Alan Dybner, who was a strike captain during the 2007-2008 strike and is now a marriage and family therapist, says that one way to deal with stress is to “try not to compare yourself to your fellow writers and how they’re managing.”
WGA members have incredible imaginations. It’s a union filled with people who spend much of their day asking “what if?” over and over again. The right “what if” question, like “What if, the night before starting her surgical residency in Seattle, a doctor slept with a guy with great hair who turned out to be her new supervisor?” can lead to 19 seasons and counting of more “what if” questions, and not just jobs for writers, but for actors, producers, gaffers — you name it.
Writers bring that restless imagination not only to their scripts but to many aspects of their lives. Most writers at some point have asked themselves a version of, “What if, with hard work and lots of practice, I could one day see my script turned into a TV show or a movie? Not only that, what if one day I could actually get paid to write full time and that could even be my job?”
Of course, while writers can imagine positive outcomes, most writers are even better at thinking up negative scenarios. “What if my script is no good?” “What if everyone realizes I’m a fraud?” Or the classic, “What if I never work in this town again?”
Catastrophizing, or fixating on the worst possible outcome of an upcoming situation, is not uncommon among my therapy clients with anxiety, and writer clients are often particularly gifted at it. Learning to tolerate anxiety, to not know what will happen but still move forward, is a valuable skill for writers, as it’s always been an unpredictable industry. Thankfully, people can find ways to develop this skill over time.
But tolerating uncertainty becomes much more challenging when there’s a giant and very real stressor currently making itself felt in your life. A complete work stoppage caused by multibillion-dollar companies refusing to negotiate in good faith with your labor union, over demands that would cost them very little but would make it possible for you to actually earn a livable wage? Definitely fits the bill.
So, given you might’ve been a worrier before the writers strike and now there’s something quite real to worry about, what can you do? A perspective on anxiety that I find helpful is one taught by the Beck Institute, a leader in the field of cognitive behavioral therapy. They believe anxiety is commonly caused by overestimating the risk of a situation while simultaneously underestimating your ability to get through it.
Now, when it comes to the strike, the risks are very real. It is possible your career will be affected negatively, not only in the short term but possibly in the long term. Some jobs and opportunities may indeed never come back, and that can be terrifying.
But you also may be underestimating your ability to get through this. For most WGA members, it took years of hard work and drive to even get into the Guild in the first place. Similarly, it takes tenacity and resilience to keep a career going. That determination and grit, which you’ve already shown you possess, can be called upon both during the strike and once it’s over. Yes, when it ends, your career might look different. The whole field might look different. An industrywide work stoppage is difficult and scary, but it is also survivable. Especially when you look at all you’ve endured in the past already and survived (at times, even thrived).
From my own personal experience, when the last strike began at the end of 2007, I had come off being a writer on That ‘70s Show, and had been trying to get staffed at a time when “unscripted” reality TV was already eating up much of the networks’ schedules. As the strike hit, I had just gone through a series of encouraging interviews for a late-night talk-show writing position, but the final interview had to be put on hold until after the strike ended. I was extremely supportive of the strike, feeling it was necessary for the future of the profession for writers to have a foothold in the emerging streaming world (then known as “new media”) and I was directly involved with the Guild as co-chair of the Latinx Writers Committee and as a strike captain at Paramount. Yet, I also knew that the longer the strike continued, the less likely it would be that the late-night job would still be there when the strike ended (a fear that proved accurate).
And so, emotionally it was a time of high anxiety with some sleepless nights, overeating of free donuts at the picket line, and asking way too many of those negative “what if” questions. All the cardio from picketing each day helped me with my stress a little, but I certainly could have benefitted from taking better care of my mental health.
I’m hoping now with my experience as a therapist I can offer a few tips that may be helpful in addressing the day-to-day emotional toll of the strike and tolerating the uncertainty of this time.
Don’t Keep Everything Inside
Talk about how you’re feeling with loved ones, with peers and, if you feel it helps, with a trained psychotherapist. Not everyone needs that last one, but most everyone benefits from voicing difficult feelings. “The talking cure,” as psychotherapy has been called, is helpful for many, but so is just expressing your feelings regularly to someone who is really listening.
You currently have a group of peers going through the shared experience of the strike, and even if their version of it might look easier or even be easier for them, it still helps to talk. For most of us, it’s easier to share feelings when feeling happy or hopeful, but it’s important to express sadness, fear and anger too, rather than letting those feelings build up inside. So, if you have a friend or colleague you feel safe with, I would challenge yourself to open up to them. When we choose to be vulnerable, we’re more likely to be really seen.
Should you not feel comfortable talking to anyone about some of those more difficult feelings, well, thankfully you’re a writer. A diary, a journal, just jotting down how you’re doing on a piece of paper, can also provide relief.
Practice Compassion For Yourself, Especially If You’re an Introvert
If you’re an introvert, acknowledge that you may feel more drained than others during and after picketing each day. Sure, for some writers, being around so many colleagues in person after the years of Zoom writing rooms has been a small silver lining during an extremely difficult time. It’s nice that you can run into old workmates, or finally meet face-to-face with some colleagues you’ve been Zooming with for a year, or even discover that the writer you’ve been chatting with in the picket line wrote that show you loved growing up.
But for the introvert, constant socializing can be exhausting. So, if that is you, explore some practical solutions. Take breaks from the crowds, find less busy areas to picket (maybe volunteer to monitor the Neutral Gate, where you can be on your own and even sit down), or wear headphones and listen to music for part of the day.
Whatever you choose to do, practice compassion towards yourself and acknowledge that picketing with hundreds of other people at a studio every day may be more challenging for you than most.
Keep an Eye on Your Alcohol and Drug Intake
During the last strike, some writers I knew suddenly became nightly regulars at their local dive bar or began doing “wake and bake” morning cannabis routines. In a stressful time, it is easy to overindulge to escape or to take the edge off of difficult feelings. Alcohol and other drugs are wildly popular the world over because they do indeed make most people feel good in the short run. But they also can take a toll on your health and be addictive.
If you are a regular alcohol drinker or drug user, I would consider being intentional in your usage. If, say, you set out to have a glass of wine and suddenly realize you finished a bottle, that’s something to pay attention to. Notice, too, if you’ve been drinking or using drugs more often and you now have a greater tolerance. If that’s the case, I would consider pulling back or abstaining.
Also, pay attention to how drinking or taking drugs makes you feel afterwards, not just in terms of a hangover or a bad night of sleep (both good reasons to cut back or abstain), but emotionally. How do you feel the next day? Does it leave you with feelings of guilt or increased worry or sadness? Again, good reasons to cut back or abstain (and in time maybe explore the root of those feelings). With cannabis, some people get a little anxious when they smoke or take edibles. If that’s you, this is probably not a time when you need increased anxiety in your life, so again, be intentional.
And for those who are sober and attend support groups, a stressful period like this one might be a good time to seek out more frequent meetings or support.
Focus on What You Can Control
You alone can’t decide on what day the studios will offer a fair deal and the strike will end. And that lack of control can be anxiety-provoking. Instead, try to focus on what you can control. You can consistently show up to picket the studios, and through collective action you can create positive change for yourself and future generations of writers.
Outside the strike and after family obligations or other ongoing responsibilities, how do you want to spend your free time? There are the classic self-care categories that are under your control: the aforementioned keeping an eye on drug or alcohol intake, but also regular exercise, trying to sleep and eat well, meditation, and other time-honored healthy practices.
And of course, something else you have control over is your writing. The Guild has specific rules on what kind of writing is and isn’t allowed, and to whom you can show your work. But staying within those rules, is there a project you want to work on? It could be a personal project you’ve been waiting to have time to start, or maybe you want to try writing in a form you’re less familiar with, like prose fiction. Whatever project you choose, regularly treating yourself to the satisfaction that comes with having written is something you can control.
Don’t Fall Into the Trap of Comparing Yourself
One last tip, if you can help it, is to try not to compare yourself to your fellow writers and how they’re managing during the strike. During the quarantine days, many of us had that one friend who got in the best shape of their life, wrote a few pilots, even learned how to play an instrument. Meanwhile, many more of us managed to … find some clever backgrounds for a Zoom cocktail hour?
You will likely have a similar friend (the same friend?) who during this new challenging period once again seems more productive than you. Hopefully, rather than comparing yourself to others and putting yourself down, you can get to a place of “who cares?” If your way of getting through a period of high anxiety is to goof off a bit, or you only occasionally manage to hit your planned self-care or writing goals, maybe that’s okay. Beating yourself up for not handling a difficult time in the same way as someone else isn’t helpful, but practicing kindness towards yourself always is.
Whether you follow some of this advice or do your own version of taking care of yourself, you might still at times let your imagination run wild and ask those catastrophic “what if” questions. Rather than dwell on those negative possibilities, don’t forget to ask a version of, “What if I remember my inner strength, do my best to take care of myself, and I’m actually okay?” It might not lead to 19 seasons of a hit show, but it could help you get through all this.
Alan Dybner is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in working with individuals and couples in the entertainment industry. Before he became a therapist, he worked as a sitcom writer, entering the WGA via freelance episodes he was assigned as a writers’ assistant on several shows before finding a more long-term home and staff position on That ‘70s Show. Born to Argentine immigrants, he served as co-chair of the WGA’s Latinx Writers Committee for six years. He is still smiling about Argentina’s World Cup victory.