It’s funny, the things I remember about June 21, 2011.
Like, as we were driving in to work that morning, I remember the scent of my hair. I’d just switched to a new shampoo, and I remember thinking it smelled wonderful, if a bit strong. And I remember talking about an episode of “Hoarders” we watched the night before, featuring a Michigan woman whose plumbing had been shut off, so she had resorted to pooping in plastic Meijer bags. I know, right? We laughed, but less than 24 hours, we’d be in the same situation.
I remember interviewing a quirky shop owner who gave me a copy of his novel, which can only be described as bizarre transgender underage soft-core erotica, and poorly written, at that. I remember taking it back to the newsroom and making people laugh at that. I remember wanting to make people laugh, because everyone in the newsroom was really tense that day.
I remember the email that came out around 10 a.m. It said that 700 people around the corporation would be laid before the day was done. I remember a voice in the back of my head urgently telling me that this would be a good time to mail off the application for my counseling license – now, today – as I’d just graduated a month before. So that’s what I did on my lunch break.
And I remember the look on my editor’s face when, at ten minutes before five, he told me to go with him to the big boss’ office. And the look on all the faces of my coworkers as I made that death march. And the words of the executive editor: “This is the worst part of the job,” as though I gave a flying fuck about his job at that moment. I remember waiting outside the human resources director’s office for ten minutes while she chatted with a friend on the phone.
I held it together until I made it to the computer lab where my girlfriend was doing some class work. One look at her and I lost it. I could barely get out the words to tell her what had happened. We went home, I called my parents.
And then, as though to punctuate everything, the flood. Around 10 that night, I heard the furnace making strange noises, so I headed to the basement to investigate. Before I even got there, I saw the water rising up to the top of the bottom step of the staircase. The water line had broken, and the city had to be called out to shut us off the main line, which meant we couldn’t live in the house until that was fixed. The city utility guy looked baffled when I burst into sobs as he told me that, but then Stephanie explained that I’d just lost my job that day. He left quickly.
No job. No water. No home I could live in. Everything upside down. I realized with shame that I had laughed that morning about a woman who had to use a Meijer bag as a toilet, and now here I was in the exact same situation. You got me, life. How funny you are. How quickly you move.
So no wonder I remember June 21. It’s the summer solstice, of course, though that day seemed like the darkest one of all. But three years on, I know better.
I know better now, but at the time, I was terrified. Ashamed. Lost. When we drove by my workplace, I slouched down in the seat and hid my face, lest any former coworker see me go by. I felt embarrassed to be seen out and about in the middle of the day, with no place to be. I felt everyone could see through me. I had never failed at anything before, and now I was getting a crash course in it.
But even the worst point is still only a point. Life moves on. Things keep happening. With the help of my parents, we got the basement problem fixed, and we returned home after a few days in a hotel. And I quickly found ways to stay busy. I ramped up my volunteering efforts at a local crisis intervention center and found an agency that offered free counseling in my community and offered to volunteer there, too. Pretty soon, I was almost as busy as I had been when I was working. Just much, much poorer.
The severance package ran out after two months, before I’d even managed to land a job interview during that slow recovery from the Great Recession. Unemployment amounted to about half of what I used to earn, but it was crucial. Without it, I had nothing. I learned the confusing system of applying for food stamps, and then the shame mingled with defiance of using them in the supermarket. I learned the panicky feeling of needing medical help but having no way to get it. I learned the desperation of being just days away from running out of unemployment as politicians dithered about extending it. I learned what it meant to ask your bank for help because you couldn’t pay the mortgage, and what it was like to be told “do your best.” And then I learned what it was like to decide that doing my best meant letting it go.
I also learned that when you fall down, there are many people who want you to stay down. Time after time, I was told by people to just get a job, any job, a minimum wage job. I had been earning more than $50,000. I had a bachelor’s degree and a recent master’s degree under my belt. I had almost 15 years of experience working in an industry that required specialized skills and training. Yet there was no shortage of people who expected me to cash that in for a dead-end job where I would earn less than I received in unemployment. These were the same people who criticized how people used food stamps, who expected everyone who needed help of being a scam artist. Too many people are too quick to characterize misfortunate strangers as lazy, incompetent, unworthy or downright shady simply because they had fallen on hard times.
I also learned that you really learn about your most important relationships in a crisis. When I was married, crises always drove us further apart. We would turn on each other, point fingers and blame. It was different this time, with Stephanie. We leaned on each other. There was no blame, just love and support. When we were scared, we were scared together. We hoped together. We sacrificed together. We became stronger together.
I learned that hope is an active verb. It’s so much easier to have hope when you take action, and so easy to lose it when you stand still. I did apply for jobs – I kept a spreadsheet to keep track of which ones I’d applied for, when I needed to call them to follow up on the resume I’d sent and what the outcome was. I told myself that each “no” I heard only brought me closer to the inevitable “yes.” I kept trying.
I learned all these things well.
I like to think I perfected the art of being unemployed. I kept myself so busy, I really didn’t have time to despair too often – though to be honest, sometimes despair did overtake me. I volunteered to help others, which always left me with a sense of worth that held that despair at bay. I’ll never forget one bill collector who reached me on my cell phone as I was driving to do a shift on the suicide prevention line. He asked me, “Aren’t you ashamed that you haven’t paid this bill?” I shot back, “I’m on my way to do suicide prevention work. You’re harassing unemployed people on the phone. Which one of us should feel ashamed?” He hung up.
Being unemployed, I quickly learned that there were many people who wanted you to feel bad, like a lesser sort of human being, for having lost a job. But I wasn’t about to do that. I got busy, and then I looked around and got angry at how so many people want to kick others when they’re down.
So when the Occupy movement kicked into gear that fall, I was ready. I was liberated from a job that forced me to keep my opinions quiet, so I voiced them loudly. And amazingly enough, some people listened. A protest outside the bank that held my mortgage led to an interview in the local alternative weekly. Somehow, that story led to a phone call from a producer of a network news show in New York, who flew out to interview me three days before my 40th birthday. Though that story never made it to air, I talked about it on social media, where a public relations executive I’d known as a reporter read it. She had me in mind when the Michigan House Democratic Caucus came asking if she knew anyone who might be interested in being a writer for them. This amazing, serendipitous chain of events. This opportunity I never could have planned for, and didn’t even think I wanted.
When first asked, I turned down the opportunity. I had, after all, just gotten my counseling license, and I was pretty sure that’s where my heart was. But then, another happenstance – that same night, I got into one of my infamous Internet dust-ups with a former best friend from middle school who was throwing shade on anyone sympathetic to the Occupy movement. I fired back, and things got ugly. Some of her friends came at me with the “get a job at McDonald’s” line of thought, and I angrily stewed on that as I drove to my volunteering gig. And then it was clear – I had to go to for that job. Had to, because I couldn’t stay out of the fight.
Before I knew it, I had my first interview, which was amazingly quick (about 30 minutes) compared to the newspaper interviews I’d been used to (which took all day). And then I was called back for the second interview, which took place in a stunning office suite inside the Capitol. I remember waiting to be called in for the interview, looking up at the ornately painted walls with crown molding, trying very, very hard not to be intimidated. And then I got the job offer.
Life being what life is, that opportunity arose just as another did in counseling. In fact, the very same morning of my first interview with the House Democrats, I had another interview with Community Mental Health. That job offer also came through – though only for a part-time, on call position.
There was a tortuous week where I didn’t know which offer to take, before reason won out. I was truly desperate. I couldn’t give up a full-time job with benefits for a part-time job with none. So, with a lump in my throat, I said yes.
I did know that this belabored decision would be one of the most important of my life. What I couldn’t have guessed, though, was what a good choice I had made. As I eased into that job, I would feel years of unappreciation and underestimation slough away. I had no idea that I would like my work as much as I do, and that I would thrive. I had no way of knowing that at last I would have a job where I felt like what I did mattered, that I was finally a part of the struggle instead of just sitting on the sidelines. Never before had I known what it was like to have an employer trust in me and see my potential, and then give me the chance to run with it. But I do now.
And all because I lost my job.
Losing my job was a momentous turning point in my life. It taught me how to fail, and how to rise. It taught me how keep hope when despair would be so much easier. It taught me how to come together with the one I love, rather than falling apart. It taught me what it means to be afraid, to know what it’s like to wonder if there will still be food at the end of the month, to wonder whether you can afford heat in the winter, to not be able to see a doctor when you need one, to be scorned by those luckier than you because you are struggling.
I was more fortunate than many – I only had to live it for six months. Others have that uncertainty over their heads their whole life long. But I never want to forget what it was like. I remind myself regularly what that was like. I keep it in mind when I’m at my job, a job where I can try to make a difference for people who are still living in desperation and need and fear. I never want to forget.
So, welcome back, June 21. You truly are a holiday of light. Today, I remember that time when I lost my job and a place to live all in the same day. And how that turned out to be one of the best days of my life.