Unemployment Stories, Vol. 21: 'The Stress and Fear Is Beyond Description'

The official U.S. unemployment rate stands at 7.8%. For those with no high school degree, it's closer to 12%; for young people age 20-24, nearly 14%. There are not enough jobs to go around. Each week, we're bringing you true stories of unemployment from the unemployed. This is what's happening out there.

Evaporated

Nearly 30 years ago I was married to a violent man. Although I had three terrified toddlers and only a high school diploma, I left him. It took me three years(without child support!) to claw my way through college and get a bachelors degree. While we were living on food stamps, welfare and student loans he acquired an airplane, a vintage sports car, a ski boat and regularly taunted me with boasts about never paying a dime of child support. The system eventually caught up with him and child support was finally enforced at about the same time I graduated and took my first low paying job in my field, social services.

I drove a car with 165,000 miles on it, scrimped and saved and lived paycheck to paycheck. I advanced in my field and eventually got better paying jobs. Managed to buy a modest home, slightly more than $100,000. I put two of those kids through college and sent one to the Marine Corps. I never carried a credit card. I never bought anything I couldn't pay for. During the Bubble I never took out a home equity loan to buy vacations or luxury goods. Replaced the old car with another used car. Saved what I could. One of the dirty little secrets of a career in non-profit social services is that working on the side of the angels means your pay is inevitably low and that very few of your employers have nice things to offer like retirement programs, decent benefits or even stable funding. However you do get the privilege of relieving the suffering of some of the most wretched and vulnerable. One of my employers referred to this as "psychic income."

Fortunately I eventually found a great job in my field with a decent salary, what appeared to be stable funding, good benefits and yes, a 401K. Along the way I had some pretty amazing professional accomplishments, awards and recognition. Work that I'm proud of and that set standards in my field. My new great job came along just as the last kid was finishing college and I thought, finally I can start getting caught up on putting away something for my retirement.

Also, my modest little home was slowly but surely accumulating equity and I was counting on that to help. All was well for about three years. Then the funding source for my agency, previously stable for 20+ years, became enmeshed in a disingenuous and cynically motivated political controversy ginned up by what currently passes for our political leaders in an effort to destroy their opposition. Funding gone. Just like that. I got three months severance which, under the circumstances, was a gift and a COBRA bill that was slightly less than my monthly unemployment benefits. Health insurance now gone in favor of paying the mortgage and keeping the lights on.

In the past two years I have applied for countless jobs. The colleagues in my field that still have jobs are hanging on to them like grim death. I've analyzed my skills, applied to jobs in other fields that use my skill set, sent carefully tailored resumes and cover letters, worked my network, applied for entry level positions, applied for part -time positions and temp work, tried to be self-employed with extremely limited results and now finally applied to every major retail chain in my area in hopes of getting a job there, which of course will be at minimum wage.

The stress and fear and anxiety as I watch my life sink into poverty with loss after loss after loss is beyond description. Loss of job, loss of health insurance, loss of transportation — my car broke down and needs a repair that is beyond my reach. The equity in the house I've lived in and payed on for 17 years? Evaporated in the mortgage debacle. It is currently unsalable in this market unless I want to take a loss.

My modest savings? Gone. Unemployment benefits? Now, finally gone. And did I ever enjoy the constant anxiety of watching Congress play "will we or won't we" on extending unemployment benefits every few weeks. I lost 13 weeks of benefits because my state got triggered. Next loss on the agenda is my meager 401K (about $7,000) of which the government is going to take 20% off the top to punish me for taking MY OWN MONEY to support myself during financial hardship. It ought to last about 4 months. I haven't had a mammogram in two years , a checkup with my doctor, a visit to the dentist or been able to replace my glasses.

Job hunting has become a constant exercise in humiliation. Applications that are ignored, now par for the course. Okay. Interviews where you never hear back, yeah or nay — that's common. Twice in the last two months I have been instructed to prepare lengthy presentations including slide shows and written materials — auditions. if you will — for part-time, no-benefit entry level positions. Oh yeah, the personality tests. If I hear one more time, "why is somebody with your credentials asking for a job like this?" Or I'm turned away because "you're overqualified and we don't believe you will be challenged", I may have a stroke. Think, just think — WHY DO YOU THINK I AM APPLYING FOR THIS JOB? This is becoming increasingly hard to bear along with the thinly veiled comments about my age and concerns about my "comfort" working for a supervisor younger than myself. Yup, I'm over 55.

My image of myself as an accomplished professional, a woman who is resilient and competent is gone. A college degree, decades of experience and excellent references apparently count for nothing. I'm getting intermittent tremors in my hands that are most likely due to stress. I actually hope so because I have no way of seeing a doctor to see if I do have a serious medical problem. Retraining? I have nothing to live on during the training and no way to pay for it now.

Last week I had a great interview at a major retailer (think big red dot) and was told that someone would be calling me back that afternoon to set an appointment for a second interview and to schedule my orientation date. No call of course. I've made three follow up calls and given various brush-offs. "Nobody by that name works here" - referring to the 19 year old "manager" who interviewed me. "Someone will be calling you tomorrow"- never happened. "Human Resources will not accept phone calls from candidates" - how can I schedule the orientation appointment if they won't call me or talk to me? This is what it is down to. Me, on the telephone begging teenagers for a minimum wage, part-time job with no benefits. I can't sleep and I can't stop crying.

The biochemist

I'm writing to you not about myself, but my dad. He's just turned 69 (a corpse, in most hiring manager's eyes), and has been unemployed since the early aughts. Since coming to the United States from Ghana in the late 60s, he put himself through graduate school and worked as a biochemist for many big companies, including DuPont. You might ask why such a successful person would lose a job he excelled at—well, nearly everyone has some dark secret that keeps them from achieving their potential: dad has a drinking problem. He was quite functional for a long time, for much of my youth, actually, but you can only call out of work due to a hangover so many times before they start to wonder what the trouble is.
In any case, my dad is a fighter, and worked hard to find a job in his field, with no luck. He changed his career path, went back to school, and got a degree in public health administration. This was promising, as it would have given him the opportunity to do contract work creating disaster plans for cities and counties—until the economy tanked and no one wanted to allocate resources to plan for a public health disaster that may or may not happen in the near future. Depends if you've seen the film "Contagion" or not. Then, we experienced an almost cliched string of problems: my mom suddenly passed away, quickly followed by my grandmother; the funeral expenses were crushing and, again because of the economy, the stock market profits that my dad had been living off of began to dwindle and his efforts to sell our family house went sour, and he was finally foreclosed on.
Now he's living with family in Texas, still unable to find employment, and because he is frankly over-educated, he can't find a position doing anything that requires a college degree or less; employers at his level wont hire him because of his age. He swings between deep depression and manic optimism. He defined himself by his work—having gainful employment was the measure of his worth as a human being (though I've told him many times that shouldn't be the case), and now he's basically stuck living off his social security payments and the kindness of family, which is rapidly exhausting. We suggested he move back to Ghana, where it's cheaper to live and the bulk of his family is still there, but how can someone who left home so many years ago, with such high hopes, return with absolutely nothing? I think the most unfortunate thing in the world is to witness an unused great mind—yes I am biased, because he is my father—start to atrophy because no one else can see the potential in it. Whenever I resort to prayer the first thing I ask is to please find my father a job or that he see the good in his life, but that hasn't worked either. I continue to hope for the best for him, and consider my good fortune in the working world evidence of the good example he and my mom set for me. At least that's something.

The DJ

In 2008, I had been the host, producer, and DJ of a nationally syndicated weekend mix show that originated at WQCD/CD101.9, the smooth jazz radio station in New York. The show combined old school jazz/funk, acid jazz, chill, and European club jazz. It was a #1 Arbitron-rated program on Saturday nights (8 to midnight), and had tens of thousands of fans across the tri-state area.

The success of the show in NYC led to its airing in major markets around the U.S., including San Francisco, San Diego, Denver, Miami, L.A., and more. Once it began attracting listeners in 2003, it continued a steady surge for five years, and also created amazing opportunities for me: DJ gigs in clubs, lounges, and at jazz festivals around the country; a jazz remixing gig of the Smokey Robinson hit "Quiet Storm" for Motown Records; a recording contract that resulted in my co-writing/producing an international club and radio hit called "Icy"; coverage in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal; and a hosting job on QVC, where I had my own program selling jazz CDs.

In February, a morning staff meeting was called at CD101.9 and an announcement was made: as of 4PM, the station would "flip" to a new and potentially more profitable format (alternative rock). Air personalities, promotion people, and many others were thanked for our hard work and shown the door.

I traveled home to Jersey, shaken but not devastated, since my show was still airing in markets around the country. "All will be cool," I thought. "I'm still on the air, I can do more live DJ gigs, and I can look for more studio work."

Later that day, my syndicator called and told me they were dropping the radio show, since the economic value of its airing in other markets didn't come close to its value in New York (the show was on for 6 hours each week in New York but only 2 hours each week in all other markets).

Since I had a healthy pile of markets that continued to use the show, I figured that another syndicator (aka distributor) would pick it up. But over the next several weeks, one smooth jazz station after the next "flipped" to new formats, and pretty soon, smooth jazz was dead in the eyes of the radio industry. The implosion that started in New York eventually spread west, and now I was very worried.

I would soon learn that without radio support, no clubs were interested in booking me to DJ, and no labels were interested in hiring me to produce or mix their releases (the smooth jazz artists also took a huge hit: their sales and concert booking fees plummeted). With a family to support and all income immediately ceasing, it was truly panic time.

Prior to my radio days (which began in 2001), I had been a copywriter for ad and interactive agencies, and a marketing consultant for new media start-ups. But by 2008, that resume was ancient and my radio/DJ/production skills were proving to be no longer sellable.

My family's checking account was quickly melting, so my wife and I cashed out our savings and retirement funds to pay bills. We sold family jewelry, sound equipment, antique china, whatever we could unload that would liquidate quickly. I searched for copywriting work, but with no recent projects to show, my applications were understandably rejected or ignored.

Our lifeline was the generosity of family and friends who kept us (barely) afloat. We shifted our growing balances from one credit card to another in order to lock in the lowest rates. We shopped for clothes at Salvation Army stores. We only bought food that was on sale in the supermarket, and only if we had coupons. We turned down invitations to parties – even birthday party invites that our kids received – because we couldn't afford to buy gifts. For our own kids' birthdays, we bought them their favorite magazines and took them to a diner to celebrate (my wife and I wouldn't eat).

I spent hours in Barnes & Noble, reading books and taking notes about how to get back to work. I scoured career websites, attended career seminars/workshops, and sent out my resume to hundreds of job sites, placement agencies, and web postings. When I did get a reply, it was a rejection.

Sleeping through the night became impossible. I was kept awake by an endless loop in my head: how will I get food on the table tomorrow? Which bills should I not pay this month, and how will I afford them next month? How could I have let this all happen to me? What could I have done to prevent it? How will I afford my kids' college, let alone their school clothes? Can I risk not having health insurance? How/why/when did I become such a fuck-up? Why did I make such stupid choices with my life? When will this joblessness end? Will it end? Can I live each day with this hopeless fear, or will it consume and kill me?

Double-doses of an over-the-counter sleep medication helped me to get to drowsy quickly and stay asleep, but I felt drugged through the entire next day.

(Sleeping, by the way, became my only escape, and throughout each shitty day, I looked forward to the unconsciousness – and the peace –that the meds would graciously deliver.)

After a year of this dark dread, I took a step back and realized that simply doing more of what I was doing, in the way that I was doing it, was probably not going to improve my situation. For the sake of my family's survival (as well as my mental and physical health), I needed to stop focusing on endless tactics and instead create a smart strategy...

After a couple of months of refining my new customer-centric approach, I re-launched my quest for work and immediately gained traction: I began locking in freelance marketing and consulting work, and was soon taking on long-term assignments. I even found a sideline radio gig with a new classic rock mash-up show that I developed.

In 2009, I shared my discoveries in an audiobook that was intended to help jobseekers avoid the mistakes that I made so they could get rehired. It became a top-seller on Audible.com, and it generated tremendous t.v., radio, online, and newspaper coverage. It also has helped people around the world to conserve their time, preserve their energy and sanity, and get back to work faster than any other career guidance.

I'm now working steadily as a marketing, business strategy, and sales support consultant to companies around the U.S. If all goes well, my income will soon surpass what I was making during the high points of my radio and DJ career.

My family and I came thisclose to being on the streets – literally. Were it not for the kind gifts of loved ones, we wouldn't have had a second chance - and I certainly wouldn't have had the opportunity to help others in my same situation to sidestep the typical job search errors and teach them how to survive the nightmare of career disruption.

The golden child

Where do i begin? I was living working at criminal background check company from 2001 to 2006. I was thriving and kept getting promoted until me and another employee had a disagreement via email. Just like that, it was over. I was suspended and via a phone was terminated. It was so amazing how I was just let go after one mistake, when my immediate supervisor used to be on sleazy dating websites looking for desperate housewives in the wee hours while docking it as overtime. I was let go in November 2006 and did not find another job until March 2007. It was with a well known bank doing encoding for not only half of what I made at my former job, but also part-time. I struggled but was able to pay the bills (with assistance from my parents). I thought to myself, "I will find something soon. This is Atlanta!" I applied all over during this time at the bank. Well as of August 20, 2012, I was laid off. Mind you, I had a supervisor who was one of those folks who wanted to be your friend more than your boss. If you didn't laugh at his jokes, you were perceived as having an attitude problem. I never understood that. It boggled my mind when I was told I am the top producer of my group, yet because I keep to myself, I was lacking in people skills. It was further from the truth. I spoke with letting him know that I do not tolerate a lot of the office politics that so many seem to like to play in this department. It was frustrating.

The five years I was there, I had my folks and grandmother helping me out. I send so many resumes to different companies, as I have done everything from customer service to being a union organizer. I don't understand what I am doing wrong. I am versatile and love research. I want to further my education, but I cannot afford, nor can I apply for student loans because I am in the rears with past loans. I see those commercials for 9 month degrees, and think maybe that would help, but as soon as the commercial is gone, I get depressed again. The severance I get is basically nothing and will only last until November. I should be thankful as some of my fellow employees got nothing at all.

I am now back in Pensacola with my folks depressed beyond belief, feeling like a complete failure. I am a college graduate who was working on my MBA, and now I am sitting typing this letter feeling all of it was for naught. I have a younger sister who dropped out of college and worked many jobs gaining the hands on experience I did not because I was in the books. To this day, she gets a job as if it is nothing, and they are GOOD jobs. She is a single mother who does not need our parents to do anything for her. She is thriving in Atlanta, while "the golden child" is sitting here too broke to buy himself some McDonald's. I am so sick of people telling me it's going to be okay, and it takes time. I go on the job sites and see TONS of jobs I am qualified for. I apply and nothing. I would love to work in the entertainment field as a writer, but I cannot even get an internship to do that, as most production companies are recruiting college students. The nepotism does not help either. Several of my friends were laid off as well in the past and it took them at least a year to find work. I can't wait that long. There is nothing worse than feeling like a burden to your parents (who by the way are GREAT as they never complain and help me anyway I can). I want to get back to Atlanta, and live there. I have been told I need to pursue entry-level project management by for co-workers and employers who I have contacted for help. The problem is I don't have the certification, but I know there are jobs that can help me get the experience, along with pay for the certification. I just want to work and pay my bills. I don't really care about vacations, partying and the other luxuries. I just want to focus on becoming debt-free. I also want peace of mind.

An incredibly empty feeling

I recently discovered the stories from this segment, and knowing that others out there are in similar positions as me gives me some comfort and encouragement. I don't want people to suffer with me, but their stories have definitely made me feel like I'm not alone. Although my story is not nearly as tragic or difficult as others in this segment, I still feel inspired to share my story.
I graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Political Science close to a year ago. During that time, school always felt like someplace where I belonged. Both in high school and college, school was enjoyable; it was an ideal world for me. Ever since graduation, I have felt like an outcast. My purpose in school was to get good grades, excel in my knowledge, and earn a degree. For years I was working towards these goals, and now that I have accomplished them my purpose feels gone. I have no purpose anymore, and that is an incredibly empty feeling. I want to find new purpose in a job, but that has become much more difficult than I anticipated. Part of me regrets going to college, I feel like I may have put myself into thousands of dollars in debt for a degree that is worthless. So far, I have applied to around 50 jobs and haven't had one interview yet. Most employers do not even respond to me. Most jobs, even some of the ones listed as "entry level," want previous experience in their field. How am I supposed to get experience when every employer asks for previous experience?
Thank goodness for my wonderful mother, without her I don't know where I would be. I would like to pay her back one day for all the opportunity and support she has given me, and I'm scared that I'll never get that chance. I have always tried to do everything the right way, and I hope I will be rewarded for that behavior. My faith is evaporating a little bit each day, especially when I see dipshit, no talent reality show "celebrities" on entertainment channels that have everything when they haven't done anything to earn it. I feel like there is something wrong with me. I question my own competence. I feel like I'm not good enough. I keep thinking that maybe employers notice negative qualities about me that I can't see myself. These recent months have made me unsure of myself and my abilities. At this point, I'll take almost anything. I just don't want to sit around all day and feel useless. I recently left my job working around 10 hours per week making close to minimum wage in order to take a chance in a new city. I have just moved to Washington, D.C., the center of politics. I have a little money saved up, so I'll be ok with rent and bills (including loans from the government) for a couple months, but if this experience doesn't work out, I will truly be back to step one. So I'll keep applying, I'll try to be optimistic, and I guess time will only tell.

Loitering

I have been extremely reluctant to write about this for the longest time, even as I read previous stories from this series that hit way too close to home. A little background...
I went to a good four year university for undergrad. I studied Political Science and International Studies. I had no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated. I sort of do now, but not really. I was very fortunate to graduate without significant debt (I'm an only child and my parents do alright).

I have loitered at my parents house for around a year and a half now. I use the word loiter because I feel like I am essentially waiting around without any apparent purpose. I am fully aware that part of my predicament is the result of a poorly thought out post-college plan. I am not dumb. I don't even have a motivation problem. But some piece or some thing is missing because I can't figure out the formula to make it work. I can't conceive of any possible solution to get out of this place.

I have sent out applications to...everything. Any kind of administrative work, internship, clerical positions, advertising, entry level, you name it. Anything to get me in an office or around people who can see that I work hard and want some sort of direction or purpose. I want to get excited about something and excel at it. I can count the number of interviews I have gotten on two hands. Most of the time, people don't even write back. At first I didn't care but now I see it as tacit agreement that something about me or what I am doing is broken.

I always feel somewhat guilty because my life isn't THAT bad. I have an okay restaurant job and a decent enough arrangement where I try to help out my parents and pay for some stuff every now and then. People all over the country and world have it way worse. So on top of feeling shitty about myself and my situation, I feel like an asshole for feeling shitty. I want a life though. I want to get away from my parents, one of whom I couldn't stand whether I was living in our house as a child or out of it for school. I want to get started on laying the groundwork for a family. The things I aspired to as a kid seem more out of my reach than they have ever been.

Sometimes yeah, I feel like giving up. I feel like there is nothing to look forward to except a future of being relegated to underemployment and being unable to provide for myself and the family I want to have. I am convinced that at some point, if I don't get it together, life will take all the people I care about away from me as they move on to bigger and better things while I'm stuck in mediocrity and self-pity. I can't have that life and I don't want that life and I don't know what I will do before I get there. I really hope that isn't where I am going.

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.]