I’ve been on the job hunt for 14 months. I’ve had nothing to do on most days for the last 6 months. Everything I imagined I might do or be has failed to materialize. It’s hard to describe the slow decay of the mind and body that unemployment foments. I have tried to keep busy, to network, to write, to study – nothing lasts. I’ve been told by every job counselor and mentor that I’m doing the right things. But I have nothing to show for it.
To say I believe this will end is increasingly untrue. There’s a deep fear that this is my life; that whatever aptitudes or capacities I may have will never be realized or developed. At 35, I’ve never held a full-time professional job for more than a few months with the exception of a two-year stint when I was 23. I have three degrees, including my PhD, $150,000 in student loan debt, and no prospects of full employment.
The idea that I could be doing more is both frustrating and shame-inducing. I feel I’ve done what the experts tell you to do. I performed at the highest level in my academic programs. I’ve utilized my lose connections to begin conversations with dozens of potential contacts. I have published, presented, facilitated, taught, mentored, and volunteered. I have nothing to be ashamed of.
And yet I feel the shame of not having anywhere to go every day. Of not supporting my family the way I want to. I feel the shame of the common view that the only thing stopping a person from working is their willingness to do manual labor.
But I have applied to those jobs too. I drove Uber after being rejected by Dominoes Pizza and other fast food jobs. I have unsuccessfully applied to big box stores and corporations. These jobs won’t cover the cost of my loan repayments let alone support my family.
My frustration and anger are physical. It’s increasingly difficult to find things to enjoy or that make me happy. I’ve been trying to be patient for so long that I no longer know how to enjoy the day I’m living now. Everything is “someday”. I fear that I won’t even enjoy the someday should I ever arrive because of years of living for the future.
And I see the toll this all takes on my wife. She has moved for my education numerous times, all for a promise that the new degree will deliver to us the security and comfort that we long for. This has meant that her career has too often had to adjust to my needs. And although she’s wowed everywhere we’ve gone, I cannot help but wonder what capacities have been stifled. Even as she and I eagerly await the birth of our first son, my days are filled with frustration and shame instead of anticipation and joy. She needs me to be ok, but I’m not.
So my best friend and partner of 13 years is asked to carry far more emotional and financial weight than is reasonable. And it’s not just her. When we talk to my brothers and their wives, the conversation constantly turns to what my current prospects look like, leading to a raw exploration of my frustration. And although they are sympathetic and supportive, I just feel like a fountain of negativity and bad news. I often just feel worse afterward.
Acquaintances, friends, and strangers have no shortage of advice. “Have you looked in Vermont?” “Yes, I’ve looked in Vermont.” “Have you reached out to your connections at fill-in-the-blank?” “Yes, all of them.” “Maybe you could work at REI?” “I’ve tried.” “This is just a season, it’ll pass. You just have to be patient.” “Fuck you.”
Our attempts to seek help for my depression have only compounded the problem. Although I’ve been medicated for about 20 years, it has been incredibly difficult to find a therapist or counselor. Even with our relatively good insurance plan, I can’t get in to see a decent provider. Wait lists have been as long as 6 months for a first visit. When you’re in the throws of depression, six months is an eternity. I’ve nearly given up on the idea that I’ll find a quality psychologist.
I understand the frustration and anger that tempt a person to place blame on a social scapegoat. It’s crossed my mind that perhaps my social identity as a white, heterosexual, able-bodied man is a strike against me in the areas of study that I am interested in teaching or researching, or in the new directions I consider taking my career. I can understand how a person could become racist, xenophobic, or misogynistic when you feel the deep frustration and shame of not being able to contribute to your family’s wellbeing the way you want to. It would be convenient and cathartic to direct that discomfort out of myself and toward my other. But I also know that such a lazy analysis of social forces, besides being inaccurate, only leads to violence, hatred, and other life-stealing habits. There is no relief down that road.
For now, I’m forced to consider just how mentally weak I am. To wonder whether it is a character flaw, systematic failures, family system inadequacies, or just bad luck that leaves me under-employed, angry, and depressed. And I wake up each day with a sense that I could be really good at something, if only I had a sufficient chance to prove myself.
Recently, I had an informational meeting with a powerful program director of a well-known community foundation. He was aggressive in our conversation, demanding that I tell him what my passion was. I was trying hard to project confidence and energy. But he seemed incredulous that my answer was only to work for a more just and peaceful world. He said, “That describes half of the country.” He seemed annoyed, almost angry that I couldn’t name a passion.
But the reality for me is that passion hasn’t characterized my life in some time. Although I am committed to social justice and peace-building, it is not passion but desperation that describes that commitment. I need a different world because this one is eating me alive.
And, I know I’m not alone. Is this the community we want to live in?