Who I Thought I Was

Last year, I became one of the 5 million Americans who have been jobless or underemployed for longer than 6 months.

by Ce Ce Iandoli
coping with long-term unemployment
Ce Ce Iandoli

 

Before the world fell apart, I went to college, acquired good jobs and produced meaningful work. A lush life actually. Naturally, I didn’t recognize this. But there were clues: I got up early to go to work, threw on my shoes, and jumped into my research. That was me in the Hanes commercial fixing my tights while men twisted their heads to look at me. Or, rather, that was a dream I had about my life. When I worked full-time.

A year ago, I didn’t wonder who I was. I was a policy analyst imagining how incarcerated teenagers could get out of jail and stay out of trouble. I felt…what? Confident and periodically useful.

 

My life included friends who confided in me over chardonnay in my dining room; my son loved me despite his teenage angst; and my husband brought home flowers with some regularity. My house—ramshackle as it was, was filled with chairs that enveloped people. No matter that the sofas were worn and stitched in another color of thread. This was a house with room for mistakes. When my son (Max) was eight, his best friend Rasul broke my favorite ceramic bowl. “Don’t worry,” Max told him, “ it’s only a thing, not a person.”

 

 My dining room caressed good friends full of opinions and wisdoms, advice, and laughter.  When bad things happened, we talked our way out of them. When things got complicated, I knew exactly what to do. I relied on foul language I borrowed from my mother.

 

“Fuck them,” my mother would yell until the Puglia family closed their windows. I’m not my mother but sometimes I wish I could wear her rhinestone dresses and sing alto with a good Tom Collins nearby. I want her ferocity lately, and the bravura to survive when it matters.

 

Nowadays, I’m a woman who lusts after those shredded chairs. And broken zippers sewn tight up the side of my couch.

But that was yesterday and now I’m somebody I never met. I’m one of the millions of people in the world who are unemployed..

 

Two glasses of pinot noir later, my friend Val asks, “If  I’m not a mother, and I don’t work, who am I?” I have no bromide; Val is lovely, smart, kind, etc. but I am not sure any of these qualities matter any more. Indeed, who are we without work, without cash, without a place for our children?

 

It gets harder to decipher who I used to be and it’s premature to imagine who I will become. I was what? A good mother? A decent wife? Hopefully. A colleague surely.  Always a worker. Clean sheets, hard work and smooth floors. Incessant notes competed with each other on the front of the refrigerator.  Monday this, Thursday that way too much too fast to accomplish. Except I did. Picked up my son on time. Grabbed food for supper, talked at conferences, wrestles with late night edits.  And I enjoyed this.

 

That was me the day before I joined the 12.0% unemployed Californians who are jobless…or…underemployed and became one of the 5 million Americans who have been looking for work for six months or more.

 

The First Interview

My first interview was too important. It required a new look, a deliberate confidence, a Michael Kors dress (marked down three times.) I wore a jacket that resembled bat wings. So far, so good. My lips were enchanting in a soft pink. I listened carefully, had questions informed by my research. I shook hands firmly and sat up straight…except when I leaned forward to answer questions.

 

There was just one problem: I was a mess and quite nauseous. What is the correct protocol for nausea in a job interview? Tell them? Leave fast. Run out?

 

When the committee asked me if I had any questions, I emphatically said ‘No.’ I saw their weird looks as I left the room.

There was no follow-up correspondence. I was understandably embarrassed by who I had become, but in retrospect, it seemed normal after 6 months no offers I grew ashamed. Six months later, I was hopeless, but I know that I am not alone in my despair.

 

First Published February 7, 2012

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Comments

missyj 04.13.2014

CeCe,I know your pain & difficulty. After 9/11, and the difficult economy we went through, I went through 9 difficult years. Used up savings and retirement, divorced my spouse who refused to work, and I could not remain in a sales position long enough because the employer expected miracles in a down economy. I had many dark days but reminded myself I had a little one to support. After 4 yrs. a friend hired me. Eventually, her firm closed. Finally I lost everything, house, money. A friend kept paying for my car insurance. Another housed me. We survived on revolving credit cards. I couldn't get a job in retail or restaurants because I did not have experience I was told. The blessings were plenty...plenty of time for introspection, prayer, community service and new friendships. Because of the latter, a new friend helped me land a job. My valuable lesson: As much as I tried to steer my path, I learned that my days were ordered by the Man Above. I had a new found faith. I was humbled. It is still painful to recall those days. It is painful to see others go through it. Have faith. You will make it.

10.02.2013

What a well-written story, told with such courage and heart.
I am like you, without steady employment, except for me it's been almost three years. At 48, I'm finding agism is alive and well. And we are in our own Great Depression indeed. This lack of employment has caused all sorts of anxiety and depression for me and my older friends. Men and women between the ages of 45 and up can't seem to find a job worthy of their experience and intelligence. Employers want young kids with no experience they can work to the bone and pay peanuts.
To be honest, I have much disdain for the work I once found immense pleasure and joy in. Life coaches and therapist offices are filled with these people who lost their lives/purpose/self-esteem. I always defined myself by what I did, what I drove, what I wore and where I lived. Seems shallow, but we find a sense of self in what we do for work. For the first time in decades, our parents are living better lives than we are. Like so many, I live with family, unable to afford rent, food, and utilities. I am luck to have enough to pay for my cell phone, gas and car insurance. Thank God for MassHealth. What will our nation do with the millions of Americans no longer working? Our country cannot afford to support us all. There are even more than are calculated, as so many of us can no longer collect unemployment. Never in my life did I ever think I would be on food stamps. So many of us are. Ce Ce, keep writing. I'd join you in your writing group any day.

Christina 04.07.2013

Thank you for sharing. We need to hear more voices like yours. As a 50-year-old divorced, educated woman who recently moved in with her 77-year-old father due to the economy, I can certainly relate. I'm employed, but the pay is less than I made as a beginning publicist in 1990. So much for self-esteem. Best of luck to you, CeCe. You're not alone.

sarah alley04.16.2012

This is such a beautiful yet and painful view of what happens when your life shifts expectantly. I appreciate Cece's honesty describing the different phases of being unemployed. She has a great style of writing. I would love to read more from her regarding her journey.

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