Unemployment Stories, Vol. 15: 'How the Fuck Am I Going to Pay for Cancer?'
America is in the midst of an unemployment crisis. Each week, we bring you true stories from the unemployed. Today: layoffs, illness, losing homes, moving home, falling down, hanging in, and having hope. This is what's happening out there.
And on top of that, cancer
In October 2008, I was laid off from my 20+ year art director position at a major magazine publisher here in New York City. I'd started there as a freelancer and happily worked my way up. I had a great staff and made many dear friends in various departments. It was the first of a wave of layoffs and I was fortunate to get a decent severance package along with all those extended unemployment checks. I suppose at 49, I was still clinging to the idea of that one great lifelong job, but I began to see the hardship of hustling for new work.
I took a couple of months to try to enjoy the holidays, then started my search in earnest. Ha. No interviews. Seems my experience was not what the new market demands. Friends, many of whom were in the same boat, suggested I shave off a few years from my resume. But I don't dye my short salt and pepper hair, so who am I going to fool? Each morning, I'd hit the computer and the usual media sites and send off resumes with tailored cover letters and samples of my work. Nothing. No response. I networked as hard as I could without being a nuisance. I had a measly part-time job for $10 an hour at a small non-profit I volunteer with. Imagine. A charity extending charity to me. It was awkward, but I took it. Then I took a census job for the rich sum of $20 an hour, but they throw in the humiliation for free! At least I was working my neighborhood and could walk around the corner to fill out the endless paperwork at home. It was there that I met an NYC tour guide, working on those nasty buses we all avoid like the plague. He encouraged me to take the licensing test as it was a cinch for a local with an interest and enthusiasm for our city. I did and I passed, so he hooked me up with his company and voila! "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the center of the known universe! I'd like to remind you to keep your arms IN at all times. . . "
That's when the heartburn came on. It was the hot long days of July and August and I was hustling for every bus I could get. (As a newbie, you sign in IF they think there's work for you. Long-time union employees get a schedule. We got the luck of the draw. No guaranteed work.) Anyway, I was eating at odd hours and my stomach started to revolt. WebMD told me it was an ulcer, so I popped Prilosec and cut down on my beloved black coffee and chianti. That Thanksgiving, after tour work dried up for the new guides, I noticed my pants didn't fit anymore. What woman doesn't love to shed a few pounds without any effort, amirite ladies? Many people told me I looked great. Except my younger sister who said I looked like shit. "Go to a doctor," she said. "I'm uninsured," I'd reply. "You could have cancer," the non-doctor shouted back. I mean, what a bitch! Clearly, she was envious of my weight loss.
And then, against my will as a middle-class hard-working independent single woman, in January 2011 I walked into a clinic. After a series of tests, my psychic sister was right. Stage four stomach cancer. Great. I was on an ulcer budget! HOW the fuck am I going to pay for cancer?
Well, this great country of ours doesn't let people die easily. I'd like to thank you all for contributing to a flawed, but somewhat humane health care system. I was eligible for Medicaid, although it's painful to say that out loud. And cancer is pretty much instant disability and I paid my social security so I just figure I'm in early retirement mode. But that's even more weird because—knock wood—I'm not sick. Not from cancer, not from chemo. My only side effects are slight neuropathy in my toes and my eyes water a bit. In the course of a year, the tumor in my stomach shrunk from the size of a hockey puck to that of a Lifesaver. Of course, stage four means that the bastard has spread, in my case to the omentum or abdominal lining...
Ironically, I've never felt better! My pants fit again. I never lost my hair. It looks like I'll just be a "chronic" and need chemo until my body rejects it. But while I'm healthy enough to work, who the hell is going to hire me? So I'm back where I started in 2008!
A friend hooks me up with private tours she's too busy to give. A board member of my favorite charity reached out and arranged for some part-time menial office work at her non-profit. (She even lets me design things that she can rework in my absence. EVERYone's an art director!) My healthcare staff is fantastic and I've gone to any fun cancer-related events that I'm invited to, where I've met some incredibly resilient New Yorkers. I've given speeches about my new life, was featured in a fund-raising letter and appeared in videos to talk to people about the importance of art and music therapy in hospitals. Thank you, but save your sympathy, because I'm an extremely lucky girl, surrounded with fantastic friends and loving family helping in any way they can. Well, except financially. Like I said, many of us are in the same leaky boat.
While I won't be a Pollyanna because God knows I can get really sick at any time, I will say that all the free time I've had from being underemployed has let me live a life I wouldn't have dreamed of. Art in has been my salvation. With the help of the hospital's art therapist, they've given me permission to make a colorful border collage that will encircle the drab infusion suite. Museums have become like churches, refuges from ordinary life. There's an invitation-only website for cancer patients where I can blog so well-meaning people don't feel they have to call or email me about my health and I don't have to talk about cancer all the damn time. I take a skillion beautiful photos on my iPhone for that day that I may be laid up and want to see my gorgeous life. I smile at babies. I help the elderly across the street. I eat what I want. I enjoy wine every evening. Hell, I'm even getting laid.
Maybe it's the lack of deadline pressure that is helping my good health. I don't know, but I hope so because there's no publishing work on my horizon. I'm not sure there's a lesson here. We're each unique. And none of us knows when the end is coming. Or if there's a bright new chapter beginning tomorrow. Tickle your kids or go see some free art or let a friend buy you coffee and a donut. It'll buoy your spirits. And if any of you readers recognize my story, drop me an email and invite me out. I'm thirsty!
Living with mom
I have been unemployed for over 2 years.
I became unemployed when I quit my abusive job. I'm not talking about the usual abuse that newbs to the workforce usually whine about. I'm talking people frequently quitting in tears after harsh tirades of verbal abuse from managers, and screaming fits littered with expletives that the office could hear and HR needed to be called in. Where you're in your late 20's and can feel chest pain for the first time. Where your boss is known as one of the worst bosses in the city. Despite these abuses I handed in my written notice, tied up all loose ends and on my last day left with my head held up high knowing that I left like a professional...
I had saved up a good amount of money by this time (lived within my means and lived with grandparents), signed up with a couple staffing agencies, notified friends and family that I would be leaving my job and would be looking for work, and notified my student loan holders that I'd be out of work and would need a deferment. On my own I tried looking for internships that weren't crap in my field and tried to see if I could get an "in" in my industry that way. I had the savings to accept an unpaid internship for a while but still looked for part-time paid retail work. The thing was when I had a savings I hardly heard from any internships, when it was depleted that's when I heard from them. And I wasn't getting any of the part-time retail jobs I was applying to, so I couldn't accept those internships.
I hoped to have a full-time job in a year... then a year passed: nothing, two years: nothing. What was I doing those two years? Well according to my Google Mail search, applying to at LEAST 1000 jobs, (in and out of my field of study) not counting the places I applied to directly online. Interviews? Those I counted on my hands. I couldn't even get interviews for jobs doing the exact same thing I did previously. The most annoying thing is that I would get more calls from my student loans then from jobs I applied to.
That second year was the worst. Being flat broke in New York in the winter will make you go nuts. I was literally getting cabin fever. I mean I couldn't even afford a Metrocard because it meant money I wouldn't have to buy a can of Chef Boyardi. I rarely went out. Lost contact with my friends because I couldn't go out. I hardly contact them these days. What would I discuss with them? Still jobless? Still need help? No, I can't go to see you and do something fun? Unemployment kills friendships.
The only government assistance I've taken is some job assistance program that keeps sending me jobs but that are for junior or senior level positions that I'm unqualified for. They originally had a program that would pay for a training program of your choice if you applied in person fast enough and qualified, but that got delayed and I was told by my processor that he would call me once it went back into effect. That was last year. Still haven't heard from him.
That winter I decided to go live with my mom and tried to look for work in her city. I couldn't stay with my grandparents anymore without feeling like a drain on their finances (water, electricity, etc). I guess I figured my mom could handle me being a drain easier than a 60-something year old retired couple on Medicaid and SS.
I don't know about you, but when you're living off of the good graces of other people, you really try to make those people not feel your presence financially. So whatever my mom buys for food I eat, and I try not to eat too much (lost 10 pounds) I turn off lights around the house, use as little electricity as possible (you'd be surprised how many people do not count what I've just wrote as common sense practice). For a long while I slept on the couch.
Right now I am lucky to be underemployed. Its only work on the weekends but its money and when I apply for work it looks like I'm currently employed. I actually like the work and its something I'd never thought I'd be any good at. I don't have a car, so I take public transportation and a bike to get to and from this new job. Sometimes my mom or her husband offer to give me a ride. I usually take it if its raining. I of course am not making enough to pay my student loans. I'm in default. Unless they're willing to take a kidney or my eggs, that's not gonna change until I'm working full-time. This of course worries me because it will affect my credit rating and I know jobs look at your credit when you apply for work, which in this economy is just beyond ridiculous.
I'm still living with my mom, but my goal is to get back to NYC because where my mother lives is one of the top cities with a high income inequality rate and lacks a diversified economy. Recently my mother's job had massive layoffs. Anyone who wasn't terminated was laid off and asked to come back and re-apply for their job but at a lower salary. My mother was one of the latter. She now makes $2500 less a year. Money she spent almost 20 years working towards and then loses in a letter. Last year she filed for bankruptcy (yes, around the time I came to stay with her) and she is also one of the millions whose mortgage is underwater. Recently her bankruptcy attorney made a couple suggestions to her, one being that she should stop paying the mortgage, save the money, have the bank foreclose on her condo and use the money saved to find a place to rent.
At this point whenever we get some bad news or something annoys us, we just look each other in the eyes and I tell her "We're alive, we're healthy, we're working, we have family and it could always be much worse."
I still believe things can get better, but I still get pretty down about the future.
From the flipside
Many people have stories of how their parents or friends or family helped them stay a float in tough times. I'm one of those people who was and is the "friends or family." I want to share my story of supporting people in this lousy economy.
I'm fortunate. My job and life keep me in touch with recruiters and companies, and I live in the right area, and I'm able to find work in my profession. In the last six years I've only gone 3 weeks or less without work whenever I got laid off or had a position end (which is annoyingly a lot in this economy). Before that I was lucky to have severance or some money when the job market tanked. I'm thankful, and I know I've been lucky.
However many of my friends and family haven't been so lucky. They've had problems finding work. They moved in with me for awhile to find jobs. They relied on me when the money ran out. They needed my help leaving crappy jobs. This has been happening for years.
It was up to me to help them out because I was the one with the job and had things together. I spent years prodding people and networking for them, giving them encouragement, tutoring them, and ultimately helping pay some of their bills. You do it because it's right, and you do it because they're friends and family and you've known them for years or all your life. This is what people do for each other.
We have to stick together because it's tough out there.
So for the last few years I've been trying to keep my sanity because if I don't keep things under control, a lot of other people suffer. When you're the support for people, you can't enjoy yourself. You're on alert for any crisis. Everything sets you off. Nothing is enjoyable. You get less trusting because you are used to people being in trouble. You're not sure if you should trust people because, hey, you're the one looking out for everyone else. You can't take risks.
You get paranoid about job loss because you're the one with a job that supposedly knows what's going on. I engaged in a constant job search for years to have something lined up "just in case." It probably helped me stay stable in employment, but I also hated it; if we're at the point where everyone has to be on a constant job search all the time, we failed as a society.
You live frugally, really cutting back, because people need you or may need you. You also doubt the people you know, and then find yourself wondering why you're thinking like that. Your couch will always be a futon or a hide-away bed. In case.
Supporters trade stories too. We talk about things. Those of us who have kept our jobs and some sanity are tired too. When the social safety net breaks, we're the ones who try to catch people, but we've got our limits. We're supposedly the ones that people are supposed to rely on; family, friends, church, etc. But the economy hasn't done us any favors, and we're tired of hearing how we're the replacement for real programs like welfare and job training. - because we're not, we're just individuals.
We live in fear of what happens when we snap, when we get unemployed, when things fall apart.
We also know a lot of the people we're helping are good folks, and the smart-alecky radio hosts and writers call them lazy bums. They're not, we know, we're trying to help them, but the truth is the economy was sunk by a bunch of immature, greedy, privileged idiots, and they left it to the rest of us to clean up. We're tired of cleaning up. We're tired of being the adults after the spoiled brats looted the economy.
After years most people moved or straightened their careers out. Me, I'm living alone for awhile as I need it. It's sad as some good friends are talking about getting a place together, but I'm not sure I could handle depending on other people. If I moved in with my gang, I worry that it'd fall apart and I'd be supporting everyone again.
So I'm taking some time alone. I just don't like it.
People still need me. I can't ever do enough.
Goodbye, consumer economy
I've worked in software development for more than a quarter century. In 2010 I got what seemed like a dream job - nice salary bump, upgrade in title and responsibility, to work for a smaller start up. Well, even though everyone worked their butts off the company failed and I was laid off. No problem, I thought. High tech never has enough qualified people, so I'll have no trouble finding a job. Boy was I wrong.
Let me just say that ageism is alive and well in today's labor market. No one wants you if you're over 50 and very well qualified. I spent month and after month being turned down because I was "over qualified", even though I actually was not for the jobs in question. I was just what they needed. But I realized over time all they wanted was some young guy with a few years experience who would work for peanuts.
As the months rolled by I shed all my assets to keep going, and was very grateful for unemployment (don't knock it until you've needed it). What drove me crazy during this period was reading all these articles in the media about how high tech is *desperate* for qualified people and just can't find enough. Well, this is just a big lie people. As I learned.
After nine months of unemployment, I was totally broke and unable to pay the coming month's rent. I was kept awake at night by visions of homelessness and humiliation. Then, out of nowhere, one of the hundreds of resumes I sent out got a response. I finally got an interview (that's right - an interview) with a company that didn't see my experience as a problem, even though I was applying for a much lower level position, at far, far less money that I've made for the last 15 years. They were excited to see me and made me an offer on the spot. So, yes, now I'm employed. At a good company that respects my expertise and is thrilled to have me. Happy ending, yes. Except for one thing.
I'm making 60% less money. Which means I'm basically withdrawing from the consumer economy. I hardly spend money at all. As I look around my neighborhood I see the corner grocery's shelves are almost empty. The wine shop across the street is about to go out of business. Etc. It's not just because of unemployment. It's because those of us who have found jobs now have no money to spend, and if we do, we're putting it into savings, not spending it. I fear the consumer economy is doomed.
So hang in there people. It's tough tough tough. But if you keep at it, something will come up. It just probably won't be anything near what you had before. But something, at least. Welcome to 1972!
The family man
I've had a job since I was 13, starting out as a paper-carrier. I worked all through high school, and joined the US Army within a year of graduation. I started my first semester of college as a father of a two-week-old son, and put myself through two BSc degrees-as well as an MA. Then one evening in late February of 2011, my boss called me into his office. Despite my over a decade of flawless service (I'd missed 3 'days' due to illness the entire time), I was unceremoniously laid off. I was crestfallen-this was the first time I'd been without work in over 20 years. My wife said it was a good thing; it would allow me to concentrate on my last two semesters of graduate school, particularly my thesis. I begrudgingly agreed, but secretly planned to look for work as soon as possible.
I'm a man of many different talents, I've pretty much done a little bit of everything. Anything that I'm not already adept at, I can pick up fairly quick. My job search wasn't going all that well, but I didn't worry as I was still in school and the meager amount of financial aid I'd applied for was helping supplement my wife's income to keep us afloat. Then in late November, my younger brother passed away unexpectedly. It hit me like a ton of bricks, and I began spiraling into a deep depression. I sought professional help, but it really didn't do much. I just couldn't cope with losing a brother at 39. It took every ounce of strength I had to finish off the fall semester, and I barely limped into the spring-unsure if I had it in me to finish.
After months of scraping by emotionally, my doctor prescribed some medication that helped me get a grip on things. I finished school in May; the first person on my father's side to earn an advanced degree, and only the second on my mother's side. None of this has seemed to matter though, as work offers haven't been coming at all. Both sides of my family accused me of being too prideful or choosy. This couldn't be further from the truth. I'd sent out resumes to every college in a 50-mile radius for adjunct teaching positions, and then went about sending out over 50 separate resumes to schools and companies across the US, and even to Canada. So far, I've received two interviews out of all that effort. One was with a big box store for a part-time position. The other for a local document company. The big box interview went well, but the position couldn't work because I have two sons with three weeks left before their school starts and no babysitter that I can hire while working for $8.50 an hour. I'm still holding out hope that the other company will call me back for a second interview, but that's not the way my luck's been running lately. I'm willing to completely uproot myself and entire family at a moment's notice to move anywhere, but I'm not even getting a nibble.
I'd love to just say 'screw it' and walk away from everything, but I can't. I have a family to help provide for, and two impressionable sons that need their father to show them how to grow up and take care of their responsibilities. It's tough though, when you have looming student debt (thankfully I went to a SUNY school instead of a private university) and no prospects in sight. I'd never dream of hurting myself and leaving my family to fend for themselves, but I have to admit that a day doesn't go by that I don't feel so worthless and that I don't think of myriad ways to end it all. Like so many other Americans, color me...
Overeducated and Underemployed
Thank you very much for the stories on unemployment. It hurt but I related to many of them. At 55, I'm uncertain if I'll ever work again as quite frankly I've about reached my limit. I spent 15 years of my life working with young kids as a counselor and another 16 working in environmental chemistry. I am currently unable to get work in either field. I lost my house last year after spending all my savings in an attempt to sell it and at least get out from under the mortgage. I'm living with a friend and wondering every day if I'm just delaying the inevitable. I want to thank you for letting others know just how bad things are for a lot of us.
The entire archive of our Unemployment Stories series can be found here.
[Thanks to everyone who submitted. You can send your own unemployment story here. If you'd like to contact someone you read about here, email me. Photo via Getty.]