“I can’t live like this,” I said to the person at the other end of the phone. I’d seen several flyers for free and sliding scale health services, to include mental health while making my very first visit to the Food Bank, and had picked one up. “I just know I can’t go on living this way.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d come to this conclusion or had this conversation with a medical professional. But it was the first time I was having such a conversation with so few options due to the lack of insurance. I’d lost my health insurance when I had lost my full time job teaching at the university level: a career choice I had loved with every fiber of my being.
Being a classic over-achiever who had worked three jobs while completing my doctorate; the stress of that coupled with two young children and a deteriorating marriage; and a family history full of stories of women who were plagued with “melancholy” or “the blues” had probably made me a prime candidate for depression, which, perhaps today, might have been diagnosed even earlier.
So then throughout the remaining years of my doctoral program (and then, later, dissertation), the doctor continued monitoring me, adjusting my medication as need be. And things were relatively fine. Sure, there were bad days, even stressful, horrible days. After all, I passed my comprehensive exams, wrote my dissertation and ended my marriage all during these subsequent years.
But all of that was manageable by comparison to what was to come.
When my professional career as an academic, and the entire identity I had built for myself was suddenly yanked out from under me, I was left gasping for air and struggling to find any sense of self outside of what I had loved to do for the previous 10 years. Medication became the only way I could manage through the waves of sadness, the raging anger, and the sense of complete and utter ambiguity.
I hadn’t even taken time off for maternity leave after the births of both of my children – in part because I had no such time to take as maternity leave did not apply to me as an adjunct faculty – but also because I couldn’t imagine not being in the classroom with my other “kids.” My students were children who were on loan to me from their real parents: kiddos I had an obligation to give my best self to each and every day.
As I used to explain to my classes of undergraduates: “I’d better be doing what I love because each and every day I choose to leave the three people I love most in the world, and come to be with you.”
Some people describe the day they were laid off as being the worst day of their lives. That day – and the days to follow – became the worst “life” of my life.
Some don’t really understand the debilitating blow job loss, and the subsequent emotional turmoil that follows. Maybe that’s because some have been lucky, and have been spared that particular experience during the Great Recession. For others, the notions of unemployment come from deep seated feelings that date all the way back to Puritan America: if you are unemployed, and not infirmed, it must be because there is something deficient about you: you’re not trying hard enough, you deserved to be laid off, or you’re just too lazy to go out there and get another one.
While I suppose there are exceptions to every situation, I tend to believe that everyone , at some level, wants to feel productive: like they are contributing. Work, as Freud once noted, is a part of who we are. And to deny that work is a part of our identities is to deny a part of our cultural ethos: Do what you love. That your talents are a part of who you are. That we choose to make our 40-80 working hours a week not just a way to earn a living but to make it a personal expression of self.
But work is a part of our identity.
Work is where we find meaning.
It’s often how we define ourselves.
So when what we’ve been doing is abruptly taken away, it’s no wonder there can be significant repercussions. So the job loss, at least for me, became a spiral of depression and grieving. It’s nothing so simple as being linear – a straight or even sloped line from bad to worse. No, depression becomes a progression of stages when you’re trying to job hunt. Because each new step forward, puts yourself at risk. The perpetual changes take you through a perpetual cycle:
You have jobs to apply to, so you’re up.
When the job doesn’t come through, and you were so sure you did so well on the interview, you become morose.
A friend doesn’t understand your disappointment, and you feel like it must be something “you’re doing” – so you’re pushed three steps back.
You find a new job listing you’d be perfect for – so you’re optimistic.
Weeks go by and you don’t get a call back, so you worry.
A friend lets you know about a possibility he might be able to get you in to, and you are elated.
People ask about the job hunt, so you get more down because you have nothing new, and no good news to share.
You get an email from a potential employer that says you weren’t qualified enough, and so you’re back in the gutter of despair until the cycle starts all over again. The part of your bleeding soul that had started to scab up is now pulled off with the new wound of loss.
I have a new found respect for actors and other performers who live through this cycle by choice, in pursuit of their craft. I have no idea how they do it and remain sane. Is there an inner sense of balance they draw on? Accepting themselves and knowing their value with or without the gig?
The lesson so many long term unemployed have had to learn is that it’s not that we all haven’t dealt with sadness. And it’s not like we all haven’t wrestled with disappointment. We all have. We’re human beings. We live in the world. We know there are disappointments, set-backs, and frustrations in career management.
But this is a new kind of “emotion management” because a person who’s been laid off may not be managing a 3, 6 or 9 month time span… but potentially years where you have to find the strength and the resources to navigate the self-doubt and rejection you experience when one is laid off. A set of skills to navigate the ambiguity and the rollercoaster of emotions for more than just a few months … but potentially for 12-24 months?
So what is helpful? That may depend on the person involved, just as the grieving process can look different from person to person. But undoubtedly one of the most important things is to find the resources you need to survive during this time: find the people who are supportive. Find the organizations who can help you.
Additionally, for the people surrounding the one who has been laid off, this next period of time might seem a bit like being a caregiver. Learning as much as you can about depression and long term unemployment may certainly be helpful. But just as caregivers of those with Alzheimer’s or Cancer need to take care of themselves and find their own support networks, so do those who are providing care and support to the long term unemployed.
Because we certainly couldn’t get through those hard times without you.
Prior to getting her doctorate in Marketing, Christina McCale worked for 17+ years in some of corporate America's biggest companies. For the last 10 years she has taught marketing and management instructional duties at the university level for the last 10 years, she has also been one of the key and has conducted research on how to best prepare our undergraduates for career entry. Today, she lives in Olympia, Washington with her son, daughter, and their two beloved greyhounds.