It’s hard to say. I have been home, hiding. I have been wandering the desert in a loincloth, barefoot, in some kind of melodramatic, sunburned attempt at soul searching. I have been wallowing in the bliss of Friday night date nights with my gentleman friend, who is dreamier than my first crush (Wil Wheaton*) and my longest-lasting crush (LeVar Burton*) combined.
*Speaking of which. I can’t pass up this opportunity to take a brief tangent here, much to the potential embarrassment of anyone who associates with me. Back in the ‘80s, my dad and I would occasionally watch “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (please correct me if my punctuation is all wrong here). It started out like any other primetime entertainment distraction... maybe we’d share a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, plunk down on the couch and enjoy some galaxy-exploration drama for an hour or so.
But then that crafty Wil Wheaton started working his way into my heart. Can you blame me? That jumpsuit! Those soulful eyes! His mother, the ship’s doctor, teaching him (one ethically murky situation at a time) how to nurture other human beings and re-attach dangly alien arms!
My heart would start to skip a beat, and then skip two, until my dad would turn to me at the end of the episode and I’d be completely motionless… eyes wide, still clutching a half-eaten sandwich, raspberry jelly smooshed halfway across one cheek. My crush must’ve been obvious, because someone gave me a gift of little Wil Wheaton “This Book Belongs To” stickers once. (Oh, what I would give to still have those stickers to put in my favorite books!)
I had my whole future with Wesley Crusher planned out. The babies we’d raise, the house we’d buy, the orange kitten we’d find in an abandoned milk crate and rehabilitate, naming him Timothy and feeding him Vanilla Wafers. But what my father—had he even known the extent of my crush—could have never prepared me for was the frightening, exhilarating experience in a young person’s life when you first lose your heartbeat to someone else. The clouds began to cover the rays that beamed from Wil Wheaton’s boyish face, and I fell hard for another; fell hard like a garbage truck that got pushed out of a Boeing 747 and landed in the desert. It was the scandal of 1988.
Reading Rainbow had taken over my life, pulled my heart from my chest, mailed it to the North Pole and begged Santa for nothing more than a lifetime of ‘not having to take MY word on it’ until death do us part. I was a little confused about LeVar’s concurrent roles on Star Trek and Reading Rainbow, but I studied and embraced Geordi LaForge’s character as much as I could, just in case LeVar ever started quizzing me on my understanding of his character over a romantic candlelit dinner.
I can’t believe what I’m about to admit…but…I used to pretend to be Geordi. For hours at a time. I’d pull my purple headband down over my face, close both eyes as tight as I could, and wander blindly around my house—groping my way past our record player and our huge bookshelves—trying to see through my homemade V.I.S.O.R. to save the crew (including Wesley Crusher, if he didn’t mind my cheating ways) from imminent outer space catastrophes. I can still smell that headband, and I can still feel the way it would pinch my temples while I hesitantly made my way down the hallway, groping blindly for objects, insistent on making it down the scary basement to see if the ship’s hull needed maintenance repairs.
I loved LeVar… so, so much. I loved Reading Rainbow (and I still do). I loved my Wil- Wheaton-stickered, headband-blindfold-wearing, only-child-upbringing.
Um, but where was I before I rowed this boat into the swamp of distraction?
Ah, yes. My AWOL status for the past year.
Anyhoo… so my last year was also spent going on tangents. And it was spent hidden under blankets reading fabulous tales about laudanum-addicted writers with scarabs in their brains, and Sioux Indians defacing (literally! ba-dumm, chhh!) their beloved Black Hills with dynamite. I read the achingly wonderful works of Emerson, Hemingway, Stewart O’Nan and Anne Lamott.
I also got to experience an interesting unseen change of plans when-- two weeks before Christmas-- I joined the other 10% or so of you out there who got laid off this year.
I was caught completely off-guard by the event, and caught even more off guard by the unkind, unprofessional and unnecessary way in which it happened. I deeply empathize with those of you who have walked into work one day feeling happy, productive and confident, only to be smacked in the face with the words “it’s not personal, it’s business…” just moments before the clock switched from “4:59” to “weekend o’clock!”
It’s a really strange feeling to get the “it’s not you, it’s me” speech from the company you’ve been committed to for five years… and to walk out the door carrying your cardboard “breakup box” containing post-its and photos of all the good times you’d had together. It’s weird to spend months and years pining—physically pining—for your carefully allotted vacation days, just to suddenly wake up one day and have nothing but “days off” in your immediate future. Before you’ve had a chance to acclimate, you’re pining for “days on.”
When my managers were “letting me go,” the murky and absurdly disorganized breakup speech I received landed like an elephant’s foot on my head, and the bruises on my ego took months to fade from deep black to blue. I can’t even imagine what this feels like on a larger scale—to lose the job you’ve had for decades, to have someone back out on the business deal that was guaranteed to change your life, or to have your spouse casually announce that they’re running off with a 20-year-old with a faux-hawk.
I’m generally fairly amazed by people’s shock-absorption capabilities, but when I was hit with my own small personal earthquake, I certainly did not have the impressive architecture in place that the Japanese use. My brain shook for days, and the aftershocks are still rattling my ribcage.
So it was. It was Christmas, and I was jobless. I did what I assume others who lost their job do—I shook my fists at the sky. I watched many late night infomercials involving jiggling hand weights and shoe inserts. I returned presents I’d ordered online and then ordered them again, too indignant to let the Grinch steal Christmas. I let my car idle in the parking lot and procrastinated before turning off the engine every time I came home because listening to the classic rock station belt out “Don’t Stop Believing” was a lot easier than pacing around my apartment by myself. I went to see “Up in the Air” and died a second death when Clooney and his assistant fired an elderly gentleman via computer; watching through the murky glass wall of the adjacent room as the man slumped over in pain.
So many people have lost their jobs in this economy, but much like anything else, the dialogue that circulates about it isn’t necessarily an accurate transcript of what it actually feels like. We get ‘prepared’ for so many things in our life that don’t seem to match the cold bucket of reality that gets dumped over our head when we experience them-- the first loose tooth, the first heartbreak of being dumped, or the first contraction of labor can arrive with the swift and horrifying realization that we have no idea what we just got ourselves into. And help! There’s no “restart” button to be found!
When I lost my job, I was focused on the obvious drawbacks-- having to find another job and staying on top of bills. But then I learned that there’s also such a sneaky, devilish range of emotions that they just don’t tell you about. And these feelings can really sneak up and surprise you when you’re focused on becoming a one-woman resume factory.
My current understanding of unemployment reads kind of like a pharmaceutical commercial on TV:
Do you really dislike having a structured, productive day?
Join the growing ranks of people who are trying it every day--Unemployment!
Ask your management team if it might be right for you!!
In the first few months, side effects include:
An initial sucker-punch of humiliation to the solar plexus, which only multiplies every time you have to explain your unemployed status to someone. Especiallywhen you don’t know what to tell them when they ask why you lost your job!
An immediate sense of loss that lingers like the smell of bad cheese. Also, increasing embarrassment that you feel like you’re grieving for the loss of something as lame as a job, which doesn’t a heartbeat, a personality or a sweet furry face. Still, with no funeral, it seems difficult to accept that this job has really died. (I recommend throwing a funeral, memorial service, or beer-mug-bashing wake for the job that you’ve lost. Remember the good times, spit at the bad, get rowdy with your friends.)
The startling loss of your routine and life as you know it, which is as odd and uncomfortable as putting your shoes on the opposite feet and walking around in them all day. Time off used to be the thing I yearned for down to my core—now it’s a constant source of anxiety. What was once an enjoyable day off is now an endless stream of days that aren’t “on,” and instead of relaxing and enjoying my free time, even something as small as a lunch break or a happy hour with friends makes my brain scream, “you could be missing your dream job, maybe it’s being posted online right now and you’ll never see it again!” My advice for this: take a deep breath; order a second margarita.
Sudden, unexplained loss of colleagues. When you have no idea you’re about to leave your job, it feels like a shock to suddenly have all of your coworkers removed from your life. For years, your day started by chatting with them about the health of their ill mothers, their delinquent sons, the purchase of their first home or the engagement ring they just bought for their girlfriend. Now, your relationship with the colleagues you cared about has ended in an infuriating ellipses…
Nightmares. Constant, aching, frustrating nightmares that shake you out of your sleep in a sweaty, angry frenzy; still wincing as your boss hits you repeatedly with a broom stick and makes candy pop out of your papier-mâché seams.
Depletion of self-esteem. This was the hardest one for me to admit. The same week I was “let go,” I was also expected to put in some very long hours at my second freelance job, and I also needed to make a video to promote my dad’s newest book. I knew it would already be hard to get up and moving those days because I felt so shocked and WEIRD about everything. But what I didn’t expect was the voice in my head while I worked that was screaming: “do you know how to put that tape in the camera?” and “do you really think you’re qualified to be interviewing these people?” The management at my old company had apparently planted a spy in my brain, because someone was being paid very well to sit around all day trying to convince me that I was a worthless, incompetent, bumbling fool.
For anyone out there who may be in the first few weeks or months of an unexpected firing or layoff, maybe it will help you to learn what the next round of side-effects change to… once you’ve gotten past the initial shock. These include:
Renewed sense of humor. Ok. So maybe you spent a night or two lying on your bathroom floor crying. But—and I know this is hard to imagine now—sooner than you know it, you’ll be ready to do stand-up comedy about that night, including the part where you woke up cuddling with an empty toilet paper tube. Laughter truly is the best medicine. Remember to laugh every day! And dance whenever possible. Even if it’s just behind closed doors.
Slow but effective de-programming progress. You probably felt like death warmed over the day you lost your job, but think back… things probably didn’t feel that much better a week, month, or maybe even year before they pulled your plug. How did they keep you from running straight through the wall from frustration, Looney Tunes style, every Monday morning? By convincing you that the “ick” factor was YOU, not THEM! If you were in a toxic environment at work, it may take a while, but slowly the unemployment process will slap you silly until you realize how happy you are to be out of that place. By month five, you’re practically skipping through the streets, free from the bully or jerk or small-minded Cruella DeVille you were working for. Free at last!
Nightmares change their tune. If you’re an anxious little lamb like I am, I can attest that the anxiety dreams hang on. But instead of the exhausting, graphic all-nighters I was experiencing before, now it’s just an occasional dream that I was forced to go back and work at that job, and I can never think of the right four-letter words when the management team enters the room. This is mildly annoying, but not as traumatizing as the nightmares from months 1 and 2.
Renewed Confidence. I highly, highly recommend getting out of your house and seeing other human beings as much as you can. Professionals, friends, strangers—a little human interaction goes a long way when it comes to boosting your confidence and chasing away loneliness. It also gets you un-hypnotized from your internal monologue, which helps kick you into motion if you’re feeling stagnant.
Sitting at home all day looking for jobs is the trap I constantly fall into, but this is also where I get stuck in the trap of thinking that I’ll never get an interview and I’ll never get another job. One thing that I thought was really helpful was to find a career counselor who could give me some unbiased feedback.
I did a lot of research to find someone who I felt would be a good fit for me, and I’m glad I made the effort. I learned how to punch up my resume, and the time we spent together also helped the counselor compare my actual career history to the way I was portraying my experiences in my resume. It was a great outlet in which I could vent my frustrations and fears, and I got a little bit of advice about job hunting and how to keep my confidence high when debating about the terms of my future position.
My hope is that this renewed sense of confidence will find its way into my job applications, and that in turn will help me find the great, challenging, meaningful job that I want.
Oh no… I’m starting to hand out advice. I can feel it. I’m hardly in a position to hand out advice, but as long as I’m at it, let’s back up and make a list. (I’m addicted to making lists!)
- Ah, number one: make lists. If you’re like me, list-making fills you with joy, and the process of checking things off helps remind you about the things you’re accomplishing. Without a reminder of what you’ve done, it’s easy to look back at the day and just remember a blur of unemployed tomfoolery.
- Let’s see, what was I yammering on about a few paragraphs back? Ah yes: consider seeing a career counselor. Check the websites of counselors in your community, or call their offices to ask about their background, their approach, and what to expect during your sessions (you might find that you want someone who offers more structured meetings than others, or someone who’s familiar with the field you’re in).
- Set aside time every day to get some fresh air, and try to get consistent exercise. Do what you can to silence the drill sergeant in your brain for this part of the day… I can’t stick to an exercise routine if I berate myself while I do it. (As my friend Meg’s very wise grandmother once said: “There’s no such thing as a bad run!”) A doctor also once told me that twenty minutes of cardiovascular activity is the equivalent of taking one anti-depressant. Sister, I believe it.
- Get out of the house when you can; connect with people to avoid the looming pitfalls of isolation. You never know who you’re going to meet—I’ve picked up networking opportunities and wise career advice from strangers at my local coffee shop, a baseball game, a potluck and a bar called Prohibition in Manhattan. If nothing else, this will come in handy for your memoirs!
- Spending a lot of time at home can really mess with your mind—try to build structure into your routine. For me, this means showering and getting dressed as if I was going to leave for work as normal. Searching job posts all morning in my pajamas all makes me feel like I’m one step away from becoming that crazy curly-haired lady who takes baths in a tub full of gin.
- Remember to reach for the “off switch”. Looking for work can make you feel like you should be working all hours of the day, which is a recipe for burning out. If I didn’t devote every Friday and Saturday night to watching The Wire and getting takeout with my boyfriend, I would be a raving lunatic by now.
- Gauge how much support you’re getting. I figured that I was supposed to plow through the early phase of my unemployment with a stiff upper-lip and a tough-guy attitude (two things I’m terrible at, to begin with)… it wasn’t until the heartburn had me rolling on the ground moaning that I realized my mistake. Find family members, friends, and other people you trust who you can talk to, and talk things through. Internalizing emotions is terrible for anyone’s health, and the words that find their way out of you might surprise you. I often find that telling someone about my plans is what makes me finally get up the courage to really follow-through.
- If you’re suffering from chronic anxiety or other related problems, seek out a professional. It’s ok to just try out a session or two before you commit to anything longer— that way you’ll at least get a sense for how helpful it might be to work through your challenges with another person. If you’re worried about the cost, look for therapists or counselors who accept insurance or offer sliding-scale fees, or seek out research universities or counseling centers in your area that have reduced-price or free sessions. In stressful times, perspective and support can make all the difference.
- Check in with your internal monologue… does it spend the day encouraging you, or talking down to you? Don’t talk to yourself the way you wouldn’t want others talking to you! Remember to remind yourself of the skills, qualities and experience that are uniquely yours. Most of us are reading job descriptions all day that don’t really apply to us— it can easily start to mess with your mind. I’ve read that it’s helpful to write down all the jobs you’ve had (even the smaller ones), all the responsibilities you’ve taken on, and your interests and hobbies—volunteer jobs, musical skills, etc. This can be helpful in illuminating all the skills you’ve gained, and provides a cheat sheet when you’re tailoring your resume to various jobs.
- To take a motto from the Girl Scouts: “be prepared!” I decided that it would be in my best interest to network whenever possible, so I made up some snazzy business cards with my contact information, specialties and portfolio website address, and I keep a stash in my car and at home. (It took less than 5 minutes on Google before I found companies that offer 250 professional-looking cards plus shipping for less than $10!) Also, when I started feeling really blue that I wasn’t getting interviews, I decided to focus on preparing myself for the interviews that I *will* get. I headed to the library and took out 12 books about interview questions, resume building, and fields I’m interested in, and it’s helped bolster my courage.
Reading in general has been one of the best parts of the last year of my life. All readers can probably empathize with the feeling of balancing loneliness with the vibrant, thriving community of having your favorite books around you—and if anything, unemployment is a delicious excuse to find more time to read. My life has been changed by what I’ve read and wanted to write in the past few months; that’s undeniable.
And what a hidden gift that was-- something I would genuinely thank my prior bosses for. Thank you for giving me the holiday season and the delicious blossoming of spring to spend with words and ideas and heart-stopping wonderfully written descriptions.
I think about an Emily Dickinson poem every day:
“Not knowing when Dawn will come,
I open every Door,
Or has it Feathers like a Bird,
Or Billows like a Shore--“
It perfectly summarizes how I feel in this shifting period of my life. I can chose to shrink in fear, or I can choose to open ever Door, capital D. To say yes to everything, and sort out what I do or don’t like when I get there. To embrace the hanging dash—that absurd, aggravating, much-debated and beautifully mysterious dash, which so perfectly symbolizes the limbo we have all experienced. To me, the dash represents a blurry, enticing and nerve-tingling horizon line that is barely visible to the eye, but makes the concept of terra firma so much easier to grasp when you’re at sea. That line gives us the strength to keep rowing… choppy water can feel like an endless reality unless you can view it as merely the vehicle to finding your way home.
I don’t mean to write a mini-novel, but there are so many unemployed folks in our country right now, and not a lot of resources to just relieve some anxiety and discuss shared experiences. If I could write a letter to myself now that I could have read the day after losing my job, I would reiterate everything that I wrote above—the importance of getting out, socializing and exercising; taking one day at a time; keeping my chin up; and knowing—not wondering—that my confidence will be renewed.
For those of you who may have just found out that your life is changing, the best news I can give is that despite the anxiety, bills and isolation, you will get YOU back—the person you were before the stress and awfulness started. And that’s the person who will be nervous but filled with excitement and joy at the prospect of a new future—the chance to reinvent yourself, the chance to find a new opportunity, and the chance to let your colors shine. Hang in there, my friends.
I could cut through the cheese in this essay with a knife, I know. But I wanted to share this in case anyone who’s reading my little essay is going through the same thing, and if you—like me—don’t have a great sense of perspective about the process.
If you’ve asked yourself “Is it crazy that I feel very angry and hurt?” or “am I ever going to get back in the game?”…you’re not alone in wondering. You’re not crazy, and you’re not doomed to being in limbo forever. If nothing else, I just put that sentence in print because I’m going to need to read it another 20,000 times to believe it.
Also, if you’re feeling so anxious that your body is reacting violently, please don’t do what I did and try to ignore it. For me, it was heartburn that intensified to the point that everything between my chin and my belly button hurt, and I started getting painful sinus infections in response to the acid reflux.
My boyfriend pointed out something that was extremely helpful to me. He told me that when people are under duress, our bodies have the same response to emotional stress that they do with physical stress. To put it in perspective, feeling extremely stressed day after day because of the loss of a job can be as physically harmful to your body as being left in someone’s trunk for a couple of days. Stress is our body’s retaliation to an unhealthy situation, and our lungs, digestive systems, hearts and brains will go into battle until we feel safe again.
That stuck with me. I don’t want to put my body through battle just because my mind’s uneasy. So I try to focus on the good things: I’m safe, I have good people in my life, I’m just as inspired and curious about life as I always have been. There’s food in my belly and a roof over my head, and I will have another paycheck someday. I WILL get another job. And my day job doesn’t define every atom of my being—Jane be Jane, and no colleague or manager can ever take that away from me.
And you, my unemployed friend, will get your mojo back too. There’s no reason to give up the dream of a future with LeVar Burton and the little orange kitten we rescued with Wil Wheaton! Or… whatever your personal future looks like to you.
I hope that you can please forgive me for my lengthy essay… us unemployed folks have a lot of time on our hands, you see. We sometimes babble. And we need to bond together and talk about the aches, pains and placebo effects that are expected when taking a little pill called Unemployment.
Happy job hunting, friends. I know there’s a pot of gold waiting for you at the end of your (reading) rainbow…
but you don’t have to take my word for it!
With love and resume paper,