Sane New World, by Ruby Wax - a review

20 July 2013

9:00 AM

20 July 2013

9:00 AM

Sane New World Ruby Wax

Hodder & Stoughton, pp.272, £18.99, ISBN: 9781444755732

Ruby Wax, who is best known as a comedian, dedicates this book ‘to my mind, which at one point left town’. She says: ‘I am one of the one in four who has mentally unravelled.’ She tells us what it’s like to fall apart, why she thinks so many people fall apart, and what you can do if you start to fall apart yourself. ‘The feeling is that of being a corpse,’ she says. It happens because our brains are not adapted to live in the relentless global village we’ve created. And: ‘YOU CAN CHANGE YOUR MIND AND HOW YOU THINK.’ More on this last bit later.

It takes courage for a rich, famous person to write about depression; most people, depressed or not, can’t imagine feeling like a living corpse if you have a big house in London and a car waiting to take you to a TV studio for your latest performance. But reading this makes you consider how affluence and celebrity, far from being the solution, might be part of the problem. Wax tells us gruesome stories about the envy and fear that can exist in a celebrity’s mind. When you’re affluent or famous, the world can seem predatory; you have a lot to lose. There’s a moment of abject self-awareness when Wax is lowered into the sea in a cage on a reality show called Celebrity Shark Bait; a metaphor, perhaps, but I don’t think it is.

In his book Darkness Visible, William Styron said that ‘depression’ wasn’t a good word for depression, because it feels more like a storm. Here, Wax writes about ‘hurricanes of depression’; she says that depressed people have ‘this dictator barking orders in their minds’. She says she’s prone to self-criticism, which she describes as ‘self-immolation’. Once it starts, it rages. The thing that triggers it can be anything that makes her feel sub-standard; for instance, someone at a dinner party who might think she’s ‘an idiot’, or a moment on a radio show when she realises she’s not quite as important to others as she thought, or hoped, she was.

One of the big points, I think, is that we all live in our own reality shows; our brains are designed to live in a world of mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers, but must deal with the world of social media, which seems designed to make us feel unimportant. This fills lots of people with envy and self-hatred — and, eventually, depression. The good news is that we can change the way we think. Yes, our brains make our thoughts. But, more pertinently, our thoughts make our brains. Recent science tells us this is true. It’s called neuroplasticity.

Our brains are full of neurons. We have hundreds of millions of them. When we have a thought, an electrical current passes through the neurons. If we have the same thought again, the pathway becomes stronger. That’s how we learn. Wax points out that negative thinking is acquired — if you hate yourself, the self-hating pathway becomes stronger. So, in a way — and this is my gloss — we learn to think depressive thoughts by hacking out great big depressive motorways in our brains. In which case, we can do something about depression, by creating better neuronal routes. If you want the motorway of doom to atrophy, replace it with a high-speed rail link to a better place.

Wax’s solution is based on ‘mindfulness’, the therapy designed by Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. It’s about stepping away from your emotions and watching them in action. What you might see is that your emotions are not always realistic. They are a sort of virtual reality you can change.

A clear, helpful book, which gives us a useful peek into the mind of a depressive. I closed it with one overriding thought. It was: yes, stepping away from your emotions and understanding they’re not real is a good thing. You can call it mindfulness if you like. But if you don’t like fancy labels, you could call it strength of character. Maybe we need it more than we did before, and maybe not. But it’s been around forever.

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