To Not Have a Job

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the week that I’ve been unemployed, it’s that no one wants to talk about unemployment. This isn’t to say that anyone has been outright dismissive of me when I have mentioned that I no longer have a job. Everyone is very sorry. They know how much it sucks or, if they’ve never lost a job, how much it must suck. I appreciate that people say things like this. It’s better than nothing at all. But what I really want to talk about is how shitty I feel, how expendable, how utterly shocked at how much I had come to identify with my job and my employedness. But who wants to have a conversation about these things unless they’re feeling them as well? I know that I wouldn’t if I had a job right now. When something bad happens to someone else, I think we tend to “be positive.” We tell them everything will be all right, we believe in them, we know that they of all people will come out on top. Because, I think, we are scared of our own futures. We want everything to be all right for us. We want to know that of all of the people out there, we will be the ones for whom everything works out.

I had been employed since I graduated from college in 2009. Wait, that’s sort of a lie. I interned for free for two months the summer after I graduated, and when I found out that I didn’t get the job that this company had practically promised me, I found myself unemployed. For three weeks. I got the first job I interviewed for and became, for a little over a year, an executive assistant at People Magazine. From there, I worked in a variety of roles on the advertising sales side of digital media, until last week, when my position as a Senior Marketing Manager was eliminated, along with those of many of my co-workers.

I can’t say I was surprised when this happened. The writing had been on the wall for some time, though I was doing my best to ignore it in order to have “a chill summer.” By this I meant that I didn’t want to look for jobs until the weather got a little colder. I also wanted to put off thinking about what I wanted to do next.

The only job I’ve ever loved was the first one I had. As an executive assistant, I scheduled meetings and booked travel and answered the phone for my bosses. But I also met a lot of interesting people and learned more in that year about life than I did during my four years at a prestigious and very expensive university. And, as the gatekeeper for a busy and much sought-after executive, I felt rather important almost all of the time. However, I grew bored after a year and knew that I needed to get on with my career, even if I didn’t know what I wanted my career to be. So, I interviewed for the first opening that came up at People, and got a job as a sales planner for People.com.

Now, you probably don’t know what a “sales planner” does and I’m not really going to bother to explain it in-depth because it’s super boring. The role is basically performing a lot of nitty-gritty numbers work to sell and then manage digital advertising campaigns. (I’m talking banner ads, here. The ones you never pay attention to.) I loved the job at first because I was learning. And then three months in, I ran headfirst into a wall of anxiety and depression. I was making a decent salary according to everyone I worked with and was told that a lot of people would have killed to have my job at age 23. (I know “killed” is a strong word, but you get what I’m saying.) However, I found that I could barely pay my rent and my student loans and have enough money leftover each month to do the things that I needed to do to actually, like, enjoy life. I also found that again, I was really bored. And really frustrated being at the bottom of the totem pole, where I could easily be blamed for mistakes or complications that resulted in lost revenue for the company. I started feeling a constant, unbearable physical pressure in the space between my eyebrows, just above my nose. Most days, sitting in my cubicle, I would burst into tears thinking about how long I could continue along this path, making this little money and being this miserable. Eventually, my anxiety resulted in so much physical pain and paranoia that I went to see my doctor for a checkup. She recommended talk therapy and I have been seeing the same therapist that she sent me to for the last four years.

Because of therapy, I gained the strength to find a new job by mid-2012 and negotiated for a higher salary. I moved out of my expensive apartment in Manhattan and into a cheaper, nicer place in a neighborhood that I love in Brooklyn. My new job, though at a different kind of place that I thought would suit me more, drove me just as crazy as my old one. I no longer felt paralyzed by anxiety or worried that I would end up homeless, but I did get sucked into a work environment where psychological warfare and disrespect were all too common. One of my co-workers once accused me of being a “mole” who delivered negative information about others to my boss in order to get ahead in my own career. Another tried to get me fired after, in a moment of frustration, I raised my voice at someone else. We never saw eye-to-eye and had been frustrated with each other for months. When asked why I should be punished or whatever she wanted to happen to me, she cited the fact that, even though the work I produced for her was great, I often made her “feel stupid” with my direct manner of speaking. (A manner of speaking that I probably developed because I was so tense that I was barely keeping it together, frustrated that I was still performing sales planning duties and feeling that the wide variety of personality disorders raging among my coworkers was driving me insane.) I did not get fired and, in fact, was promoted that day. I laugh about these incidents now with friends and former colleagues but…I’m also upset about how much shit I took because I was too scared of getting in trouble or losing my job or whatever I thought was the worst case scenario.

My promotion from sales planning into a dedicated marketing role was extremely freeing. It meant that I got to spend most of my time writing, which, even though it was sales-oriented corporate jargon-y stuff, made me a lot happier than when I was working in Excel all day. However, my work environment continued to be negative. Everyone was unhappy and no one felt secure in their jobs. After two of my bosses were fired within a few months of each other, I started maniacally searching for new opportunities. In the space of two weeks I think I applied to twenty jobs. Within a month, I was hired as a Sales Marketing Manager at my last company. They offered me a lower salary, but “matched” my old salary with a signing bonus. I was essentially getting less money since the signing bonus was taxed to shit, but I didn’t care. I needed something new.

I want to tell you that I loved this job. But I can’t do that. I was still stuck in ad sales, which I realized at this point truly didn’t do it for me. I was coming up with ideas for custom digital advertising programs, writing about them as creatively as I possibly could, ensuring that the sales people understood them so that they could sell them, and then. That was it. I didn’t make commission if they were sold. I felt like my intelligence and creativity were being mined for the monetary benefit of others. What, I thought, is the incentive for me to perform here? The only reason I continued to try, to do the really excellent job that I was used to doing, was that I needed to keep up my self-esteem somehow. And that made me feel sad all over again. I had never before realized that I had so entirely based my self-worth on this cycle of “doing well”, pleasing others, and receiving praise. Of course, I can look back at my life, at my family dynamics and the circumstances of my childhood, and see exactly why I am the way I am. But repairing something like this takes a long time, so I decided that I needed to start taking baby steps to get to a profession or career that would make me happier, where I didn’t have to rely merely on doing good work and getting praise to feel good about myself.

I started thinking about what I might want to do. Even though I still believe I would be happiest being an academic full-time, I ruled out PhD programs after a while when I considered the financial burden and the academic job market I would eventually face. I also temporarily ruled out Masters programs because I couldn’t decide which, if any, would be worth the risk of leaving the workforce for a year or two. That left me thinking about other career paths and, frankly, there was nothing I found very compelling. I decided to continue in my job, get a promotion, and hopefully be able to make some kind of sideways move into another industry in which I might be happier. In retrospect, I think I was – and still am – afraid. What happens if I decide to do something else with the aim of making myself happier and it makes me just as dissatisfied, or worse, more miserable? What if I never make enough money to feel secure? What if I never figure out what it is that I really want to do? What if I never do anything that matters?

Amid these swirling questions, I found myself being given more responsibility and more interesting projects at work. I knew that I wanted out eventually, but this was enough to keep me going. When I got promoted, I felt that my elevated position would buy me a little more time to figure things out and would perhaps give me a bit of leverage to get a different and better job.

And then, this winter, a larger European media company acquired our company. Eventually, it became clear that the side of the business on which I worked was not meeting the standards they had set. And I started to think that maybe my job was not safe. Though I looked for other jobs and went on interviews, nothing seemed to work out. I couldn’t – or wouldn’t – make the time to aggressively search for jobs or to sit down and think about realistically what I was willing to sacrifice in order to make a bigger change. I kept telling myself that next week, I would get more serious about it. And then, before I knew it, it was the last week of July and I was being told that the sales and marketing departments were eliminated. That, for the first time in my life, I was truly unemployed.

The first thing I felt when I lost my job was relief. I thought about how I wouldn’t have to go back to our office that I hated so much and how I wouldn’t have to do all of the mindless tasks that sucked out my energy and how maybe now I would have the opportunity to do all of the things I say I never have time to do. I was actually a bit excited. But it wasn’t long before anxiety took hold. I barely slept for the first few nights after I heard the news. My mind raced, thinking about how it wouldn’t be long before I was out of money and I would have to sublet my room and my parents would make me move back into their house and shame me for not saving enough or not getting a job fast enough. I didn’t have an appetite, but I made myself eat at mealtimes, which often resulted in stomach-aches.

Meanwhile, everyone was telling me that I would be fine. I would find a new job soon. Getting laid off, they said, was a blessing in disguise. I should enjoy the time off while I have it.

And all I wanted to do was verbalize how I was feeling inside, which was basically like the floor had disappeared from beneath my feet and that I was falling and falling into a black pit with no promise of a safety net to catch me. But it was hard to say this to anyone. It’s a lot easier to say, “I know that everything will be fine. I’m looking forward to finding something new. I’m not worried.” And, for me, those statements aren’t lies. There are times, especially when someone is feeding me positivity, when I do feel like everything is going to work out quickly and easily. But I’m afraid that when it does “work out” that it will not work out in a way that affects me in a positive manner other than financially.

I think that what I’ve been trying to get at here is that I wish it were easier to talk out loud about things like fear of the unknown or the dissonance between our desire for happiness and the reality of struggling to live as happily as we can. I know that I, like a lot of other people, fear fear. It is easier not to acknowledge what we are afraid of or even the fact that we are afraid, because then maybe we can trick ourselves into thinking that we’re not really afraid, that we’re doing just fine, that everything is going to work itself out because everything happens for a reason.

I do not think everything happens for a reason. I think most of what happens to us is beyond our control. I lost my job because someone else decided that they didn’t need me – or anyone else – to do a particular set of functions any longer in order to run their business. I had no control over that. To be fair, I could give myself some agency in this situation. I could say that I lost my job because I, over the course of my life, have made a bunch of choices that led me to be in that particular job at the moment that it was decided that it was no longer needed. Now, I will make another series of choices that will, I hope, lead me to another job and a completely different set of possibilities. I don’t know where I’m going or what’s at the end of the path or even if there is an end to the path. Or a path at all. For all I know, life might be more like a hamster wheel than the journey that we all seem to think it is.

To conclude, because I feel like this might be a good time for me to stop writing even if this is not the most logical place or way to end things, I’m going to tell you some of the ways that I’m feeling right now. Then maybe we can talk about it, if that’s something that you want to do. It’s something that I want to do.

Okay. Here we go.

I’m frustrated that I’m overwhelmed by so many feelings at once. I’m really sad that I lost my routine and the thing that I “do” for the majority of the week. I hate that I don’t walk to the Bedford Avenue L in the mornings with my iced coffee and get off at Union Square and walk down University Place to my office. I miss taking lunchtime walks in the East Village. I’m psyched that I don’t have to sit hunched over my laptop for most of the day in a freezing room where I had no privacy. I’m really happy that I have new opportunities on the horizon and the chance to do something different, to meet new people, and to have other interesting experiences. I’m worried about money. Like, really worried. I’m thrilled that I have the time to practice French, go on long walks, work on my novel, write blog posts, see what goes on around my neighborhood during the day, read books, and hang out in my apartment alone. I also feel lonely. I want all of my friends and my family to call me every day and just say, “How are you feeling?” But I also kind of want everyone to leave me alone sometimes. I’m scared that I’m just going to sit around and do nothing when I have so much time to do all of the things I named before. I’m relieved that I can go on interviews and take phone calls whenever, because I don’t have to sneak away from the office. I love that I don’t have to brush my hair and that I can walk around in gym shorts and sneakers all day. I’m afraid that the future will bring too much change. I’m afraid that the future won’t bring enough change. I feel lost.

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Advice For Yesterday, Today, the Future

“How old will Haley be when Aidan graduates from high school?”

One of my brothers, I can’t remember which one, sincerely asked this question last year while all eight members of our nuclear family sat around our kitchen table eating dinner. Though I hadn’t been paying attention to the conversation, I began to answer.

“I’ll be,” I said.

“Thirty,” Aidan finished.

Aidan is the youngest.

“No, I’ll be twenty-nine,” I said. “You’ll be seventeen. I’ll be twenty-nine.”

“Yeah, for like one more month,” he said.

My birthday is August 3. Aidan’s birthday is August 5. We were born almost exactly twelve years apart.

“Still, I won’t be thirty yet,” I said.

***

Aidan is still a few years away from graduating from high school. I’m still a few years away from turning thirty. But I thought of that exchange while I was sitting at my brother John’s graduation last week. Nine years ago, I sat where John was sitting, on the steps to our high school, sweating through my white satin dress while speeches were made and honors awarded. I’d imagined what it would be like to graduate from high school since I was little. I’d also thought about the graduation days of my siblings and wondered what my life would be like when I watched each of them receive their diplomas. I would be twenty when Jim graduated. Twenty-one at Tori’s graduation. Twenty-four at Dayton’s. Twenty-six at John’s. Twenty-nine at Aidan’s.

Now: Four down. One to go.

Has my life on the day of these four graduations resembled anything I had imagined?

Well, no. Not really.

As a teen, I thought that after one graduated from college, all of the things that were supposed to happen in life just happened. Kind of like The Game of Life. Get a job, make money, find a partner, buy a house, have children. Or whatever the order is.

I certainly didn’t consider the possibility that these things wouldn’t happen easily or at all. I thought that by now, I’d be zooming along that road, maybe stopping on the “Get Married” tile. (I don’t need to tell you this, but I had a very skewed sense of when certain milestones should occur.) I wonder what seventeen-year-old Haley would think of poor (literally poor), partnerless, twenty-six-year-old Haley. She’d probably judge her. But I – twenty-six-year-old Haley – would tell her to calm down. (Even though she hates it when people tell her to calm down.) Like, you’re going to do some fun, weird, interesting stuff in the next ten years. Also, some shitty stuff will happen. But it will make you wiser and a better human! And also, you’re never going to “figure it out”, so just enjoy doing the things you like to do and stop worrying.

All that being said, I still worry. But not really about achieving adult “milestones”. Mostly about if I’m spending my time wisely, how to fix perceived mistakes, and whether I’m drinking enough water.

***

Perhaps this isn’t the most fitting time for me to be waxing philosophical about life and my past and current selves. This year isn’t a big anniversary of my own high school graduation. My youngest sibling doesn’t graduate for another three years. And I am a few years from finishing out my twenties.

However. There is a reason I was thinking about all of this and I’m getting back to it now.

Again, I was thinking about all of this because my brother John graduated last week. He’s going off to college – Go Irish! – in less than two months. I didn’t give a toast at his graduation party last week and I probably wouldn’t be able to say in person the things I want to say to him as well as I can (I hope) here.

As the fifth of six, John’s in kind of a tough spot. He’s not the baby – though he was for four years – and he could never hang with the big kids, as hard as he tried. Growing up, he took endless shit from those of us at the top. We demanded that he leave us alone, stop telling us pointless stories, and accept defeat in the epic wrestling matches that took place in our basement. And then, after being horribly mean to him, we’d ask him to love us. (He was very cute and also the best cuddler.)

Somehow, John made all of that work for him. Today, at eighteen, he is a kind and loyal friend. An improved storyteller. A fierce-as-fuck competitor, a runner who is always thinking about how to win. And also, still very cute and the best cuddler.

I don’t know how much John thinks about the future. Probably at least a little bit, since the future plays such a huge role in the last few years of high school. But if I could give the John of today a little bit of advice – and I only will if he’ll let me – I would tell him to chill out on thinking about the future. Or I guess, think about it, just don’t have any expectations. Literally, nothing ever turns out the way you thought it would or wanted it to turn out. Learn from the choices you make and the things that happen that are out of your control. And – this is lame but I’m going to say it anyway – always try to find the humor in whatever situation you’re in. It makes things easier.

Good luck, Johnny. (Even though I don’t think you need it.)