For more than a year now, I’d told myself, and a few others, that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if I were to be laid off. As my grad school studies neared an end and I prepared myself for a new career, it became ever harder to feel attached to the identity of journalist. My love affair with journalism had long since faded. Like a defunct marriage, we’d gone from heated passion to mild affection to just friends. And then it got ugly. Journalism and I became roommates, then roommates that didn’t care for each other very much, and finally people who barely shared the same space and time. It was clear one of us was going to have to move out.
I just figured I’d be the one finding a new place to live, packing my bags and heading to the door with a wave and a “see ya.” I didn’t count on coming home one day to find my things packed up and sitting on the curb.
Quickly, oh so quickly, I understood that this process was not going to be as pain-free and liberating as I had imagined.
A little less than a year before this all went down, I’d taken the required class in career counseling. We went over some of the common reactions to job loss. The person who has lost a job often goes through a grieving process, just like someone who has had a loved one die. The stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – are common emotions for the person who has just been laid off or fired as well. The unemployed are at higher risk for depression and substance abuse – the latter often an attempt to mask the pain of the former. I knew this stuff.
But of course, there is a world of difference between knowing and experiencing, and I was about to get a crash course in that.
I’d known that someone who has just had a major change to their work status often feels a loss of identity. This is true of people who have been laid off just as it’s true of people who have retired. After spending so many years being employed in a certain role, it can be deeply disorienting to suddenly not be that thing, whatever it was, even if it wasn’t something one even enjoyed.
This is particularly likely to happen with someone who strongly identifies with their career. The more stock someone puts in being, say, a banker, the more disorienting it is to suddenly not be a banker. I thought I was going to be protected from this because I truly, honestly, absolutely did not want to be in journalism anymore.
And I was right – to an extent. I still don’t want to be a journalist. In fact, some well-meaning soul, a coworker I’d only known by name, got in touch with me online yesterday to point out a job opening as a reporter in a town about an hour away. The newspaper she referred me to is also owned by Gannett, just like the last one where I worked. My reply to her was swift and sure: “Dear god, I’d rather claw my eyes out with a rusty screwdriver and hack my legs off at the knee with a rabid badger than ever work another day for Gannett.” I mentioned the company, but it would be equally true of any form of journalism. She meekly replied with “only trying to help,” and I realized I must have come across as a tad bombastic.
Even though I am sure I don’t want to work in the news business any more, what I didn’t even begin to realize was how much I truly do identify with simply being employed. I have never been unemployed for longer than two weeks since I was 19 years old, and then only because I’d moved back home and hadn’t yet found work. It was hard enough for me to file for unemployment for the weeks of furlough Gannett had sent our way since 2009. Having to file for unemployment for an indefinite amount of time was pride crushing.
Paradoxically, for me, it’s not the loss of a career that hurts. It’s simply the loss of a job.
I also hadn’t been ready for the excess of time I suddenly find at my disposal. I yearned for vacations, so I thought it would make sense that I would at least enjoy the time off afforded by unemployment as a sort of side benefit. Not so. At least, not yet.
Killian wakes up in the morning and heads off to community college, and I have nowhere to go. I wake up at some point after she leaves and then… what? Good question. There is a list of things I could do. There’s a list of things I should do. There are weeds that need pulling, a house that could stand some cleaning, laundry to wash and dinner to make for Killian when she comes home. But more often than not, it seems I don’t do these things. A part of it is just that I’m still wounded. I’m hurting. It’s hard for me to get myself around to doing much of anything. I push myself, and I do mean push myself, to accomplish at least two or three things in a day. Today I made an appointment with a counselor and bought a furnace filter and repair parts for a shower handle. Go me.
I tried going into town with Killian when she goes to school, too, but that is profoundly difficult. What do I do with myself for those work-time hours when everyone around me is hustling from one office to another or out to a business lunch? These are people who have things to do, people to see. They wear suits and ties or dresses and are doing something. I feel out of sorts around them. I used to be one. And now, what am I?
It’s a good question. Who am I now? I’ve given up my identity as a journalist. I’ve had my identity as a worker taken away. I’m no longer a student and I’m not yet a counselor. Stripped of all those external identities, I suppose I have to come face to face with whoever it is I truly am. And that’s not always an easy thing to do.