I lost my job on January 13, 2009 just 11 days before the inauguration of a president who I and many of us really believed in at the time. It wasn’t a question of performance or a lack of work, it was simply because of some bad investments made by management and a bottoming out of a ridiculously unrealistic supply side economy that forced the company I worked for to make some cut backs. Plus it seems like research is always the first to go in a bad economy. There were two locations in San Antonio for the prostate cancer research program I was involved in and as I was the last hired, I was the first to go. I didn’t feel picked on as when I got laid off so did a dozen others around the country, including a couple of physicians and an IT guy. My office was closed down entirely though.
At first I wasn’t too worried. Though I knew the economy stank to high heaven, I had always been able to find a job sooner or later. I knew I was going to get unemployment and not an ungenerous severance package. I applied for unemployment benefits and banked the severance and settled in to look for a job. The unemployment compensation, though the maximum allowable in my state, was roughly one quarter what I had been making but my needs are few, my car had just been paid off and all I have to support is my cat and myself. I was luckier than many millions of other people who are ineligible for compensation, have children and etc. Plus there was the other HJF location in town from which I knew my counterpart was going to be moving with her husband soon and would presumably leave her position open.
Though I wasn’t terribly worried, I set about trying to find full time employment and I took it seriously. My state requires five verifiable job searches a week to remain eligible, (plus some random hoops they throw at you now and again), and I always averaged more than the required number. At first I was pickier than I eventually became. Always aiming for positions that would pay me comparably to what I was used to making. My resume’ was fairly narrow, concentrating on the work I wanted to do rather than what I could do. I always spent Sunday and Monday applying for work and any other time the opportunity came up. I networked for the rest of the week and used my time productively by losing 70 pounds and bringing my health back up to par or as much as my 49 year old body would allow anyway.
Alas, my return to HJF wasn’t to be as just before my counterpart was to move away, the company decided to close every location involved in that study in the entire country except Walter Reed. It turns out the principal investigator decided to cut all of the other investigators out while bucking for promotion. I mean, what’s it to him that a few dozen more people are put out of work if there’s a chance that he can retire with a star on his uniform instead of an eagle? Toward the end of my initial 26 weeks of UI benefits, I got a little more concerned and I re-wrote my resume’ and I began branching out a bit in my job searches into not just things I wanted to do but things I could do. No more just looking in the administrative and professional sections of the jobs ads, I started looking in office, clerical and medical as well. What scared me more than continued joblessness was the fact that I had yet to even score an interview. Though I had experienced long term unemployment before, this was different. I never heard a peep from a potential employer. I had no real problems though because of course I qualified for extended unemployment benefits and I thought that I’d just look harder and the problem would be solved.
I looked and I loosened my standards. I re-wrote my resume’ again, this time to include my technical background and looked some more. Now I was looking at want ads every morning, weekdays, weekends, it didn’t matter. I was no longer complacent about whether to go out on Sunday to get a paper, I now did it religiously and I was more than doubling the required number of job searches. A few more months pass and now I’m on my last tier of unemployment and I decided to get organized. Not that I thought it would help but because I wanted something tangible to prove to myself that I was doing everything that I could to find a job. I printed and filed every email. I filed every resume I faxed. I kept a notebook of job search logs. I re-wrote my resume again to include everything I’ve ever done in my history: from mowing lawns, to pipeline work, (yeah right? 30 years ago!), diesel mechanic, airframe mechanic, floor mechanic, plumber’s helper, all the things I had done before I got an education and a sit down job. I even put my tools back together or at least the ones I hadn’t sold, lost or given away. Eventually I wound up with 9 resume’s. Now when I look in the want ads, I look in every category but sales, (I couldn’t sell ice cubes in Hell), anything that somebody needs a warm body for.
In all of this time, I have had several interviews. Almost all of them good interviews, some of them great interviews. In a couple of cases I expected to be hired and in two cases I was told I was going to be hired. I never heard from one of them again. The other one at least had the courtesy to email me and withdraw their job offer. Most people I interview with just never contact me again. I’m convinced that part of my problem may be the ease with which anyone can look me up on some internet database or other and find out that I wasn’t always Margaret but there’s nothing I can do about that. People are going to be bigoted assholes. Now I am without compensation and if Congress passes help for the 99ers then I’ll sprout wings and fly to Jupiter. There have been some very real consequences to long term unemployment that have to be experienced to be fully realized though. It’s not all about applying for jobs all of the time and jumping through the never ending series of hoops that (TWC in my case) makes one jump through.
When I was employed I had a fairly good health insurance policy. Since I’m single with no dependents, I opted for the very best PPO the plan offered. Sure I paid a little more for it but it was well worth it. Now I’ve mentioned several times that in the past couple of years I’ve lost a significant amount of weight. I probably should have been more diligent about my health in the past and tried to maintain myself better but the fact is that due to my weight, pre-existing medical conditions and high blood pressure, even a COBRA with subsidy would have cost me several hundred dollars a month, something I couldn’t pay for. Now I’ve always said that I wanted to live fifty years instead of one hundred but have twice as much fun but as I was approaching my 49th birthday when I was laid off and considering I was uninsured and in terrible shape, that seemed like a very real possibility. I decided that though I had had my share of fun, I wasn’t tired of living and I’d better re-think my strategy. I did some research, bought a blood pressure cuff, (no sense killing yourself to get healthy), and began slowly by walking a bit and doing some easy calisthenics. Gradually I built up my stamina while losing weight.
I also began to eat better. No more late night snacks. No more routine enchilada plate lunches, no more polishing off a pint of Ben and Jerry’s before bed. I didn’t really cut anything out but I regulated portions and added roughage, more fresh fruit and a fiber supplement. The problem is that eating right is much more expensive than not eating right. I had to be very careful with my budget but I managed.
I also had to manage my medical care within a budget. I took myself off of my BP medicine when it was safe to do so. I also have a urinary tract problem for which I had a prescription that cost 320 dollars every three months, plus regular visits to the Urologist. I had to cut both of those out entirely and just live with my problem. I’m now pared down to just over 110 dollars a month in prescription costs (from about 250), and thanks to Mr. Obama giving up negotiating drug prices and denying us the ability to buy foreign, that’s not likely to be reduced further. In addition, I’ve had to patch my injuries up by myself, which hasn’t been terribly hard as I don’t have a very dangerous and thrilling lifestyle. I was forced to perform some minor surgery upon myself recently though because a visit to the ER would have wiped out the meager savings which is all that stands between me and homelessness. My health isn’t terrible but there’s no denying that I am 50 and I’ll never be as healthy as I once was again. I have recently injured my right rotator cuff and sometimes my whole arm screams in pain and grows weak when I hold it or move it wrong. No chance of seeing a doctor about that until I get a job or am eligible for medicare. I don’t know how I’m going to be able to work if I wind up with a physical job but I’m going to have to manage.
I have given up drinking almost altogether. The only time I’ve gone out in 2010 was last Friday when some friends took me to a live music venue. I wouldn’t have used my gasoline to go, nor would I have bought the two Mike’s Hard Lemonades that I drank if I had been paying. I just can’t justify the expense. As far as my already anemic social life, that’s a thing of the past. These days I have to plan everything I need to accomplish to coincide so I can get in my car once and combine trips. And speaking of my car, I haven’t washed it in months because that five bucks might be the difference between eating or not someday. I didn’t give anybody anything this Christmas, though it sincerely hurt me not to do so. I’m very careful about turning lights and appliances off and keeping the heat turned down. I’ve pared myself down to about as low as I can go and still maintain life in my apartment and I still spend a minimum of $1,100 a month to live. That’s phone, internet, electricity, water, rent, car insurance, renters insurance, prescription drugs, gasoline, staples and food for my cat and myself. I can’t pare it down further. Of that, the rent is the biggest expense but I’m in the middle of my lease and have 895 dollars worth of deposit riding on my being able to finish it out.
I’d love to be able to finish my lease but that’s not really in the cards right now. I have my bills paid for December and part of January. If I’m able to get my taxes turned in quickly enough, I may wind up with the money to cover the rest of January and then it’s into my savings. Theoretically I could make my savings last until the end of my lease, if I’m frugal, if I can avoid the doctor, if my cat stays healthy, if my car doesn’t break down, if inflation stays low….. The problem is that even if all of those factors work in my favor, I won’t have any money to move my stuff if I stay till the end and though I’ve yet to find a place for myself and my cat, I do have a place to store my belongings and I refuse to just abandon them here.
My plan for now is to try to make it through the worst part of the winter, in case I wind up pitching a tent somewhere and begin moving my possessions into the storage place I’ve arranged. After that, I don’t know. None of my siblings will have me, (they’re afraid they’re going to be stuck with me), and I haven’t had any offers from friends. I’m unmarried so I have no spouse to support me. I have no children to help me out and both of my parents are dead. I’m one of those people who will most likely wind up homeless when the money runs out. Right now all I can think about is getting through this winter and let next winter take care of itself.
I’m not going to waste my time or yours griping about the administration’s cluelessness or how the ruling caste in general has neither any idea or concern about the reality of what it is to be unemployed. That’s been talked about elsewhere by more articulate people than me. I would like to bring up some random acts of generosity that have been an invaluable help though. There have been some very generous gifts from members of our FDL community though and I want to take time out here to acknowledge that and to thank them once again. Whether food or cash help, I promise that if and when I’m solvent again I’ll pay it all forward to the next person who needs help. This help is greatly appreciated and will probably be instrumental in letting me hang on until the Spring or until a miracle happens and I find a job. There have also been acts of kindness from other friends who humble me with the depth of their concern for my well being.
This post also isn’t a plea for help. Though I hate to do it, I will accept the help from others in the spirit in which it’s offered. I have never, since I was 15 years old, been unable to support myself so accepting help is all very new to me. I’m writing this post because there are some realities that never seem to get touched on when employed people write about joblessness. This isn’t to belittle their efforts but there are things that no one who hasn’t been there can fully understand or appreciate. Like not being able to go have that beer with friends. Like constantly having to beg off from visits because you just can’t justify the expense or the risk of a budget destroying accident. Like accepting a Christmas gift when you have no way to reciprocate. Like cutting out a meal so you can go see that movie you really wanted to see. Like performing minor surgery on yourself because the doctor is too expensive. Like cutting out medications against physician’s advice because you can’t afford it. Like cutting out the escape of a beer or wine buzz because that stuff costs money and doesn’t provide nutrition. Like keeping the thermostat low and bundling up. Like washing dishes in the minimum amount of hot water necessary. Like hanging your clothes throughout your one bedroom apartment to dry so they last longer than they would if you used the dryer. Like flushing your toilet only once or twice a day to save water. Like only going outside once or twice a week because soap, shampoo and hair conditioner costs money. Like having to carry around a flossing pick because your tooth is broken and you can’t afford to see the dentist and you surely can’t afford to let it get infected.
Though it may sound like I’m complaining, I fully recognize that I still have it much better than some other people do but now I can see the end of my ability to maintain a roof. What scares me the most about potential homelessness is Kuroneko, my cat. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with her. I’ll try to keep her with me and I’ll never just turn her loose on the street but her personality and the fact that she’s terrified of all people not me pretty much makes her unadoptable. That bothers me. A lot. All the time. In fact, the worst part of joblessness is the stress and worry that is 24/7, without reprieve, without surcease, without end. When you’re not fully occupied looking for a job, you’re constantly worried about not being able to find one. My nails are nibbled down to the quick and I have a constant stress related rash. You can no more stop thinking about being out of work and on the edge than you can stop thinking about gravity. It’s always there, undeniable and inescapable. I worry about my cat, my home, my car, my health, my possessions… ALL THE TIME. The last day I actually had off was the Sunday before I lost my job.
So, there it is. To me, being out of work isn’t just as simple as being frugal and trying to put together some way of making money and supporting myself, it’s a constant, all day every day, ubiquitous, omnipresent, unending drag. I’ve heard people talk a lot about it. Some well meaning but most of them not. I’ve been through a whole lot of things in my life, had a whole lot of experiences, so many and various that most people would call me a liar if I was to list them all but the worst thing I have ever been through by far is the creeping, subtle, endless helplessness and despair that is long term unemployment. I know there aren’t very many on this blog who think so but for those few who think I’ve been on some kind of fucking vacation, I invite you to walk in my shoes. Or demi’s. Or PeasantParty’s. Or oldhippiejan’s. Or tejanarusa’s. Or some others I’ve no doubt failed to name. For all of us, being unemployed isn’t break from work, it’s a never ending job that you hate but you can’t quit.
I’ve turned down several offers for money today so let me take some time to make something clear. While I very much appreciate the generosity and I can’t afford to look a gift horse in the mouth as a general rule, I wrote this post to inform, rather than to solicit money. I wouldn’t dream of using Jane’s platform as a method of enriching myself. The generosity is overwhelming and I’m humbled by it but please, I’m not even sure of the legalities involved. Thank you again for the overwhelming response.