Unemployment Stories, Vol. 19: 'This Shit Is Real and Humbling'

The official unemployment rate fell to 7.7% last month. But that number is misleading. The percentage of workers who are actually considered to be "participating" in the labor force is now hovering around a three-decade low. Persistent, extended, unrelenting unemployment is now a fact of life for millions of Americans. Every week, we bring you true stories of unemployment, from the unemployed themselves. This is what's happening out there.

The dispatcher

Like many, I imagine, reading the unemployment stories on Gawker causes me to feel panicked and stressed. Those of us with a job right now feel like we made it onto one of the life boats from The Titanic but we are all just waiting for the next big wave to dump us back into the icy North Atlantic.

I am one of the lucky people who is employed right now, in fact I work 84 hours a week at two low level, unrewarding and at times completely demeaning and demoralizing jobs. I am exhausted, consistently in a bad mood and frequently sick, though I remember what it was like to be unemployed and it reignites my appreciation for having a job in these tough times. Things weren't always like this. In 1996, after an extensive back ground check, psychological test and multi-tiered interview process I was hired as a Public Safety Dispatcher. I was a 911 operator and police/fire and ambulance dispatcher. I loved my job. It was stressful and rewarding. Not only that but I was great at my job. I thrived in an environment where you can go from 0-60 in three seconds. One minute you are trying to keep busy organizing or doing paperwork then next you have a child on the phone calling because his father is holding a gun to his mother's head. Shootings, stabbings, robberies, fights, psychotic people seeing imaginary intruders, I answered all those calls. Not everyone has it in them to remain completely calm, professional and logical when chaos is happening on the other end of the radio or phone. I received awards, had newspaper articles written about me and received many thank you cards from people who only knew my voice. I won't lie and say you don't get invested in these peoples lives because you do. Some calls stay with you always. One of my 911 calls is actually still used as a training call at a 911 training academy.

In 2004 I was alerted that I was being investigated for having an inappropriate relationship with a coworkers husband... Long story short, I lost my job. I was told that even though the affair happened twelve years prior I was causing a hostile work environment. I was hurt, felt betrayed and was humiliated. Yes, I know, seeing a married man is bad, I never downplayed that. Some may think I deserved the punishment, some days I guess I agree. I not only lost my job but I lost all my friends that day too, you see, anyone who works in that environment, whether they are a dispatcher, police officer or fire fighter will tell you, once you are cast out that is it, no one wants to know you. I applied to other municipalities, with all my experience how could I not get hired? But I didn't. I came very close to getting hired by the State Police, I beat out 89 other candidates, I remember how great it felt walking out of the barracks knowing I was going to get that job, they had told me as much. Then, I got a call from the State Police saying they got a call from my old employer and that they were not going to hire me. I guess I should have felt grateful that they told me why but they wouldn't tell me who called them. It was at that moment that I realized I would not be a public safety dispatcher again. I sank into a very deep depression. I made several plans to kill myself, I bought the necessary instruments, planned exactly where I was going to do it, where to park, how long I would have alone and how long until someone found my body. Still to this day I don't know why I didn't do it.

I was unemployed for nine months. I finally found a job as a sales assistant at a high end home design company. A job I had no qualifications for. I am not a sales person, I was miserable. I did not fit in with the rest of the company and eleven months after being hired I was laid off. Unemployment this time was tougher, I had taken a huge pay cut and so my unemployment check was far below what could cover my expenses. After paying rent and car insurance I had $40 a week left. It was winter, I live in Massachusetts, I had my heat shut off, cancelled cable and had no health insurance. Naturally I slipped on the ice and broke my wrist and arm during this time, I had never broken a bone in my body my entire life prior to then. I skipped doctors appointments, refused follow up x-rays just to save money. I read everything I could and ended up having a friend cut my cast off me when I thought I had healed enough, needless to say there was no physical therapy. I fell behind on rent and received an eviction notice. My parents had both passed away, I had no one I could live with, I was seriously looking at living in my car with my dog and two cats.

I finally got hired part time for a transportation company. The person who worked third shift ended up getting robbed while he was working so he ended up quitting because he felt unsafe. I jumped at the chance for a full time job and here I sit six years later. Same position, same hours. I make less per hour now than I did in high school. I took a second job driving a taxi, most people I meet are nice, hard working people who have it a lot worse than me. Then there are the drunks, the druggies, the belligerent customers who feel they are better than a loser driving a taxi and tell you how much of a loser you in fact are. Most days it rolls right off me, other days I couldn't agree more with them. Being a lone female picking up total strangers, I carry pepper spray and a knife. Being the last female a drunk is going to see at the end of the night turns me bitter. One minute they are hitting on you, trying their best to get you in their house, worse they think I am so hard up for money they are almost insulted I won't give them a hand or blow job. Once they realize its not going to happen then the insults come out, I am called a fat ugly bitch who no one would ever want to fuck. Since its been four years since I have actually had sex, they aren't wrong. You have to watch yourself constantly, your employers, co workers and customers are always looking to rip you off. Yes I know we taxi drivers don't have a good reputation but there are some honest ones out there. I refuse tips from people who work minimum wage jobs, the elderly and many others. I give free rides to people, there are just some I can't bring myself to charge, I end up paying for their ride at the end of the night. The worst calls for me though are the ones when I have to go to the police department I used to work at and pick someone up. I see my old coworkers and they see me, we don't acknowledge each other, its too embarrassing. Worth note here, the girl who spread the gossip about my affair ended up having an affair with the chief of police, they are married now and two people couldn't deserve each other more.

I do all this because I never want to look at homelessness as a reality again. I am petrified of ever being unemployed and unable to be self reliant again. So, not your typical unemployment story that you have probably received. Like I said, I remind myself everyday that I am lucky to have two jobs when a lot of people don't have one, some days that is all that gets me out of the house. So, for the great majority, hopefully for everyone, there will be jobs ahead. For some sooner rather than later but eventually you will find a job. It may not be that dream job you always thought you would land, it may not be in your field but you will have a job. What we all need to walk away with is compassion and empathy for those struggling now. Before, I would have been one of those people who thought you just need to look harder, try harder and stop sleeping until noon, there are plenty of jobs out there. Now I know better.

Circling the drain

I'm working now, but I went through 19 months of steady unemployment and about a year circling the drain before that. It was hands down the worst experience of my life and that includes the seven soul-numbing years I took care of my mom, who suffered from Alzheimer's.

I am (was?) an editor, which is already very similar to being unemployed. After my mom passed, I made the ill-timed decision to quit my steady, well-paying job at a high profile magazine, use all my savings on an extended holiday and then go freelance. That happened about a month before the economy collapsed. Freelance work lasted about a year after that. At first it wasn't so bad. Assuming I'd have no problem getting work, I embraced the down-time. I became a very good baker and cookie eater. I rarely put on outside pants more than once a week.

I relied on my savings, which went faster than anticipated. Financial security is the thing you lose right before you lose everything else. When half a tooth fell out, I learned to chew on the other side. Social life? Sure, if you don't mind meeting me on a park bench and drinking tap water I brought from home. I did everything I was supposed to do as an unemployed person. I said good-bye to cable, store-bought lattes, shoe shopping, movies, manicures, hair cuts, dry-cleaning, gym membership, travel, concerts, healthcare of any kind — basically anything that wasn't food for me or my cat was eliminated.

But the material losses weren't the hardest. In less than ten months I experienced the complete eradication of everything I'd worked for in my career, along with my confidence, my dignity, my identity, my optimism, and any hope I had for the future. I started tanking my (elusive) job interviews. The pressure of knowing the opinion of a perfect stranger was the deciding factor in whether or not my life improves dramatically or just keeps careening off the rails began to manifest as overly self-deprecating humor and compulsive joke telling. I used to be great at interviews, confident and easygoing, suddenly I'm Rodney Dangerfield. Except I wasn't funny. I was raw and desperate and completely gutted, and now I can add makes other people feel uncomfortable to a growing list of unemployment side-effects.

My friends were great. I'm single and I don't have any family, so I'm lucky I had such a supportive group during that time. But even the most generous people have a tough time hanging with you when you're chronically depressed and can't afford a cup of coffee. Friends tried, they really did, but other than a job, there's nothing that can make an unemployed person happy. I didn't want to talk about my problems because I couldn't bear hearing myself saying the same things over and over. I didn't want to listen to my friend's problems, because inevitably I found myself thinking, are you kidding me? THAT'S a problem? Today I paid my phone bill with a sock full of nickels. I became socially awkward at an exponential rate.

After almost two years of total misery, I got a job through a friend and I'm eternally grateful. I make almost half of what I used to earn and I don't particularly connect to the work, but it's been a soft place to land. I have heath insurance and friends, I'm out of the house and using my brain and just the other day I went to a party – by myself!

I still feel shitty about my life and scared about the future. I still mourn the loss of my career, something that I valued and felt defined me. I still take anti-depressants and have to be aggressively cajoled to come out for a drink. I still have a massive amount of credit card debt and I'm broke as shit, but things are getting better. My self-esteem was ground into such a fine powder, I thought I'd never recover, but lately I've felt tiny signs of life fluttering inside my ego. I've learned a lot from this experience — nothing pulls back the veil like long-term unemployment. This shit is real and humbling and I can honestly say I'm a better person having had this experience. That being said, if given a choice, I'd take unevolved and employed over wisdom and insight any day of the week.

Powerless

I graduated college in 2008 from a state university with an English degree (yeah, I know, I know...) and a concentration in Technical writing. I landed a job working for a staffing company that I started in June 2008 with an okay salary plus bonus. I was doing well and making decent money. Then the market crashed and people were afraid to spend money, companies were laying off, which clearly meant that our services were no longer in demand. I was the last one in, so I was also the first one out. At first, I thought, no biggie! Something will come up! Thankfully, I had worked at the staffing firm for about 2 1/2 before I was given my pink slip.

I had come to rely on my bonus money every month because I worked hard and always made my goals. My first unemployment check was the scariest number I had ever seen. They didn't use my bonus number to calculate what I was to receive. Okay, I thought, I can still work with this!!! I made my full time job be looking for work. I learned how to stretch grocery money. I continued to pay the majority of my bills. My student loans refused to work with me. They would not lower my payment. I paid them what I could. I left myself 30 dollars per week for groceries.

Winter came. Winter was bad. I was able to cut my electricity bill drastically, but heat? I had to at least keep my apartment warm enough that the pipes wouldn't freeze. I paid what I could, but it was never all of what they asked for. I called in and asked to go on the budget plan and they agreed. I sighed with relief.

About 6 months later one of life's little emergencies happened. I had to pay to have my car repaired, which cost me over 700 dollars. I was late on my electricity bill and unable to send them the full amount I should have paid for the budget plan. I had no grocery money and was relying on friends to feed me. I have no family. About a week later, I came home from looking up jobs at the library to a utility shut off notice on my door. I was being asked to pay the full amount or be shut off in 72 hours. Their customer service rep told me that a partial payment would not spare me. I had already borrowed to pay my student loans. I was already in debt with everyone. I had no where to turn to for help. I let it come. I was home when my power was shut off. The hum of the refrigerator silenced and I sat on my couch and cried.

I had nothing to sell (thanks childhood poverty!), no money and no power (both literally and figuratively). Oh, and my car broke down again.

The funny thing about not having electricity is how quickly you can adapt to it. I cut into my weekly food budget for candles. I showered at the community rec center M-Saturday. I would bring a tote bag with me and bring back 2 gallons of warm water that I used to wash dishes from last nights dinner. Dinner was now a can of soup that was heated in the basement of my apartment building by sneaking downstairs and using an outlet I found. At first, it really wasn't so bad...but we had been lucky and it was a summer that didn't want to give way to fall even though it was October. I kept telling myself that I just had to make it to November because LIHEAP (Low Income Heating Assistance Program) started then and they would have to help me, right? Wrong. I made $300 more for the year than the maximum of $16,335. I was turned away in 35 degree cold over $300. I asked where else I could get help. They told me to call my power company and see if they would work with me. They wouldn't. I could see my breath in my apartment. I put those hand warmers in my bed. I lived at the library and the rec center; anywhere free with heat.

The real catch 22 was this...If I don't have a job, I cannot afford to pay this bill. If I don't have power, how am I supposed to go to work and look presentable? Not that I was getting called for anything, anyway.

I made those payments as I could, but it took me all winter. I have a job now, but am still trying to claw my way above water. I'm more thankful now; more aware of what acute poverty looks and feels like. My friends never found out about my electricity. That was a shame I sometimes can still not believe I lived through.

Lowered standards

It's been four weeks.

I was fired from my job because the "news" (oh, how I use that term loosely) company that employed me threw me under the bus when management made a poor story decision that ended up on the pages of Gawker, Mail Online, reddit, fark and the ilk. The story led to a lawsuit and the lawsuit led to my job because I was the scapegoat. So now I'm jobless, applying with reckless abandon to everything I see.

I started looking and applying locally that first week. By the second week, I had added every city east of the Mississippi I felt like I could live and enjoy my life. The third week saw a westward expansion. The fourth week has been marked by places I don't want to live. I guess the fifth week will include places no one wants to live. I have yet to get an unemployment check. "Pending an eligibility review" is all the website says when I file for my weekly allowance. Will that money come through in time for me to pay next month's rent? Tune in next week to find out!

And I'm a journalist. I'm a researcher. I'm a damn good researcher, too. I have these cities' most recent employment data. I see their median incomes. I creep on their housing costs. I know exactly what I'm signing up for when I send those resumes. I know exactly how much money I need to keep a roof over my head and food in my dog's bowl. I feel worst for him. He didn't sign up for a life where his owner is a nervous wreck, wondering if the unemployment checks will come in or if they'll be moving out of their home to who knows where.

I think what pissed me off is how much this is my fault and how much I hate the news industry as a result. I believed in news. I didn't care about the money. I looked past the layoffs that happened my second day of employment. I sucked it up when I was told raises were not in the budget and 401k matching was suspended. I was just happy to be a part of something that I thought genuinely mattered and made a difference in people's lives. I ruined relationships on election nights. I missed birthdays for breaking news. I used three vacation days and one sick day in three and a half years.

I was a fucking idiot. I should have seen the writing on the wall and walked out of there before they could do any real lasting damage to my psyche and my employability.

Now, I have no savings, a bank account that is overdrawn and a folder on my desktop with 100 — yes, one. hundred. — cover letters to places all over the country. Hell, there's even a letter to Doha in there. I've been fortunate enough to get a few rejections, at least enough to let me know they aren't just going straight into everyone's spam folder. I've had a few phone calls from other cities, many simply checking to see if I realized I had applied to places well outside commuting distance from my current home.

I'm less than 12 hours away from a job interview for a job I don't really want in a field I don't really enjoy. I don't have a lot of hope I will get it because my resume is pretty clear — I don't have the background they are looking for. I'm a content guy, not a web developer. I'm also in the process of talking to a major publication, but after explaining why I left my previous employer I doubt I'll hear back. I'm 11 days from losing my apartment. I'm probably 7 days away from losing my mind when my unemployment still isn't resolved. I don't know what else to do.

Sorry dog, I'm not such a great master after all.

All my fault

I'm 31 years old and I'm unemployed. I have a BA, an MA, and an Occupational Certificate. I have $300 in the bank and had to move back in with my parents. And this is all my fault.

I grew up thinking I could be anything I wanted to be. I went to college on a scholarship. I got a BA in Philosophy because I enjoyed it. I studied abroad. I went to grad school in England. I got an MA in Political and Social Thought. I didn't get my PhD because the funding wasn't there. I thought it was just another rat race anyway. I got a job at a newspaper that I loved. I got laid off a year later. I started freelance writing and editing. The pittance that brought in got supplemented by a job I took doing fire and water damage restoration and demolition. I pulled up carpet and wood floors dripping with water from bursts pipes and teaming with mold from sitting there until the insurance company could evaluate how much of the cost they could avoid paying to the home owner. Occasionally the pipe that burst would be a sewage pipe. In that case, I'd don a white tie-vac suit with rubber gloves and rubber boots and shovel shit that had been stewing under the Southern sun into a trash bag.

Ankle deep in feces I'd remember that I could've joined the army like my dad. I could've been a teacher like him and my mom. My sister went into teaching, another is a nurse and the other is a marine biologist. But I didn't join the army. I didn't go to college to study for a career. I wanted to be something bigger. I wanted to work in politics. I wanted to be a professor. I wanted to be a writer.

When my girlfriend got funding to do her PhD I wasn't at all jealous. By then I knew that I'd fucked up. I left my hometown and we moved to her school. I got a retail job selling shoes and took the infrequent opportunities to freelance write or edit. I knew I had to retrain. I went to night school. I got an Occupational Certificate to be a firefighter. I got certified by state and national agencies. I applied to firefighter jobs all over the country. I did physical tests, written tests, and interviews. I was one of hundreds, sometimes thousands to apply. But cities were just as broke as newspapers. There were hiring freezes. The ones that were hiring couldn't afford hire more than only a handful of people. Even with the degrees and certifications I was never one of the top 6 out of 600. I was never anything particularly special.

When my girlfriend finished her coursework she was set to go do her research in South Africa. I applied for a life partner visa with a work permit. The only snag was you had to have a job offer to get a work permit. So after months of trying in vain to apply for jobs in her home country I found the same results as I'd found in my own. I was useless. Now she's gone. Unable to pay the rent on my own I had to move back to my hometown to live with my parents.

I qualify for EBT. I qualify for unemployment. But I don't dare sign up for those. I don't deserve it. I had every advantage. I had every chance. And I blew it, fair and square. Now it's back to the grind. Now I apply to job after job online. Firefighter jobs, writing jobs, retail, dishwasher, third shift factory floor, they're all the same. It's a deluge of digital failure. It's not much better in the mornings when I make the rounds to the employment agencies. They want to know why I'm in their office with all my education on my knees begging to shovel shit again. Even when something comes along it's only a temporary hire. An extra back to break for big job then a handshake with a ‘best of luck' and its back to the employment office. There's no real success, only stays of execution.

In the monotony of online applications, of folding chairs in employment offices, of ‘job seekers create an account and sign in', of pee in this cup so we know you're not on drugs, I'm always balancing a mental equation. When would the pain and suffering and sense of failure felt by my parents if their only son and oldest child off-ed himself outweigh the pain and suffering and sense of failure they feel watching him flail around like a fish on a dock?

Like I said, this is all my fault. It was my ego at work. It was my impossible dream. It was my overplayed hand. I took the bait. I got reeled in. And so I wait with bated breath for the moment when the equation finally tips to the other side so I can get off the hook.

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

[Thanks to everyone who wrote in. You can send your own unemployment story here.]