When I decided to quit my job in October 2016, I knew I had some tough times ahead. I knew I’d have to hustle to pay my rent, my bills and my student loans. I knew I had to throw out my current budget, create a much leaner one and preserve the little bit of cash reserves I had on hand.
BUT… the hopelessness of watching your savings account dwindle isn’t the worst part of being unemployed.
I wasn’t prepared for the paralyzing loneliness, because the isolation you feel when you’re out of work is incredible.
I chose to quit my job at a small startup creative communications agency last year because the job was destroying me. I often spent 50 hours a week working, and still couldn’t do everything that I was expected to. I rarely saw my friends outside of our weekly coffee dates or special occasions like birthdays. I had no energy for the things I loved. I developed anxiety, started seeing a therapist and suffered a few big panic attacks before I realized that no paycheck was worth the toll that this job was taking on my health.
Working long hours for a salary that was well below market value and no benefits was expected because we worked for nonprofits. This wasn’t just a temporary state or “peak season”; this was company culture. My relationship with my boss and coworkers deteriorated even faster as I shut down, refused to communicate with them and weighed my options. After a few short months there, I realized I couldn’t live like this. And I quit.
At first, unemployment (aka “funemployment”) was almost enjoyable. Magically, it seemed, I had free time again. I spent my days gleefully chipping away at my ever-growing list of books to read, documentaries to watch and local shops to patronize. I applied for jobs for several hours a day, but I loved that I could help my friends run errands and let our housecleaners in. I was useful, helpful and almost relaxed for the first time in months. But after an all-but-certain job offer fell through in spectacular fashion, funemployment wasn’t fun anymore. It was real. And so I tried to cope with this loss the way many introverts do: I hid.
Around 9 a.m. every weekday, I’m fighting a feeling of uselessness, like I’ve been left on the shelf. I can’t help but think that everyone is gleefully gearing up to start their workday while I’m still in bed, in yoga pants and one of my boyfriend’s old T-shirts, wondering if it’s worth it to throw off the covers, get up and try. Spoiler: It’s really hard.
Call up a friend, preferably one who is a good listener or makes you laugh, and go for a walk together.
Make (and keep!) a weekly coffee date, and invite other folks to join you.
Co-host a potluck dinner or a clothes swap.
Ask for advice when you get emails from recruiters that sound a little suspicious and spammy. Cry with frustration when the collections agencies won’t stop calling.
Take a drive to the mountains with your significant other.
You absolutely must keep your friends and family close. These are the people who will help you feel better.
I’m extraordinarily lucky to be surrounded by amazing people. In some of these free and low-cost outings with some of them, I learned that many of them have been through Unemploymentville too. Some of them had been fired, some quit and still others were victims downsizing initiatives. Some had to move in with their families or piece together several odd jobs to make ends meet, but when it was over, they all emerged stronger and smarter than before. Imagine that: So many of the people I most admired creatively and professionally had been through this too! I never would have learned these things about my friends or been so inspired by them if I had stayed hidden under the covers.
Sometimes it’s hard to be around other people when you’ve been unemployed for a while. Some days, the feelings of shame and sadness that emerge from being out of work are too much, and that’s okay. (Unemployment, whether the circumstances leading up to it are within your control or out of your control, is pretty terrible.) Some days, you need to build a blanket fort for yourself and deny entry to everyone but the dog. (Because dogs don’t judge, right?)
Even if your first inclination is to hide from everyone in your life, don’t. Lean on your people, especially the ones that ask “How can I be there? How can I help you?”. Let them be there. You are not a burden to them, even though you might feel that way sometimes. (I have to remind myself of this pretty regularly.) Don’t dodge their phone calls and texts. These are the people who will listen to your tirades, send you job postings and referrals, and make time to help you drain your favorite bottle of wine.
Keep these people close. I’m still slogging through unemployment; I haven’t been fully employed in four months. But I don’t regret leaving that toxic workplace, not for one single second. I survived it, identified that the company culture wasn’t right for me and I left. I know that with my village of wonderful and supportive people, I’ll survive this too, and hopefully be able to return the favor someday.
Ashley McIntyre is a writer and wardrobe stylist from Atlanta/Durham who is in a constant state of trying to get her life together. She loves journaling, online shopping and discovering new documentaries about black history. When she’s not contemplating her next meal or watching “Seinfeld” reruns, she’s writing cover letters, sending out story pitches and helping brands maximize their social media presence.