Unemployment Stories, Vol. 24: 'It Takes Away Your Pride, Your Hope, Your Faith'

New unemployment claims are down, and the stock market is once again approaching peak levels. It's an easy time to forget that more than 12 million Americans are officially unemployed. Each week, we bring you true stories of unemployment, straight from the unemployed themselves. This is what's happening out there.

The father

My story of long term unemployment is a journey of madness so far. I will not divulge every detail, but hope to let people know how hard it is to be unemployed in the USA today.

It started(in 2008)when I was in a mass layoff working (electrical assembler/solderer)for a semiconductor technology company in Montana. I had worked there around 5 years and never had trouble finding work earlier in life, when needed. I am not choosy in what work I do, I just want to take care of my children and pursue a decent, honest life. Back in 2008, there was a mass amount of layoffs in the not so populated region of Northwest Montana. Needless to say, it affected the local economy and the unemployment rate skyrocketed. Many people were left out in the cold, literally. Thankfully, my wife had a decent job and we had roommates to help pay bills. I also got unemployment for almost a year. For two years, I looked for work, with no results. I and my wife ended up just pursuing our dream of playing music (funny thing is, we are a semi-recognized band, starving artists no less...). We were able to with small success, get by financially doing a few shows a month and my wife still worked. for a few years

Although we got by, I still felt demoralized. I was pretty much a stay at home father for our young son. I still applied for jobs and got the occasional interview, but nothing so far. For men in general, it is not easy being the stay at home parent. Most people look down on couples that have a woman as the more successful one. I enjoyed the time with my son though, it created an unbreakable bond with him. After a while, that stress and my wife's alcohol problems resulted in me and my wife separating for a bit in 2010. We reconciled soon after and moved to Missouri, with my mom because our separation caused us to be homeless. Soon after, I found work working at an retirement home in the kitchen. I did not mind the work and liked mingling with the senior folks, very nice people. But, my wife could not find work. After three months, my own mother kicked us and our four year old son out. Long story, but my mom has never been the most caring parent, so no real surprise in the end.

So, back to Montana we go. Which ended in disaster again. We stayed at my wife's grandmothers when we returned. Then my wife's inheritance-vulturing brother kicked us out for no good reason. Just a note left on the wall, saying to "get out in three days". Another long story. We were in a panic.

We did what we thought was best. I was even willing to split with my wife to let her stay with her dad nearby. but he refused to let her stay, but said our son can stay. So we agreed to let our son stay with him until we get back on our feet eventually.

But, how to get back on our feet. It was the beginning of winter. Nothing left but me, my wife and my car with no heater and sub-zero temperatures. For all who don't know. There are NO social safety nets, welfare or any help for homeless families with children. Though the state has a perpetual budget surplus...(that's another story)

In desperation I thought of a survival plan.I had grown up in Bakersfield, California and have some extended family in California. On a whim, me and my wife drove to Los Angeles, knowing only one friend there(who had no room for us). We stayed and slept, homeless for a few months in my little car. It was a demoralizing and horrible experience. It is, unfortunately my second battle with homelessness. I was also homeless from late 200 to early 2002 and periods of my childhood. I could not believe I had descended this far down again. I seem to have the most rotten luck, even when I have good intentions...

Me and my wife relied on each other for support to get through. We did not start doing drugs or drinking heavily. We maintained the focus of getting our son back and kept to ourselves for support. With our young son 1000 miles away, it was very hard and quite depressing for us. The hope of getting him back was keeping us going.

After a few months, in February 2012, my grandparents(who I had not seen in 20 years, very nice people)nearby said we could stay on their floor. Me and my wife were very thankful for their offer and accepted. We stayed on their floor for a while. My wife found work after a few months and we saved up to get a cheap apartment(for California). We are barely scraping by on what she makes and eat very little. Times are still very tough.

I am very thankful to not be homeless now. But I am still very hopeless, when it comes to finding work. I have been searching, hundreds of applications, dozens of interviews, for nothing so far. My wife has also become pregnant and about to have the baby. I am proud, but also very scared and depressed. I feel worthless, with my wife doing all the work. Me, just floundering at job searching and being a housewife of sorts. We are still hoping to get our son back soon to. We do not have finances to get him down here and make arrangements yet.

We are excited for the new baby, but depressed about missing our first son. We even made the decision, early on to put the baby up for adoption if we were still homeless when she was born. I am very glad we did not have to make that horrible choice. We have a lot of love, if not money for our children. They mean the world to us and we want to succeed for their sakes. It hurts me to see my wife tear up at the site of our sons photographs. We miss him so much and he misses us. We contact and talk to him regularly, which helps.

I have applied for everything I can think of. Its not easy, coming to a new town and job hunting. I don't know what to do. The job listings get less and less. Nothing new for weeks on job sites. Temporary services have nothing. Fast food has no response for someone experienced in electrical assembly. It all seems hopeless. I think of suicide on a regular basis. If not for my wife and children, I would surely just give up.

In the meantime, I am tired of people looking down on me for being unemployed. I still have people who have no clue how hard it really is just say "get a job". And put me down because my pregnant wife is working and I don't. I actually almost had a job as a delivery driver. But, a reinstatement fee for my drivers license which I cannot afford stopped me from transferring my drivers license. Takes money to even get a job, which I don't have. I thought of going back to school, but cannot afford to even think of taking the GED test right now. Lack of any cash or help is an effective barrier...

I miss having a job and being productive. I still wake early and keep working hours. I drive around and look with envious stares at people doing landscape or carwash work. (How pathetic am I? To be envious and almost stew with anger at minimum wage workers, wishing to be among their ranks...). All pride and self esteem are at all time lows for me. I have been suffering from panic attacks as of late. I pass the time job hunting and recording/promoting our music on the computer. We are actually still hoping to pursue music again after a while too. Just need to get our family back in order. Music right now, helps me get though. An outlet for my pain.

I was once someone who was proud, productive and had hope. I played on stages for years to crowds of people. Now I am nothing and nobody. I hang my head in shame and wonder how to provide for my children.

The at-will employee

I graduated college in 2006 and for the first couple of years after I got out of school my life was (mostly) fine. I had a job, my car was paid in full, and I didn't have student loans thanks to scholarships that made my private university education possible. By the summer of 2008, work was too stressful for not enough pay, so I had started sending out resumés. Between my exasperating days at work, a mild depression over a failed relationship from the beginning of that year, and advice to "seize the day" and "trust that the universe has a plan" I decided to quit my job, after a very promising interview. I knew it was a bad idea to leave without having something to fall back on, but they told me I was their top pick, they wanted to make their decision in a week to 10 days. As best I remember it, 4 days later some big banks collapsed and every job prospect I had dried up. Needless to say, that great interview I pinned my hopes to didn't pan out. The official response was that the company decided to suspend their planned expansion and they'd keep my resume on file should the economy pick back up.

To make a long story short, that was the start of over two years of unemployment. It was the worst time in my life, thus far. Every day I fear what will happen if I ever have to relive it. Because I had quit, I wasn't eligible for unemployment benefits, my rent increased, the cost of food was rising as the financial crisis spread globally, and I had the added cost of paying for health care out of pocket. I saved money every way I could: eating only one meal a day (sleeping in every day plus lack of activity meant a loss of appetite); no more going out with friends; showering only on days I left the house to save on water and shampoo; computer time was restricted to job applications and resume tweaks to save on electricity. If I may not have been diagnosed clinically depressed, but all my behavior certainly matched the symptoms.

I cashed out CDs, sold stocks, and all but emptied my savings account to pay the bills. I know that I was one of the lucky ones, I had savings and CDs, and even a few shares of stock that I could sell. Whenever I went home for a Thanksgiving, or relative's wedding, or birthday or whatever, I felt like a failure. If the shame of telling someone you're "between jobs" isn't bad enough, imagine it multiplied by every family member and friend you haven't seen for the past 5 years all in the same night. They're so happy to see you because it's been so long; they can't imagine it's been that long because you can't bear to face them. One Thanksgiving I had to ask my younger sister to arrive before me and tell all my aunts/uncles/cousins etc. not to ask me about work because I was afraid I'd have a breakdown in front of everyone.

Eventually I went from being unemployed to merely underemployed, working from home as an hourly employee for a consultant. The pay was great, the commute was the easiest in the city, but I spent countless days sitting in front of my computer, waiting for an email from my boss or his client saying I could work that day. If they said they'd email me, I would wait at the computer from 8 to 6, never leaving, even if it was just for an hour of work. If the promised email didn't come, I wouldn't leave until it did, sometimes as many as 4 days later. Eventually the client decided they would rather do the work in-house to save cost. This time, I was only out of work a few months before finally securing something full-time.

One would think that getting a job would mean an end to the stress (or at least a sizable reduction in stress) but it's not that easy. I'm an "at-will" employee, which means they don't have to have any reason to get rid of me, and that knowledge means I can never relax. Every morning I dread going to work because I'm afraid it's the day I get fired. Every time my boss tells me he wants to talk in the conference room, I have a mini-panic attack. Every time I miss something while alphabetizing or don't color-code another thing, I worry she'll get rid of me.

There's so much I want to say about being out of work, so people who haven't experienced it might start to understand. Depression is pretty much unavoidable, and after the first year suicide becomes a logical, practical option. Most of the "advice" friends and family give you will range from useless to insulting. Telling someone who is either "overqualified" or has too long/many "gaps in work history" they should "do what they love" is ridiculous. After the first month, once the novelty of not having to wake up early has worn off, the thing you love is anything that makes you feel like a productive member of society. Saying "everything happens for a reason," or "God has a plan," or "put your trust in the universe" sounds less like a platitude and more like an insult. To the unemployed, that advice implies that we are/were destined to suffer, and you're fated to succeed effortlessly.

The real takeaway is that prolonged unemployment changes you. It takes away your pride, your hope, your faith, and maybe most fundamentally your sense of self. In our culture, one of the first things you ask someone is "what do you do," even most of these entries identify people my what they did or studied. To not have an answer is like an affirmation of your own worthlessness, it's dehumanizing. That's what makes it possible for depression to creep in, for suicide to seem reasonable, and for the stress to seem unending.

Veteran, lawyer, dad, unemployed

I'm 40. Just got my J.D. in 2011, passed the SC Bar first go. This is my third career, after Aerospace Maintenance (got our when the airline business model tanked after 9/11) and IT. I've opened a virtual (ie, no overhead) solo practice because no one else will hire me. While having my own business sounds nice, I'm probably going to gross only about $4000 this year. We don't make enough to meet our budget and our credit and savings are almost out. I owe a quarter million in student loans. We've moved to a smaller (rented) house, scrimped, minimized our consumer debt for stuff like phones and cars and TV and such, but we're going to run out of resources this year. If it was just my wife and I, we could find a way, we could eat ramen for a few years. In theory, we could live apart and I could work where the jobs are; I could take a contract and work overseas - Xe, or many of their competitors. But we have an infant daughter, and that changes everything.

Sounds not too bad, right? Well, here's the reality: I've applied for more than 1100 jobs since I graduated in May 2011, legal and anything else I might be remotely qualified for. Pay scales from $20 grand to six figures. Nothing - not a peep. Never had an interview. Not a callback. Only a few rejection letters - just got one recently (September) for a job I applied for last December. It is like I do not exist. I am shouting in a vacuum.

So I've got a solid BS in business and info systems, JD and bar membership, aerospace background, 13 year USAF veteran with management experience both inside and outside the military. I have international experience in Asia (mostly business and education in Japan), have traveled extensively thanks to being a cargo plane mechanic, I get a veteran's preference on fed and state jobs for being mildly disabled (going deaf). Hell, I got the undergraduate version of a Fulbright scholarship (a Gilman). When I was in Law School, and looking at my peers whose previous experience was usually something like waitressing or summer camp counseloring, I thought I'd be fine in the employment area. I could always go back to one of my earlier careers, right? Even better, rolling all my experience into one job. Or so I thought.

At first, it was merely frustrating. I was sending out about two dozen resumes a week for posted job openings anywhere within sane commuting distance. I figured I had good credentials, good experience, and a good resume - had it worked over by 4-5 different career services. The VA guys told me I had a better resume than they all did. The suspicion that my resume was getting tossed either because it wasn't believable, or because I fell in a black hole of not having enough law experience and having too much education for anything else began to grow. Now I'm certain of it. If I leave off my law degree, I've got to explain a 4 year gap in employment. If I put it in, I'm not considered for anything not a legal job, and even entry-level legal stuff wants 2-5 years of litigation experience. Now, I've given up. I recognize that what I am is surplus to the new economy, that this situation will only worsen, and no one will ever hire me again.

That realization turned frustration into despondence. I went from having the military discipline and drive that gave me the confidence to tackle anything, that had led me to greater and greater successes prior to law school, to the knowledge that I wasn't good enough for anything, that not only had I educated myself out of the job market but by doing so on student loans I had put my family at risk as well. Every day is a struggle to find a reason to get out of bed. Most days that reason is to take care of my daughter - but as a first-time dad at 40, I feel incompetent at that as well. I spend way too much time wondering if my wife and kid would be better off by themselves.

The funny thing is, before I joined the USAF I was actually homeless. I lived in a tent in the mountains, killed my own dinner, and I was happier then. Colder, but happier.

I don't want a handout. I don't want the government to step in and help me (unless they want to tackle my student loans, in which case go US government). At this point I don't even want a small business loan anymore - no one will loan you money if you don't have a house they can take. I just want enough paying clients to keep our lights on.

SCAttorney/IT Guy/Airplane Mechanic... someday.

The therapist

I have a Master's degree from Columbia University. Before this period of unemployment, I had never gone more than a few weeks without working. Ever. Since I began working in my teens. I'm 32 now, supposedly in the prime of my earning years.

I got married at the end of 2011 and my new husband got a job in California, so we moved there early this year (from the East Coast). I knew it would be hard, but it shouldn't be this hard. I quit the job I'd had for three years to make the move, thinking that I could find a similar position in CA. I started networking before the move so that I would be all set once we arrived. When we first got here, I had a few interviews, but quickly discovered that most of the similar work here required specific knowledge about CA that I didn't have (or at least that's what they told me). In one interview they told me that they got over 1,000 applications, but only brought in six people to interview. Six. Talk about competitive. I've never faced so much rejection. A few months went by and I got fewer and fewer interviews, so I decided that the time was right to follow my dreams and make a career change.

I'm working on getting licensed to become a clinical therapist (perhaps with a specialty in helping people through times of unemployment). Through my alum association, I found a mentor who'd made a similar shift. I have done about 75 informational interviews. I got a part-time internship two hours drive from here, I'm a volunteer mentor for an at-risk youth in the area, I am teaching a class on mindfulness and meditation (volunteer) and taking a professional development class. I'm getting involved with every professional organization I can find, going to trainings and lectures. I'm not lazy. I'm working my butt off in the hopes that one of these volunteer gigs turns into steady work. I do not feel entitled or like a victim. I just feel tired and frustrated.

This period has been incredibly stressful for me and my new husband. We want to start thinking about growing our family, but we can't do that until I'm bringing in some steady income. I'm now competing for unpaid work to earn clinical hours toward my license. It's incredible how competitive even that is.

You've just gotta keep trying. At least that's what I tell myself. Something will work out. I hope.

It could be worse

I graduated in 2011 with a BFA degree in Art History and Studio Arts. I felt truly fortunate to have studied fine arts and art history in high school. I thought that by staying on my path and focused on my artistic career goals, everything would eventually pay off. It really was a dream that I believed and worked hard to achieve. I was always very academically motivated and despite coming from a family that lived below poverty level throughout most of my early years and being raised by a single parent, I was accepted into a scholarship program for underprivileged youth that funded my private high school arts education. It was a great experience that really prepared me for most fine arts college programs. When I applied to colleges, I was awarded scholarships and grants and was eager to move forward with my life. Even though I struggled throughout college financially (at times actually not having money for food, for books, and paying tuition) I held on. Each year, I watched other students drop out because they could not afford to stay. I told myself I could not do that, that I was willing to do whatever it takes to stick with it and see that I get my degree. This was more important than anything else. I did work study, internships in graphic design and public relations, took jobs every summer and saved. There were times where I was working so much that my grades began to slip but I somehow had the energy to push through any and all obstacles I faced. I told myself towards the end of my senior year "You are going to get a job, any job so that you will never have to go back to the life you knew growing up." While working and writing my thesis, I sent out resumes and landed a few job interviews. All were unsuccessful. Even with internship and work experience, it was not enough. My degree was not enough, and my hard work of getting that degree was not enough. Time was escaping and after graduation, I found myself packing my bags, leaving my dorm room in New York and moving back home to my childhood neighborhood in Chicago.

At first I told myself "Okay. You've gotten through so much in your life already, growing up in poverty by a single parent, getting through high school and college on scholarships and a prayer, managed to do well in classes, internship opportunities, and jobs. You faced a lot of adversity and you can get through this. Life could be worse." Within a week of being home I sent out thousands of resumes for jobs, went on more interviews, crashed with friends in New York to go on out of town interviews, did a number of phone interviews, all to my dismay: nothing.

I have been unemployed since graduation. I have found myself in a very deep, crippling depression for quite a long time now. I no longer feel able to keep pushing, no longer able to get through it. My depression has gotten increasingly worse. I have not gone out with nearly anyone in many months. I avoid social gatherings, rarely return phone calls, take little joy in quick errands out. I've found a few paid telemarketing and research studies sporadically. My mother has been surprisingly supportive, in spite of the occasional fight/ what are you doing with your life argument. She realizes how depressed I have become about my situation and how disappointed I am with myself. I know that her patience will wear thin soon and I find myself now not being able to sleep at night, stressed all of the time and wondering if I might one day end up on the streets destitute without a home because I have not found work to support myself. I have lost all control and hope really.

I have not had health insurance since college (not that I really had insurance before...) and I have developed a mysterious skin rash that really should be checked (likely due to stress) but I am lucky to be healthy otherwise. My loans are in deferment right now (I only have federal loans luckily because of so many hard earned scholarships and need based funding I received). I am heartbroken, distraught, suicidal at times, lost, terrified over my future right now. I wonder every day if working so hard and putting so much energy into my young life on getting my degree was really worth it. My mother dropped out of college in her first year and had me shortly after. It was so important to me to see it through, to accomplish that goal and make her proud that I did not give up. It was all an illusion that I chased and chased after. It hurts so much to even think about how crushed and crumbled that dream has become now. The biggest regret of all is that I am right where I started, as if I had not made any strides towards something better. I was not even given a chance by anyone to prove myself. In all of that frustration of getting my degree, I just somehow did not give thought to the fact that I might not be given that chance of a decent job. I was so focused on getting to that point that I did not see the long way down.
Despite this, I still manage to say every now and then that life could be worse. And it could be. It very well could be.....

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.]