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Lifestyles: Work

The Hell of Unemployment
Jeffrey Beyl

'I was tormenting myself. I was bumming out. I was spiraling into darkness. I started going a bit nuts'.

"We’re letting you go." How many of us have heard that, or words to that effect, in the last year or two? As workers, employees, we dread hearing those words because we know that those four little words can send us into a long, dark spiral.

Eleven months ago I lost my job. I had held the position of Branch Operations manager for the same company for fifteen years. "We’re letting you go," they said. The reason, I was told, was because "it’s time for a change." That’s all they said to me. "It’s time for a change." Really? A week later I wrote the company a registered letter asking that the reasons for my abrupt termination be put in writing. I received a response from an attorney stating that the company felt it was "time for a change." Hmmm! Just like that! I wasn’t on any kind of notice. In fact, just a couple months earlier I was told that I was a member of the "original A-Team" (whatever that meant.") So why was I let go? Well, this is the very question I worried and wondered about.

I want to write about the hell of unemployment. I want to write about the demeaning experience of interviewing for a job, collecting unemployment benefits and wondering what happened to my cozy little, comfortable world in my so-called profession. I’d like to offer some advice, unprofessional though it may be, to those out there who may be in the same predicament. I actually began keeping an unemployment journal where I intended to put my feelings into words. I didn’t write in it every day, but when I did it was more of a place to vent. My entries became rather vitriolic. You see, my wife went to work and my son went off to school and I had each day to myself. To do what? I had been getting up in the morning and going off to devote my mind to working for someone else for so many years that suddenly finding myself alone proved daunting. I spent hours just thinking, well, brooding is more like it. Oh, I did things. For instance, I painted my house. But while I was painting I was thinking, well, brooding. I was thinking about the company I had just given fifteen years of my life to. I was analyzing the whys and wherefores of judgment and execution. I was making up scenarios and conversations that never happened and would never happen, conversations that should never happen. I was dwelling on it. I was tormenting myself. I was bumming out. I was spiraling into darkness. I started going a bit nuts.

I decided I had to keep busy, keep active and not wallow in unpleasant thoughts and memories. I decided, with the advice of my wife and my father, that if I did things, real things, things that were important to me on a personal level, I would avoid the traps and pitfalls of being alone with my thoughts and negative musings. So I went trout fishing. I exercised. I did Yoga. I went to bookstores and coffee shops. I took jazz guitar lessons. I helped out on my son’s basketball team. I planted a vegetable garden. I walked in the park and went on long bike rides. I wrote stories and poetry. I went to movies alone. I read a lot of books. I cleaned the house, did the laundry and ironing. I cooked amazing meals for my family. I should have been enjoying this but I wasn’t. Sometimes I actually drove by the old place of work to check out what was going on. (Just a hint, do not do this, it’s a waste of time.) I searched every morning and e-mailed my resume to potential job prospects. I looked in the newspaper every day, especially Sunday, poring over the help wanted ads, sending my resume to company after company after company after… nauseam. I e-mailed, faxed, or mailed my resume, a good one by the way; to close to a hundred places and in the course of about four months I went on a total of six, yes only six, interviews.

There was no other interest. What was also interesting to me was that all six of the places I interviewed with never responded in any way. They never sent me a note saying "thank you for your interest in our company but at this time we have decided…blah, blah, blah." But I figured that out for myself, thank you very much. This, after putting on a suit and tie, presenting myself in what I thought was a professional manner and walking into an office to be interviewed by someone whom I would never have hired when I was manager of the previous company I worked for. One guy chewed gum, popping it loudly while he spent most of the interview looking out through the window of the office (instead of engaging in eye contact, isn’t that what they teach in school?), telling me about how wonderful and qualified and valuable he was to the company but that there were "a million guys like you (me) out there." Oh yeah, that was fun.

It was almost laughable. I was told six times (in every single interview I went on, all six) that I was over qualified for the job. One guy told me that he’d love it if I could work for his company but that he knew it would be a "step down" for me and besides, all he could offer was $10.00 per hour. I stood up, shook his hand, thanked him for his time and bid him good luck and good day. In each case I wrote a nice thank you card to the interviewer yet still never heard a word in response. You know, it wasn’t almost laughable, it was totally so. At least it would have been if it hadn’t been so frustrating, demeaning and belittling. I began, as have so many others in the same place, to doubt myself. There must be something wrong with me, I surmised. I hadn’t had to interview for a job in over twenty years. I was comfortable in my position and reputation and industry knowledge. I had the rug yanked out from under me and I lost my footing. There must be something wrong with me. I was beginning to think it simply had to be that.

We tend to think of ourselves in terms of what we do for a living. Others think of us in these same terms. "What do you do for a living?" How many times have we all been asked that, as if it matters? "Oh I’m a_____________ (fill in the blank), mechanic, teacher, salesperson, accountant, brick layer, window cleaner, financial analyst. That’s what we do. That’s what we are. But in the hell of the unemployment world we cannot answer the question that way. "Oh, I’m….. (Wait a minute, what am I?) This bothered me. What the heck am I? People would ask me that question, as people do, and I would get nervous. I began making things up. "Oh, I work for myself". If you say this and they push it, though, you’d better have something ready. I actually told one person that I owned a company that made canes and walking sticks. Where did I get that one? I told people I was a musician. (Well I am.) I told people I was a writer. (Well, I am.) I told one person that I was compiling a book of essays on the history of rock and roll music. (Hey, I’m actually doing that too.)
What I wanted to tell people was not what I did for a living but who I really was as a man. There is a poem by D. H. Lawrence entitled, "What Is He?" The first four lines are,
"What is he?
A man, of course.
Yes, but what does he do?
He lives and is a man."

Thank you D. H.! The point is, and this is what it took me several months of spiraling into anguish and self doubt to figure out, that we are not what we do for a living. We are people with interests that range farther and wider than the company we may work for. Now, I know there are people who work at a job that they love, in a profession they love, and they identify themselves with that and that’s great. I just don’t know any of them. Well, no, I take that back. I do know a few people like that. One of them is a writer, one a classical guitarist, another a jazz guitarist and one of them is a trout fishing guide on the Yellowstone River in Montana. Not bad! There’s hope for the rest of us.

I realize I sound like a bit of a cynic. I realize I may sound a little bitter. But honestly folks, I’m not trying to. With the economy as it has been there are many people like me who have lost their jobs and who are having a difficult time finding work. Like that gum popping guy said, there are a "million" people like us out there. People who are confused, going broke, lost, belittled, frantic, and lonely. People who want to work, who are qualified to do a great job who are wandering through this hell of unemployment in a daze. They are painting their houses, walking in the parks, going to book stores and coffee shops, planting vegetable gardens, doing housework and cooking incredible meals for their families. (And by the way, doing all those things, especially the family oriented ones, are important. These things can and do keep us sane.) But these people just want a little respect. Oh, they want a job, yes, but they want to be recognized as people. They want to understand why they lost their job. In most cases it was probably just the economy and the proverbial axe just happened to fall their way. It’s too bad.

The thing is, and this what I really wanted to say to any and all of those people; the thing is we need to realize that we are not what we do to earn a paycheck. We are so much more than that. We are_______ (you fill in the blank) But the economy is getting better, or so I hear. In fact, I started hearing on the news that the economy is getting better and dang if my phone didn’t start ringing and I went on some job interviews, then I went on some second interviews, and the next thing I knew I had three job offers. Three. I took the one that I felt best suited the needs of my family. But you know something? I’m not a sales manager, I’m a jazz guitarist, a writer, a husband and father, guy who likes to go fishing with his friend the trout guide, a guy who likes to hang out in book stores and cook wonderful meals for his family.

During this past summer my son joined me on those long bike rides and we went to movies together and shot baskets together. My wife and I had long conversations about music and poetry and life, love and the pursuit of…..well, happiness, not work. I started enjoying doing all those things I mentioned earlier. Through my family I rediscovered myself. I realized that I really was the one who emerged the winner throughout these last eleven months. I realized that I live and am a man.And that is the point. Be who you are. Do we have to work? Yes. Should we take pride in what we do to earn a paycheck? Yes. Should we work hard and earn the respect of our company and our peers? Yes. But if you are now out of work, and again, I’m no professional, just a guy who went through it with you, rediscover who you are, remember what it is that makes you a person who lives and is a person (to paraphrase my old friend, D. H.) and when you do go back to work, and you will, don’t forget what you learned about yourself because that is really what is important and what will make you a better worker in the long run. Go through this period with grace under pressure.
© Jeffrey Beyl November 2003
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Bobby Hatfield


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