Two years ago this week, I was laid off from my last full-time job. I’ve since had a smattering of temp jobs, “odd” jobs, and freelance work, but a guaranteed steady paycheck is a rapidly fading memory for me. Unemployment can have its up-sides; the initial “funemployment” period is almost carefree and a tad exhilarating. Who doesn’t like drinking beer in the midday sun and having the ability to say yes to almost every single event on your calendar? Once you dive into the abysmal depths of long-term unemployment, however, things start to get very dark.
I graduated from a state school in southern California with a degree in radio, television, and film, and within six months landed a version of my dream job. I joined a small staff on an animated television show. I shared an office with my best friend and worked with talented, wonderful people doing what I had always wanted to do: write for television. We were picked up for a second season, but the production company decided we could produce the next season with a much smaller budget.
The day I was laid off was a beautiful day in Burbank, California. I had a traffic-free commute, I was feeling insanely optimistic about my life, I had a hot date that weekend, and I remember exclaiming to my fellow staff members, “I’m having an amazing day!” Seconds later I was pulled into the executive producer’s office and told the company couldn’t afford to keep me on staff any longer. They wished me luck, told me it was a pleasure working with me, and that was that. I politely told them I understood, spoke as little as possible so that my voice wouldn’t crack in front of two men I looked up to, and walked to the restroom. I entered a stall, closed the door, and cried.
The next several months were a breeze. I was crestfallen, definitely, but I began collecting unemployment checks and had the free time to enjoy an unfettered California summer. I wrote a freelance episode for the show that let me go; that covered a lot of my living expenses. I was looking for work, but I wasn’t looking very hard. I thought, “I’m a talented guy, I know a lot of people, I have experience and a solid portfolio. Something will eventually come up.”
Six months later, as the unemployment aid ran out, I walked back into my old restaurant job with my tail between my legs and began delivering food to the wealthy residents of Franklin Village. I felt like a failure, but otherwise not much changed in my life. I still had the means to go out with friends, do what I wanted when I wanted, and had a handful of projects in the works that I was sure would pan out. They didn’t, however, and my smoke-coughing ’92 Acura Legend was too exhausted to keep climbing the winding, steep hills of Hollywood. Unable to afford the repairs it needed, I was forced to quit less than a month later. I sold my car for $700, which paid the next month’s rent and bought some groceries. Little did I know, this was the most money I would have at one time for the next year.
I was lucky in the fact that I lived in a house with five other guys and shared the master bedroom with my best friend from college. Rent was cheap enough to keep hanging on, and the idea of moving to my parents’ house in Kansas was mortifying. My personal life, nearly a year after the layoff, finally began to fold under the pressures of being dirt poor. I just barely made rent each month and had no funds to do much else. I was plagued by a crippling loneliness.
Dating is quite a difficult thing to do when you have no money, especially if you have no car and live in Los Angeles. I dated a handful of women who must have liked the prospect of fixing a lost cause more than they liked who I actually was. They all petered out and as I wallowed in a quarter-life crisis my friends began to slowly distance themselves in tiny ways. It seemed that everyone was growing except for me. I was the case of arrested development who was 24, still sharing a bedroom, still without health insurance, and with a very empty horizon.
People stopped inviting me to things; small things, like lunches or going to the movies, because after a million declines due to an empty wallet my friends began to understand that I couldn’t do just about any activity that involved money. Trust me, people get very sick of coming to your house and sitting on your couch. My piss-poor mood about the entire situation wasn’t the most enticing personality trait either.
I survived on intermittent freelance writing jobs and doing just about anything I could do for cash. I sold weed and Adderall, I temped at a literary agency for a friend when he went on vacation, I looked after my neighbor’s pets, I worked as a production assistant on a shitty independent film, I worked a graveyard-shift construction job remodeling a marijuana dispensary, and I sold anything I owned of value just to keep my head above water (R.I.P., guitar with the Weezer sticker). One tight week, my neighbor replaced his toilet and I sold his old toilet on Craigslist. That netted me a twomp and a trip to the grocery store.
After this absurd length of unemployment, the people close to you start getting worried, even aggravated. The utilities in my household are under one name and I became consistently late in paying my share. It’s as if people think you’re doing this on purpose, or that you’re trying to get away with something. What they don’t see are the endless buzzsaws in your brain that remind you every second of every day that you owe someone, or a lot of someones, a lot. I lost countless hours of sleep worrying myself sick about how I was going to get by. People ask you “Why don’t you get a job?” as if you were choosing to not have one.
I started to pity myself and nastily judge anyone who seemed to be more successful, more put-together, more privileged than me. I became a person I didn’t like at all and when you only have the means to spend time with yourself that can be quite depressing. Who wants to hang out 24/7 with the person they detest the most?
After I realized that nothing would change without me changing, I finally got serious about finding a real job. I went hard in the paint and starting submitting résumés to any job that was accepting applications—in my field and out. I haven’t landed a non-freelance job still, but, as they say, I’m out here.
If there’s any silver lining to the situation it’s this: you learn to survive just about any way you can. The pain of steady rejection begins to dull and becomes normal, and you just keep trying until something works. Something will eventually work, and it will probably come from an unexpected place.
When you exist in the lowest form of what you wanted your life to be, it’s easy to notice the truly amazing things you have around you. You appreciate the resilience the years of failure have bred in you. You recognize the heroes in your life who still stick by you and give you rides to the airport to pick up your amazing girlfriend who doesn’t give a shit that you have seven dollars in your wallet. I was lucky enough to find those people and if I can do that, with an insanely long backlog of opposite luck, then anyone can “make it.”
For me, “making it” means not hating myself for my failures, for the cards dealt to me, or for not being the man I thought I’d be five years ago or five months ago. I still don’t have a job and I still don’t have health or dental or a car or any clothes that weren’t thrifted or gifted, but I also know I can keep going. I’ve made it this far. Here comes tomorrow.