Sacrifice and Societal Struggles

gary varvel college
Source: Gary Varvel @

Having talked about stress in my previous article, I would like to continue on with the topic, this time with a focus on the stress involved in achieving one’s dreams. Whether you want to be an actor, engineer, scientist or teacher in today’s society, achieving success in any profession can be very daunting and rather difficult – seeming almost impossible at times. Often to achieve what we want to do in life, we have to get an education at a post-secondary institute, such as a university or college. That itself can be rather stressful. Questions arise such as, “is this truly what I want to do?” or, “what if I end up not enjoying it?” or even, “can I afford to risk this type of investment?” All of these questions can be very stressful when it comes to chasing one’s dreams.

In the current state of society, it’s almost always required to have a degree in a related field to even apply for a career of one’s choice, but, even with a degree in the field one wants to work in, a degree isn’t always a guarantee that one can get the career they want. For a year of study in an art related program in Canada, the costs range from $2,500 on the low-end of the spectrum, up to $12,000 on the high-end, with $6,000 being roughly the median. Unless one is well off, or has financial backing from other means, such as scholarships, bursaries, family, etc., this means that for a total of 4 years of study, on average, in Canada, we’re looking at a cost of around $24,000, not including room and board. In the United States, costs are even higher, with the average being $15,000 per year of study at a public institution, going up to $15,000-$30,000 at private institutions. Students often have to take upon a part-time or full-time position outside of their chosen field in order to afford the cost of living during this time, all while needing to study for exams and finish the homework associated with each course of study. For individuals who are predisposed to experiencing mental illness, such as anxiety or depression, it seems like quite the impossible challenge at times to get a chance to achieve what one wants to do in life. It’s a type of risky investment that is very taxing to mental health – one that yields a “conform to the system or fail” type mentality.

Speaking as an anxious individual, it makes even attempting to further educate oneself through post-secondary seem like a fruitless endeavor – you get in a thought pattern where the ends don’t justify the means, especially with most recent societal developments; an undergraduate degree often isn’t enough to get to where you want to be in life anymore. More and more businesses are requiring that aspiring employees have a master degree or higher in a related field, which means more of a financial burden, more potential time wasted and more self-doubt among individuals who are mentally ill. Even if one does succeed, there is a chance that one may not obtain their dream career without sacrificing more of their own time and money. The whole scope of the situation is very taxing to mental well-being. It may exacerbate underlying conditions, causing an individual to experience a variety of unpleasant symptoms related to stress, or even bring forth mental illness that one wasn’t aware of, such as an anxiety disorder, depression, or addictions (such as drug dependence).

After speaking with an actor from the province of Manitoba about this subject, she has agreed to share with us her pursuit in achieving her dream of becoming a successful, full-time working actor, one that she has held onto dearly since she was a child. Her story that will follow sheds light on how difficult it can be to achieve what you want to in life, as well as how mentally taxing the pursuit of your dreams can be.

Not many people can say they’ve known since the age of four what they wanted to be when they grew up. It was then that I, somehow, knew I wanted to be an actor, and I have spent my entire life vigorously pursuing it as a career. I am proud to say that, from 2010 up until now, I’ve been working professionally as an actor, booking pretty consistent work in television, theatre and musical theatre.

However, like most actors in our society, there are periods between gigs where I am doing nothing but auditioning, occasionally picking up a shift at my survival job, hoping I book at least something. It’s during these periods where the money I’ve made from previous gigs trickles from my bank account—nay, pours—and I am left hoping and praying to the Universe that something comes of the projects I’ve recently auditioned for.

An actor may not book a role for reasons completely out of their control; they look too young, they look too old, they’re too sexy, they’re not sexy enough, their nose is too big, their voice is too high, they look too much like the director’s ex-wife…it rarely has anything to do with the actor’s talent. To add to the stress, an actor never really knows when their next audition(s) will be, so they must keep their schedule flexible enough to not only accommodate last-minute auditions, but to make sure they have enough time to prepare for them as well.

I spend approximately $8,000 a year on my career and work somewhere between 20 and 70+ hours a week. I am always working, even when I’m “not working”. Acting is more than a full-time job. If I am performing in and producing a project, I work 70-100+ hours a week. I recently performed in/produced a show that toured in 3 different cities. It took me a solid 5 months to organize, prepare, and rehearse; in the end, it didn’t sell very well, and my production company partner/castmate and I lost thousands of dollars on a show not many people came to see.

I’ve, so far, barely scratched the surface of the trails and tribulations of being a professional actor. I could continue for days, talking about headshots, demo reels, finding an agent, getting into ACTRA or CAEA (Canadian actor’s unions), or SAG (actor’s union in the US), and so forth, but hopefully this gives you an idea on the amount of stress that accompanies pursuing a career in the performing arts. The craft itself is incredibly demanding mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually, but the industry, on the other hand, is a whole other rival.

And it’s a tough battle.

A really, really tough battle.

So tough, in fact, that I developed depersonalization disorder.

Now, performing arts and panic attacks yield a perfect recipe for a juicy dramatic tale on stage or screen, but in real life, it’s the perfect recipe for disaster.

Making money, having direction and being successful is a constant stress for an actor. The pressure relentlessly weighs heavily over their heads. So heavily, that three years ago, on a closing night of a nine-month long tour, I experienced my very first panic attack, which soon turned into a solid case of depersonalization disorder.

One of the most terrifying things I have endured since was having panic attacks, with heavy depersonalization, on stage during performances. Luckily, I’ve been able to pull through each time it has happened; I was able to continue on with the show, and no one on or off stage knew what I was experiencing. But silently, in the confines of my mind, I was deteriorating. Not only was it beyond exhausting to fight through that each time the lights came up, I dreaded having to go on stage in the first place. The fact that the stage became a place of fear, as opposed to a place of comfort and pleasure, destroyed me. I am now in the process of putting the pieces back together, taking every step possible to slay the wily beast once and for all.

In the aforementioned time between gigs is when my panic, depersonalization, anxiety and depression often becomes exacerbated. The stress of my unknown financial future inhibits my craft if I am not careful; desperation can subconsciously ooze out during auditions, unintentionally self-sabotaging my chances of booking a role. Many actors, unknowingly, do this, as well as unintentionally psych themselves out, resulting in sub par auditions and lost opportunities.

Recently, my mental health has been compromised a lot more than usual, as my supportive parents have been more concerned about my financial future than ever before. They’re often bringing up the fact that I’m 26 (“almost 30”, as my parents put it), and I do not have a solid plan B that would “guarantee” me income.

First, I’ve never had a plan B. There has only been plan A, because I am going to do whatever it takes to bring plan A to fruition. Second, no plan in our society “guarantees” income. Just ask the Starbucks barista with the master’s degree. Third, everything else I have even remotely considered as a “plan B” (a secondary career I would go to school for/pursue while still attempting to pursue acting) is artistic.

And society isn’t built for artists.

Artists, especially actors, generally push against the “conform to the system or fail” precept, straying off the pre-paved path and creating their own way. That’s because, regardless of if an actor or artist has a degree, diploma or certificate in their respective creative field, finding employment after graduation is even more difficult than it already is in our society. Jobs are scarce, and wildly competitive. It’s who you know. And for actors, it’s also who you are and what you offer. This means that a vast majority of actors/artists have to create their own employment opportunities—i.e. spend their own hard-earned money trying to further their career. Never mind paying off their student loans.

After finishing high school, I was pressured into going to University, because “once you take a year off, you’ll never go back”. I hated it. I didn’t agree with the system; to get your degree, it was mandatory to take a bunch of courses outside of your chosen field. It was also mandatory to purchase books and textbooks that we would barely—or never—use. I felt like just a number. Not only that, but I studied acting once a week for 3 hours. That was it. It wasn’t enough. I wanted something full-time, focused completely on that I was there to learn. So, I dropped out of University and attended a post-secondary acting conservatory. The tuition was $15,000 plus books for the one-year program. The only reason I was able to pay it off in one go was because I was in a near-death car accident two years before hand and received a hefty cheque from the provincial insurance company. Otherwise, I’d probably still be paying it off. Since graduating, I’ve taken classes and workshops whenever I can, all completely ranging in price. Bottom line: being an actor, or an artist for that matter, is far from cheap.

At my survival job, I work with one of the most talented, hard-working, humble musicians I have ever known. He books his own daily gigs, travels the world to play his music and puts thousands and thousands of dollars into his career. He sacrifices everything for the sheer love of his art. Another group of friends from my survival job are in a band, and it’s the same thing with them, too. My survival job is filled with artists; a painter who specializes in murals, and she’ll only get a job only a few times a year. There’s also a photographer, who spends the money he makes taking photos on equipment and studio space, a painter, who had to turn to a career in massage therapy because he wasn’t able to support himself solely off of his art (his work is so incredible that I purchased a piece, which now hangs proudly on my bedroom wall), and an incredible actress who just spent $12,000 out of her own pocket producing a show that barely sold. These are just the artists at my workplace. I haven’t even begun to mention every other artist I know.

We’re all struggling just as much as the other.

This dose of reality does nothing for my mental health but exacerbate my symptoms. Anyone suffering from mental health issues will probably say the same thing. As an artist, I push through the “conform to the system or fail” mentality each and every day, and it’s exhausting. It’s disheartening. And it’s tough. But it’s also incredibly invigorating, because it gives me even more drive to overcome the impossible.

If society were better built for success, there would be a lot less suffering. I know I am not the only one suffocating under the conditions.

So, what can we do?

She raises an interesting question at the end – what can we do? Is it right that we have to take upon such great sacrifices in order to achieve our dreams? Could we lessen the burden by making education more affordable? These types of issues are becoming more prevalent in society as time passes, especially in the United States, where costs of education are at an all time high. There needs to be change, and that change starts on an individual level. Vote for who you believe will better your country. With elections coming up in 2016 in the United States, and in October of 2015 for Canadians, it is more important than ever to vote if you want to see change in your country. Your vote does matterTake the time to read about the candidates for the elections. See who your views align with. Make change in your country. We need it now more than ever.


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