Unemployment Stories, Vol. Four: Pride and Pain

America is in an unemployment crisis. Every week, we're bringing you true firsthand stories from unemployed Americans. Today: pain, fear, hope, and desperation. This is what's happening out there.

My identity had been my job

For the second time in a year, I am unemployed. This time, it's still fresh; just under a week ago, I was told that due to a "new strategic direction" my title was no longer needed at a small nonprofit. Not my skills writing, managing programs, analyzing data, providing web content - my title. An arbitrarily assigned thing for which there was no actual job description, except the one I'd written for review a month or two prior that was still wasting away in the recipient's email.

We'd been having some funding issues, and something had to be done, but I thought I had a couple months left. I'd been offering to do whatever I could for anything I knew had incoming grants to complete, and working long hours/weekends/skipping lunch. I still think that maybe I should've seen it coming: multiple things I was working on were either halted indefinitely pending receipt of funding that was ten months late, or had been cut altogether. In retrospect, maybe I should've interpreted this as a shift in priorities, but even at the strategic planning meetings I participated in, I still thought I had plenty to offer as we built a membership, private donor-base, and new programs. As I tearfully collected what things I could, I was told how fantastic my work had been, how much the Board of Directors struggled with the decision, and how it "might not be permanent."

At the very end of June, 2011, I'd lost a job I held for four years. I'd been having some disagreements with a coworker about design and marketing strategy, and new ownership (then my friends) sided with her. I was admittedly difficult to work with in the most stressful times, but I'd been sincerely trying to improve that perception - and I was very good at my job. In the end, the people who mattered didn't see any change, even if others had.

However shocking it was to be fired in June, it was so many times worse last week. In 2011, I was leaving a $23,000 a year job with a pretty good resume. Money would be tight, but after a day of crying, I was immediately applying for anything that might hire me. I had excellent interviews for jobs in New York and DC that I didn't end up getting (how insanely difficult it is to get someone to believe you will absolutely move across the country to work at a national arts organization), and I was feeling more valuable as a potential employee than I'd felt in a while.

This time, it's totally different. Once I felt stable at the nonprofit, I moved to a nicer house, bought a cat, and was pretty confident in my ability to pay off student loans. My salary had almost doubled, and I had complete benefits - and felt good about the work I was doing and the experience I was gaining towards my career hopes. I was considering going back to school for a second Master's degree, this time in public administration, so I had an actual credential that wasn't related to music performance. On Thursday, the only thing I could think about was how petrified I was to go through it all again, alone. I had to request wages in lieu of notice - which I received -knowing that we'd never implemented any policies that required even that support.

No one I know has been unemployed, and I'm not sure anyone who hasn't really understands its effects. In spite of my relative resilience the first time around (three months of unemployment), it had taken me nearly a year to stop feeling insecure about my credentials, my skill-set, or my capability. My identity had been my job, and my friends from work had all disintegrated. I've always been an extremely independent person, and I felt worthless, powerless. I felt needy. I probably submitted a couple hundred resumes and individual cover letters, and heard back from only half a dozen in that three month period.

Today, it's worse. I know I'm experiencing depression, and I feel guilty for it - and I hide it. Mostly, I have been able to seem positive when I see friends (minimally). I talk about the jobs I'm applying for that seem like great fits (they really do), but I've only been able to submit a few inquiries, compared to the dozens each day last year. I have cried every day, and I have yelled at the one person I thought I could actually talk to about precisely what I'm feeling. I wonder if I'll be able to be as invested in a job again, having twice had such unexpected termination. A friend on Facebook - in response to a post about how hard it is to maintain positivity - told me, "You haven't hit rock bottom yet!" Encouraging.

The thing is, no one wants to hear about how tough it is. It's awkward. Uncomfortable. In spite of the fact that unemployment is so common, no one really wants to know how it feels. How humiliating it is to be offered a job that pays half your prior (low) salary. How hard it is to fill the empty days, because you're not able to just sleep them all away. How you worry about posting anything that isn't a chipper job search update, because employers have learned how to check Facebook. How you're not sure if you're actually qualified for this or that job, because even if you are, you're just not sure about anything anymore. And if they do listen, they aren't useful - even writing this is more therapeutic than the platitudes that are offered.

'I'm sorry, I won't stop trying'

I became unemployed June 28, 2011. I am 27 years old and my wife and I have a 4 year old son whom we adore. My wife works but does not make nearly enough to support us.

I was in the tech sales industry and mad quite a bit of money before having to take a leave of absence and working less due to a health problem I found out I would be dealing with for the rest of my life. I was definitely included in the layoffs due to my health. They pretty much said so. To make things worse, I was not able to leave that day. They notified me that I would be laid off but had to work there for the next two weeks. Immediately I thought, well fuck that, i am out of here, until they said I would not be given my measly severance if I chose to do so. Unfortunately, I really needed that money. It was only 1 week's pay for each year you had been there so that meant 3 weeks salary for me after 3 years of service. I was in sales so most of my income was from bonus anyway, the 3 weeks pay was really not much at all considering. I still needed it.

These were the most awkward two weeks of my life I think...they did trainings, had large meetings about the restructuring, etc. When this would happen some one would come up to me and the 6 others and say "you can just answer the phones". I felt as though i was being put on display. We did not have offices, it was completely open. My other co-workers still hung together while I became the guy with that contagious laid off disease no one wanted to use the bathroom after.

I finally got to leave the place and I went to file for unemployment. A surprisingly easy process. At first I felt guilty but then I remembered I had held a full time job since I was 16 (now 27) so I convinced my self that I had sort of earned the benefit of having a little help while I looked for more work.

There was no work. All the jobs i tried to get I was either overqualified for or didn't have any experience. The overqualified part was funny to me at first. I just kept thinking about how I really needed the job and they wouldn't hire me for fear that i would move on as soon as something better came along. They were right but that basically meant I needed to find the perfect job, one that I precisely qualified for which would be very hard.

Then I lost my insurance. I have 8 medications and at least 1 doctors visit per month with MRI and CT scans every 3 months. Cobra was wayyyyy too expensive, i did not qualify for medicaid and I had a pre-exisitng condition. Basically a prescription discount plan was as good as I could do for the time being.

Another obstacle I would run into is when a prospective employer would find out that i was laid off mostly because of absences which would lead to my leave of absence and me trying to explain my medical condition. The interview pretty much stops there. As a result I have had to start looking into disability.

I would really like to avoid going on disability. I want to contribute to society. In school when people ask my son what their dad does I want him to have an answer. That part alone has made me cry at night.

I have worked at some of the top corporations in the world. Now I write and rewrite my resume while watching PTI and Around the Horn. I garden a lot which relieves stress and saves money and it produces surprising amounts of fruits and vegetables. I am depressed.

Every day that passes is one that convinces me disability is the way to go. I have a very painful disease that requires lots of medication, vomiting, seizures, etc. The problem is I have never not held a job a I feel as though that would be giving in. I still search for work everyday, as hard as I can.

Lastly, it is very, very hard on me emotionally. I feel like a complete failure. I am a 27 year old "man" that is struggling to support his family. Nothing is more demeaning than not knowing if your son will have everything he needs a year from now. When he was born I used to check on him in the middle of the night, kiss him on the forehead and say "i promise I will always make sure you have everything you need and some things you want." now I go check on him in the middle of the night, kiss him on the forehead as one of my tears drops on his face and I say "i'm sorry, I won't stop trying"

The magazine editor

At the age of 30, I gave up a career in the New York performance community to pursue my lifelong dream of working for a magazine. My frugal nature and a cheap railroad flat on the Lower East Side allowed me to accept a $5-an-hour editorial assistant position for a group of niche publications. Within the year, I was a managing editor and within the decade, I was creative director for the entire operation.

In 2006, the publisher approached me about moving the business down south. Since the company was healthy and the magazines were my babies at this point, I agreed. Because a mortgage was equivalent to what I paid to rent in this new city, I soon bought a 2-bedroom bungalow with a big back yard. Nothing fancy, just something I knew I could afford even after I retired.

Unfortunately, the business had slid into heavy decline by 2010. TV and the Internet had sucked down most of our milkshake and the market was glutted with magazines of the nature we published. Many printed for pennies on the dollar outside the U.S., with bigger, glossier results. I agreed to a pay cut and as other employees were fired, I took on their jobs…anything to keep us printing.

This spring, the publisher flew in from Boca and the remaining staff and myself were fired on the spot. Almost half of my life and the near-entirety of my identity were piled into a banker's box and shoved into the back of my car within an hour's time. My final interaction with the publisher was to hand him a copy of my severance agreement. He tossed it onto one of the empty desks with a shrug. "I can't afford this."

My husband and I have been living on our savings and my unemployment, which is about a quarter of what I used to make. We have no health insurance and are spending $1900 a month for the pills and medical care that are necessary to his survival. To add insult to deep, deep injury, the house was recently devalued by $30,000, leaving us wa-a-ay upside down on the mortgage. And do I even need to say that there are zero career opportunities in a small Southern city for a 50-year old heavily tattooed woman with a liberal arts degree?

Being unemployed after so many years is a profoundly humbling experience. I often think about the people in their 30's and 40's who came to me for jobs and how I dismissed them without any real consideration, always opting for a younger person who was malleable and could live on the poor wages we offered. One woman in particular, who was completely qualified for the position in question, who came from the same place that I did philosophically and who clearly needed the job, I completely rejected because of her age and the air of desperation about her. I ended up hiring a college student who quit after a few weeks to follow his boyfriend to Austin. I wish I could say I think of that woman every time I go on a job interview, but I've had none in the four months since I've been unemployed.

I never made a huge salary, so the savings will be gone before the year's end, as will my unemployment benefits. My husband and I are talking about divorcing and sending him to live with a relative so that hopefully he can qualify for Medicaid, because without it, he won't survive. Somewhat selfishly, I worry about what will become of our three dogs. They are the children we never had and give us so much joy. It may seem slight to some, given the enormity of what's ahead, but I hate to think of our pack being torn apart.

There are positive elements to this predicament. My relationship with my husband is better than it has been in years because I can focus on us instead of my job. I read for fun and not for work, I garden (for fun and to save a buck!) and I write for myself. Thoughtful actions have replaced gut reactions and I have realized, to paraphrase Joseph Campbell, that it's the quest for the inner life that enables me to float down the stream like a human being instead of just some robot in the hands of an institution. I'm thankful for the daily spiritual growth I experience and terrified that soon it's all I will have to hold on to.

And, oh yeah, if anyone needs a versatile, thoughtful, workhorse of a copywriter/editor, please contact me at artandink@gmail.com.

We are lost

It was 2008, I could see the writing on the wall, at least when it came to Dubai collapsing. I had no idea the rest of the global economy was about to collapse as well. I was an international marketing consultant working with multinationals in the MENA region. It was an incredible position, great money, lots of travel, living between Abu Dhabi, Dubai & NYC.

I was let go in January of 2009. It was no surprise. I knew it was coming. Eventually the entire consulting firm went up in smoke and lost everything as did a lot of our clients.

I applied for Grad School and attempted to get my own clients… I got both… but the clients then became a nightmare.. the domino effect had begun… they stopped paying…I then couldn't pay for grad school because they stopped paying their bills.. it was a dirty nasty cycle of hell…. this was mid-2009 when my financial apocalypse nightmare became my full time misery.

I've applied for jobs from the moment I lost my job, I have AMAZING connections - top leaders, politicians, you name it… I still CANNOT get a job to save my life. All I want to do is work - I couldn't be more depressed… I beat myself up daily… I'm angry at myself that I can't seem to make things work… Why can't I take care of myself? Why do I have no money, no savings, nothing? Fortunately, I have family and friends that help me out… I have to put on a smiling face when I'm out or on social media when all I want to do is lay in bed all day and cry.

Just when I think something… and opportunity… a job… anything is going to happen… it doesn't… I have friends of mine tell me to get ANY job… retail, restaurant, anything just to keep my sanity…

A lot of my friends are in the same boat and often worse… and I don't think people want to be honest about it… we're all suffering silently because of the stigma… and there is one… trust me. We're all pretending and dying inside…

I spoke to a girlfriend of mine tonight. She's a single mother. 3 kids. I don't know how she does it? She admitted to me tonight she doesn't see what she has to look forward to… she has nothing to get up for in the morning… we agreed we wake up every morning and wish we weren't here… wish our lives were over… what kind of future do we have to look forward to if we're just barely surviving everyday with no prospects in sight?

Most days… I think about ending my life. I don't see how things are going to get better… and what kind of person am I that I can't take care of myself? If I get sick, I'm f+cked. I have no health insurance.

We are lost… and I'm not quite sure if any of us our going to find our way home? What hope do we have for a future? Kids? I can't even think about that… I'm at the point where my biggest decision is whether I should cancel my contract with AT&T for my mobile and just use my Skype number. That's my dilemma for the day and that's about all I can handle.

The underemployed college grad

My personal unemployment story isn't the worst imaginable, but it certainly feels soul-sucking enough from my end. I've actually been working steadily for a little over a year now, getting about 20 hours a week at a frozen yogurt shop. I'm two years out of college (graduated with honors, naturally) and I feel thankful that I can serve yogurt to teenagers. Before I got this job, I was unemployed for about 6 months after quitting my canvassing job. Quitting that job almost led to the Department of Human Services to deny me any food stamp benefits. Keep in mind, it was a canvassing job that I quit. I was once asked by a man holding a gun if I was a lesbian (for the record, I have what I consider, a rather full, lovely beard). Again, canvassing. My job search led to interviews for, among other jobs, a dishwashing position (a job I didn't get, and I have a feeling that the guy who did had at least a Masters degree), door-to-door office supply sales (I at least got a free sandwich when I shadowed someone for a day), a barista position (I have three years of barista experience, and I've only gotten one interview for a barista job because the lady who saw my resume liked the font) and some pizza place that seemed to think it was an amusement park. In addition, I've also been evicted from two houses without ever missing a single payment. Thanks craigslist! Both my girlfriend and I have worked as temps at various, large, evil companies (and some significantly less evil, and even some downright rad places), where longtime employees who got their jobs just after graduating high school often ask us why we aren't working a better job, since we are plenty qualified. On the plus side, because un/underemployment isn't always 100% shitty, I have had time to read about 60 books in the last two years. So if anyone wants to talk about the works of Gogol during an interview, that job is so fucking mine.

'I am going to use this time off to become a happier person'

I worked in a call center for Verizon Wireless from 2005 through June of 2012. Over my seven years I had various jobs including "the phones", managing employee accounts, processing equipment orders and answering customer emails. None of them were great jobs but I got an annual raise and a discount on my cell phone bill.

In March Brian Stacey, a Vice President came from back east and told us the center was shutting down in June. Over 500 people had the option to relocate or take a severance package. My job was being moved to Salt Lake City. I had an underwater mortgage, a 2-year-old daughter, pregnant wife and no intention to move to Utah.

He broke the news in waves, telling about one hundred people at a time. I was in the last group. I had already watched many of my colleagues return to their desks then leave for the day. Some of them were crying. They were told not to tell anyone but by the time my group was called in everyone knew.

My first reaction was relief. I had a fear that I was going to spend the next twenty years of my life, processing customers' equipment orders or troubleshooting wireless data connections. I sat next to a lot of people who had spent the last 20 years of their lives explaining roaming charges and selling the benefits of the "most reliable network". None of them seem too happy.

I took the severance package and have been out of work two weeks now. My second daughter was born a week ago. I am so grateful to have been able to spend these last two weeks with my family.

I don't know what I am going to do for work. I am excited to do something different but also scared about not being able to find a job or getting stuck working in another call center. I am going to use this time off to become a happier person. The closing of our center was hard on a lot of people.

Previously
Unemployment stories Volumes One, Two, and Three.

[Thanks to everyone who wrote in. All stories are being read. You can send your own unemployment story here.]