Tuesday, July 28, 2015

On being depressed and on the job market.

Nearly two years ago I was unemployed for nearly 7 months, the last month of which I was no longer covered by unemployment insurance. That experience left a deep scar in me, one that has me grateful for any employment, even underemployment, and that also had me questioning my ability to take care of myself. That last month was a really brutal time.

I was laid off from a graphic design position at an architecture and design firm. Though the lay-off was as kind as possible, I was sure I was being lied to. I remember that day. I left the office in the old port of Montreal, and walked all the way to Longueuil metro station, meaning I left the city, the island, and walked over the Jacques Cartier bridge. I remember calling my mom to tell her I lost my job and that I was going to walk as much as I could, and that I was currently on the bridge. Probably not the best time to call my mom. Probably scared the shit out of her. It was about a 2-hour walk, including cry-breaks.

I was so overwhelmed at the time, I felt that as long as I was walking, I was burning energy. And whatever energy I burned off, was energy I wasn't using to lose all hope.

Navigating unemployment was a mess. I’d never applied for unemployment before, and even though I was spending hours every day looking for work, I felt useless. I went on a few interviews, and every time I was told I was one of the final contenders, but not the final choice. It was a demoralizing 7 months, with the last month being one of the darkest periods of my life. I was stressed out, I was living with my mother who was also stressed out and nagging me incessantly.

I dyed my hair lavender blond during this time and she freaked out. She screamed at me. To her I assume it meant I didn't care about finding work. To me it was something to make me feel alive, and present, and like I was trying. I ended up staying with a friend for a few days, never having fought with my mother that way before. It wasn't really a fight. She just screamed something incoherent and then we both cried.

It can’t be easy being my mother.

I saw an article this morning on The Atlantic about job hunting with schizophrenia, and it just triggered a lot of memories. When filling out job applications I’d always be tempted to identify as a person with a disability. Sometimes I feel that way. There are days of the month where I am fully incapacitated, is that not a reasonable link to make? I don’t know. I never have really, feeling my depression isn't “enough” to warrant the identifier. There was a period of my life where I was rendered completely socially paralysed by my anxiety. This remains a threat to me. There are days when I'm not able to function, where more understanding and flexibility from an employer would be helpful to me.

The article's main subjects mirror me:
"I need to work full time to reach that equilibrium of calmness,” says Armstrong, “and I need to be able to show up 10 minutes late when I feel a bit rocky in the morning and need to lie down with my relaxation tapes for a few minutes before I leave the house.” Muhammad, on the other hand, has no problems with mornings, and prefers part-time, rather than full-time work. “I just need enough time to unwind and rest, and make sure my work gives me purpose and lets me help other people,” Muhammad said.
Lately, I've been picturing myself working less. Ideally 4 days a week. It would give me more time to take care of myself. I could spend a day cooking without losing my weekend. We'll see what the next few years hold in terms of job security and (hopefully) condo costs, but it's a goal, and I think it would be good for me.

Looking back, it was just such an uncertain, dehumanizing time. Looking for work is so hard on a person's self-esteem. If you're depressed and that's already an issue, it's just all compacted. There I was, sitting in a creative agency board room, trying to talk about how creative and great I am, when really I felt none of it. I wonder if I reeked of hypocrisy and desperation. 

There was also the issue of navigating the unemployment system. Luckily for me, I had never been on unemployment before, so my initial experiences were positive. The Service Canada employees were kind and helpful, and said things like, "that's what we're here for." Eventually hat tone soured, and your inability to find work becomes increasingly suspect.

I think the hardest part (other than living with my mother while unemployed) was just communicating with people about being unemployed. Especially my being unemployed for such a long period of time.  Eventually people start assuming you're being too picky, or that you're not really trying. I have an excel sheet with over 200 entries. It doesn't matter though, there must be something you're doing incorrectly.

Eventually there are also calls for you to "just take any job" which sounds completely logical, and in most cases, it is. But there's something about already being depressed about my life and my situation that made my taking a job at Tim Horton's utterly disheartening. It's like it cemented by slow decline towards uselessness. That is not to say that this jobs have no value, and that working to have an income in order to live your life isn't sometimes the goal in itself - it's just I couldn't handle it. I couldn't see it that way. To me, returning to the service industry meant accepting that as a permanent fate. No doubt an example of all-or-nothing thinking. I couldn't see it as temporary. 

And when you do interview, there's the pain of being asked about your salary expectations and your desired working conditions. Try and talk about your value when you feel nothing but worthless. 

Near the 7-month mark I was so depressed and discouraged I ended up calling a suicide hotline. I just didn't know what to do with myself. I was of no use to anybody. I felt I had no value and no prospects and was just an absolutely failure. It was one of the most painful moments of my life.

Now that I have a job, it's still an issue. I don't have much vacation time, and I only have 5 sick-days/medical days. That isn't a lot when you tally up how many appointments I have. I worry if I take too much time off I'll get fired. I worry if I have too many bad days in a row, I'll get fired. I worry that on a day where I'm particularly despondent I won't react appropriately to a perceived emergency and be fired. There are days I have trouble focusing. I could be fired.

I struggle with my value daily. The work place is just another arena for that. It also happens to be an environment that uses value-based languages all day long. We are a salary. We are an hourly rate. Lay-offs are the results of pluses and minuses. We're worth our salary, or we aren't. It can be hard to really remove yourself from that method of thinking, since you need to engage it in order to make sure you're being compensated fairly. 

I've been where I am now since January 2014. It still doesn't feel stable. But I'm learning more and more about how a sense of stability if often false, and that really, the only sense of stability that exists is self-fostered. 

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