Frann Altman, Psy.D...
Therapy is about what's on your mind. This is what's on mine...
Time flies. Carpe diem. Seize the moment. If it's going to be, it's up to me. So many platitudes and yet many changes around us, needing our strength, courage and dedication to make this world a better place. One that offers hope, spirit and possibilities for each person who has a dream.
New beginning, new opportunities, new challenges.
Any life, no matter how long and complex it may be, is made up of a single moment -- the moment in which a man finds out, once and for all, who he is. - Jorge Luis Borges, writer (1899-1986)
By Jackie Apodaca | Posted Jan. 4, 2006, midnight
I began rehearsal for a play about a month ago. My boyfriend asked me to do it--he wrote and is directing it--then he broke up with me. We still live together. I tried to quit after a few rehearsals, but my ex convinced me not to. The process has not been very enjoyable for multiple reasons, in part because of my now-ex-boyfriend but also for emotional reasons. I'm dealing with feelings of suicidal depression. Every time I think about the play I get sick to my stomach--literally. I really want to quit, but I don't want to let the other actors down. Would it be horrible and selfish and unprofessional for me to quit now?
Maria, via the Internet
While I usually subscribe to "the show must go on" mentality, your case is different. If doing the play increases your anxiety and pain, even makes you physically sick, you are not doing anyone any good by continuing to plug along. While professionals should be expected to put up with discomfort to meet their obligations, you should not be asked to sell your health short. If you wrote in for my permission to drop out, you've got it. Quit the play today.
You said you have "suicidal depression." I hope you take those feelings seriously and reach out for help. I contacted several psychologists about your letter in hopes of helping you make a positive change.
Licensed marriage and family therapist Tess Hightower has not only worked with numerous actors in her years as a therapist but is also married to one. She has this to say about your predicament: "Why would you do something that feels uncomfortable for you? What feels dangerous about saying no to him? Is it that your almost-ex will be angry with you or that there will be no chance of reviving the relationship? If you are special to a jerk, how special is that?
"If you feel thrown away by him, then it is not such a stretch to throw yourself away," she continues. "Often suicidal ideation reflects our feelings that we are not lovable. We use the loss of a love object to confirm those feelings, and our rage about never having these longings met can turn inward and become depression. Sometimes suicide feels like the only way we can take control of a life that feels out of control and helpless. Stepping back and asking the objective question 'What would be in my best interest?' will enable you to begin to build self-esteem. Defining your needs and putting those first is not selfish--as perhaps you were taught by a parent--it is esteeming."
Hightower's comments are thematically similar to those made by Frann Altman, also a licensed marriage and family therapist and a longtime SAG member, who practices addiction medicine for Kaiser Permanente and offers private treatment. "If you have feelings of suicidal depression, I'd take that seriously and want you to consider some level of intervention that could help address those feelings," suggests Altman. "If serious and immediately threatening, a suicide hotline [or a hospital ER] might be able to get you help quickly.
"It sounds like...you are living in circumstances that are constantly debilitating to you," she continues. "Still living with the ex-boyfriend who broke up with you? Move or stay with friends. Get away from him. Wounds can't heal when the scabs are constantly being perturbed, and seeing him daily would do just that. As for the play, it sounds like you need permission to do what may be best for you, and that is to quit the play and take care of yourself. You need to attend to rebuilding your self-esteem, your new life, and learn that there are times when [saying] no to another person is really [saying] yes to ourselves. Just bow out. No elaborate explanation to this man, even if he's Neil Simon, is necessary."
Finally, Rene Hollander, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice and on the teaching staff at Ryokan College, offers another perspective. She suggests that sticking it out is one way to stay true to yourself. "[This] option is perhaps the most difficult one: keeping your word because it means something to you," she notes. "It is because of you that you are willing to persevere and accomplish the best that you can present. This has...to do with your relationship with yourself. Your suicidal thoughts are about you abandoning you. If you abandon you, nobody will have the opportunity to join you now or in the future."
No matter what you decide to do about the play, get help for your depression. If private therapy seems financially out of reach, there are low-cost options available. In Los Angeles you can contact the L.A. County Department of Mental Health at (800) 854-7771
or go to www.dmh.ca.gov for more information and links to statewide 24-hour mental-health help lines. In New York, LifeNet, a service of the mental health association of NYC (www.mhaofnyc.org), provides information and referrals tailored to a caller's needs and can get you help in a crisis; the phone number is (800) 543-3638
. Actors throughout the country can contact The Actors' Fund for assistance (actorsfund.org). The Actors' Fund Mental Health Service connects actors with social workers who, according to the organization, "provide evaluation and referrals, intensive case management, and short-term treatment to deal with a wide array of significant issues ranging from depression to eating disorders to performance anxiety. Referrals are made to a wide network of providers who are familiar with industry issues and offer high-quality, low-cost services. If necessary, the Fund provides short-term grants to cover these expenses." In NYC call (212) 221-7300
, ext. 113; in L.A., (323) 933-9244
; and in Chicago, (312) 372-0989
The life of an actor is not easy. Even without breakups, our daily lives are often rife with rejection and professional turmoil. We use our psyches in our art, opening ourselves up to what can sometimes be overwhelming emotion. It's more than okay to ask for help. It's a necessity.
2/4/14 "Creativity and Depression, Lost Vouchers."
Addiction is a most powerful monster especially if there are co-occurring issues like depression or other mood issues. Like Godzilla, it is lurking right behind you, relentlessly doing push ups, just waiting for its chance to strike you down. Perhaps it's time for another read of this...http://www.backstage.com/bso/advice-the-working-actor/creativity-and-depression-lost-vouchers-1004076326.story
"Creativity and Depression, Lost Vouchers." By Jackie Apodaca March 17, 2010
Dear Jackie: As a performer, I find myself subject to a battle with depression and black moods when not working and sometimes when working. What can a performer do to combat this?
Dear Down: Many years ago, in a Los Angeles Times article on depression, I stumbled across a sentence that struck me hard. I've tried to find that quote numerous times, to no avail, but the gist was that there is some evidence that highly creative people—artists—are more likely to experience mental illnesses, such as depression, than "regular" people. I remember a light going on in my head when I read that. "Of course!" I thought. "Of course that's true!" I recognized from my years of close contact with other artists that we were somehow different. Not better or worse, but different. And surely, trying to work as a professional artist in any field must be nuts!
I contacted two mental health professionals for comment on your question. Both have been actors themselves, so they have particular insight into the topic as it relates to our field.
is a licensed marriage and family therapist with a doctorate in clinical psychology and has been a Screen Actors Guild member since 1989. "First, I'd suggest anyone who has 'depressive symptoms and black moods' get themselves to a licensed therapist or psychologist for an assessment," she writes in an email. "Make sure there is no clinical depression or a mood disorder like bipolar. While depression can come and go, bipolar mood disorder is a lifetime disorder and needs attention the same way something like diabetes does. People such as Winston Churchill (who called his depression 'black dog') and William Styron (Pulitzer Prize–winning writer) wrestled with depression that sometimes brought them to their knees, but their brilliance and expression endured. That being said, there is a sense of purpose and creative expression when working. Downtime can really cause one to struggle with questions like 'Where is the next job coming from?' and important, meaningful questions like 'Who am I beyond the actor in me?' Creating a life that is full and rich off-camera is important to explore. Everyone has times when they feel low or sad, but if it impacts your work and your life, it needs more-focused attention. Finally, know that it takes courage to ask those types of questions. I hope the answers open some doors." Altman's website can be found at www.frannaltman.com
Jeanette Yoffe, an actor and therapist with a master's degree in clinical psychology suggests that creative activity should be part of your daily life—even when you don't have a job. "Get involved," she writes in an email. "An actor acts! So take action. Create your own spotlight. Find a theater company to join or volunteer at; start writing that project you have on the shelf; take a risk. An active life leaves very little room for depression."
This is where my mind first went upon reading your question. With a career guaranteed to fluctuate, you may need steadying forces in your life to maintain balance. Certainly family, friends, and hobbies should play a role, and there's a lot to be said for steady income in helping to ward off worry, but taking control of your artistic life may help you fight dark clouds. As Yoffe suggests, be sure you have a theater company, inspiring class, or improv group to work out with on a regular basis. Sometimes having an artistic outlet for your feelings can keep them from getting the better of you. And be sure you have friends outside the acting world to help you keep perspective when times are tough.
All that said, Yoffe echoes Altman: "If you feel your depression is interfering with your ability to function—i.e., difficulty getting out of bed, self-neglect, and/or intrusive or ruminating negative thoughts—seek a mental health professional immediately. Depression is not something to ignore but to embrace. In the words of Confucius, 'Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall.' "
Happy New Year!!!! 2014
Prescription: Gratitude. To be taken 3x a day.
The only side effects are an enhanced sense of well being, joy, appreciation & happiness for a better life.
Common sense isn't all that common. November 20, 2013
When the poop is hitting the fan, turn off the fan and get rid of the poop. Things are easier sans drama, don't you think? Unless that is another one of someone's Habituations...the drama, I.e.
As winter approaches. November 2, 2013
For some reason, I've been thinking a lot about our time here. What matters. How we spend that time. How we mark it. Then I found this quote...
December, Remember. 2012
Breathe. Sit still. Reflect. Ponder and wander in your mind. What went right. What went left. Keep it. Lose it. Change it. Let it be.
What have you learned. What can you use. A failure is when you've learned nothing. A lesson is when there are things to use and apply to the tapestry of your life.
The choices are yours to uncover, recover, discover...sit still. Reflect. Remember. The new year is around the corner...What will you make of it. Of yourself?
Be good to you and others.
The Working Actor: Actors' Motivations
Dr. Altman weighs in: March 24, 2011
The Change is Upon Us, Like it or Not. So like it.
Shake, rattle and roll. Not just Jerry Lee Lewis, but the whole world is speaking up, flipping the script and getting our attention. Compassion and heart go out to the people in Japan who are not only suffering through the disasterous earthquake(s) and the reactor episodes, but also that the temperatures are so very cold at night, adding to their trauma. The planet is a fragile life force with a fierce roar and we are shown how fragile we are as well. How good are we to one another? In the midst of fear do we reach out or cower to cover what we have? Do we share when sharing is needed? If your attitude determines your altitude, then you have the potential to change the vision of your version and help transform the time of now. For those who have much or anything really, an attitude of gratitude is the daily mantra that there but for the grace...It tolls for thee
. Prayers to all.
The Catastrophe along the Gulf Coast and beyond
Words fail me. Actions failed them. “BP drilled into a jugular vein in planet earth and now she's bleeding out.”
The Working Actor: Creativity and Depression
Dr. Altman weighs in: March 23, 2010
Speaking of Faith
World in flux. Losses and gains all in the same day. Comings and goings. Expansions/contractions. Contradictions everywhere. Sometimes it's best to sit still to know what to do. The movements through our lives. In a day. A month. A year. Over a lifetime. How I am there and not there all at the same time. How could someone I once loved be someone I can't feel anymore? How is it that some memories burn stronger than other?
by Gregory Colbert
Sometimes the silence between the spaces of our lives are good places to sit and breathe.
Isn't it funny that we can spend years of our lives wanting something and yet when we get it, we find we have no idea how to keep it. Ah, therein lies the rub. It's not about getting it, it's about keeping it. The daily work. The practice. The cultivation. Of love. Of loving. How to see the tiny details of how someone says I love you when it's not presented in the ways we'd imagined it would be. And how to be conscious, present in each moment of our own life to recognize our own ways, styles, actions to show who we are and how we love.
I'm beginning to think that being able to handle the ambiguity of another and allow them to find their way to the answer to our shared problems is what makes some relationships really work. It's not about co-dependency and giving up ourselves but really being ok with allowing the other person, or even us, to awaken to the "ahha" moments that move us through the barriers, hiccups and landmines of life. People's ability to give one another the space to find their knowing.
Rainer Maria Rilke:
For one human being to love another:
that is perhaps the most difficult of our tasks;
the ultimate, the last test and proof,
the work for which all other work is but preparation.
Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.
Your ego is not your amigo.
Think about it
Once you are a pickle, you can't go back to being a cucumber.
A deep breath, a few moments each day with a thank you for what I have. To focus on what is, rather than on what is not. The eyes to see. The ears to listen. The heart to be open. Grateful. It is an attitude. And a choice to stay in the solution, rather than only the problem. Do something each day to make the world around you a better place.
A humanitarian crisis rages on in Zimbabwe. Over 60,000+ cases of cholera last reported and close to 4,000 lives have been lost. . According to CNN 2/11/09: "The United Nations says more than 5 million people are in need of food aid, in a country that has shortages of all essentials, including fuel, electricity and cash. The shortages have created a fertile environment for inflation. The country recorded the highest level of inflation in the world in July, at 231 million percent." Staggering. And according to UNICEF: "Since 1990, HIV/AIDS has slashed the average life expectancy in Zimbabwe from 61 to 33 years (2003; source: SOWC
, Excel format), and there are now 1 million children in Zimbabwe who have been orphaned due to AIDS-related deaths. In other words, one in five Zimbabwean children is an orphan as a result of the HIV/AIDS crisis."
02/07/09 A note sent to President Obama:
It's hard to find anyone who is not touched by this deep recession we are in. Whether it is a loss of employment or a loss of health care, barely making ends meet or not, everyone knows or has met someone.
My story is simple. I do not sleep well in fear that my job could be cut. It is not now. But as we see all around us, who knows? Indeed, who knows.
My thoughts are more important than my story. I want to see jobs brought back to the U.S. Using the energy potentials we have here to help create jobs. The dissension in union work is appalling and I am a member of two unions. One has been absorbed into a larger one and the mismanagement is staggering. My union dollars are being spent to make multicolored mailers to inform us about the infighting. Multicolor is a waste of my hard earned dollars that go to the union. Why don't they email me. It's free. There is too much old thinking.
My state of California is in shambles. And the state utilities and perhaps the state, wastes money. Yesterday, 2/6/09, I was driving home and at the corner of Gateway Blvd (west middle divider) and Barrington, in the pouring rain they had the sprinklers running. Waste. Who do I call to report this waste? There is nothing on the Ca.gov website.
How about a committee to oversee the enormous amounts of waste going on. We might not be in this situation, both as a state and as a country, if there were Waste Assessment Committees.
From an article I read today on CNN/Money, it appears that there is a man named Markopolos who told the SEC, with supporting data, at the beginning of the decade, that Madoff was a fraud but they dismissed him. I applaud this man for his whistle blowing. Whistle blowing needs to be thought of as a good thing, not as a bad thing.
We also need to change our mindset. Of bad. Of good. And of what is needed regardless of party affiliation.
Party affiliation is bogus. Old ideas. Old values. No one group has all the answers. The ideas of party - small p is small thinking. We need to think of Party with a big P for everyone.
The party is dead. Long live The Party - the home of good ideas, no matter where they come from.
February 1, 2009
It's everywhere. We need to keep breathing. Meditating. Moving. Sitting still. Working it out. Reflecting. Doing our best and then letting go. Hands open, palms up. Man, this sure is hard at times. Note to self: Let it go. Breath. today could be your day for that 100 yard superbowl touch down.
January 20, 2009 CNN
This is a glorious day!
What would Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. say about Obama?
He might say we have come so far and yet there is further yet to go. We must reach into our consciences and hearts and know that while it may appear a physical victory, the moral victory continues to need to be attended to, each and every day. That when we deny the rights of democracy to any man or woman, we deny them to all.
His speech of 1964 still resonates with me (Bowdoin 1964
) - “If democracy is to live, then segregation must die. Segregation is a cancer in the body politic…” Martin Luther King Jr.
The healing has begun but we cannot rest for there is still so much yet ahead but today is a celebration of the heart, of the soul.
I am grateful to be here.
by Frann Altman
January 19, 2009 12:05am
I am so excited for Tuesday, the inauguration. The world feels filled with promise and healing possiblities. I really wanted to be in Washington, DC but I know I would be crying the whole time, tears of joy and they would freeze on my face in the cold. I wrote to everyone I could think of, congressman/women, senators, even Obama himself but to no avail. It will still be the beginning of what I hope will be The Awakening. For everyone. WE the people...
Look for the gold.
January 14, 2009 9:26PM
How short this life is. How quickly it moves. Now is then. Tomorrow is today. And all of our dreams can become our realities or merely stay our dreams if we are but brave enough to dare. Even if we live this life fully and in each moment, we cannot stop time nor once spent can we retrieve it. It is there in front of you and how you feel about yourself is determined by not just what happens to you but what you make happen. It can be but a whisper in the wind or a roar from the belly of your soul but it is yours to sound. Yours to make.
How you see what is in front of you, behind you or anywhere around you is the vision from the inside out. What you see is
, but what you make of it, is yours
. Grant it joy or sadness. Grief or anger. All of it or none of it. It is what you choose to see. What you want to see. What you dare to see.
You are in control of your attitude. You can see the forest or the trees. Or all of it.
Within the joy, there is pain. The yin cannot exist without the yang. They are part and parcel of the same circle. To see it and know it, is different than to live in the pain, achored in suffering.. It is said that pain is mandatory, suffering optional.
So, as a new friend from a far away, mystical land said to me just tonight, when digging for gold, look for the gold, not the dirt.
Look for the gold.
Reaching across the aisle or the dinner table...
January 13, 2009 11:26pm
At Any Moment:
December 28, 2008
Whether it is talking to tech support because your computer hard drive has crashed and you are on the phone with someone half way around the world in Mumbai who is helping you or you are visiting a friend or relative in the hospital and you take a moment to help the person in the bed next to your family member, there is always, always a moment where you can decide to be here now. To take this time and realize this is time the of your life. Right now. Right now. Stop and look around you. Be present. Stop with the busy work that moves you from there to here and back to there again. That the person in that hospital bed has no one there with her and needs her food cut up. Ask if you can help. Don't wait. Offer. That the young man who speaks so quickly with an accent, hard to understand, is helping you with your computer and yet only a few short weeks ago he was just across town from all the horror perhaps feeling what you felt seven years ago. Just another person in this world. Stop and find out. Talk. Help. Say hello. Can you open your heart? At any moment you have the opportunity to step into your life and live it. More fully. At any moment you have that opportunity to be present for your life.
We Are All Reminders -
December 14, 2008
Speaking of Faith: Krista Tippett and Parker Palmer inspirational dialogue inspired me to write in...
NPR/KPCC Frann Altman, PsyD
First let me say this is the first time I've listened to your program, and it won't be the last. I was driving home this afternoon and turned on the radio. I'm a huge NPR fan. I was so immersed in Parker's conversation with you that I pulled over to the side of the road to write down your program name and time. I drove around in the car, down to the bluffs in Santa Monica listening. The mix between the cold wind, both your warm hearts, the economic implosive, and the magnificent explosion of colors across the sunset helped me really feel my aliveness. Not the rote, automatic movements that so many of us have fallen into.
You ask how do we get to a place like we are, both financially and spiritually, morally? Little by little, we learn how to turn off others around us, then we turn off ourselves. Or does it begin that we learn to slowly turn off ourselves and then it becomes habitual to turn off others. Walk by people in need because we don't have time or the inclination to be in the now of our lives. In our race to the finish line of who has the most stuff, we inevitably lose the race — the human race. And here we are.
And like Parker, I think this devastating downturn may just be the bottom that we need to feel in order to begin to rebuild ourselves as a person, people, nation, and world. How easy it is to forget we are human with all our darkness and our light and that we can determine which path we decide to follow. The good news is that turnaround can happen in an instant. Piaget spoke to humans needing tens of thousands of experiences for a real change within the organism to occur. A real structural change, not just a cosmetic change. The difference between accommodation and assimilation. Now is the time for that real structural change.
I also loved the concept that an inner life cannot be turned on and off or just on by enormous amounts of data digesting. But clearly creating an environment that allows and supports the study of one's innards as being as important if not more than one's outards, opens the doors for inquiry and meaningful searching. I also recall the question Parker posed of why no one spoke up if they had or more solidly that they knew of the divisive programs in the financial markets. The answers were fear (of being known as a whistle blower) and of course, greed. And then begs the question, how much is enough. When does someone say when. That a society is not known by how well its most wealthy and successful achieve but how that society treats the least fortunate members.
As a doctor of the psychological, a clinician for many years, I might suggest that we are so disconnected from our true selves that we cannot connect to those who are not akin to us in our false selves. We push away those parts of ourselves in others we fear the most. We may give money, but not our time. And clearly, what is more precious than time. Once spent, it cannot be reclaimed. Though we all have hearts that beat in our chest this is most certainly a matter that is driven straight from the heart. Our spiritual heart.
I suggest that many are not afraid of telling but more afraid of being known. Of being revealed. Of realizing that in spite of a vast fortune, there is nowhere anyone can go to get away from the world. People can no longer pretend the rest of the world does not exist. We are all globally connected. Their existence is our existence. There is no where to go to get away. Away is always with us. We have to change the way we live, from the inside out and then from the outside as well. We all rise and fall together. Tomorrow depends upon today. Now more than ever.
Thank you for your show. I needed to listen. We all need to be reminded. And we are all the reminders as well.
Los Angeles, California (KPCC, 89.3 FM)
Dec 05, 2008
It can get so comfortable doing it the same way. We can ride to work without even realizing how we got from here to there. Unconsciously conscious.
Life can be like that. We wake up and find weeks, months, years have passed faster than we could keep track of and when we stop to look around, do we like what we see in our lives? Around us? In the world?
The world around us has been filled with bullies. Pushing, shoving, even ever so gently to reach the top. Be the winner. And stand alone. Isn't it time that we decide if we don't like the direction we're moving in, that we step up and take responsibility for a new direction? You're either part of the problem or part of the solution.
It's so easy to be busy with matters of consequence that we wake up and half a life is lived. Really all we have is now. Grab it. Gone. Grab it again. Gone. Now. Now. Now.
I talk about trying new things, but I haven't done it. Should I? Will I? Can I? How can I not? Was I once fearless? Where did it go? Can I borrow some of yours?
Do something brave each day! Live life like it matters.
I love blogging on CNN. Sometimes they post me. Sometimes they don't.
Don't be afraid. Make it count.
Ask someone how you could make their life better. I did that yesterday and I got back a lot of love. I didn't ask to get. I asked to give. But I gave and got. Funny how that works.
Risk it. Try it. Dare it. Do it.
Michael Boland sat in the office of a highly respected artistic director of a well-known regional theatre, needing to summon the best performance of his fledgling but fading career. Although he was already cast in a play the theatre was about to take on the road, Boland was auditioning for a far more critical role: a plausible version of his passable self. Deep in denial but not completely divorced from reality, he knew "convincing" and "competent" were out of his range — what with a monster hangover and a mere hour's sleep working against him.
The artistic director had a lot of questions and not much time; he had made a special trip from New York to assess the damage and needed to know whether to get another actor to replace Boland. The tour was starting in two weeks. "He could see I was in trouble," Boland recalls. "It was very emotional too, because a couple years earlier he'd given me my start, and here I was, feeling like I was lying to my parents when I was 16 years old."
The artistic director was gentle, but he pressed the actor all the same. "He was asking, 'What's going on, Mike? What's wrong? How come you have no phone? We can't reach you.' And I was just lying my ass off," the actor remembers. "And he knew it." Nevertheless, Boland kept his job — even when, a few days later, he got into a bar fight and was arrested.
"It was a shell game, a game of hide-and-seek," he says of his life at the time — spring 2000. "My two worlds were obviously pulling at each other, and I was the rope in the middle. At the end of that tour I decided, basically, I wasn't going to subject myself to that kind of thing anymore. When you have to make a choice, you always choose the substance you're addicted to." So Boland quit acting.
A Common Story
Substance abuse and addiction are familiar stories for actors. John Barrymore is one of the classic tragic figures, dying a has-been of cirrhosis at 60 in 1942. (Of acting he once said, "There are lots of methods. Mine involves a lot of talent, a glass, and some cracked ice.") Marilyn Monroe died at 36 in 1962 and John Belushi at 33 in 1982, each from a drug overdose. In a one-week period in January, Brad Renfro, 25, died from heroin and Heath Ledger, 28, died of an accidental overdose of prescription pills. Other actors have fashioned more-positive stories so far: Drew Barrymore, Robin Williams, and Robert Downey Jr. seem to have maintained their recoveries, though not without relapsing along the way. But of course fledgling and undiscovered actors struggle with substance abuse as well.
Despite the stereotype of artist-as-addict, performers are no more predisposed to alcoholism and substance abuse than are lawyers and pipe-fitters, says Dr. Alan Lans, a psychiatrist based in New York who has treated well-known athletes and actors. "I don't think there's a correlate" between being an artist and having an addiction, he says. "There's no personality that's particular to dependence. It can happen to anybody." Yet it doesn't. "For every artist or writer who had to be performing drunk, there are those who had to perform sober," Lans says. "We have this image of Dylan Thomas as the brilliant poet who's a fall-down drunk. But people have been writing poetry for thousands of years without drinking."
Frann Altman, a member of the Screen Actors Guild and a doctor of psychology who treats people with addictions, says work and environmental pressures can make actors particularly vulnerable to substance abuse. "There are long hours, budget shoots; you work in a business where the bottom line is money," she says. "Maybe you have a long day with a short turnaround, and maybe you need a little bit of alcohol to get to sleep.... The environment itself takes a toll on someone."
Altman doesn't readily agree with Lans that an actor's personality is not a factor in dependency. "What is the draw for someone to be an actor?" she asks. "Maybe it's to fill a gap, to be seen, to be heard, you're on, you're alive, you love the spoken word. These are tremendously creative people, but there's also the need for approval. You're in a job where you're constantly being judged — and not necessarily for the quality of the work."
Greg's first drug was tobacco, given to him by a director on the set of an independent movie. "I just had to puff on it," says the East Coast-based actor. "I didn't have to inhale, and actually I didn't even know how to. They asked me if I was comfortable with it, and I said yeah because I didn't want to make a scene."
That was seven years ago, when Greg was 14. Soon after, he was smoking. "Curiosity killed the cat," he says. If only he had stopped at cigarettes. "When you're an addict, you think the definition of a real drug addict is one step ahead of what you're doing at the time," Greg says. "When I was smoking pot, I wasn't doing coke, so I couldn't be an addict. Then when I was doing coke, it was like, at least I'm not doing heroin, so I'm not an addict. It's just a denial system that builds and builds. And the thing that I've learned: I was an addict way before I picked up drugs. My first drug was fantasy."
Greg describes himself as a former social chameleon whose demeanor changed depending on the people around him. He was uncomfortable with himself. He says, "There was jibber-jabber in my head. Being an actor, you just kind of listen to it. That negativity inside my head — I always had to view myself either as an angel or a monster. It was always an extreme. The reality is I was just in the middle."
Greg says there is a direct correlation between his being an actor and an addict. "An actor tweaks his personality for the pleasure of other people," he says. "The better you do that, the more happy you make the people around you. Even for the serious actor, you have to be tweaking it so much for the happiness of another person; you start seeking other people's approval subconsciously."
Greg went to college in Pennsylvania to study theatre and communications. One day he smoked pot for 14 hours straight but didn't feel high. He bought cocaine that night and, he says, "It was like a hurricane that rocked my life. I didn't enjoy acting anymore. Drugs just took over everything. It was the only thing I could possibly enjoy."
Greg's life changed when he was caught with cocaine by campus security. His parents were called in, and he went to rehabilitation, which took right away. "I had a real desire to change," he says. "With cocaine, there was nothing down there for me. I had the faith it would be all right."
It helps that the fundamentals of his 12-step recovery program dovetail with his approach to acting: Rather than seeking a finite result, he works the process, over and over again. His goal is to listen and to put his attention on a positive action, rather than concentrating on a negative one. "Recovery isn't about not doing drugs," he says. "It's about finding a new way of life. If your focus is drugs and not doing them, you will go back to the drugs."
Still, Greg, now in his early 20s, says recovery is a regular part of his life. He goes to meetings three or four times per week, and when he doesn't go, he usually calls his sponsor. He rediscovered his love of acting in his first production after entering recovery. He was playing a Casanova character and "was hitting walls" because he was trying to be suave, cool, a charmer. When he switched his focus to an action — to convince a woman to sleep with him or to entice her to travel with him — his performance improved.
"Recovery taught me a great thing about practice and consistency, and that was a great thing to learn about in acting," he says. "Recovery taught me to stop doing things for the results and start enjoying the process."
A Delicate Balance
Lans says that although actors are no more predisposed to substance abuse than any other type of person, there is a trait all performers share, whether athletes or artists: the ability to mobilize anxiety for their benefit. "Anxiety is a necessary part of life," says Lans. "It's what makes us look both ways before crossing the street. Performers, athletes know how to modify that anxiety for peak performance. They do it mostly unconsciously — just enough anxiety. It's a delicate balance."
If performance is anxiety management, Lans adds, artists and athletes can become dependent on a drug to maintain that delicate balance, even though it is self-defeating in the long run. "It's traditional in baseball," he says. "If you feel too anxious when you go out there, take a drink. It's a pact with the devil. People who perform always struggle with how to deal with anxiety. Zero Mostel relied on hypnotism and drugs — not Valium but heart medication."
Complicating matters for actors is the inextricable link between pleasure and business, and this is where environment is again a key factor, Altman says. "There's a socialization involved, wrap parties," she says. "The business lends itself to exaggeration. You can be left wondering where your happiness will be found. Some people are very lucky they have lives outside the business."
That showbiz environment often makes it difficult for high-profile stars to maintain their recovery process, no matter what stage they are in, says Lans, who refers to a certain young actor known for her tabloid exploits as an example. "It's really sad to watch what's happened to such a talented young woman," he says. "Everyone around her it seems has a motive [for keeping her where she is], and she's unable to get appropriate treatment. Her fear seems to be she will have no identity. Who is she without that lifestyle?"
24-Hour Party People
It didn't seem to matter where Roger was; the environment was never conducive to staying sober. Perhaps that's because he brought the party with him wherever he went, or maybe it was because he is the child of two heavyweight alcoholics and the younger brother of a drug dealer.
Roger's childhood was a tragicomic tale of epic family dysfunction. He had his first drug experience when he was 11 — accidentally, he says — through a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was the 1960s, his brother had laid tabs of LSD on the kitchen table, and trace amounts were picked up through the Wonder Bread. About an hour after Roger ate the sandwich, he says, he knew what was happening. At age 13, he drugged his mother to get her into a hospital to dry out.
Although Roger was a straight-A student, his junior high and high school years were marked by jail time for stealing his father's car; a horrific traffic accident that broke both his legs, several ribs, and nearly tore his face off; and being socially ostracized most of the time for being gay. After high school, he pursued acting at the University of Minnesota and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, earning distinction and good reviews at each stop. By 1978, the artistic director recommended that Roger submit himself for a new theatre company in Denver. Roger moved west when he received notice he had been accepted; however, when he got there, he was told the theatre wasn't built yet and, by the way, he hadn't earned a place in the new company, only an audition.
Roger abandoned acting to wait tables at an upscale bar, the place where he finally found acceptance, he says. "And the first thing they taught me was how to stack my drugs." A typical day was martinis, cigarettes, and Valium in the morning; brunch, shopping, and cocaine; and then going to work at the happy-hour shift. Hallucinogens laced with coke came at 10 p.m.
His drug use continued until 1988, and he stopped drinking in 1994. At some point in the past 30 years, he says, he contracted HIV and has lived with AIDS for 25 years. He dealt large amounts of cocaine, was arrested and jumped bail by escaping to Miami, served a 10-month stint in prison, and made a failed suicide attempt wherein a friend found him passed out with his head in the oven, one hand on an empty vodka bottle and the other on the gas knob. Had he not passed out, he says, he would have killed himself and everyone else in his building. He hasn't had a drink since, he says, and is now living in Palm Springs, Calif.
Roger hadn't acted between 1978 and 2006. But then a real estate website he frequently uses asked him to audition for a testimonial commercial. He earned a principal role, and that "totally re-lit the fire," he says. "The directors and producers were absolutely thrilled with me and asked me why I wasn't working as an actor." This summer, Roger has dedicated himself to forging a career: taking classes, going on auditions, and trying to get an agent. "In the past instead of getting headshots and everything else, I spent money on my habit," he says. "This time I did it right."
After he stopped acting, Boland spent most of two years "doing a little house painting, tending a little bar, and sleeping." Despite his alcoholism, he was well-liked and well-thought-of at the bar, but he eventually lost his job when he got into a drunken argument with a friend of the owner — unusual for an establishment that rarely kicked out unruly customers, he says, let alone fired anyone.
Boland then got a job as a bouncer at a strip club, where he worked when he wasn't hanging at his old bar, "where I sort of got pity drinks," he says. "My life got really small, which it had to do for me to face it."
On Easter Sunday 2002, he had $100 to his name. He went to his father's house to get a clean shirt, dinner, and a ride to the bar. Before he left, his father, a throat-cancer survivor now battling emphysema, stopped him. "I kind of knew what it was going to be about by the tone in his voice," Boland recalls. "And I rolled my eyes and said, 'Aw, here we go.'"
His father laid out a plan: He would pay for rehabilitation, offer him a place to stay when he got out, and get him a car. "I didn't want to hear any of this, but I was looking at my dad, and he was basically asking me for this favor before he died — to do this for him so that he could let go in peace," Boland says. "I knew I wasn't the person I wanted to be, but I also knew that I would enter into a new territory much worse than that if I refused him. So I said okay."
After rehab, Boland returned to old places but didn't stay for long. He agreed to work a shift at his former bar and knew "within a half-hour that it was going to be the longest night of my life." He never returned. He started dating a woman who owned a bar but ended the relationship almost as quickly as he began it.
One place Boland needed to return to was the audition room. He tried to read for every play helmed by the artistic director who almost fired him. (By this time, the man had earned a Tony Award and developed a reputation as one of the best directors on Broadway.) The director was never at those Equity general auditions, but each time, Boland left a note for the casting director to pass on. "I kept thinking that they were probably just throwing them out," Boland says. "It turns out they weren't, and he was getting them."
In 2005, after three years of auditioning for plays and getting nothing, he was cast in a regional production of The Exonerated. Soon after, he noticed Roundabout was casting a tour of Twelve Angry Men. Boland called the director and asked if he would put in a good word for him, "because standing in line at the EPA I didn't think would work for me." Ten minutes later, the casting department phoned him, asking him to come in for an audition. Five months later, he was on the road as an understudy, and within a year he took over for George Wendt as Juror #1.
During his two-week stint at the clinic, Boland says, he spoke every day in group therapy. He said he felt like a hostage when he was drinking and wondered aloud whether he "would sort of roll over and accept my fate…. Or would I be the guy who digs a tunnel with his bare hands to get out?" Ultimately, Boland made the decision of a lifetime. As he recalls, "I wanted to be the guy that dug the tunnel."
Two of the actors interviewed for this story asked to remain anonymous; only their first names are used, and identifying factors such as credits and hometowns have been omitted. For Michael Boland, who allowed his full name to be used, the names of key people and places in his life have been left out at his request.
Bravo to you and your organization for this acknowledgment! I especially appreciate your notion that good culture and good values are a dynamic concept and that good health is born of reevaluation and invention.
An example of community at its best. Kudos to you all!
Posted by: DrFrann | January 23, 2009 at 08:07 PM