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The comedian says the “Big Six” human fears – death, difficult emotions, loneliness, chance, uncertainty and dissatisfaction – “became the norm during lockdown, relentlessly firing at us: sadness, anxiety, panic, fear, shame, guilt, loss”.
Ahead of the pandemic we tried to avoid them, she says, but the virus made this impossible.
Ruby, an OBE, believes a network of support groups – based on the Frazzled Cafes charity she started in 2017 to help deal with stress – is vital to rebuilding after the impacts of coronavirus.
These provide a “safe environment” to discuss “the overwhelming stresses of modern life, free from judgement”.
Originally involving face-to-face meetings, free to attend, they moved online in the pandemic.
Ruby, a classically-trained actress, reveals she also confronted her fear of death in that time.
Speaking to the podcast Sketch Notes On (sketchnoteson.podbean.com) she said the cafes gave her “a front seat into what was happening and how people were coping”.
“I heard it night after night,” she said. “People were having to face realities we never have to face in real life.”
Her experience inspired her to write a workbook, A Mindfulness Guide for Survival, published next week.
She says the book, which includes techniques, tools and exercises, was written to help people deal with these “hard to face realities”.
Ruby, 68, who has an Oxford University degree in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, said: “If you face the monster it runs from you. But if you run from the monster it chases you.
“We were just so distracted and we didn’t want to face those things.The lockdown took away our toys of distraction so we were floundering, saying, ‘Oh my God how can I cope with the reality of things that are waiting for me?’
“Loneliness? We were always lonely. We were always going to die.There was always change.
“There were always uncomfortable emotions.
But adults were suddenly, ‘Oh, my God, I didn’t realise there was change’.
“And so the reality is uncertainty. And these would be the things coming up every night, you know, as if they’re slapped in the face with this existential hit that they’ve been facing since the beginning of time. But then we’re sitting there staring at it in the face.”
The American-born comic said suppressing emotions couldn’t work, because they “tend to explode out of us when we least expect them”.
But the past 16 months have seen us overwhelmed with pandemic news, leaving us with nowhere to hide.
She explained: “People should admit, if they can’t stop watching the news why are they watching it? OK, you need to know the basics, but you don’t have to listen to the death tolls every day.
“Your stress could kill you far earlier than Covid. I listen to these people burning themselves out, worrying themselves.
“We’re aware of it so we are beating ourselves up for feeling it. It’s the weirdest thing. We’re so mean to ourselves.”
She added: “Many of us were asleep at the wheel when it came to the pandemic.
“March 2020 – all big six realities were smashed into our faces in one fell swoop.
“We were locked in our own homes with nothing to face but an uncertain future with, horror of horrors, no distractions.
“We were all mutually forced to go cold turkey off our busy-ness, which meant we had to be alone with our own thoughts.
“We suddenly saw ourselves naked, with no masks to hide behind, no personalities to jack up, no parties to be invited to, with never having to dress up – especially our lower halves – to look good.”
The mother-of-three went on: “The aim of this book is to help you find refuge, or at least help you build one.
“To do that we have to be fearless, bring dark realities out into the light and accept them.
“This takes courage and effort and most people would rather just ‘have a nice day’.
“We’ve seen what happens when the days stop being so nice. We know we need a kind of safety net so the fall doesn’t kill us.
“None of us want to face the unfaceable, but there has to be a baptism of fire if we’re going to come out the other end wise and not broken.”
She said: “I knew the book had to be out by Christmas, we might be skipping out of our houses and I knew that trauma sits in you like a grenade, so I thought get it out, get it out.
“All of us had the wake-up call of wake-up calls – that our lives weren’t a rehearsal we were casually strolling through. They were the real performance now. That was what was so great about Frazzled. People were saying it.
“And other people were saying ‘Yeah me too’. And that relieves people – not watching more news. So that was such an inspiration in writing this book and how to deal with it.
“I want people to use it as a guide on how to drop an anchor when life and the world around them gets too daunting.”
The cafes also helped her cope with lockdown life. She explained: “I have a calendar that I use showing what I was doing every day.
“We framed it because it looks like a mad woman. There’s more activities than I ever did in real life. I was learning how to cook. Piano lessons. I was learning Beethoven with one finger.
“I was running from one activity to the other but so was everybody else, frazzled .
“We would Hoover until we went through the centre of the Earth. I panic washed my refrigerator in fabric softener.”
She said people should try to find their own understanding of the pandemic rather than the Covid “messaging”.
“Each person has to find their own message. What are you going to say if you were to try and change the messaging? ‘Hey everybody, come out of your house!’ We have to look inside and say what really is my fear?”
Her own demon was the fear of death, she revealed: “I realised the reason I was so ambitious was because I was scared of dying.
“I thought it was because I wanted to do so much. Once you ping your reality, once you hit it, life becomes easier.
“My last chapter is about death. But it’s not ‘Oh my God let’s start digging the hole now’.
“It makes life every second more poignant. So your decisions are more truthful. It’s about facing impermanence but that means your yoghurt goes off. Your job’s going to go. Your beauty is going to go. But don’t panic today.”
She added: “When you’re 20, have friends, be ambitious, turn on the turbo.
“But at a certain point in life I had to say ‘I have to reinvent now”I wanted to get smart. And wise by a certain age because I know After 45 you either turn into wine or into vinegar’.”
• frazzledcafe.org offers free daily online meetings with trained facilitators as well as twice-weekly large meetings with Ruby Wax.
• A Mindfulness Guide for Survival is published ahead of a three-part BBC 2 TV series, When Ruby Met…, broadcast at the end of August, showcasing Ruby’s 1990s interviews with Donald Trump, Madonna, OJ Simpson, Tom Hanks and OJ Simpson among others.
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