If you know about Tony Hancock, Spike Milligan, and John Cleese you may suspect that only a thin membrane separates great comedy from mental illness and that, frequently, it ruptures. Ruby Wax is another example, ‘My career ended with a bang’, she says, ‘When I ended up in an asylum’.
As a consumer of all the available therapies for depression, she became a therapist herself, enrolling on a course at Oxford University and earning a masters degree in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy.
So here is a popular-level book written by a gifted comic and a qualified therapist who has depression. The science is up to date and it’s funny too.
She starts by outlining the problem. Even normal people are mad because we are not designed to cope with the variety and intensity of stresses placed on us in the modern world. Most of all, we don’t know how to handle our emotions.
Many of us don’t even like to say the ‘E’ word (emotion) because some of us think that it is a glitch in this otherwise perfect human machine. Emotions are to be eradicated as quickly as possible like a blemish or a laugh line. (p 37)
John Cleese spent years in psychotherapy trying to sort out his emotional life. Ruby Wax tried this but found it expensive and intellectually unsatisfactory; she did not feel that is had an adequate evidence base to support its claims.
This led her to neurology, the study of the brain. The central chapters of this book are a sort of ‘neurology for dummies’, a great introduction to the architecture and wiring of our grey matter.
Some people will feel (unnecessarily) queasy about these chapters. Partly because she draws on evolutionary psychology, but also because our warning sirens go off whenever we sense that our humanity is being reduced to chemistry and electricity. She answers this fear:
Some people believe this thinking is too reductionist and say disapprovingly, ‘Is that all we are?’ I feel we should be saying, ‘O my God am I all this?’ Because what we are is so complex and extraordinary; how your brain works makes every other invention and accomplishment look like learning to fold a napkin. (p 79)
The second half of the book is an introduction to mindfulness, a branch of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
When we hear ourselves say, ‘It’s how I am wired’, we usually want to convey some unchangeable given in our character or emotional life. But the essence of mindfulness is that your ‘wiring’ can be changed. Neurophysiology shows that our brains can be re-wired – it is called neuroplasticity – mindfulness and other kinds of CBT set out to do just this.
Ruby’s book is a blast and well worth a read.
Sane New World by Ruby Wax, Hodder, 2013, ISBN 978 1 444 75575 6