Unemployment Stories, Vol. 13: 'I Don't Know How People Can Do It'S

As of last month, 1.8 million Americans have been unemployed so long that their benefits have run out. "Those who've given up looking slip out of the labor force, into what is sometimes called "nonemployment,'" Businessweek says. "Researchers know remarkably little about them." Each week, we're bringing you the true stories of the unemployed, in their own words. This is what's happening out there.

You will survive

9:00 a.m. May 25th, my boss came into my office and asked me to join him in the conference room-the rest seemed surreal. My boss and the controller of the company asked me to sit down and began their speech, a speech I never expected to hear. I was given 30 minutes to pack up my office, given an agreement to sign and have notarized before I would receive my severance, and be out the door. My career as a graphic designer suddenly changed, another victim of the dwindling economy, another victim of corporate greed. Four of us got the axe that day as my boss prepared for his family vacation in Asia-four of us had to explain to our loved ones that our lives had changed.

As I drove home, I seriously thought about about driving my car off a bridge or into oncoming traffic, I felt stripped in public and my life had been taken away from me. A man that I had to my home for dinner, met outside the office on social occasions, and shared so much with, threw me into a trash heap, I got home looked at my partner and was in shock. Shock turned to anger within hours and I sat in my home-office brooding; what do I do next? Where do I pick up the pieces? How do I take control? I am educated and I should not be in this position... Emotional overload. I made my calls to friends expressing my distress, I looked around at the life I had built and wondered what to do next. I called my lawyer and asked if there was any recourse, I searched constantly for answers...

I was one of the ‘lucky ones', if you can say that-I was one of the 99ers, the ones that received 99 weeks of unemployment benefits and extended Cobra. I also took advantage of WEA-the Workforce Education Act, that paid for training/classes to make people viable to employers again, and I began to realize that I needed to focus on finding employment more and more every day, week, and month. In the back of my mind I felt less of a person because I had lost my job and yet I realized at the same time I was in the same boat as so many others. I went to malls, libraries, employment services/counselors and I saw people my age-people that a year ago would have been at a desk, now struggling to find a new place in the world, willing to take less money, willing to start over again, willing to do what it took to earn a living. The most significant thing I realized-most were over forty years old and probably pushing fifty. Agism?

Just as my professional life changed, my personal life did-they are so closely tied together that they are bound to effect each other. My partner and I began to drift, I slowly sunk into a very bad state of depression, and my temper became quick-I was no longer the man I could face in the mirror with respect, I was just the opposite. After two years of me unemployed, my partner and I separated, he had enough, and that is when I started to re-evaluate my life. What is important? What can I do in this changing economy? Do I want to pursue a career in the same field? If not; what do I want to do next? My partner and I although separated still spoke daily and I started to venture into other ideas for employment, I have been looking at retail, my own business, etc., and thinking where I can go to make a life again. I am currently in the Chicago area and I also realize that Illinois' economy is not a job-seekers paradise, I am now looking in the west, probably Arizona. After 9 months, my partner and I reconciled and perhaps things will improve across the board.

It is now over three years and I am still unemployed, I have slacked off a bit, but I have gotten my second wind and now I am coming back as strong as when I first got the axe-my life will be good again-I have to create my own path and make it happen...

What have I learned from my unemployment? First, never think you are necessary to a company, the new mentality is just like the rest of our society-everything is disposable. Second, hold your loved ones close to you, they are the ones that will save your sanity at the end of the hardest day. Third, don't overlook the "little things", take joy in simple pleasures and they will no longer be so little. Fourth, take time for yourself because if you live for a company it will only disappoint you in the end. Fifth, extend a hand of friendship to everyone because one of those hands may help you in the future. Sixth, you are not your job, you are much more than that, you're job is a small part of who you are and you will survive if you lose it. Lastly, if you're near 50, 50, or over 50, be aware that you are no longer the asset you were when you were in your twenties and thirties, your value is on a decline.

The journalist

When you meet someone else who's looking for work you talk to each other like you're ghosts. "What did you used to do?" Who did you used to be when you were alive?

I was a journalist. I lost my job a year ago this August. I'm 31 now, and it seems too old for entry level work - which I apply for - but without enough experience for the editing jobs people have interviewed me for. Or maybe it just seems like I'm wrong for everything.

At first I was legitimately hopeful the loss could push me to something better. The company had been losing money for a while, I'd been scared of layoffs the last two years I was there, and I'd never had a raise over the initial $32k salary I was hired at in 2007. Maybe if I didn't get a job I loved I'd at least make more money.

I thought I could freelance in between jobs. This was my first mistake. Before if another journalist called to ask about something I'd written or for a lead on a source I was happy to help. All of you are in my tribe. I hoped this meant I'd have some connections. Writers who borderline plagiarized my work in the past refused to talk to me about pitching or contacting places they'd been published in because they were barely making ends meet and didn't want the competition. At first I was angry but now I don't blame them. Most publications have slashed their freelances budgets to almost nothing. I've sold a few stories but only been paid for a fraction of them and I've learned not to trust anyone that a check is coming just because they promise it's in the mail.

My wife and I were in marriage counseling when I was employed but the recommended weekly therapy is expensive on a journalists salary even with insurance, so that was one of the first things to go. We filed for divorce six months later. We still love each other in a lot of ways, and are as amicable as you can be for a divorced couple. There's an excellent chance it would have happened anyway but it's hard not to wonder.

Your friends stop calling you. They know you don't have any money so they don't want to rub it in your face by inviting you out. You see pictures of them together on Facebook at concerts you didn't know about. You have nothing to say on any social media because you know they must get tired of hearing about you complain, you can't think of anything good to say that doesn't sound like a lie, and at a certain point you stop celebrating the good things that happen to your friends because they're just strangers anymore and you suspect they never much liked you to begin with. You try not to become completely paranoid. You can't get rid of your Twitter or Facebook because some jobs use it to evaluate you. You have to keep smiling somewhere people can see it because even if no one responds to your applications there's always a chance someone is reviewing you.

This spring there was a moment I realized I hadn't left my apartment or talked to another person in three days. The worst things don't creep up on you in the corner of your eye; they're just there suddenly, clear and close in sharp focus.

A few months ago I had an interview to write for a nationally known web site. The women who'd be editing me was at best three years out of college, talented, and completely blind to how casually cruel and dismissive she was. I suspect I was a little like that once. I hope she gets to stay that way forever.

"I know this is such a cliché," she said, "but where do you see yourself in five years?"

Until that point I think the interview had gone well but this was an absurd question. What kind of thing was that to ask? Who had a five-year plan? A five-year plan meant getting a stable job and keeping it and getting somewhere if you worked hard. Ask me what it's like being friends with the Easter Bunny why don't you? Like you just got in a bed at night and closed your eyes and told your brain to put you to sleep instead of waiting and thinking and hoping and planning and waiting, like life was a goddamn movie.

I think I stumbled out some answer about wanting to be able to balance feature writing with daily blogs and something about social media. I didn't get the job.

My mother called me yesterday and asked why I hadn't gotten a work at Trump Tower. She lives in the Midwest and knows that Donald Trump is always hiring. Clearly, I was lazy. "I'm going to have your father look up Trump Tower on the Internet tomorrow and I'm going to make him send you jobs!" she said. It's one of the best leads I've had this month.

There are good days, sure. I send out applications, I go for a walk, I listen to music, I talk to someone I haven't seen in months. But they're easy to forget.

I hate writing now. I despise it. I would murder language if I could. As long as I can remember I wanted to be a writer and a journalist. I didn't make any money - nobody ever did in this business even before things went to hell and I never expected to be rich - but the worst hours I spent putting a story together were better than the best hours anywhere else. Now I feel stupid for every pursuing it. I envy the people who got MBAs, and the people who dropped out of my high school class to become truckers. Former editors have at one time or another over the last year touched base with me to tell me how talented they thought I was and how they [hoped] I'd find my way back to writing again. They probably mean well but you can only take rejection from so many jobs before it starts to sound like patronizing bullshit and you wish they'd stop trying to encourage you. Or worse I'm offended they encourage me because it means going back to the situation that led me here to begin with, like they're cursing me to repeat all this. I'm not stupid enough to think I can get a journalism job again considering the state of the industry, and I apply for anything I might have a remote chance at in any field, but I thought I'd at least be able to retain some love of reading and writing if only as a hobby. Now it's all poison. Trying to do it is just a reminder of all the wasted hours that led me here. That's an irony considering how many cover letters I have to crank out a week. I drank so I could try and write this and I'm sure I don't sound very good anymore. I probably sound hackneyed. I know I would've laughed a year ago if I'd read that line about things being poisoned. I tell myself that it's a small blessing I can't afford to buy booze very often because liquor doesn't last long when I do buy a bottle.

I don't think this type of pain to me is unique because I was a writer and have some sensitive soul. That'd be horseshit. I bet there's a laid off box factory foremen out there who probably loved the hell out of boxes and can't stand the sight of them anymore.

I do not believe that hard work or talent or friendship matters. I'm afraid that I'll feel this way for the rest of my life and end up a bitter old man with no friends and no ambition or hope. I'm afraid that if I don't feel this way for the rest of my life it will mean that I am a fool who's tricked himself into agreeing with something he knows is a lie because he's desperate to make money for people who'll never give a damn about what happens to him. I'm afraid that it's impossible to conceal this amount of damaged thinking if I do get an interview. I don't know what else to say.

The caregiver

Hi, I'm a 33yo unemployed and disabled white male. Most of my life has been pretty rough, due to the fact that I am diagnosed with Major Depression and Anxiety and I have chronic insomnia. I also had an abusive family which I no longer speak to.
About two and a half years ago, I was working part time as a caregiver and living at home with my mother, helping her take care of her elderly mother. Then I lucked (from my perspective, probably not most) into a job involving taking care of a person with mental and physical developmental disabilities in an apartment where I would live as well for 123 hours / week (this includes sleeping overnight). my hours were 5pm through 8am every M-F and all 48 hours on the weekend. It was a job that required a lot of effort, dedication, flexibility, sensitivity, and empathy, but I loved my job. In other words, for over two years, I rarely had a night off unless i scheduled it sometimes a month in advance, but I loved my job. I was paid a grand total of 1600/month plus medical and dental per month, but I still loved my job. I loved my job because I was finally able to make a difference for someone else who also had an incredibly rough life, even rougher than mine was. The man I cared for was in an institution for his entire youth that got shut down due to uncovered abuse of everyone who lived there. I love him and, although I no longer work with him, I still visit him when I can and bring him presents.

In January, I was changing his diapers (he was wheelchair-bound and needed 100% hygiene support, as well as 100% support in every other aspect of his life and health), I walked to the other side of the bed when I suddenly felt a sharp stinging and pinching in my lower back. Since I couldn't' finish my work with him I called the agency I worked for to send someone to relieve me... In March, thinking that things would eventually get better, I gave my notice that I wanted to leave my job due to the fact that some other health conditions were putting the man I was caring for at risk... Since then I have more or less been told that there is nothing "objective" that they can see and therefore my diagnosis was "medically stationary." Interestingly enough my "stationary" condition has resulted in more and more chronic pain as time went on...

So now I'm sitting around even more depressed because I don't know if I can or should bother even trying to work. I have to say that I'm "healthy" to Unemployment so that I'll be able to survive and pay my rent and COBRA. I have to keep my insurance (with Kaiser, blah) because I REQUIRE (not exaggerating) regular ElectroConvulsive Therapy treatments (aka Shock Therapy). It is the only treatment I've ever had in my life that has been at all effective for me, and without it I'm certain I'll be unable to continue living, much less functioning effectively and productively. The downside of ECT is that it has incredible effects on my short term memory, which caused me to make mistakes the last few months of work (and why I left my job: the safety of the man I was caring for). Additionally my back problems have caused me problems jogging daily like I used to, which I have found to be the only effective self-treatment for my depression.
Between my rent and COBRA, I use my entire monthly allotment of unemployment (which is tiny since it is based upon my stipend). This means that I have to sell plasma and whatever other tiny ways I can make money in order to just survive (and pay copays and deductibles). When unemployment runs out, if I don't get a legal settlement for my injury (which will take awhile and I'll likely lose), or disability (which will take longer and I'll likely lose), get well enough to work, or find a job for a man with mental and physical health problems and no employable skills, I'm completely and epic'ly fucked. Eventually I'll be homeless without required mental health treatment or any prospects of things improving...

I don't understand the people in this country and how we think of ourselves as people who are better than the rest of the world and yet let things like this happen to each other. I don't understand how we let this happen to ourselves. I still feel incredibly lucky, like all the other people who write these horror stories. I'm lucky that I have as much health as I do compared to the man I cared for. I feel lucky that I had over two years caring for a wonderful person who needed me. I'm lucky that I was smart enough to have a little savings. I'm lucky that I have one really good friend who's there for me, even if I think I could use more. I'm lucky that I actually KNOW that I'm lucky, and that I haven't let this experience make me into one of the people who are "doing their jobs" by tossing me to the wolves.

Hooray for friends

Two and a half years ago, I was living in a tiny-tiny town about twenty minutes outside of a small college town. I had two part-time jobs and I was living in a windowless basement. We'd had flooding over the winter and the basement started to smell like mold as the weather warmed up. I was in my early-thirties, I'd quit my "real" job a couple of years earlier and I'd gone back to school. Now I was done with the bachelor's program. I'd been accepted into the master's program, but I was trying to decide if I wanted to stay in school or move back to the city and get a full-time job again. Then my landlord told me they were losing their house. Foreclosure. They hadn't paid their mortgage in at least a year. One of my jobs was as a student contractor and, due to the nature of the work, it didn't allow full-time hours. The other job was bartending in the tiny town where I lived (not exactly a booming prospect). I think I had about 30-days warning before the foreclosure went through. Rather than sign a lease to stay with two dead-end jobs and a degree I didn't care about, I decide to move back to Phoenix. A friend of mine had just relocated from Phoenix to the east coast. She was ridiculously underwater on her mortgage and offered to let me live in her (still furnished!) two-bedroom house rent-free until I found a job. Like I said, I was lucky. I can't imagine what I would have done without my friends. As I ate through my small savings, my friends fed me and made sure I had gas money so I could keep looking for work.

As soon as I got to Phoenix, I started applying for jobs. I applied for EVERYTHING. I applied for jobs using my degree. I applied for jobs in call centers. I applied for the type of work I was doing before I'd gone back to school at thirty. I applied for bartending jobs. I applied online and in person. I applied for jobs every single day. I was unemployed for two months. In those two months, I didn't have a schedule or routine. I had no kind of sleep schedule. I ate like crap. I gained twenty pounds. In two months, after submitting my resume hundreds of times and begging friends to put in a good word, I had racked up three interviews. Only one of those interviews turned into a job offer.

So I went to work as an entry-level call-taker for a health insurance company. It was the worst job I've ever had. I cried every day. Part of my problem, I'm sure, was my attitude. I thought I was too good for the job. I'd trained call-takers around the globe. I'd been a hiring manager. Now, with a degree under my belt, I expected to be doing better, not worse. But it was also a horrible job. The company I worked for was raising rates dramatically at the same time that the Affordable Health Care Act was passing. I got lectured about Obama every day. I listened to seniors on fixed incomes cry because they couldn't afford to pay for health insurance and rent. And my boss watched me like a hawk. I had the best stats on the team and she still lectured that she expected more from me because of my background. I felt lucky to have a job at all after those two months of unemployment, but I was miserable. I kept gaining weight and my depression only got worse. Then a friend told me they were hiring at her work. She helped me get an interview. Hooray for friends again. After five months at the health insurance company, I found a better-paying job that I love. I lost twenty pounds in my first three months there without working out or anything—I was just happy again. It's amazing what that can do. I'm still making less than I was before I went back to school, but I don't care anymore. A year and a half later, I'm still there and I'm still happy. The seven months before I got this job were terrible. The unemployment, the horrible job. The stress was physically painful. I felt like I was fighting myself every day and I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that I would do almost anything to avoid going back there again. I don't know how people can do it for more than two months.

Job interviews are fun

"Thank you for coming in."

"Thank y – "

The huge metal door clanks to a close over my words. Then someone locks it. Thanks for coming in. But don't even try coming back.

For a moment, I think about knocking and asking if I could use their bathroom. The hour and a half journey back to my apartment was going to be a long one, especially because the N train was having difficulties, and my shoes were not the kind one walked multiple avenues in (the small pool of blood in my socks would make that abundantly clear once I got home). But then again, they had just double-bolted me out. They would enjoy it if I left.

Back at home; sitting on the side of my bathtub while my shoe-gnawed feet turn the soapy water slightly pink, I compose a follow-up interview email in my head:
Dear Miss Smith, thank you for taking time out of your truly busy day to meet with me for 11.5 minutes. I could tell how busy your day was from the size of the Starbucks frozen coffee drink you were sucking down and how you asked if I had any writing samples even though I had attached them to my cover letter and was pretty sure they were actually acting as coasters for your frozen mocha. I am sincerely interested in the position, so much so that I will gladly accept the salary you are offering, even though it means I will be staring at my bank statement every month, furiously trying to figure out how to eat just a little less. I also know there is a Recession going on, and you have 500 other applicants who are willing to take this job, should I balk at the idea of working weekends. Thank you again for your time. Respectfully and sincerely, the Girl Who's Feet Are Still Bleeding.

Then I'm lying in my bed and for a moment, I think about what it would be like to rip myself up into tiny pieces and mail those pieces to everyone who has ever dismissed me. I'd mail bits of my chapped fingers to the judges of writing contests, fragments of my heart to old boyfriends, chunks of raw heel skin and dabs of sweat and maybe even some portions of my self-worth to all the places I had interviewed (while sweating, always sweating) in the last month. This way I'd be everywhere I'd always wanted to be, and also everywhere but here. Because I'm tried of here. Here is Nothingville; an invisible time-lapse between my past and the future I used to be so certain of.

And the worst part about it is that you can't even feel that bad for me, because the Pity Jar of this nation is basically empty; its remaining crumbs reserved for families of five who lost it all when their mortgage imploded, hospital patients who can't pay to keep themselves breathing and the people who've been without power for weeks, or lost their house in a tornado, or are watching their entire livelihood wither under the sun. These are the types of poor souls that get worried about. Those of us lucky enough to have created our own misfortune by allowing our helicopter parents to get under our skin and pump us full of dreams, pursuing misguided MFAs and resisting minimum-wage labor – get out of the way and make room for the real tragedies.

I wake up to the sound of a car screeching to a halt and someone swearing in a language I don't recognize, and I'm instantly nauseous because I remember I attached my resume instead of pasting it into the body of an email for this Awesome Job I applied for late last night. Hey Rockstar Editor Who is Also Fluent in HTML and French, paste that resume into the body of the email or we'll just delete your whole submission! We're a highly successful start-up that has no time for attachments!
While pouring cereal into a bowl I think, for a moment, how much fun it would be to make anonymous, scratchy phone calls to all the New York start-ups who use words like "Rockstar" and want you to take a grammar test they got out of a book before they even interview you.

I think all these things all day long but I never do them, because I can't really afford to say what I mean. And isn't that the most depressing part of all this? All my morals and righteous proclamations stay stuffed up inside my head because letting them out into this translucent, Google-ified world would make me an unemployable leper. I sweat it out inside tiny SoHo offices, yank my hair out over "imaginative" cover letters and smile at Office Assistants who couldn't give a crap, and the whole time, I'm hating it. I just hate every stupid second of it; the game, the rules, the bullshit. I want to bomb the whole system. But I need health insurance so badly.

I eat my breakfast while standing up, staring through a window into someone else's kitchen and wonder if they're home at 10AM on a Wednesday because they're also unemployed. A girl wearing a towel walks over to her sink and rinses some dishes, staring back at me but not really making eye contact. I wonder if I'm as invisible as I feel.

Picking out a black dress that makes me look like the prim and proper office person I will never be, I make sure to cover my tattoo with a cardigan and wear sensible ballet flats. Ballet flats are awful. I look ugly and dwarflike in ballet flats. But they're the only shoes I have that go with my proper black dress that won't Bobby Flay my feet into pieces.

Fully transformed into the person I can't stand; who hates every part of this charade, who may or may not actually exist, who would give anything to tear herself up and send herself away, but who also really needs a stable salary, I walk outside into the sun. There's another interview I was lucky enough to get in Chelsea to schlep to. Another opportunity to practice my best bullshit smile and fearless optimism in the wake of so much blank uncertainty.

Get out of the way and make room for the real tragedies.

Night and day

I've just been laid off for the second time in four years. The first time was a perfect storm - I lost my job in the insurance sector (thanks, AIG!) in late 2008, and I'd been on a contract-to-perm basis. I was out for eight months as everything ground to a halt and the "job creators" froze like rabbits in the headlights. This time round is different, and I've spent a fair amount of time considering those differences.

When you're a contract worker, you're essentially self-employed. It's nice because you get a massive rate, it's not nice because that rate quickly comes down to earth when you bite off self-employment tax and healthcare costs. And in 2008, it was disastrous. That winter I found myself out a job, with absolutely no one hiring people in my field, few worthwhile connections, and absolutely no assistance. For those 8 months pretty much everything took a hammering - I blew through my savings when I had to write the IRS that massive tax bill in April, I piled up debt, no one would hire me outside of my field because I was a bigger flight risk than a part-time teenager. I gardened on my tiny fire escape. I blogged to create writing samples (my field isn't usually copy, but I have done it in the past). I got depressed. I kept plugging away, but I look back on it now and it was a weird, grim time. I don't remember much of it, I think because if I'd let myself wake up beyond the rote cycle of applications and getting through the day, I would've snapped.

I climbed out of that hole thanks to a few miraculous contracts paired with a minimum-wage hourly job captioning foreign television. One of those contracts became a full-time position, and I took it. It was half the salary I'd been offered at the insurance company almost exactly a year before, but I knew that it was a crazy comparison to make because everything was different now. It was a good job for a few months, and then staff changed and it became abusive. And once that abuse began, I stayed for another year, because I was so damn terrified to leave a job. Much of that reluctance was healthcare-related, which made me realize how much our health system binds us to our workplaces. During that time I became depressed again and started taking medication. If you think you're depressed, look into this. Do not delay, don't be brave, ask your doctor. It's like living on flat ginger ale for months and then suddenly opening up a carbonated can. I'm still on it, and I'm so glad I have it this time round.

Last year I left and I found a job I loved with my entire heart. I loved the people, I loved the work, I loved the purpose, I loved the office, it looked vibrant and growing and strong. I would have stayed there forever, except for the part where they broke up with me a few weeks ago during a major restructure. And that's sad, but you know what? This time I qualify for unemployment. This time I got severance, I got COBRA, I have antidepressants, and it is night and day. Some people have asked me if being laid off has affected my view of the presidential elections, and hell yes it has, because now I know what I'm talking about. Doing the same job, I've been out of work once with no benefits and out of work now with them. I'm voting for the guy who got legislation through that means if I'm staring down the barrel of another 8 month stretch of unemployment, there are healthcare exchanges on the other side. I'm voting for the one who appears to understand compassion. I am single and relatively young and mobile. If this goes to hell in a handbasket, I have only myself to care for. I am doing okay, and given that I feel I've already lived through worse, I'm pretty sure I'm going to be okay. I cannot imagine what it's like for people with children.

As for those people who bray in the comments that this will never happen to them, they're fooling themselves. Or at least they're trying to. But being loud about your awesomeness doesn't alter the fact that unemployment and underemployment happens to almost everyone in the US at some point in life, and you run out of money and pile up debt and live with your relatives, and the louder you holler about controlling your own destiny the more obvious it is that you're terrified, because no one controls everything. There are loopholes. It can find you, and the sooner you're able to understand that you're not safe, the better equipped you are to handle the upcoming election. Don't vote based on what the candidate would do for "them", because "them" can SO EASILY be you.

Previously
The full archive of our Unemployment Stories series can be found here.

[Thanks to everyone who submitted. You can send your own unemployment story here. If you'd like to contact anyone you read about here, email me. Image by Jim Cooke.]