My mental health is a perpetual journey that manifests in all aspects of my life, particularly my career choices. Although I graduated from pharmacy school in 2018, I was certain that I did not want to work in a traditional career path behind the counter, largely due to high occupational stress of big-chain retail pharmacy in the United States. About half way through pharmacy school, I became driven to non-traditional career paths that a pharmacy degree may cater to.
My primary motivation for a non-traditional pharmacy-graduate career was knowing that I would not function well in the occupational setting of a standard practicing retail pharmacist. Sadly, retail pharmacists working for large corporations in the United States are rarely able to unionize, advocate for their occupational needs, take adequate breaks for eating meals and using the restroom, and are often working outside the clock just to stay afloat. Retail settings in the U.S. are also dominated by multi-tasking and attending to customers on the fly. My subsequent career decision-making was governed by yearning for a position that was consistently stable with an ability to control my attention. Unfortunately, I lacked the mental bandwidth to consider whether non-traditional career paths would be inherently fulfilling. I was unable to make time in determining the extent to which a non-traditional job would be directly compatible with my deeper values.
Thankfully, I landed a relatively palatable “9 to 5” occupation as a medical writer for a clinical research organization (CRO) for a year’s duration after graduating, and I found the work environment to be significantly more bearable than that of a U.S. retail pharmacy setting. It’s worth noting that medical writing positions are filled by a variety of degree holders and are not exclusive to pharmacists, therefore falling under the umbrella of “non-traditional” careers for pharmacy graduates. I had adequate control of my attention and was able to plan my commitments in advance in a given work day. Despite success in landing a decent job shortly after graduation, I eventually had to come to terms with a lingering core dissonance in my career choices and the deeper yearning for finding the right role for me.
Thinking back, a major factor informing my decision to attend pharmacy school was for me to meet a level of social acceptability among my immediate family and subsequent surrounding South Asian social circles that my family was connected with. Although pursuing a career that is likely to provide a stable lifestyle is important and circumstantially justified in a capitalistic society, I personally felt a persistent stigma against unconventional careers among my familial community. I felt like I was battling the internalized cultural stigma against unconventional career paths and diving deeply into artistic expressions that often get trivialized. After the CRO I worked for rapidly got acquired, I separated from the group and took some time off to thoroughly explore my deeper interests, particularly those that aligned with artistic self-expression. Thankfully, a close friend of mine experienced similar occupational struggles of reconciling passion with the need to make a living and ultimately found balance and fulfillment through stand up comedy. I first watched his comedy during my last year of pharmacy school and I contemplated following his footsteps at what felt like the right time.
My pursuit of stand up comedy was deliberately timed in that I was too nervous to make an attempt at an open mic during both pharmacy school and my first job. My mental bandwidth felt spread too thin during these phases as I feared I wouldn’t be able to function at school or work the following day after bombing on stage, and I knew I’d only be comfortable giving stand up a focused shot during a long-term personal sabbatical. Therefore, I hit as many open mics as possible, every night during the summer of 2019 after leaving my job.
Even today as we’re still weathering the ongoing pandemic, I am maintaining my deep dive into stand up comedy, primarily online due to COVID-19 restrictions, and it’s been just over a year since I started. Although many of my comedy bits pertain to my Indian American upbringing, very few of my comedic bits directly address my mental health. Am I having trouble finding humor in mental health? Have I even tried? Is my mental health not adequately relatable? Or are my experiences obvious and too cliche to share? Do I avoid that topic in comedy because it’s too serious? Do I avoid talking about mental health because it varies so much from one person to the next? Would mental health be a more fitting topic for a different art form of expression such as poetry or storytelling?
I notice my comedy content evolution largely follows the timeline of my upbringing. The bulk of my comedy bits pertain to timeless aspects of my experiences and upbringing as an Indian Hindu American rather than alluding to current events. Humor can be healing and therapeutic, but sometimes my comedy writing distracts me from coming to terms with deeper personal issues that can be unproductive in attending to my mental health. While working my first full-time job, I carved time into my schedule for regular appointments with professional mental healthcare providers as well as physical exercise. However, I found it difficult to attempt a new hobby or discipline while tied up in a full-time work week, which I genuinely felt overwhelmed by. Moving forward, I hope to finesse my time management such that I don’t have to sacrifice one major priority to fulfill another.
As for types of comedy, sociological studies have shown that self-defeating humor is not typically correlated with positive health outcomes and unfortunately, the vast majority of my polished comedic bits tend to be self-deprecating. Starting out, I associated self-deprecation with being more likable as a beginner in the comedy community such that more seasoned comics would not perceive any level of over-confidence. While I am certainly able to write freely about the positive aspects of my life, I am still working on how to communicate these aspects into comedy writing with well-defined punchlines. As for my existing self-deprecating bits, perhaps I can write in a fictional character as the main character of a bit, such as a sibling (I’m an only child), to be the subject of said deprecation so that the joke isn’t executed at my expense.
My time off from full-time “regular” employment is still ongoing today and will probably continue as the pandemic has not yet completely resolved. One major discouraging realization I’ve faced is that nearly all of my big-picture interests seem to exist in the capacity of hobbies, volunteer initiatives, and nonprofits with commitment timeframes falling outside of conventional ‘9 to 5’ business hours. My interests seem to not feasibly exist as full-time jobs with necessary benefits (e.g. health insurance).
Many fellow artists I know live an unfortunate reality where they’re limited in practicing their artform outside of their dayjob hours, and these timeframes often conflict with humanitarian volunteering and civic engagement initiatives scheduled after the work day. I have not yet encountered a day-job career that I can sufficiently handle while also growing my artform and I fear the suitable positions are too competitive and/or scarce for me to pursue. Today, stand up comedy has largely been halted because of the needs for social distancing due to the covid pandemic and the circumstances have truly pushed me to identify what I most value in living a fulfilling life. Nonetheless, I aim to prioritize my mental health as I continue traversing my career journey in identifying an occupation that is right for me and can also sustain my basic needs by means of consistent income.
Recent BBC News Article About Stand Up Comedians: https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-53846365
Scandinavian Journal Paper mentioning relevant humor questionnaire: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/sjop.12432
2017 paper on humor and trauma-related mental health outcomes: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15325024.2017.1310504
Humor exercise impact on psychological well-being: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2016-14460-002