I have been unemployed for nine months. This is the third time I have been laid off in the last 12 years. In fact, I have been laid off from every job (except one transitional job that I would have eventually been forced out of) since I graduated from college right on the cusp of the dot com implosion. I was good at all those jobs. It didn’t matter. I know a lot about being unemployed.
My last job was working for a non-profit that aims to aid low income families and support their children so that they can have a better chance at succeeding in life. It was a wonderful job, though somewhat odd. I loved (and do love) these kids and their families. I consider them family. I also visited them in their homes…real houses…not one bedroom apartments like my wife and I lived in. For six years, I watched these kids get picked up from a private school, often in nice cars as their tuition, books, uniforms, etc were all paid for. The fact that my family is now stranded in the unemployment forest, living with my Mother in Law, and wondering what the future will hold – a future far less than secure - is an irony that is not lost on me. In fact it haunts me and, at times, fills me with a dark, unfocused anger that frightens me. But it is fruitless to dwell on these things.
If you are unemployed, you never have a day off. These are not my words. I read them somewhere and, if I knew who to credit, I would. Truer words have never been spoken. There is much depression and self-loathing involved in being unemployed, but this sums up a nice piece of it that people rarely think of. When you have a job, there are stressful times, but your days off are sweet and rich – you have earned them. If you want to sleep late, spend the day laying in the sun, etc…well, you earned it. When you are unemployed you have earned nothing (or that is how it feels, and that is how it is perceived). Every day is the same…and any time spent not looking for a job is time wasted. Every day is a descent into the despair of not knowing.
Human beings like plans. We like routines. It helps to make the world more sensible. So, unemployed or not, you must develop a routine. Human beings also like to feel superior to each other. This is why we feel wickedly giddy when Lindsay Lohan gets arrested. Why we feel comforted, even as we should feel afraid, that the government doesn’t seem to have their act together any more than we do. And we feel better than those who are unemployed.
I gave my all for six years. I stayed on the phone with my students until 11pm helping them with their papers only to wake at 5 and start again. My relationship with my family suffered. My work was not appreciated, but I felt good about it. And when I say “not appreciated”, I mean several things. It was not appreciated by my colleagues, nor was it truly appreciated by anyone I knew (aside from my wife who witnessed the blood, sweat and tears that went into it). I had a job. I was one of the working. That was all. And that was enough.
Whether we want to or not…and I am guilty of this just like you are…we judge those who are unemployed. We feel superior to them. I have sent out thousands of resumes and contacted countless people who I have worked with…many of whom are now unemployed themselves. There are very few jobs and it is very much like being Sisyphus. It is demoralizing. It is infantilizing. And, beyond the fact that it slowly wears you down, you are forced to reconcile that most of the people you know (unless they are in the same boat) will, on some level, think you are a slacker. Shiftless. They will offer solutions that make sense to them. “Just get a job.” “There are jobs out there…are you too good to take that job?” “If it was me, I would take any job I could get!” These people aren’t trying to be mean, but it adds to the feeling of being shunned. They don’t understand the bizarre intricacies of being on unemployment.
I fill out a form every two weeks. This form tells the EDD that I am willing to take work at any time. I could work and get paid under the table, but taking advantage of the system does not sit right with me. Having a family further complicates things. I am stuck between a rock and a hard place. The frailty of the economy allows companies to offer part time jobs and contract jobs that pay little and do not have benefits packages. This might be OK if I was single. But I have a wife and a toddler. We can’t go without medical insurance. We pay almost half of my unemployment check to COBRA to continue our coverage as it is, but even that will run out before the end of the year.
Being unemployed is a complicated business. It affects your sense of self worth. You are too hard on yourself. Others are too hard on you, but they mean well. Slacking? I have written hundreds of thousands of words since I was laid off. I have written a novel…my third. It is very tempting to suggest to those who seem to be sitting a little too high on their non-slacking horses that they attempt to write a novel. It does not involve much slacking off.
Being unemployed separates you from society. We are bathed in capitalism, but cannot participate. Every dime I spend. Every burrito I buy my daughter. Every dollar I give to another unemployed soul in worse circumstances than I chips away at the small pile of money that may have to last for a long time.
Why don’t I go apply for a job at Home Depot? Well, I have applied for a dozen jobs in the last month that are commensurate with my experience. Jobs that I would excel at. Jobs that would further my career. They begin interviewing in two months. They expressly forbid follow up calls and emails. So, what do I do? I wait.
I am fortunate that my Mother in Law was kind enough to let us move in with her, but it is a stress on everyone. It is hard for her to have a family living in her house. It is hard for us to feel like we are not imposing. It is hard to live in one room according to someone else’s rules. And we are lucky. We are not living in a homeless shelter. I am not yet to the point where I will take day labor jobs and hope to god that no one gets sick. That my daughter doesn’t break a leg.
Not knowing what is going to happen is rough. Looking for jobs is discouraging. But that is not the hardest part of my day. The hardest part of my day is getting out of bed, because I know I will face another day of stasis. Another day where I feel the judgment of the world pushing down on me. Another day where I judge myself and try to convince myself that this is not all my fault. Another day where I will think about what our lives used to be like when I had self respect and pride…when we lived, modestly, but according to our terms. When I didn’t have to talk about being unemployed all the time.
Shunned? I think that’s a pretty good term for it. And a lot of it is self imposed, but that doesn’t make it any easier. And it gets worse with every passing day. If it wasn’t for my daughter, I don’t know if I would get out of bed at this point…the urge to give up is strong. But she doesn’t judge. She is merely happy that Dadda gets to hang out with her more often.
Being out of work is a drain. But it will pass. I hope. In the mean time, I will try to smile. I will try to remember that the words that burn and scrape at the open wound of self-doubt and self loathing are not meant as anything other than loving concern. I will keep getting out of bed. And I will keep trying to find a job that will work for my family. And I will remember that I am not alone and better off than many. Because there are quite a few of us out there. Up to 20% percent by many people’s reckoning. Two out of every ten people who feel worthless, pushed aside, and criticized because they were not able to dodge the bullet that you did. The shunned, drowning in the stress of constant worry and constant introspection. Folks just like you and me. Though that is often hard to remember.
It is no coincidence that the unemployed turn to drink, apathy, or even suicide. When you feel worthless, any escape from that feeling seems appealing. I am able to resist these baser impulses because I know that someday things will be better. Because my daughter doesn’t think I am a slacker. Because my wife understands. Because I have people supporting me. And because for about two minutes every day…right after my eyes open…I forget that the express train of life kept on moving without me.