Unemployment Stories, Vol. Three: 'Absolute Hell'S

Every week, we're bringing you true stories of unemployment, from the vast land of unemployed America. Today: depression, redemption, struggle, optimism, and the bitterness of the 99%. This is what's happening out there.

Do I really have to do this again?

I am a mid-30s female with an Ivy League graduate degree. I just received my third layoff in a little over four years. The first layoff was just a month or so long, and I found something immediately. The second one was soul-crushing, and I was out of work for over a year. I applied to *everything*, interviewed for jobs paying much less than half my former salary, networked, etc. My friends were always supportive ("At least you're not like so-and-so, who has no intention of going back to work till his unemployment runs out," was a common refrain), but I could see that after a while they didn't seem to get what the big deal was — was it really *so* hard to find a job?! Was I really, like, trying?

The most dangerous element of unemployment is depression. I'd get comments from friends like, "But you're on 'funemployment!" or "Everyday is Saturday for you!" Yes, I'm on unemployment. No, every day is not Saturday. Every day is a blur where I wake up to what will be another long day of trying to justify my existence, of trying to be productive, of trying to not spiral out of control from depression and stay in bed all day, of working up the strength to leave the house, to put on pants. Some days I'm good — up at 7am, breakfast, workout, at least a few hours of job searching, at least a few hours of housework, maybe a beer with a friend in the evening if I think I can afford it. And some days I stare at the pile of laundry on my floor, the detritus on my desk, the stack of unopened mail, the bare fridge, and I realized that, yep, I've spiraled again. My life irises down to tiny incremental goals. Today I will apply for X number of jobs. Today, I will do at least one load of laundry. Today, I will clean the fucking kitchen. I had to borrow money from my parents. I watched all the hard-won progress I'd made on paying down my student loans evaporate as I had to seek hardship deferment and watch the interest start racking up again. I went from middle class to working class.

And then, after the second layoff, I got a job. In the city where I prefer to live. At a salary cut from my previous position of only 40%. With benefits. In my field. Can I get an amen? Going back to work was great! It was an adventure! Of course, I realized that in my more than a year off my body had conformed to wearing yoga pants and suddenly career casual clothes didn't fit right. And sitting in front of a desk for 10+ hours a day? That shit takes practice. But I was back at work, I was engaged, I felt I had worth again. And then I realized I hated my new job. Hated the shouty boss. Hated the company culture. Hated working long hours for low pay and zero recognition. Hated seeing everyone else getting canned and knowing my number was up soon. And my number came up in July. And here I am.

Day one was great. I was up at 7:30am! I sent out resumes. I networked. I did a few hours of yard work, some laundry, and cleaned the hell out of my space. Day two was a little rough. I spent all day reading stuff online and then I got hammered. Day three, I've been in bed all day reading, but hey, at least its a real book, and I did leave the house this morning to get milk. Wearing pants.

Damnit, do I really have to do this again?


Every. Single. Day.

I'm coming off of three years of unemployment with a year of gross underemployment tossed in there just to rub salt in the wound. (That one year ended in a layoff when my employer lost a couple of major core clients thanks to the Great Recession.) At its core, it's been four years of fear. It's amazing how exhausted you get from being afraid. Every. Single. Day.

I was laid off along with several of my colleagues in 2008, and I immediately started applying for jobs. Every. Single. Day. They were jobs in my industry, and jobs in adjacent industries. In three years, I had a total of ten interviews. Six over the phone that went nowhere, four others in person with similar results. Each time, I never heard back from anyone. That is until I got the "we've gone with another candidate" automated email that showed up months after the interview had taken place. Resumes that didn't land interviews simply went into a black hole. I rarely got an acknowledgment that the employers ever saw anything. Not a "thanks, but no thanks". Not an update. Nothing. Worse, some jobs I saw advertised restricted applicants to those who were already currently employed. I had been reduced to untouchable thanks to the arrogant, rich people who torpedoed the economy.

My wife and I cancelled every service aside from utilities. She took part time work on top of her full time job as a teacher (that our state legislature threatened with layoffs as well). I picked up the occasional freelance project, but after 30 years of a fulfilling career that paid the bills and built a modest nest egg for retirement, I found myself flirting with bankruptcy.

I prayed that my unemployment benefits would be extended "just one more week… just one more week." Meantime, I heard Newt Gingrich on the Today Show this summer say that 14 million skilled Americans (and I) were using those benefits to lie around doing nothing. I was mortified. I had become one of the "those people." My credit was (still is) ruined, and if not for my wife's job, we easily would have lost the house. I was no longer worthy in Newt's eyes because I had not been born into money. I was no longer worthy because I had worked in the wrong industries at the wrong time while arrogant, rich people played fast and loose with 14 million American lives.

Today, I have started a new job that pays just less than the job I had 10 years ago. A family friend of mine has great influence in his company, and when he learned of an opening (by sheer luck) that would be a good fit, he pushed for me in the position. Without him, I have no doubt that my situation would not have changed. My unemployment benefits expired about two weeks before I started work. I am grateful beyond words, but I have to admit to some trepidation about what I now do. I work in an industry vastly different than the one for which I was trained. Further, I see no way to resume my career down the line. At my age, I can't imagine any industry being willing to talk to me after spending a few years in my present position. My American Dream is done; all thanks to those arrogant, rich people playing fast and loose with the rules and my life.

Believe me, I am so thankful. I don't take this new job for granted. I am well aware of the millions of others who are still struggling, including a couple of long-time friends of mine who were laid off just this month. Neither one of them is asking for something for nothing. As I remember, they each worked harder than most people I've ever known. They've never done anything wrong. They've never hurt anyone. And they damned sure aren't lying around doing nothing, Newt. I sure hope they are at least acknowledged when they fill out an application.

The last four years clearly changed me. I'm now more keenly aware than ever of the inequities of our social contract with each other. I am much more sensitive to the mean-spirited comments I hear and read from people I know and used to respect when it comes to the people currently struggling in the current economy and more sensitive to my own opinions about who's responsible for this mess. I remember a book I read in college called "Blaming the Victim" by William Ryan. It was all about opportunity and privilege. Who had it, who didn't, and who blames who for those who end up on the lower rungs of the ladder. As a young college student, it went right over my head. Not anymore.

They will reap what they sow

I've been unemployed for three months now. I work for the 1% in very close quarters as a personal assistant/estate manager. These jobs have largely dried up. My last job was horrible, not typical, I must qualify, and I began looking for a new position within a few months of starting it. I moved outside of a large metropolitan area in order to secure this job, and now I was too far out of it to be a good candidate , despite my assurances that I was moving closer again.

That was over 1.5 years of looking for a job that pays in the high 5 figures. They hardly exist anymore. I've become so exhausted with the search that I have decided I will NOT move, I will seriously scale back and I will make it work where I am, which is a place that I love. To do this, I am not paying anything but my basic needs. My credit rating really doesn't matter much to me if I am homeless, right? I don't even care about filing bankruptcy. I'll attempt to chisel them down to no interest and let me pay off the debt, but this is the situation the banks, the housing bubble, and the economy has created. They will reap what they sow, and I have had personal dealings with many of the big names in finance and banking, as my work was very much part of that world. I see now that my work was made possible in large part by the high times of the 90's and early 2000's.

While I hope to find something soon that pays even half of what I used to earn and gives benefits, I am working on many work from home opportunities and considering work as a phone actor ( read:phone sex operator) to make a living. I'll work 120 hours a week for myself if that's what it takes. I hope to make it pay, but it's going to be hard, and I am going to run out of savings in a few months. I just can't see sitting and waiting and competing in a job market that has become so degrading in and of itself. I've been working over 30 years of my life and have never been unemployed.
But job hunting is a waste of time. I can't even begin to tell you the places I can't get hired.

Absolute Hell

I have a degree in Geology and Geography. I got my first job straight out of college in 2005 with a major federal government agency. I was a contracted employee, and our contract suddenly expired (although we were all told it was being renewed) in November 2009. I was not prepared for the hell that awaited me.

I met my future wife at that job, so we were both laid off at the same time. Sure, we both received unemployment benefits, but it didn't take long for us to move out of our apartment and back in with our parents. To make matters worse, neither of our parents had room enough to take both of us in. So we were forced to move apart. Our wedding, which had been planned for some time, was scaled back drastically.

We are both in our mid 30's, we both have a practical college education, yet because of the massive hole that unemployment left in our finances, we are still to this day forced to live apart.

As for being unemployed, it was absolute hell. Despite living in the suburbs of Chicago, finding a job or just even getting an interview was damn near impossible. I still have the 2 notebooks full of jobs that I applied for. I applied to anything and everything that was available. NOTHING and I mean NOTHING resulted from all of that work. 1 interview after applying to over 400 jobs is heartbreaking. I tried everything. I was overqualified for minimum wage jobs, so those were ALWAYS a dead end.

I would tailor my resume and cover letter to almost every specific job posting; I paid for professional resume writing twice. Nothing worked. To top things off, during the 2+ years of searching for a job I became temporarily handicapped. I needed crutches to get around for over a year, 2 surgeries later I am finally able to walk with minimal pain, but now the medical bills total over 80k.

Finally, in early 2011 I was given an interview with an engineering company and I got the job. I now make almost 10 dollars less an hour than I did before, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. I had almost no debt before I became unemployed, and now I owe over 100K. Hopefully after I claim bankruptcy my wife and I will be able to move back in together and start a family.

The worse thing about being unemployed (besides the obvious financial aspect), is the boredom. Also, the depression of not being able to provide for yourself, and being alone when everyone else is going to work was devastating.

Being unemployed was by far the most difficult thing I have ever experienced. The rage, anger, and disgust I felt every time I heard people calling the unemployed "Lazy", "Freeloaders", etc... was enough to make me want to vomit.

The law school grad

In 2007, I started law school as kind of a last resort. I figured, after all that liberal arts education, maybe it was time for me to get an actual profession. I never had any delusions of riches or grandeur; I wanted (and still want!) to work in public interest, especially in a legal aid organization. When the economy tanked in 2008, I should have dropped out of school and cut my losses. Obviously if the greatest economic minds couldn't predict the recession, and the ensuing toll it had on the legal profession in particular, there's no way I could have known. Still, not a day goes by that I don't regret finishing law school.

I haven't been able to find real work in the two years since passing the bar. I did manage a few short-term fellowships in legal services, but these are places that have always been suffering economically. I didn't a chance. Broadening my search into other legal fields hasn't helped in the slightest. I even managed an interview at one of the largest SSI/SSDI firms in the country. But despite the high turnover at that firm due to nightmarish job dissatisfaction, and despite disability law being my one true legal specialty, they rejected me without explanation. You can imagine how grim the future feels after that kind of rejection. If the one thing I'm actually qualified to do isn't within grasp, then what possible hope can I have for any kind of employment?

Now I've somewhat affectionately termed myself a "freelance lawyer." This amounts to just about nothing at all — a few brief-writing gigs, some soul-crushing docket searching at City Hall — certainly nothing that pays the rent. I'm 28 and I'm ashamed to admit that my parents are still helping me financially. Never mind the crushing student loan debt. Really, don't mind it at all — I'm starting an MS in Social Policy this fall, which will add a sizable chunk. I have no idea if another degree will make me more marketable, but it will let me focus my academic energies on the thing that's bothering me the most: the more the economy sucks, the more people become poor, the more they need legal aid... but by the same token, the less legal aid organizations are able to help them. Maybe while I'm digging myself deeper into debt, sprinting into my 30s, I'll figure out a way to bridge that gap.

Optimism

I worked for a restaurant group for a few years - things were pretty grim when the recession hit and I was asked to scale back hours (this was in late 2010). I couldn't do that because I am pretty much supporting my mom since she is disabled - I was released not long after. It took awhile for unemployment benefits to start so for about a month I was worried about what we would do - I don't have a great relationship with my dad but I called him and he was reluctant to help. He assisted but that was a humbling moment for me and yes, I had to repay him when my unemployment started up. I finally found seasonal work mid-2011 but for the bulk of it I was looking for a permanent position and a job that paid well enough that I could start seeing over the stack of bills that slowly accumulated.

And if things weren't bad - I lost my vision in one eye earlier this year and was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Did I mention that I let go of my health insurance when I was released from work back in 2010 - because I never get sick? I'm now facing a hospital bill that is the equivalent to a luxury car. I've been lucky to have been told about programs that can assist with getting the bill paid but I'm facing a lifetime of medical bills and was recently told that depending on how the MS progresses - it probably is not a good idea to run back to work right now. The pharmaceutical company that I get my medication from has a free program based on income so I'm thankful for it.

I really think that this was a huge life lesson for me though. The way I see it, things will get better and I'm still optimistic that I can lead as normal a life as possible.

See also:
Unemployment Stories Volume One, and Volume Two, and Volume Four.

[Thanks to everyone who sent in stories. All are being read. You can send your own unemployment story here. If you'd like to contact any of these people, email me. Image: Jim Cooke]