My heart almost stopped beating this week.
It's been three months since I joined the rank and file of the unemployed in this country. America, land of opportunity, thankfully shows a little mercy on the unemployed by offering insurance if we work long and hard enough. So, after getting my unemployment benefits, I made all the necessary cuts to my budget, like going out to eat and buying anything but the essentials. I also set up, through my state-issued debit card, text message alerts to keep me apprised of my account balance so I didn't get into trouble. And that's when the trouble started.
Saving my soul and budget
My budget is as bare-bones as it can get. I take pride in shopping at the lowest-priced places. I learned recently that several area Dollar Tree stores have fresh and frozen food sections where I can score bags of frozen veggies, salmon filets (small but tasty), eggs (half a dozen or a dozen depending on the store), butter and milk for just a buck per item. As a single gal, I've managed stretch my dollars pretty far. I also find private-label stores, like Aldi and Save-A-Lot to really come in handy. I am watching every penny as I search for my next big thing.
Even so, I knew this month the rent would be late. I had no choice. I realized, while figuring my budget last month, that the only way for me to get a little bit ahead of the game was to fall behind a little on one thing. Since I've never been late on my rent and I knew I could catch up to it before being cast at the mercy of rent court, I chose to wait a few days to pay it. This would allow me to keep my cell phone and wireless Internet bill paid (necessary tools for job searching and general sanity), some gas in my tank for interviews and food for me and the cats. Then something went wrong.
Somehow the bank made a mistake. When I got the text message saying that my account was $200 beneath my projections, I went into a full-on panic. Even with all my financial creativity, this would leave me with just $39 to cover every possible expense for three weeks of the month. My heart felt like it was going to explode from the terror.
On being "un-helpless"
Just a few weeks earlier, a reporter from The Baltimore Sun found me on Twitter. I've tweeted about looking for work and the sometimes desperate and helpless feelings I've had in the process. She asked to interview me for a story she was working on about the improved job outlook for Maryland. As a former reporter, I obliged. I figured it couldn't hurt my job search, either.
The story was great. It didn't get any jobs offers flowing in, but it made me realize just how un-helpless I was. I have a lot more power than I give myself credit for sometimes.
I've spent the past few months really looking at my life. At first I felt some shame over my job track record. Any HR manager looking at my resume would become queasy from the roller coaster ride I've taken in the past few years as I've jumped from one job to the next, always hanging on for dear life hoping I could stay on the ride. But my car has often jumped the tracks. This year felt like complete derailment. Yet, here I am, a little bruised, a little sick, but alive after the crash. That says a lot about a person, I think.
I really do blame myself...sort of
Pointing my finger at a lot of different people would be the easy thing to do. I don't usually do it because it's not always fair. I do realize, however, that life and it's experiences shape the persons we become. And it all starts somewhere. Take my parents.
My father was probably the hardest-working person I ever knew. He was also the biggest dreamer. When he married my mother, proudly held down three jobs on top of his part-time career as a musician. He wanted to do it all. He also wanted to have everything including a family and stardom. He got the family, but his dreams of being a rock star died when he lost his leg in a motorcycle accident. He lost his job, too, and our middle-class existence went up in flames with it.
It was then that my smart, sweet mother stepped in. She nursed him back to health the best she could, but he was like a fallen soldier returned from the battle. He spent years not working. Instead, he was busy feeling sorry for what he'd done to himself and his family. My mother took over the job of bringing home the bacon which left her little time to be a mom. By the time I was nine, I was cooking dinner every night for three siblings and my father. My mother slung hash in a small diner in our small town. I went from careless kid to "Mom Jr." in pretty short order.
After dividing my childhood between school and taking care of my family, I'd had enough. In the middle of everything, my mother nearly died from heart disease, no doubt brought on by the stress of trying to hold it together for everyone for so long. At 18, I felt bad about leaving her behind with my dad and two younger brothers. I followed my sister's footsteps east to work as a live-in nanny. Not that that was my dream, either.
And I ran, I ran so far away
Truth be told, my folks had converted to Jehovah's Witnesses after my dad's accident. They went from fun-loving hippies to semi-crazy Christian fundamentalists in no time at all. I had spent most of my life dreaming of becoming a writer which meant going off to college and living in New York City. That was not meant to be--at least not the way I'd envisioned. The elders of my parents church ordered them not to let me accept any of the five scholarships I'd been offered to various schools. I didn't know what else to do but run far away.
I spent a year in New Jersey working for a pretty dysfunctional family headed by a single working mother. I then moved to Maryland and met my ex-husband. We married when I was 22 and my parents, for a time, disowned me because he was not also a JW. My life was a precarious last step away from hell, only I didn't know it.
I managed to go to the Broadcasting Institute of Maryland, a career school that graduated Robin Quivers, sidekick to shock jock Howard Stern as well as a slew of local broadcasting luminaries. I graduated at the top of my class (I was also class president) with a diploma in Broadcast News. Only problem was, I was married and most of the good jobs where not in Baltimore. My husband wouldn't hear of us moving for my career, so I spent the next few years at jobs where I never quite fit in. I heard the words "You're fired" more times than I could count when I was still in my twenties.
"Honey, do you know how many times Sally Jessy Raphael was fired?" My mother, now back in my life, always said this when I called to tell her about yet another moment in front of "the firing squad."
"How many times, Mom?" I knew the answer.
"Eighteen, honey, eighteen times. You're just in the wrong job. Don't worry, you'll find the right one."
By the time I'd reached my thirties, I had been fired from seven jobs. I couldn't bear the thought of hearing those words anymore. I managed to find a job at a small newspaper where I did everything from ad design to writing stories. That's where I was at my happiest until my boss hired a new production manager who made me think of nothing but leaving.
I came home crying to my husband. In typical male fashion, he just wanted to solve a problem. "I make more than enough money for both of us, hon. Just quit. Then you can be a freelance writer." And that sounded great.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire
Three years later, almost to the day, I found out why he was so gosh-darned agreeable that day. My husband, now of ten years, had been cheating on me with men. He was gay, but I would be the one getting screwed when the divorce happened. He got the house, the cars and though he paid a tiny bit of alimony for a few years, it was hardly any skin off his teeth. My top salary was $30,000 a year. His? Somewhere in the neighborhood of $200,000.
I was almost glad to say goodbye to the alimony last December. I'd finally found a job that paid enough for me to live alone and pay my bills--barely. That was okay by me because it meant not being dependent on anyone else but myself for everything. I didn't know in another month I'd be hitting the pavement looking for work again.
I've never been a woman of extravagant tastes. Since moving three times in the past five years, I've happily cast off unused items and things I held onto for sentimental value. I am less about things and more about experiences. My treasures lie in the friendships and memories I've created, not the tchotchkes I've collected along the way. They tend to accumulate dust and don't equal happiness, anyway.
The last few years since my divorce have been a real struggle for survival. It hasn't been all bad; I have grown more through my adversity than I had ever grown as the formerly "kept" person I'd been while I was married. Every day is a new fight, but I'm no longer a new fighter in the ring.
This morning a new text from my bank account arrived. Somehow, the last text was completely wrong. I found an extra $300 that went missing and now I can muddle through for the next few weeks on a tight budget, but a livable one, at least.
As I've been writing this piece, the property manager for my building called me looking for my past-due rent. I tried not to cry when I explained to her that I had some unexpected expenses but that I'd be able to pay everything in full with late fees next Tuesday. She was nice about it. I have tried my hardest not to be a problem tenant or miss my rent which I know means a lot to her. It totally flies in the face of my perfectionism to miss even one payment, but the one thing about myself I've discovered more than anything these past few months is that I'm human.
I can see why things have worked out in my life the way they have. I have always tried to please everyone else, to be "Little Miss Perfect." Rather than admit my failings to the world, I used to hide them like a hideous scar. Now I bare them to the universe and challenge the would-be gawkers to look away. That attitude has paid off in many ways.
While I look for work, I just can't afford to be anybody I am not. I can't accept doing things that I am not. The price is just too high. Even if it means suffering a little longer, I'm stronger than that.
I found a blogging contest where I stand a real chance at winning! The prize is a JOB for six months WRITING!!! It will pay me enough to live on and provide me with a badly-needed new NOTEBOOK COMPUTER! So, if you read this blog, do me a favor...vote for me to win!
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