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What I Learned from the Unhappiest Time in My Life

You can make good things out of crappy times.

I was out-of-work for 9 months from September 2013 to May 2014.  It was a nightmarish time that included me receiving and accepting first one job offer in January 2014, then another in March 2014.  With both job offers, I signed a contract, completed all paperwork, selected healthcare coverage, did my drug screening, even learned how to record my work hours for HR. But each time the job was cancelled just a few days before it was supposed to start.  It was unbelievable.

Both recruiters told me they had worked with the company offering the job for many years and had never seen this happen before.  But it did, to me — back-to-back signed job contracts cancelled.  It left me reeling. I felt as though the very rules of the universe had been changed on me overnight.  Wasn’t it true that when you ‘got a job’, that you ended up having a job?  Yet I had landed two jobs and had none.  Was there even any point in my seeking employment again?

I did a lot of Googling about depression during those days. Here’s what I learned –

  • It’s okay to feel sorry for yourself, but better if you give yourself a time limit on wallowing in pity.
  • Fresh air and getting out in nature are key to mental health. If possible, get some outside exercise. If not possible, grow plants or bring scenes of nature inside.
  • When you are struggling, reach out to others.  Email, phone, or text.  When out-of-work, I was home alone a lot. On my down days, I’d send a few emails to friends or family.  The responses always made me feel better – a cyber hug, a silly joke, a phone call or ‘I love you.’
  • From time to time I prayed. I once pulled into my driveway after a disappointing interview and said out loud, “I am in a dark, dark place.”  Then I added, “God, why have you forsaken me?”  What I heard back? “Hey, you haven’t exactly been hanging on my every word.” – It made me smile.  If people always envision God in their own image, mine has a good-natured sarcastic tone.

Yet even doing all of the above, it still felt like a nightmare. I don’t mean every moment, there were some wonderful, meaningful and fun moments in that stretch, but overall I was very down which isn’t a feeling I’m familiar with.

I think it’s important to recognize that tough times are, exactly that – tough.  They don’t feel good.  Sometimes people will tell you that things ‘aren’t so bad.’ Or ‘things could be worse.’  Yes, sure, they could, but if you feel hurt, you probably are.  Recognize that when you are hurt, you aren’t going to be at the top of your game.  Allow yourself a bit more rest.  Cut yourself some slack.

I’m a big believer in using whatever comes your way for good – even if at first you don’t see how. 

My favorite movie scene (stay with me, this is related) is from Apollo 13, when in order to save the astronauts lives, the ground crew at Houston had to figure out how to attach a square CO2 scrubber to a round opening using only items aboard.  With lives at stake, their solution, using what they had, included hoses from spacesuits, tube socks and duct tape.  People used what they had on hand creatively, because lives depended on it.  I firmly believe that each of our lives, and how well they turn out, depend on us using whatever comes our way creatively, for good.

What could I fashion out of the mess that my months of unemployment had been?

I realized that unemployment is a lonely endeavor.  Each morning the rest of the world goes off to work and you are left behind.  I began a blog, Unemploymentville, to share my experiences.  Then quickly decided since I was back at work, to include other people’s stories as well. 

I brought an appreciation for the workplace to my new job.  I recognized the modern-day small town environment that a workplace brings where everyone knows your name and people ask how you are.  When after a year I was put in charge of a small team, I became passionate about making sure they were as fully engaged as possible.  I want my team members to know that they work they do is needed and appreciated. 

I have to say that I don’t think I would be as good an employee, as good a leader as I am, if not for the 9 months of unemployment.  Being without a job brought greater clarity to my relationship with work.

Fast-forwarding to now and the Coronavirus pandemic

I am one of the lucky ones.  My job can be done from home.  With so many unable to do their job, so much productivity lost, I feel those of us who can still contribute must maintain focus as much as possible while being there for our families.

I’m again using the same coping skills I learned when unemployed to deal with the sadness which comes from days of being isolated.  I make a point of calling, emailing, texting friends, getting outside in the yard or up to an empty mountain trail and getting exercise. 

For me enduring the Coronavirus pandemic is very different than my time of being unemployed.  When I was out-of-work, my world had been turned upside down, while everyone else seemed to go on with life as usual.  In 2014, it kind of made me sad how little effect my sitting on the sidelines had on the rest of the world. 

Today, my life is far closer to how it was 3 months ago than most people’s. I have not endured sickness, death or job loss.  I am however, deeply saddened, to watch others’ suffering.

In terms of my day-to-day existence, I can say, “Hey, this isn’t as rough as when you were out-of-work in 2014.” But for the country and the world, this is the most difficult time I can remember.  I’ve been listening to the audiobook, Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  I’m usually out walking the dogs as I hear brief stories from other dark days in our country’s history – the Civil War, the Great Depression, Kennedy’s assassination, the Civil Rights struggles.  Our past has not prepared us for today, but it can be reassuring to know that we have recovered from other overwhelming and unprecedented disasters. 

I think it’s important for us to continue to use whatever comes our way for good.  Lives depend on it.

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