by Yerika Reyes
AFO Content Writer
I saw it coming. I knew we worked at a start-up where there is always more risk than at an established corporation. And even then, the big corporations couldn’t sustain their workforce, exposing the fragility that is capitalism. I witnessed corporations like Marriott quickly furlough thousands of employees at once. Social media and the internet at my fingertips allowed me a peek into the reality of hundreds of people getting laid off.
All over LinkedIn I saw update after update of folks saying they too had been laid off due to COVID and now we're looking for a job. The first round of lay-offs at my own company flooded my timeline with posts, most optimistic for the future, ready to jump into the next opportunity. It was still March and folks did not yet know how long this would last. Others were more solemn but still hopeful for what would come next in their careers.
Seeing these first rounds of lay-offs, my anxiety sky-rocketed. I was not nearly as optimistic and I couldn’t feign it. I had seen the failures of our government, locally here in Chicago, and nationally. I had been witnessed to mixed messaging about masks and social distancing.
Furthermore, I didn’t trust the government to disseminate information or help. I have seen so many times over how our government fails us - my own family has been in an almost five year fight to change my mother’s citizenship status. I have seen this country’s racism up close and personal. How it treats Black people. How it allows houseless-ness and hunger to exist. I had little faith in things recovering quickly.
I knew I would be laid off eventually as the pandemic continued to grow. So on June 4, 2020 - when I got the call from my manager, I had already prepared my mind for it. I filed my unemployment within the same hour I got laid off. Through tears, I helped my co-worker through her unemployment application. We mourned the loss of our jobs together. Our friendship became closer because of this shared experience. We both knew that we couldn’t depend on our families for financial help.
In my family, I have been the first to experience so many things in pursuit of the “American Dream.” I was the first to graduate from grammar school, high school, and college. The first to hold a white collar job. But I was not the first to be laid off. My mom has been in the cleaning business as long as I can remember. As a janitor, she has been laid off multiple times, seen as easily disposable and replaceable by corporations. Unfairly laid off when she asked about insurance or spoke up about sexual harassment. Through all of this, my mother was resilient. She never took a pause. She couldn’t. She had four kids to take care of and she never took long to find a new job. She would bounce back out of necessity. She didn’t have the safety net of unemployment or the luxury of savings, when working minimum wage jobs.
Being laid off is a feeling I never thought I would experience. I thought I had somehow protected myself from that because I worked at a desk. I really believed that. I saw it coming but that didn’t take away from all the feelings that followed.
I felt I was less than. I felt like I had not done my job well enough to be spared in the second round. My managers and former co-workers reminded me through calls, texts, and LinkedIn messages that this was not the case. However, it was hard not to internalize feeling like it was my fault, that there was something I could have done differently to prevent this. I knew there was a pandemic and that our business as a whole was suffering. I was hurt. My ego bruised.
It took months to recover. I took a long time to reflect and understand the experience. It took support from family and friends. I am grateful to have worked with a team of people who continue to be incredibly supportive to this day. However, after the shock of being laid off wears off, you are still unemployed.
The thing about unemployment is that it usually has a domino effect on the rest of your life. The same month I also lost my personal trainer and my therapist. I stopped attending my virtual yoga classes. I was uninsured while my partner and I figured out what to do next. We decided to move out of the city center in order to gain more space, but wouldn’t be able to afford it without a roommate. We also were beginning to feel the loneliness of isolating for safety. So we asked a friend to be our roommate. We moved at the end of July.
I focused on that and tried not to process all the structures in my life that I had lost. So we moved. I was still unemployed. I didn’t have a therapist. I didn’t know how to move forward when it felt like the world was just waiting for things to get better. It felt like we were collectively holding our breath, waiting to breathe out a giant sigh of relief. We are still waiting.
What do you do with yourself with so much time? Many folks jumped into doing things they love, whether it was baking bread, making soap, painting, or working out. Folks invested in themselves. Although I tried to distract my mind with similar activities. Every two weeks I jumped into something new with mild success. It didn’t help. I was still hurt.
Many days I just slept. I was exhausted. The news, the emotional toll of being laid off, the confinement. It felt heavy. I allowed myself to wallow for a long time. Sometimes, I felt guilty about it. Other times I told myself so many people would be grateful for this time and I should enjoy it. I tried my best to see the good.
Most days I was so extremely lonely. Being employed allowed me to be connected with so many people. My co-workers, my yoga class, my personal trainer, and therapist. I felt so isolated every day. I watched my partner work and chat with her teammates. Occasionally, I would pop-in, craving discussions with humans. Being employed made it easy to stay social and relish alone time.
It was hard to be alone for so many hours of the day. Much of them were spent reading the news and witnessing more folks getting laid off as time passed. I applied to jobs when I had the energy, but it was hard to know what would be the right fit or role for me. So many companies were and still are getting their bearings to being fully remote. So many interview processes weren’t fully fleshed out. I knew my application was one of hundreds. Every rejection I received I prayed that someone who really needed the position got it.
I was grateful for the safety net of unemployment. I was grateful to my partner and myself for creating a financial budget early in our relationship. I knew that even if I didn’t have unemployment we would be okay for nine months to a year because we had savings, because my partner was still employed, because we had prepared for a worst case scenario two years ago.
I know it’s probably not the most attractive thing to say but truly, budgeting saved me from spiraling in despair. Having my finances in order saved me from some of that panic. It allowed me the privilege to not have to jump into a job right away. Budgeting. I know. Most people dread it. However, in March, my partner and I had reached our savings goals for our emergency fund. By the end of 2020, even with me on employment we had saved $3,500 over our goal.
I recognize the immense privilege I hold. So many Americans cannot even afford a $500 emergency and are living paycheck to paycheck. I know folks who are currently living on credit cards because they have no other options. Others who have had to move back home into situations that compromise their mental health because they would be house-less otherwise. I feel it’s important not to dismiss any of that.
I am still looking for employment. My unemployment is set to end in March, like so many other Americans. I know I have a large cushion to hold me over, but I truly hope I won’t need to use it - and yet I am glad it’s there.
I was able to get on my partner’s health insurance. It took about two months to find a new therapist. I mostly cried during our sessions. Feeling guilty that I had not done more with my free time. Some people had started business and written books - what the heck was I doing?
It’s taken me six months to finally be at a place where I can enjoy my unemployment. It happened last week. I started moving my body for at least twenty minutes every day. Movement allowed me to feel like I was no longer stuck. Stuck in the funk and shame of being unemployed.
It gave me the energy to start reading. I joined a book club to fill the sense of connection I was missing. I signed up for an affordable yoga class. I started to cook things I had never cooked before, finding joy in new experiences.
It took six months of allowing myself to just feel overwhelmed, sad, and lonely. I allowed myself to rest. Initially I felt so much guilt. I felt like I wasn’t being productive. I wasn’t contributing. I was doing nothing for so many days at a time. Getting out of bed for only the essentials. That depression felt endless.
The reality is, I was doing something, it just wasn’t the picture of productivity that we’re often given. I was allowing my brain to process and catch up to the trauma I am still actively experiencing: living through a pandemic, unemployment, being laid off, uncertainty of the future for my family and me. Depression is a symptom of much larger issues. I am still in it. It hasn’t gone away. So, when days that are slow happen, I fight the urge to see them as a waste. I remind myself to pause and to allow myself to process.
The world still feels overwhelming, but there is something about movement. Putting my body in motion feels like it propels my mind forward too.