It’s not that I’m looking for sympathy; not the “woe is me” kind, anyway. I’m not interested in getting involved in pity parties. I abhor pity. Understanding and non-judgment would feel just about right. That’s what people like me, people who don’t deserve sympathy or pity, could use a healthy dose of.
I was one of the lucky ones. A childhood friend loved to point that out to me, especially if I had the audacity to sound as if I was complaining about my high-paying job. She worked just as hard. She put up with just as much bullshit from The Man as I did. But, in her mind, she was entitled to a little whining. I wasn’t.
My friend believed my success was the result of things over which I had little control. Brains. Looks. Skin color. Never mind how hard I worked in school. Never mind how much pride I had to swallow to survive in the corporate cesspool. I was lucky. She was not.
My so-called luck wasn’t worth much when The Recession That Is Really a Great Depression set in. I was just as laid off as my next-door neighbor or the stranger in the next neighborhood. One day I had a job, the next day I didn’t.
I had already retired from my 25-year career at a Fortune 100 corporation. My plan was in place and I was in the process of implementing it when I started to read the faint handwriting emerging on my wall. The way prices were rising, my retirement money was not lasting as long as it was supposed to last. I needed to unload my beloved home of 17 years sooner, rather than later. It needed updating to be competitive in what was fast becoming a buyers’ market. I had hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity, so pulling some of that equity out to remodel made all the sense in the world.
Until it didn’t. I had already completed the refinance and the remodel when I became uncomfortably aware of the softening of the housing market. By the time I was able to complete a sale, it was a short sale that took me 18 months to cajole the bank into accepting. I had lost all my equity, of course. My retirement plan was in shambles, much like my nerves.
I had taken a full-time job making less than half of what I had been earning before retirement. The small sales training company foundered when its corporate clients began slashing training budgets. The paycheck that was allowing me to make my mortgage payments without having to use funds from my 401(k) suddenly went away. I begged the employer to give me the proper paperwork to allow me to collect unemployment benefits.
I felt like a woman dropped into the middle of the ocean with only one water wing. Swimming in circles while I searched for another paying job, it soon became clear my full-time job had become doing battle with my mortgage lender. I was ashamed of having to go, in person, to the unemployment office and wait for hours to apply for UI. No matter how many people told me there was nothing to be ashamed of, I still was. This was my first dance with “government handouts.” I had never received any kind of government aid and I was raised to believe that was something of which I could be very proud. I felt foolish. I was a failure. And I was so ashamed.
But I also feel I have no basis for complaint. Throughout the recession, I have never had to worry about my next meal or my next month’s rent. Yes, it IS rent instead of a mortgage, which at one time would have been a devastating step down for me. I am able to get by on a small pension and Social Security, plus the small amount I have left in my seriously depleted retirement account. The lights are on, the heat is on, and the dog is still a pampered diva.
I feel a strange sense of relief that I am no longer collecting unemployment because my benefits ran out. And that luck, for which I have been so envied, did send my way a six-month writing contract that added welcome new funds to my stash.
I don't search for a job anymore. At age 67, I feel guilty taking a job that someone who needs it more than I do could have. My life has changed dramatically and permanently, but it is not a bad life at all. I seem to have passed on the “Lucky Gene” to my son – or so my old friend tells me. Never mind that he has paid his dues in spades in Hollywood for 14 years, scraping together rent money any way he could.
One thing I have learned for sure: Unemployment is just as much a state of mind as it is a fiscal reality. It does something bad to a person’s self-esteem. It has absolutely nothing to do with poor work habits or contentment with government handouts. It sucks. I would tell you to ask my next-door neighbor, if you don’t believe me, but you can’t. He committed suicide a year ago.