One in four people have some form of mental illness, and Ruby Wax wants to talk about it. Watch her TEDTalk, posted today and inspired by her show Losing It, to start the conversation. One project she didnt get to mention onstage at TEDGlobal: This winter, Wax started up the Black Dog Tribe, an online network for people with mental illness to connect to each other. So the TED Blog asked Ruby for more about the Black Dog, her next show, performing in mental institutions, and the big questions that we still cant talk about.
Whos the Black Dog?
The Black Dog is familiar because Churchill used to say it. I guess he was hiding the fact that he had depression at the time. People thought it was a mood swing, but he had serious depression. He used to say he didnt want to go near train platforms; luckily not common knowledge at the time.
Because Churchill himself was depressed, do you find that its a more accepted condition in the UK?
No. The stigma is unbelievable. Over here, if youre a managing director and you take time off, take six months off, and they find out youre off for depression, youre out. They can sack you. Thats the law as it stands. You cannot put it on your cv, especially if youre a nurse or a doctor. You cant talk about it because your job is in jeopardy.
What I found when I was doing my show was, when people can talk about mental illness, theyre so relieved. In the second half of my show, Id let the audience talk, people fought for the microphone; mothers who were afraid they passed their depression to their kids, people in despair who didnt know where to get help. One guy said hed been on anti-depressants for 20 years and he never told anyone. His wife was open-jawed next to him.
Theres no AA for depression. I wish we had those. I tried AA, but when they found out I wasnt an alcoholic, they took my cookie and said: Get out!
We can tell our own. You can see it in the way we walk. When I meet other depressive people, I can see they have the same look in their eyes as in mine. Theres a difference between someone whos just having a bad day and someone whos depressed. We should train teachers to look for these signs, people who work with teenagers. If you look in their eyes and they look like a dead shark its not just a bad mood.
Really, if its 1 in 4 people, they should have a checklist.
The difficult thing is, your brain cant tell theres something wrong with your brain. If you have a rash on your leg, you can look down and see it. But you dont have a spare brain to make an assessment of your own brain. Youre always the last to know thats the bitch.
What do we all want to know: How far are we off the scale of normal? Its why its important to have someone to talk to. My dream for the Black Dog Tribe or any mental illness website is to create walk-in centers so that somehow, some way, people will meet up in real life. Because meeting your own people is half the cure. You can compare symptoms and know youre not making it up. Say youre a hairdresser in Detroit, and you say, every Monday night, come and meet at my hair salon and talk. I imagine forums all over the US and UK, at Woolworths or whatever, where people can meet and have these conversations. You wont meet a single person wholl tell you to perk up.
And lets end the stigma. At TED, I was talking to Vikram Patel about depression, and he said that in some other languages, the word that means depression isnt an emotional word but describes a physical sensation. Again proving this isnt something you made up.
In my lifetime, the gay movement went from something to be shunned to acceptance. How can you break a stigma like that and this one is dragging on? Theyre a lot fewer than 1 in 4. Couldnt we just get whoever their PR was? Can we use their high heels and their banners with the rainbow its in a warehouse somewhere. We can have a rally. People can come in their pajamas waving pitchforks.
What led you to feel you were finally ready speak out?
Comic Relief put my face on a poster. I was in the Tube, and there was a poster of my face with the word DEPRESSED stamped across it. When I saw it, I almost lost my organs out of my nose. I tried to stand in front of the first poster and block the view. And then, down the escalator, there was another poster, and another. You know how they do that? And by the time I got down to the platform I thought, OK, well, Ill write a show and pretend this was my publicity. Ive always said to myself, if youve got a disability, use it.
You know, I entertained for a year and a half in mental health wards, and I was sensational, though they werent always facing in my direction. The bipolars they laughed, they cried. The smoking room of a mental institution it is the greatest theater. Brilliant stories. And no one can see each other through the smoke. Youll never watch television again.
I did a documentary on the Priory, and I said: Smell these walls. It smells of security to me. Its the mother I never had. And theres a different culture on each floor. Wed steal food from the anorexics; they didnt mind!
So tell me about your new show.
My new show is about the brain, and about the glitches that we all have. Its comedic, and its about how we have more capability than we know of, because of whats up there. And why were fucked because of evolution. Its pretty simple, but I drag it out for an hour. (My other show goes to LA on January 20.)
This is for the 4 in 4, not just the 1 in 4 with a mental illness. We assume that were all evolved, were homo perfectus, but we dont really know how to run our own machinery. We dont know enough about our brains. We dont know how to tune the dials. We get overloaded.
I want an answer to these questions: How much are we supposed to know wheres our limit? Id like to get a consensus on that. Am I supposed to know everything in each days newspaper, just so I can have opinions on it at dinner parties? I do want to know if my next-door neighbor was shot, but I dont know if I care about three doors down. How much do I need to know? Theres no answer, and then youre caught in the stream of self-loathing for not knowing what color was Bismarcks mustache.
But there is a braking system. It doesnt matter how you do it but you have to learn to intentionally be able to focus your attention away from all that ruminating. I do mindfulness, and not in a guru Buddha lets-eat-a-cauliflower way. I throw my attention to a physical sensation, to a sound, focus on my feet on the ground, as opposed to this endless mental loop tape because the mind cant be in two modes at once. It cant think and also sense something at the same time. Its a trick youre playing on yourself, on your thinking. If I throw focus from my rumination to one of my senses, it brings the cortisol down. Other people might say, Im going to focus my attention on my cat or put Vivaldi on. I dont care how you learn to flip your dial when you need to.
But dont confuse the braking system with distractions. People with stressful jobs who spend their weekend jumping off buildings to relax, or helicopter-skiing because the double black diamond trail isnt enough, we should simply hold up a sign behind them that says Psychopath. Thats not what you do to relax. Actually, that should be a way to judge whether you invest in a company: if you ask what they do on the weekends and they all helicopter-ski, congratulations, youve found the next Enron.
Why dont we talk about the big questions? The idea that we are superior beings we are superior to an ape, but big deal! I want to know, how does memory work? How is the world created outside of you?
But were still living in a world where people ask your star sign. Thats why were not able to talk about it. We need better words. Mindfulness sounds like something Martha Stewart says: Be mindful when you serve the chicken at a dinner party.
Can you define mindfulness?
Mindfulness is actually being aware of what youre thinking and what youre doing in the present moment. Its attention on attention. When you focus on the touch of your feet on the ground or the physical sensations when breathing. And the bitch of it is, you have to do it every day. Feel your breathing, feel your feet on the ground. Its attention on attention. When you do it regularly, your neurons are rewiring. It builds up something like a muscle in your insula, giving you metacognition. That way, when your thinking becomes dysfunctional, youre the first to know it. So you can track whats going on in your head, rather than denying it or running away. If you really are tuned into your own channel, if it starts becoming dysfunctional, youll really know how to dodge from the oncoming bullets.
Your memory goes down when stress goes up, then your cortisol goes up. So when you feel it, take a break. Hold up a white flag saying meetings over, Im nuts right now, lets do this later. The higher your cortisol goes, the worse your memory gets and if you know that, youre ahead of the game. If people only knew: youre poisoning yourself.
Im getting my masters now from Oxford in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. I focus a couple of minutes a day. People say, Oh, shes a Buddhist now. But I dont really follow the fat guy. For me, it wasnt a religion, it was a psychology. I got into mindfulness because I didnt want to pay for shrinks anymore. My last shrink was an analyst, and he tried to convince me all my troubles came from the fact that my father made sausages. He wouldnt let it alone. I wanted to tell him, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
In my view, if someone says everythings fine, it signals you have a big problem.
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