Three days after my birthday, my boss called me into a virtual meeting with the HR person. They laid me off. My last day would be 2 weeks later.
I managed to snag a temporary, 10-hour/week gig shortly thereafter, but I am, more or less, unemployed. It is a social death from which I resurrect and re-die frequently.
Every time I meet someone new and they ask what I do.
Every time I listen to someone complain about work and cannot commiserate.
Every time someone asks what me what I’d like to be doing and I flounder and fumble my way to a respectable answer, carefully sidestepping my fantasy of being a barber and a poet and owning a mobile book truck.
Every time I sleep late and am subsequently gripped with self-criticism for not doing more.
Every time I accompany my accomplished partner to some elite academic event and have to navigate the self-esteem minefield known as small talk.
That sudden layoff made me feel disposable and worthless. (Not to mention how reminiscent it was of my family’s sudden and traumatic rejection and ejection of me when I came out to them…I mean…just, wow. Trigger city central.)
I was supposed to be spending this forced sabbatical searching my soul, re-aligining my work with my calling and commitments. I’ve done some of that. Mostly, though, I’ve been doing mental math to calculate how many more days I can last with the money I have. Mostly, I have been imagining all the possible scenarios:
I get a great job locally and everything is fine.
I get a great job somewhere else and have to uproot my life.
I get a shitty job locally and live with a subsequent low-grade depression.
I don’t get any job and everything unravels.
I cobble together several little gigs that pay the bills and live my life as an artist.
I move in with one of my best friends in a city with more opportunity and hope for the best.
The possibilities are endless, no?
This isn’t my first rodeo.
When I graduated from college, I moved home and was unemployed for a whole year. I watched my friends land their first jobs while I plucked rejection letters out of myself like a thousand cactus spines. (When I was 7, I crashed my bike into a cactus tree and my dad spent an hour pulling cactus spines out of my skin. It was like that.)
Then I went to graduate school. I graduated, had a temporary, full-time lecturer position, and then was back where I started. I moved home again. I worked but I was underemployed for almost 2 years.
I’ve managed to be steadily and gainfully employed for the past 5 years. So, you know, I’ve got my shit somewhat together. I live with the residue though. Of precarity. Of rejection. Of disposability. The fatigue of swimming upstream, exhausting your vocational muscles trying to get from point A to point B.
The things I thought were true of myself are pureed by every episode of un(der)employment; they are still true but have taken a different form, an unrecognizable mush of something good but not solid.
I have certainly been more fortunate than many. And I also see and validate my own experience, the pain and frustration of it. I have discovered that unemployment is hard work. Working to make ends meet. Working to get another job. Working to feel whole and useful. Working to keep your soul intact.