, ‘You went too far, you pushed me too far, and now I’m shutting for the season. I’m going to shut you down, make sure you can’t do anything even if you try.’ In a way, it’s survival: when your thoughts have declared war on you and you feel friendless, hated and forgotten, the brain just shuts down, leaving a hazy blur, a fog. I’ve been in the fog for about a week. It feels like I’ve been reunited with an evil, lost relative, someone from my past I can vaguely recognize – and then it comes to me: oh yes, it’s depression. I remember now. When you’re well, you can’t remember you ever had it. Probably your mind ingeniously erases it from your memory because it’s too frightening for you to contemplate it ever coming back. And now that my depression is back in town I have that ‘aha’ moment that this is what it is. This feeling of being estranged from my body and mind is depression. Of course.
This time, it’s different from any of my past episodes. At this point, when I’d had depression in the past, I’d be panicking that my old self was gone – my old personality was lost and this new, deader one had come to replace it. But even in this chaos now I sort of know this is temporary, I just happen to have this disease and this loss of identity is part of it; my mind is just out of the office for a minute.
I always knew some day it would come back. I know there’s no miracle cure, so I tried to get ready for it by practising mindfulness, and maybe this is why I have an overview rather than being stuck in blackness with no view.
Oh my God, does my heart go out to people with depression who have to go to work and feel what I’m feeling! To have to drag the heavy weight and then try to hide it in case people think you’re wallowing in some phantom sickness. The horror that, if someone asked you to tell them what the matter was, you couldn’t. No one is as cruel to those of us who have depression as ourselves. We keep ourselves going even when we’re broken. It’s like beating a dying animal to keep it moving. I’m amazed that so many people keep on going into work and trying to act as if everything’s okay. They should be knighted or given something like a Purple Heart for their bravery, because that is the most difficult thing on earth when you’re depressed: to have to keep acting like a human when you don’t feel like one any more.
I’m fortunate that I can just sit this out, because I don’t have a nine-to-five job. I can just lie here. I’m babysitting myself: waiting, waiting, for the gigantic thing that has blocked out the sun to move away.
I can’t read, I’m not funny, I can’t really speak, get up or go for a walk. But this time I’m not fearful about having depression; having studied it, I know this is what it is. Nor am I ashamed, feeling that I’m making this up and could ‘snap out’ of it. Fear is a symptom of the disease; I feel I’m in full emergency mode because chemicals have started to flood my brain and cause havoc. You can’t think your way out of this disease: it has you; you don’t have it. I have to keep telling myself that this is not my fault, that there is no difference between the mental and physical, it’s a reality that our brain and body are symbiotically interconnected. This is why there’s such a stigma about mental illness: it’s not taken seriously. But imagine if I reacted to someone telling me they had Lupus (the disease everyone has, every week, on House) by saying, ‘Oh, well, that’s only physical – snap out of it.’
I did force myself to go for a walk yesterday, and it felt as if, with every step, I would fall through the earth. I tried to be like a good mother; I kept saying to myself how well I was doing, that even to be outside was a triumph. So I’m still scared, but not scared that I’m losing my mind, because I know this is depression and these are the traits that come with it. I know this monster, I’ve studied it and I know how deep its roots are in me, leaching my energy out of me. I know all this, and yet the anthem of all depressives plays in my mind, repeating, ‘How long will this last? How long will this last?’ It’s hard for me to write this and come up with words and sentences, because it feels like there’s no one at the wheel of the ship. I’m pushing myself to keep going so I can remember what it feels like, and so that everyone else who suffers with this knows to be able to say, ‘This is not my imagination. I am not being self-indulgent.’
19 December 2014
A week ago, I left the institution for the bemused and bewildered. The dictator who lives in my head still barks and bullies me to get off my ass, but this time I have an excuse, a note from my shrink that verifies I’m sick. I don’t have to go to school, or anywhere else. I’m still swamped by those recordings in my brain: every time I get a blast of one of those ‘I should’s or a memory of screwing up it feels like someone’s sticking a syringe in my heart and squirting something toxic straight into an artery. I try to deflect or accept those painful ‘I should’s. It’s if I’m babysitting myself, trying to soothe a sick child.
21 December 2014
When you have a physical illness, there’s often an explanation. You might say to yourself, ‘Of course I feel terrible, I have an infection/ a virus’ (pick one). One thing you could say about dementia is that at least you might be the last to know that something’s wrong; with depression, you’re completely aware that you’re gone and that’s what’s left of you: a zombie who can only steer you into the bathroom and find food. That’s about it.
25 January 2015
I woke up, and it was gone!! As sneakily as the monster came in, it left and I could almost imagine it was a bad dream – but then I realized I had really not been outside and had physical evidence to prove it: bedhead hair and rotting pyjamas. Like an animal after a long hibernation, I peeked out and saw the scenery clearly, and there was light. Then the phone rang, and it was the publisher of this book, who said, ‘Are you finished with depression?’ And before I could answer, she said, ‘Good, your new deadline is the first of July.’