Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Depression and Unemployment in Middle Age

On the scale of life's most stressful events, unemployment is in the top ten, usually around number eight. Obviously there are worse things that can happen to a person, but it should also be obvious that losing your job deserves -- or even demands -- a grieving process similar to other major life losses. Depression is a common theme among the unemployed, and for good reason. I'm not saying we should get stuck in it. But overcoming the devastation of job loss will take time. It will require being open to the stages of grief, and facing an extremely potent mix of emotions.

First, getting fired means rejection. It means that people in positions of authority didn't value your contributions enough to keep you around. Even if you thought you were doing a good job, others did not. They picked your colleagues over you, and that is painful and frustrating. Unless you were part of a mass layoff, you are probably left wondering who you offended, what exactly you did wrong, and why they didn't pick that crazy person everyone talks about? Oh my God, were they talking about me?

Then there is the sense of personal failure. The grim reality of rejection brings feelings of worthlessness on an epic scale. After years of working for a company, it comes down to this? No gold watch. No retirement party. Not even a thank you for your many years of service. Instead you get a bunch of empty boxes your office roommate keeps helping you pack. Your ego deflates like a big balloon, and you have trouble making eye contact with anyone as you prepare to leave. Did any of them know before you did? Were people talking? Who were they? For how long? Will it matter tomorrow?

All at once you are on the outside looking in, looking in at all the offices and schools and hospitals and restaurants where The Employed get to go. But you are no longer one of them. You don't belong anywhere anymore. You have turned in the badge that used to let you into the building with people you called colleagues yesterday. You have been officially cut from the team. You go home and pray your spouse forgives you, and you probably cry very, very hard.

The first reaction to unemployment is usually shock, and maybe denial. Losing your job makes you rethink who you really are and what life and work and accomplishment are truly all about. In time, unemployment will become less personal. Shock will give way to other emotions. Although the path to recovery probably won't be smooth, know that you aren't alone, and that this is just one more piece of the puzzle that is your life. It doesn't make the whole picture.

Try to remember that no matter how much you have lost, no matter how much it hurts, the sun will come up tomorrow. The earth will keep on spinning. You are still breathing. Though you feel as if you just fell down the rabbit hole and are no longer so sure of who you are, other people have climbed out of this misery. And you will, too.

Monday, July 15, 2013

50 Was Supposed to Be a Milestone, Not a Giant Pothole

Age 50 was looming out there for years. It was supposed to be a milestone, a check-up on life's accomplishments. After living half a century, I thought I would have done most of what I had dreamed of doing. I should have gotten comfortably successful in a career. I should have a three-bedroom house nearly paid off and  been looking forward to the empty nest years. I should have learned what not to wear and how to make memorable hors d'oevres. I should have. But I didn't do any of those things.

Instead I have a kid in middle school and a hefty mortgage. I can barely make pigs in a blanket, and I'm praying sweatpants will become a fashion "do." Next week will mark my fourth anniversary (yes, with my one and only husband). And for the grand finale, two days after Mother's Day I lost my job.

It's not the first job loss for me. The first real job I had ended with a lay-off after my employers failed to get bids on some government contracts. As the last one hired in my department, I was the first one fired when they could no longer make payroll for everyone. At the time it felt devastating. I was living alone in my first apartment and had bought a car about six months earlier. It took me three months and more than 75 applications to find work again. It wasn't easy.

This time, though, job loss is not just scary; it's humiliating. After 19 years with a school district, I was let go because I worked part time. Apparently they pink-slip everyone who's part time, but they rehire most of them later because the need for part-time work doesn't disappear. No such offer was given to me, however, even though my job had to be filled as it is federally mandated. In March I asked the principal to put me in one of three open positions in regular education (as opposed to the "irregular" job I had held for 12 years teaching English as a second language). Passing the $200 certification test needed has gotten me absolutely nowhere. School starts back in two weeks, and for the first time in years, I won't be going.

What happened? What the heck got me to this point, kicked off the team, squeezed out of the system? I used to spend Christmas vacation making materials and writing lesson plans. I've spent plenty of my own money on classroom supplies and worked overtime reading research and  putting up bulletin boards. Things changed, of course, when we stopped pulling kids out of class and had to work inside the "real" classrooms. We are supposed to be doing inclusion. In other words, students with any sort of special needs no longer leave their classrooms, but remain in regular education settings as part of the whole group. Special teachers go to them, being as unobtrusive as possible.

Classroom teachers are as lost as the support teachers in how to make this work, and they are overwhelmed with responsibilities and appointments. They might stop talking long enough to say, "Go ahead, pull your group," and motion you to a table in the back of the room that is sized for eight-year-olds and covered in stacks of  textbooks and ungraded papers. No one has time to divide up labor or plan extensively together, administrative edicts aside. Besides, the big question to me was, if we are "including" everyone, why am I pulling my students out of the whole group?

Not only did I find this situation frustrating, but I never fully understood how to make it work. So much of the time there seemed to be nothing for me to do, so while I waited on the so-called mini-lesson to end, I wound up searching the internet for ideas that would never get used while everybody ignored me. Yes, my work habits changed then, but because I honestly had no idea how to reconcile "inclusion" with this idea of "pulling groups." My paperwork was excellent. I tried hard to teach when I could. But it wasn't enough.

So, over 100 applications and a few unemployment checks later, here I sit on a Monday morning, no job, no prospects, and an empty coffee cup. What's a woman of a certain age to do now?