Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Unemployment Blues

Renata Sellitti

Renata Sellitti

My name is Renata, and I have a confession to make: I'm unemployed.
I lost my job early last year, becoming part of the country's 9.6 percent unemployment rate, and I've been a statistic ever since. This past year, I've learned when you lose your job you may very well lose your mind too. While millions of jobless Americans get resume tips, what we really need is awareness of the struggle we are about to stare down.
I experienced something that I've come to identify as "the five stages of unemployment," a playful-yet-serious incarnation of psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' famed explanation of the five stages of grief. The jobless blues can be crippling and embody a similar loss of control at first. Then they eventually -- and hopefully -- lead to acceptance.

Denial. Apart from carrying the contents of our desks out of the office, a job loss often doesn't feel like a bonafide job loss. The initial week or two may even have been fun. We get to sleep late and watch all of the daytime television that we want, not realizing what total poison it may be. We don't admit to ourselves that our foreheads have been branded unwittingly with a capital "U" that won't wash off.

Last summer, Gretchen Sodergren, 32, a corporate retail planner, got a call from her boss telling her, "This is the last paycheck this Friday." Having worked from home, she was confused for weeks, asking herself, "What just happened here?" Sodergren became what she called, "The Coupon Lady," clipping coupons to save money. As her bills accumulated, she learned to make macaroni dinners last for days and downgraded to drinking Miller Lite out of cans. Financial anxiety is the surest way to snap out of the denial. The length of this stage varies for everyone, but is always followed by its ugly stepsister, the second stage of unemployment: repetition.
Repetition. I call this stage "one long Groundhog Day of rejection." I spent endless days in blue Calvin Klein pajama pants and a pink shirt emblazoned with a picture of an angry chocolate chip cookie character and the moniker, "One Tough Cookie." The slogan was ironic because, even though I sent my resume to everyone I knew, only to learn that most of them were also looking for work, I was falling apart. While worker bees buzzed outside my window on their daily commute, I turned to "Ellen" and "Oprah" to drown them out. I felt paralyzed by my inability to contribute to the world around me.
By day, I hung out with Raymond and John, the doormen at my Murray Hill apartment building in midtown Manhattan, and bonded with the Hispanic housekeepers, while I did laundry in the basement. By night I begged my friends to go get drinks so I could actually leave my apartment. I cursed necessary tasks like calling the unemployment office.

I wallowed my way right into stage three: Self-Improvement. The need for self-improvement sets in when even you become so disgusted with yourself and your appearance that you channel your frustration into exercise or grooming and wardrobe upgrades. Some months after losing her job, Sodergren, the corporate retail planner who suffered from denial threw away her stained white "Miami Beach" sweatshirt and the ill-fitting, light blue Old Navy pajama pants that she wore just about every day last year. "I actually convinced myself that because they matched it was somehow an outfit," she says.

Rob Nagel, an Indianapolis college admissions director who was unemployed for most of last year, walked his dogs Boss and Chick at Wadsworth, a local dog park, and rode his Gary Fisher mountain bike regularly because, he says, "Let's face it. Mountain biking is free." He lost 20 pounds. "People say that it's a great opportunity to change career paths and all that stuff, but the only thing that really gave me sanity was exercise," says Nagel.

Rachel Stein, 28, a public relations manager in San Francisco, dealt with her unemployment last year by waking up early and packing her days with job searches and long walks. "I gave myself a routine," she says. "I knew how important that was." This past January, Stein launched a website, "Tales from the Recently Laid Off."

Read Stages 4,5 and conclusion

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