Edinburgh’s Ivy on the Square is as busy as ever, with a wide range of people enjoying lunch and drinks while the festival crowds surge and ebb outside like a never-ending tide. Upstairs a group are drinking tea and chatting casually. Anyone observing would think they’re another set of friends enjoying the busy atmosphere of the capital in August, but what sets them apart is a familiar face – comedian and author Ruby Wax – who has just led the first ever Scottish Frazzled Cafe meeting, is amongst the group.
Frazzled Cafe was established last year after a number of pilot meetings in various locations in London, and was born from founder and patron Ruby Wax’s experiences during her sell-out shows and book tours. Ruby met thousands of people who wanted to talk and feel connected, and sensed a need for a place where people could meet with peer-to-peer support to help cope with the overwhelming stresses of modern life. The idea was quickly supported by Marks & Spencer which closes cafes in selected stores, or opens them out of hours, in order for the group meetings to happen in privacy. “We live in a time where a life crammed to the hilt is considered a success story but so many of us are struggling with the pressure and afraid to admit it. Frazzled Cafe is about people coming together to talk and sharing their stories. Feeling heard, to me, has always been half the cure,” Ruby explains.
“We hoped to launch this year but it has been delayed but we are definitely launching early next year,” says Elizabeth Morrison, director of Frazzled Cafe. “When we do, we will be launching in Marks & Spencer here in Edinburgh before rolling out across Scotland in Marks & Spencer’s in Aberdeen and Glasgow.”
Talking about how we feel, face to face with others has been proven to help alleviate stress, especially in a supportive environment, which encourages openness and honesty. With their mantra “it’s OK, to not be OK”, Frazzled Cafe meetings offer a safe, anonymous and non-judgmental space for people to open up. Those feeling frazzled and overwhelmed by modern life can meet fortnightly to talk and share their stories in an accessible environment.
Ruby herself has started some of the meetings – “I just love them,” she says – before a facilitator takes over. Anyone looking to join a Frazzled Cafe or become a volunteer facilitator can sign up online and will be sent an invitation to join a meeting. While going to every meeting is not compulsory, many people find the knowledge of the cafes being there a real comfort.
“One of our cafes has been going for over a year and the attendees of the group say it is their lifeline because it’s not therapy,” explains Ruby. “I am emulating AA a little bit without the 12 steps. Everyone has a chance to not give advice, not do therapy but just to talk about what is going on in their lives. We are all frazzled and here the group can be honest and human. And it is anonymous, nobody tells anybody anything. People say ‘even if I don’t go, I know that I have a lifeline’ because we don’t have a place where you can just say ‘OK I’m not having a nice day.’ But it is not a thing about mental illness, it is the human condition. There’s just too much pressure and most people are ashamed when they can’t deal with it but here, you don’t need to be embarrassed. There are some problems or things that you can’t tell your friends or your family and you just want to talk. That’s why Frazzled Cafe works.”
The meetings are about sharing experiences and discussing what has worked for each person, rather than advice-based. “Frazzled Cafe is not about labels or putting people into boxes,” Ruby continues. “They’re about being human. I wish I’d had this support network years ago because half the cure is talking,” she says.
Elizabeth finds the unlikely friendships that blossom the most impactful thing about the meetings. “What we definitely see is a real spectrum of ages and socioeconomic backgrounds but often what is more powerful are the unlikely alliances. For example, somebody who is retired and feeling overwhelmed because their kids have left home and they’re not sure what their next step is, talking to someone like a student who has just left university and is searching for their first job. These people would never normally interact but they get each other and understand the other’s feelings. That’s really impactful.”
This by far is not Ruby’s first time in Edinburgh, and she credits her biggest inspiration to the late Alan Rickman, who was her director and responsible for bringing her and her first show to the festival 30 years ago. But what has been her highlight this year? “Well seriously, being in Frazzled Cafe today. I’m not kidding, because it’s like you’re just with your people. And everybody is just being honest. This is where I have felt at my best. I have seen a couple of genius show as well, but that just kicks in the adrenaline. You can’t see everything – there’s just too much – but the ones I have seen are just brilliant,” she says.
After facilitating and hosting the first ever Scottish Frazzled Cafe, Ruby is keen to find somewhere to “calm down”.
“If I didn’t have time to sit and meditate I’d just blow. You’re tripping over yourself out there during the festival. There’s too many distractions, so I gotta go and sit in a graveyard or something because I have a show today and if I don’t find that time, the show won’t work. I need to find somewhere quiet to cool down my brain, even though every part of me wants to go to a show, cos I’ve got that FOMO (fear of missing out) thing,” she laughs.
As well as her show, Ruby talked at the Edinburgh International Book Festival about her latest book, How to be Human: The Manual, which was written in consultation with a “hilarious” monk and a neuroscientist. “My favourite part of writing this book was when the monk and the neuroscientist and I were travelling and I could sit and hear their conversations, which were very funny sometimes. It’s not what you’d expect, that’s why I like it. It’s like the start of a joke – a monk, a neuroscientist and me,” she laughs.
The unlikely comedy duo of the monk and neuroscientist may also be part of Ruby’s next book, in which she wants to look at technology and the future. “I want to know what’s going to happen next with regards to (mental health) education and AI, compassion, where technology, business and community are headed. I want to go to the experts in the world and then write my version, which is comedy,” she says.
Despite performing in the Edinburgh Festival for years, it is Glasgow which has stolen Ruby’s heart. “If I had to pick which city I preferred, I’d say Glasgow as I went to school there. I love this festival but I never lived here. And I lived in Glasgow for years and I was so happy there.”
But for now it is Edinburgh where Ruby is leading the way for better emotional support through talking and listening in an easily accessible environment. Though, not before she’s had some quiet time in that graveyard.