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By Jen D.
I was the “smart one.” Not the pretty one. Not the fun one. Certainly not the athletic one. I was smart.
My grades and endless quest for knowledge were everything. They were my ticket out, and I had a lot to leave. So, I was smart.
In some childhoods you experience your first plane ride, get new school clothes, and see the dentist. In mine, I became intimately familiar with government cheese, had head lice fairly regularly (and scabies once), and got the crap physically and verbally beaten out of me on a regular basis. Yep, it was awesome.
I walked away tough and I thought that along with my intellect would really take me places. In fact, it did. I moved to NYC at 18 despite the fact that no one in my immediate family had ever gone east of the Mississippi and I’d never been on a plane. I was about to be the first in my family to go to college after being the first to graduate high school, but none of this phased me. I wasn’t afraid to jump into the deep end and prove I could swim.
I spent a decade in New York, living a life of colorful ups and downs. I was a successful corporate consultant, technical writer, and university administrator. I changed careers when the environment was no longer supportive, the work was no longer challenging, or I just stopped learning. I knew I could do whatever was thrown at me, which made me rather fearless.
Seeking a new adventure and career direction, I joined the Peace Corps where I wrote grant proposals and provided consulting to local non-profits. I eventually returned to the States and moved to Chicago. I wasn’t quite 30, but I’d already navigated several fields and lived abroad. I still had the moxie and chutzpah of my youth, and I was ready for a new challenge, a new scene, and was excited to finally put down some roots.
After many temp assignments and countless interviews, I finally got a job. It was the perfect fit, a job that drew upon many of my skills and experiences, yet exposed me to new and varied avenues. I was assured that fresh ideas and a passion for innovation were very welcome. My unorthodox life choices and patchwork career path weren’t for naught after all.
Slowly, however, the job started to disintegrate as I faced moral objections to the actions of my direct supervisor. Over time it became clear that my choice was to keep my job or salvage my self-worth and professional reputation. I chose the latter.
Taking the moral high ground let me sleep at night and respect myself in the morning, but my refusal to keep quiet and take part in questionable practices ultimately cost me my job. My position was eliminated in November 2009.
What ensued after that was the standard unemployment tale you’ve heard many times before. Listlessness, depression, boredom, anxiety, fear, and circular thinking became staples of daily life. I cried, a lot. I used my savings to make ends meet and pay for COBRA, which allowed me to stay in therapy (something I desperately needed) and afford antidepressants. I was no longer swimming in the deep end; I was freefalling into an abyss.
Long-term unemployment defined me in ways I never thought were possible, leaving me broken and bewildered. There was no amount of hard work or strategizing that could end my situation. I just had to go through it like millions of other people who were silently enduring being crushed by nothingness.
All my friends had jobs and were largely unaffected by the recession. They lived a different life, one that slipped further away from me everyday. I had trouble celebrating their successes and they couldn’t empathize with my ongoing situation and battery of fears. Conversations were brief and usually ended in me offering reassurance that it was all going to be fine, even if I wasn’t so sure it would be.
Being hopelessly jobless made the traits I’d once seen as great assets -– my willingness to speak truth to power, challenge traditions, embrace and facilitate change, and think on my feet –- feel like giant liabilities. At the very least, they weren’t enough.
There were probably a few lessons to be gained from this experience. God knows people tried to shove empty platitudes down my unemployed throat. Clichés like don’t over identify with what you do for a living, see yourself as a whole being not just one trait, money isn’t everything, and take care of yourself under any circumstance. These, however, were not the things I needed to learn.
See, I do identify with what I do for a living because I’ve had jobs that I’ve loved, where I was essential to something, learned new things, earned respect, and was allowed to be myself. If you’ve had one of those jobs, you know how exhilarating they can be. I’ll never lose that pursuit, I admit it. I will always want that job. Always.
And while I would like to see myself as a whole being, not just a scrappy girl who can think her way through life, that’s more of a lifelong pursuit –- one I hope to accomplish in the next decade or so. Also, let’s be real, having the very foundation of my identity crack and start to crumble didn’t exactly inspire me to challenge and embrace the other aspects of myself, aspects I’ve always found a bit lacking.
Furthermore, while we are going down the list of what people wanted me to learn from the most destructive period of my life, I assure you that I know money isn’t everything. I know. But I’ve been poor, even very poor. I’ve busted my ass to escape it the first time and if I had it my way I would never come close to it again. I hold no belief that being moneyless is liberating. It’s not.
Finally, while it may be essential to take care of yourself under any circumstances, when those circumstances rob you of everything you thought you knew and define your every moment, conversation, thought, and decision for years, sometimes the best thing you can do is survive. And I did. Barely.
No, these were not my lessons. My lesson came later.
I broke my unemployment streak by taking a job that was a significant demotion, where I was underpaid and undervalued. Something was better than nothing, right? That lasted a year, one very long year.
Looking for a fresh start, I interviewed in three other states. As I was leaving for the airport, someone gave me some unsolicited advice: Don’t be me. Be more agreeable and accommodating. Don’t be so critical. Say all the right things, even if they were untrue. This was the path to success.
I thought about those directions long and hard. A couple of airport transfers and a few Bloody Marys later I came to a solid conclusion: Fuck it. I am me. Period. Success meant nothing if I couldn’t be myself, even if I was no longer sure who that was or how well it would serve me.
In the end, I was honest and real, and secured two job offers. I accepted one of the offers and never looked back.
I’m still searching for the “right” job, still piecing my life back together. My finances and general health are still a disaster. My confidence is still shaken and I still feel a bit lost. Unemployment knocked me on my ass and recovering from that is taking a hell of a lot longer than I thought it would. It’s all incredibly humbling.
A very smart man once said “It’s not that I’m so smart. I just stay with problems longer.” I’m no Einstein, but I’m still working on getting my life back on track, however weird and non-linear that track might be. I’ve navigated some rough waters in my life and I’m sure I’ll eventually make it though this with a few scars and some great stories.
In the words of particularly scrappy dude, “I yam what I yam.” And, yes, that is enough.