Friday, 7 March 2014

A strange night out

Listening to a depressive person talk about their condition might not be everybody's idea of a great night out, but this is what passes for entertainment in Peterborough.

We went to the Key Theatre last night to listen to Ruby Wax, the comedienne and writer, who now seems to have become the poster girl for depressive illness. What with her and Stephen Fry (the funny side of bipolar disorder) celebrities seem to be rushing to tell us about their mental anguish - and sell us their books.
Ruby Wax's is called Sane New World: Taming the Mind. Margaret and I were probably the only people in the audience who hadn't read it; that and her previous book, the autobiographical How Do You Want Me, which described her difficult childhood, disturbed adolescence and her mental breakdown.
She has since given up being on TV (or TV gave up on her) and has done a course (a Masters at Oxford) on mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy. Apparently, she's now qualified as a therapist.
We knew the evening wasn't going to be a comedy show; we'd read a little about her tour and thought it would be amusing and interesting in the sense a good chat-show interview is - a little pain, description of desperation and plenty of witty and amusing anecdotes. This was her first show in the tour, so I think she was still getting into the swing and familiarity of the dialogue. That probably made it more enlightening.
She did have plenty of touches of comedy, but also a therapist's air, which gave the evening a semi-medical authority, which was misplaced. We were there to be entertained, challenged, but not cured.
Margaret and I had realised this was going to be an interesting night when we were having a couple of drinks in the bar beforehand. As the bar filled up, it was clear that the audience was 90 per cent female and that they were females of a certain type - middle class, according to Margaret, who had been handbag spotting. Don’t poor people suffer from depression?
The first half of the night was Ruby's talk. She was clearly engaging her audience; I found I couldn't relate to her mental state, although the talk was interesting and I do like her slightly self-deprecating humour.
She talked about how we all were full of doubts, how we considered ourselves too stupid, too ugly, too dull ... I rarely have doubts about myself and I consider myself to be a pretty wonderful person, but clearly I was in a very small minority in that audience.
After the interval, there was to be a question-and-answer session and I was a little worried about how that would go. I couldn't think of a single, sensible question that I could ask.
I needn't have worried, there were plenty of people very keen to ask questions, confess their own mental health problems (talking about mental illness still has sufficient stigma to sound like a confession) and complain about funding/lack of resource.
There were more questions than time allowed for and at the end of the session, Ruby got a standing ovation. I could tell that she'd really connected with people in the audience, but I was surprised at their enthusiasm and appreciation. I guess that anyone suffering from mental illness is delighted when a high-profile person "comes out" or talks openly about their condition. I tend to agree, so although surprised by the strength of feeling, I can empathise with it.
Definitely worth seeing the show and I'd be interested to read her books; although I suspect she has a slightly American view towards therapy, which is a little un-English.
Footnote: since the evening, Ruby's PR machine has clearly been at work. I've seen lots of interviews and Q&As with her in newspapers and also numerous references to mindfulness as a therapy for depression or as a tool for people to manage the perceived difficulties of a modern life. There were even stories that it may be taught to schoolchildren. I guess this proves that clinical depression and mental illness is a rich seam for celebrities to mine. It makes me uncomfortable and suspicious about Ruby Wax’s motives. Sure, she has to earn a living and she isn't saying that buying her book or listening to her talk will cure anyone; however ...