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.

Stress: A Situation of Symptoms

First and foremost, I must apologize for my recent disappearance. I’ve been experiencing some unpleasant symptoms related to stress, but, having said and experienced the aforementioned, I would like to take the time today to elaborate about the physical, mental, cognitive and behavioral symptoms of stress in addition to the causes.

With having talked about stress in a previous article, we can understand that certain stress can be labeled as good stress (eustressors) or bad stress (distressors). Both types of stress stem from an external stimulus of sorts. The type of stimulus that is triggering the stress response is key to identifying whether or not a stress is good or bad. If one is being stressed by a job to do well, that type of stress can potentially motivate an individual. Stress of this nature may be considered as eustressors. When a stress is negative in nature, such as the stress of job loss, debt, personal conflict with an individual, we may classify that stress as distress.

Stress, depending on the nature of it, may present itself with a series of physical, mental or cognitive symptoms. Typically stress is temporary, but it is occasionally left to stew in our subconscious. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try to suppress it, it lingers, waiting until another stressful event happens to “attack” in full force. The symptoms of stress vary per individual, but are generally put into four categories: physical, mental, cognitive and behavioral.

Physical Symptoms

  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension or general pain through the body
  • Chest pain ranging from a dull ache to a sharp pain
  • Changes to an individual’s sex drive
  • Upset stomach, including diarrhea, nausea and constipation
  • Sleeping issues (such as insomnia)
  • Frequent colds or infections

Mental Symptoms

  • Anxiety, depression
  • Radical changes in mood
  • Feeling like you’re losing control of life
  • Low self-esteem
  • Recluse-like behavior

Cognitive Symptoms

  • Excessive worrying
  • Intrusive/racing thoughts
  • Forgetfulness
  • Disorganisation
  • Extreme pessimism
  • Inability to focus

Behavioral Symptoms

  • Appetite changes – either excessive eating or not eating at all
  • Extreme procrastination or avoiding general responsibilities
  • Increased use of drugs
  • Demonstrating more nervous behaviors, such as fidgeting, biting nails, pacing around, etc.

All of these symptoms may seem very intense for something that most people brush off easily in day-to-day life, but there is a lot of medical evidence backing the symptoms of stress. With the advent of the internet and ease of access to resources for all, it’s very easy to become anxious when trying to figure out what is wrong. I know this from personal experience – I’ve tried to scour the myriad of resources available to figure out the cause(s) of my symptoms. I would drive myself to the brink of insanity trying to figure out what fits.

There are many causes of stress, but they are generally put into two categories: personal issues and social issues. Some personal issues that could lead to stress are: one’s health, emotional problems, major life changes (such as the birth of a new child, moving to a different city, or death in the family) and relationship problems (issues with friends, family or lovers).

Social issues that may lead to stress are: Environmental issues (such as crime in one’s city, state of one’s country, a noisy neighborhood), social situation (living in poverty, being unable to make ends meet, loneliness, being discriminated against), unemployment, or one’s job (such as being unhappy with work, or finding that work is too demanding).

In closing, stress can be very taxing to the well-being of individuals. It is important to be able to identify and manage stress before it is allowed to linger in the subconscious for too long and become something unmanageable. There are many ways to combat stress, such as exercising, living within one’s means, adjust one’s standards in relation to the stressor, express emotions instead of keeping them inside, strengthen relationships with friends and family… the list goes on and on. Managing, and if possible, removing stress is key to a healthy body and mind. Prolonged stress does nothing for an individual; it causes a variety of unpleasant symptoms, as previously mentioned. If you find yourself struggling with stress, please take a look here for tips on how to manage stress in relation to your life.

For more information (and publications used for referenced information), see the links below:

Exploring and understanding radical ideologies

While we are going about our journey through life, we as individuals of society have to interact with other individuals on a daily basis. Considering that we live in a world consisting of billions of people, each with their own unique set of ideologies and virtues, interacting with others can at times be quite trying, or painful. We have individuals who view the world with such strict adherence to their ideologies that they no longer see what is objectively true. Without awareness of how these radical ideologies are formed, an individual may be at higher risk to adopt a radical ideology, which raises the question: how are radical ideologies formed?

In order to understand how radical ideologies are formed, we must first understand what an ideology is and how they are formed. An ideology, according to Wikipedia, is “the imaginary relation to the real conditions of existence”, which is a system of belief reinforced by external stimuli. How an ideology is formed largely depends on which external stimuli are at play. If you have an individual who is constantly being bullied by someone (the external stimulus) for being fat, that particular idea is being reinforced. In instances like this, continual reinforcement by that particular external stimulus may lead the individual to believe that they are fat, even though that may or may not be true. All ideologies are formed in a similar, reinforced manner. An individual performing well at school may have their parents (another external stimulus) reinforce the idea that they are doing well in school. The continual reinforcement of this particular stimulus will lead to the individual doing well academically. Ideologies like these may or may not impact an individual’s life, depending on the external stimulus’ level of reinforcement in relation to the individual’s awareness and knowledge of how external stimuli may emotionally manipulate them.

Radical ideologies are formed the same way as all ideologies are, except they are reinforced to the point where an individual believes it in place of an objective truth. Those who adapt these ideologies are able to manipulate people emotionally into believing the ideology. Whether or not they are aware of what they are doing, or how they do it are different questions, but a great example in the past would be the Nazis in World War II, with Hitler manipulating Germany into following his radical cause. Radical ideologies like these stem from oppressive external stimuli. When there are many individuals being oppressed and oppression is continually reinforced, radical ideologies start to form and spread among those being oppressed.

With technological progression and the internet allowing everyone to have a platform to communicate their thoughts and ideas, more radical ideologies are being reinforced and spread by those who are consumed by them, such as cults, politicians or radical religious/social sects. Knowing why an individual has a certain ideology is crucial to understanding and interacting with them. It allows one to interact with any individual in a civil manner while protecting their ideology from unwanted contamination, but at the same time allows one to be exposed to information from these radical idealists and objectively analyze and learn from the experience.

Exploring my confrontation with mental illness

For today’s post, I would like to share with everyone insight into my own personal  and very humbling experience with mental illness – specifically what I felt during my engagement with mental illness and what I was able to take away from the ordeal.

Up until 3 years ago, I can safely say I had no idea what mental illness was. Whether it was my lack of education or personal ignorance towards the subject, I paraded around with the notion that “I have a strong mind, only those who are weak experience mental illness”. What I believed to be correct at the was not only incorrect, but shortsighted.

I can remember the event so vividly. I was sitting in a chair at a friend’s place and I remember starting to feel odd. It was a feeling I’d never felt before, which was quite alarming at the time. It started with a sense of dread, as though something catastrophic were about to happen, followed by a variety of unpleasant symptoms: severe chest pain, hyperventilation, I felt like I was choking on an invisible object, started shaking and sweating uncontrollably and, to top it off, was unable to concentrate on anything. When I looked at words on a page, I had difficulty understanding them. Sounds started to echo inside my head. When I heard a noise, I would hear it 4 or 5 times. This would happen for every noise. After what I believe was 5-10 minutes of this, I started to experience something else – the most terrifying event of the whole ordeal for me – derealisation.

Derealisation is an altered perception of subjective reality which may be brought upon by a traumatic event, such as the loss of a loved one, or, in my case, an anxiety attack. When derealisation set in, I had no idea what I believed in anymore. The only thought that I had at the time was “all that I perceive is a figment of my imagination”, which led me to start thinking that every person and object that I interacted with externally was an internal recreation that my brain perceived as reality. I couldn’t cope with all of this at the time. Life felt like it was spiraling out of control. I felt as though I was losing my mind. I called my girlfriend and had her take me home, thinking that rest would help the situation, but it did not. I continued to experience these symptoms for about a week until I consulted a doctor. At the time, I did not have a family doctor. If I was ill, I saw a doctor at a walk-in clinic.

When I first went to a doctor, I went while I was experiencing a full-blown panic attack. Again, I didn’t know it at the time, but reflecting upon it now, I am able to understand that. The doctor I saw asked about my symptoms, saw me for a few minutes and sent me off with a prescription for an antidepressant. Because the doctor’s diagnosis was so brief and I perceived my symptoms as being life-threatening, I went to another doctor for more answers. Thankfully, the second doctor I spoke with was more willing to explore my symptoms. I had various tests done – blood work, ECGs, x-rays, even a CT scan. All came back showing normal results, except for the ECG, which showed something that the doctor couldn’t quite put his finger on, so he consulted a colleague to figure it out, which turned out to be heart condition.

A year and one cardiac ablation later, the condition was no longer present, yet I was still plagued by anxiety. This forced me to start reflecting upon everything in my life. I couldn’t live like that anymore – I felt like I was going insane daily, having maybe 2-3 hours out of any given day where I wasn’t struggling with my thoughts. I wanted relief from my thoughts – an out, of any sort. At around this point, I had been having intense intrusive thoughts which weren’t comprehensible to me. The thoughts were relating to suicidal ideation, self-harm and harm to others. Having these constant thoughts made me a recluse. I wouldn’t leave the house in fear of harming myself, others, or because I didn’t want the possibility of something I perceived as “bad” to happen.

About 2-3 months after the ablation, the anxiety worsened until I eventually broke. For the first time in years, I cried like a baby. This didn’t just happen randomly. At the time, I was reflecting on my moral compass after reading something awful that just happened in the news about a large-scale manipulation of people. This resonated particularly well within me, and I started to realize that I had been manipulating people – taking them for granted. I had a purely subjective view of things, only seeing how things could benefit me, not the impact my actions would have in relation to the world and those around me. Having that thought opened up a whole new avenue of understanding for me, which allowed me to see my actions from an objective point of view. With this understanding, I started to see the error of my ways; certain things about myself that I disliked. The manner in which I was acting directly clashed with my morals and beliefs. This was the root cause of my anxiety.

After a year of reflection upon my actions, I was able to see the so-called error of my ways, which helped shape me into the person that I, in the long run, wanted to become. My anxiety stemmed from many factors, but largely, it came down to how I was interacting with the world around me. I wasn’t acting in a harmonious manner with the world. I was acting with selfishness as my motivator.

When we go about day-to-day life, our minds try to communicate with us in various ways. In my case, anxiety was my mind’s form of communicating. While the entire ordeal was very taxing, both mentally and physically, I learned a lot about myself and the world around me, which is something that I won’t ever forget. Although the experience was truly and utterly terrifying, I found that now, it was very humbling and helped shape who I wanted to become in life.

Mental illness may present itself in a variety of ways. My story above shows how important it is to see a medical professional when symptoms start to interfere with your day-to-day life. You may find an underlying condition that could be detrimental to your health. While it may not be a cure for your mental illness, cooperating with a medical health professional can help improve your quality of life, both physically and mentally.

Exploring emotional manipulation stemming from external stimuli

Having explored active and passive thoughts, intrusive thoughts, stress and a handful of mental maladies, we are ready to being to understand how external stimuli may manipulate an individual if they do not possess preexisting awareness.

As we know, external stimuli are enabled by emotional vulnerabilities – that is not to say emotional weakness at all. Certain external stimuli may affect one individual more than another depending on a number of factors, but largely comes down to how an individual feels toward a certain stimulus, or their connection to it. This could be something emotional, such as the death of a loved one, to something such as a political outcome that makes one party happy, another miserable, and the rest apathetic to the matter.

In the case of an emotional stimulus, such as a loved one passing, a person who has a strong emotional connection with the deceased individual will undoubtedly be affectedly more than a person who had little to no emotional connection to the individual at all. The same is the case with a political outcome – one party may express content in the situation if they have invested their time in it, where as a person who did not invest the time in the situation will be affected very little if at all by it. Everyday external stimuli are exploiting our emotional vulnerabilities in some way, shape or form, for some period of time. The duration may be instant, such as a reaction to a funny picture from one’s betrothed, perhaps of a cat, or it may be prolonged, such as if someone destroys another individual’s car, leaving the individual to feel furious. When an external stimulus exploits vulnerability in an individual, the individual becomes focused on the thought at hand, which can either be negative or positive. Anger, however, is quite different.

When an individual is angry, their heart rate rises, increasing their adrenaline, inducing a fight-or-flight type of response. When this type of intense emotion is triggered, all thoughts on the individual’s mind (not pertaining to the anger) are no longer important, which can lead to potentially detrimental behavior if prolonged. When angry, it is very easy to lose sight of why one was angry in the first place, which may induce even more anger. Being in this state of mind for extended periods of time can be very taxing to an individual’s mental well-being, which may lead to further mental health issues arising in the future.

Knowing how emotions and thoughts may be manipulated in this way provides awareness to help alleviate unwanted manipulation from external stimuli from occurring. Nobody has to be a slave to this form of manipulation. Being fully aware of how certain stimuli affect an individual is a key factor in maintaining and developing good mental health.

If anyone feels they are plagued by issues with anger, please see here for more information, or contact your local mental health association.