Today, everybody adds to their own personal ‘showreel’ in their careful editing of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, championing a particular kind of 21st Century myth-making. If Comparison is the Thief of Joy (as Jonathan suggested in an earlier post), then in a world where social media’s increased role in self promotion has led to a rupture between narratives of success and the day-to-day realities of being a jobbing actor, joy is being stolen daily from under our noses in the biggest online con trick of our time. The art of self-promotion has shifted into the mainstream, but some of its unintended consequences still lurk in the shadows, rarely talked about and almost never admitted to publicly.
“Learning how to horse-ride while wielding an axe! #anactorslife”
“Theatre audition then straight into make-up for today’s filming #toughbutfun“
I was diagnosed with clinical depression during my second year at drama school. After having to retake my final assessments and hitting a previously undiscovered low, I requested to defer my final year of training (which the school, to their credit, agreed to) and undergo a course of cognitive therapy, having first been recommended counselling by a friend.
It has been validly pointed out that there are already numerous pieces on depression and acting just a google away, but just because something has been discussed and posted on already doesn’t mean that the topic has been rationalised or solutions found. Talking openly about depression can still bare a stigma regardless of one’s career path, and it makes me want to ask whether the industry has established any infrastructure to help those people suffering to cope. I admit it now even though I still fear a dozen casting directors (or to be more realistic, one) read this and immediately scrawling “DEPRESSIVE – DO NOT HIRE” on my CV, seven years after the event.
Since graduation my condition has fluctuated but only vaguely in relation to my actual career. Extended periods of employment have been tenuously associated with better states of mind, but apart from the initial euphoria of being told you have a job (often acknowledged as the high point of most engagements) or the plunging self-doubt when first discovering your rejection, I’ve managed to survive by applying the tenants learned through counselling, various self help books (Steve Peters’ The Chimp Paradox would be my pick) and gritty experience – taking things day by day, being as pro-active as possible, exercising regularly and taking friends online declarations of ‘success’ with a pinch of salt.
Like many people who have experienced some form of counselling, I am aware of cycles of behaviour which I might be tempted to resort to, and I work to resist them returning whenever I feel emotionally susceptible. But I feel I have only got to this point of relative survival by a process of trial and error – beyond hap-hazardly falling into counselling and learning from mistakes, you most keenly feel being self-employed when you are left with your own demons to battle. Personally, this has cost me what it costs most actors – relationships, friendships, feelings of self worth. At my lowest I was completely unable to even participate in the dreaded ‘networking’ that is so much a part of the profession.
We can all start by keeping the dialogue alive and open. Speak of positive experiences you’ve had to combat the bad times – whether or not that’s been throwing yourself into work, finding another passion that you can also throw yourself into, counselling (I cannot speak highly enough of those people I spoke to at MIND), taking a break, or maybe even quitting altogether.
I’ve thought about that last option, but the reality is that doing or attempting to do anything else would only make me more unhappy (on a related but contradictory note, it’s worth reading Allison Ford’s article about the release of ‘jacking it in’ and how her pursuit of acting was a step in her own trajectory elsewhere). For my own part, I fundamentally believe in myself as a performer and the pursuit of that career still ranks far above financial stability or having a family. But that’s my personal choice, my cross to bear. In saying that, none of this is intended as a request for sympathy. Rather it’s a shout out to those in my profession who have ever felt truly alone, an attempt to reassure you that you’re not, while simultaneously acknowledging that won’t solve the problems and right the wrongs by itself.
At the moment, preparation for this particular industry seems to devolve to telling people who desperately want to do something that they shouldn’t, and that’s it. Some burn out, some go fuck this for a game of soldiers, some get that break that leads to a ‘career trajectory’ and some are overwhelmed when at their most vulnerable. Some learn not to put everything in quotation marks. There has to be a better alternative than that. I don’t profess to know what that alternative might be, but I do believe that the current status quo is horrifically insufficient, and I appeal to bodies like Equity to formulate a proper stance on it – the Arts & Minds initiative made in 2013 in the wake of some high-profile suicides seems to have disappeared without trace.
The intention of this piece has only been to demystify – and one that I’ve been reluctant to write because of how I might be labelled as ‘difficult’ or ‘tricky’ by people who I respect, and people that I aspire to work with. But there it is. I hope that reading this does more good than harm. I hope that our industry will evolve over time. But in order to do so, people need to make a stand – and this is my own little eeking towards some idea – or hope – of that. #livingthedream
Thanks to Chris Tester for donating this very honest account of his own struggles with, and eventual management of, depression. The piece is based on a post he wrote for his own blog a few years ago, which you can still find here.If you’d like to offer an article for publication on the site, Click here to find out more…