A New Chapter, A Dark Turn
Starting a new chapter is not always a fun thing. But what it does do is signal a motion from what was to what is, and ususally it pulls us on deeper into the story, even if we’re not sure or even plain scared to continue on.
I’ve started a new chapter in my life, and it’s not a pleasant one, at least in the leading paragraphs.
Saturday was my birthday. Now, when one gets my age, birthdays are no big deal – more a plot point on a line rather than an “event”. But they do mark a potential turning point, and a chance to reflect and possibly celebrate. Well, it definitely was a turning point, but not one I was celebrating. My birthday was instead the threshold into a descent into uncertainty and trepidation.
You see, I lost my job five months ago. It was a dream job, with a company I had been with for over 25 years. I had never envisioned myself being in such a job, nor had I campaigned for it – I had been recruited, pulled from obscurity from the local office and given a national position of responsibility and status. I was primped, vetted, polished, and valued. I was valuable, too, and I know I was doing a good job. I finally felt like I was achieving the potential that I had only dared hope to be able to exhibit all those long years of being a desk jockey. Then, suddenly, with one phone call, it was gone.
Now, the one good thing about losing a job when you’ve been with a company for 25 years is that you usually get a pretty good severence package. And I did. Twenty-six weeks of full pay and benefits. The pay stayed even if I got a job right away. In effect, I was getting a long vacation, if I wanted to look at it that way. But of course, that would have been ridiculous, especially with the country in the midst of a deep recession, and unemployment at the highest levels since the Great Depression. But I wasn’t too worried. After all, hadn’t I proven my worth? The glowing recommendations, the awards, the protests when the news of my departure was made public… it surely wouldn’t take long for me to find another job, even in this scarce environment.
So I started pounding the pavement, right away. Used the resources given me to write a killer resume, hone my interview skills, focus on writing ultimate cover letters, and adjust my attitude to starting over somewhere else, possibly doing something new, looking forward to a new challenge. Sure, I had obstacles. Middle aged. Overweight. Not really polished or stylish, but gosh darn – my greatest strength was how genuine I was, or so I was told. I was prepared to go a couple of months without a job, but then I was sure something would turn up.
I was wrong. As each week passed, opportunities remained few and weak. Carefully honed applications were ignored or rejected. After three months, I had only had one interview, and that one interview had degraded my feeling of self-worth, in that the job I had looked forward to and strove so hard to prove myself for was re-posted, and all my attempts to communicate with the hiring team was rebuffed. No explanation, just the tacit message of “you aren’t good enough to even be told you’re not good enough”.
I took a long, hard look at myself and didn’t like what I saw. Not only were my flaws magnified, but my confidences were eroded. And there were validations of some of my darkest fears. I had no real marketable skills. I thought far more highly of myself than was warranted. Initial reactions to what people saw when I walked in a room were not overcomeable no matter what I said. I was too old. Too short. To fat. Not talented enough. Not professional enough. Not good enough. Not enough.
Still, I forged on. Deep at the heart of it all, I know – I knew – that I am a good worker. Solid. Dependable. Flexible. Smart. Witty. Capable. Someone would see that. The problem is, there are hundreds of solid, dependable, capable workers looking for the same jobs I am. I had to get those interviews. I had to look potential employers in the eye and convince them that I was the right choice. I knew I could do it. I just had to get the chance.
Desperation set in. Weeks continued to tick away. Hundreds of applications saw only three inteviews. Two rejections. The most promising one saw the job withdrawn and not filled. Still, I had a safety net. The newspaper kept coming. I could buy groceries and not count pennies. My son’s college tuition was paid. My daughter’s visit to the out-of-network physician (who she trusted) could still be scheduled. She got the braces she needed. We still ordered pizza every Friday night. Sure, we ate out less. We bought less. We reined in some. I still was sure I’d have a job by the time my severence ran out, before the health benefits stopped, even if I had to compromise and take a job that didn’t pay well, or was not very challenging. Oh yeah, I applied for those, too.
Well, like I said, Saturday was my birthday. And Friday, the day before, the unthinkable happened. I got my final severence check. And I still didn’t have a job. Happy birthday to me.
The thing you have to realize is that I’ve always been the stable, steady one in the family. I was the one who took the office job despite my liberal arts background so my husband could establish himself in the theatre community. I was the one who budgeted, who said what was and was not possible for our family, determined what we could afford in order to live within our means and fulfill the needs of who we were as a family (“no” to a new car, but “yes” to a kickass computer). I was the one unravaged by addictions, the one who got the kids up for school, made the dinners, kept the house clean, demonstrated responsibility, applauded ambition, attended school meetings, parent/teacher conferences, Cub Scout meetings, soccer games, baseball games, brought home the paychecks, made sure doctors appointments were made and kept, showers were taken, clothes were clean (if not ironed) and some dreams could come true. When my daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, I was the one who learned about insulin management and the myriad of supplies needed and the responses that had to happen to circumstance. I was the one who finally listened to her when she screamed out her frustrations and worked with physicians and counselors to guide her through ADD and depression. I’m the one bought the groceries and taxied friends to movies and still worked every day, and showed that you had to live up to expectations and always, always, always give your best. I was the one who provided. I was dependable. I was valuable.
Now, I sit at home. What I do the most is worry. And today, the first weekday after my 51st birthday, I do something I never thought I would have to do. I face being dependant on social services. I must learn about unemployment insurance. I must learn how to decipher COBRA, for my daughter must have health insurance. I am at the mercy of an uncaring, unfeeling buraucracy. I can no longer be the support that has defined who I have been for over 20 years. I have become the very person I was proud to have never been. And I now live in fear, every day. Fear, and a sense of failure, and shame.
The fear is because others depend on me and I can’t provide. A sense of failure, because unlike the faith I grew up with, I no longer believe that anything is possible. And shame, not because of where I am, but because I’m whining about it. So many people have been and are in the same position as I am, and I’ve never before thought about them or their struggles. They were non-people to me. And now I’m one of them. And worse yet, I seem incapable of digging myself out of this self-pitying hole I’ve slipped into. I can’t seem to find purchase on the “I shoulds” that might pull me out of this depression. “I should” start volunteering and find value in giving to others. “I should” take this time and do those things I’ve never had the chance to before – write, cook, read, take a class, exercise, clean the house, whatever. I should visit the library, walk the dog, plant a garden. I should write my memoirs. Or draw. Or even take a daily walk and see the world beyond my front porch.
Ok, so I do some of those things. The dog gets a daily walk now, when she used to only be able to run around the front yard – I was simply too tired at night to take her out before when I was working 50 plus hours a week. I do volunteer at a local Alzheimer’s facility, reading to the clients and spending some time with them. The house is consistently cleaner than it has been in years. I attended my first PTA meeting in years a while ago. But those are not things that fulfill me – they are chores done because they should be done. They don’t fill my heart. In fact, they seem to point out to me that even those actions are pitiable, in that I could be, should be doing so much more.
Ok, enough whining. There ARE people in much worse situations than mine. I am the master of my own destiny, as much as I may not want to accept that. Every day brings a new chance to move in a new direction, or take the step that will lead me down a different path. And like I tell my kids, you never, ever know what’s around the next corner. You just can’t give up because things are hard now, because the next moment may bring something to you that lifts the burden and makes life beautiful again.
But just what if I’ve used up all my moments of grace? What if the best of my life is behind me, and the rest of my years will be condensed down to a tsk-tsk and a shake of the head of those I leave behind? I’m too far from the end to not be scared to the core of my being by that possibility, but the framework is there. The cracks are forming at the point where my feet touch the ice of my life, and I’m afraid I’m on something much thinner than I expected when I strode out so far. Doesn’t look like anyone is going to swoop in and save me. Maybe I’ll be able to tread lightly enough to get back to firmer ground. Maybe I can spread myself out far enough to keep above water.
I guess I’ll just have to wait for the next chapter to see how it all turns out.