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This article by Carolyn Foote Edelmann was prepared for the January 7, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
There is a secret word in the unemployment game. When it appears, expect bells and whistles of the least desirable kind. I’ve been engaging in intensive reading on joblessness. No one addresses this, although everyone is prey to it. And, until you can say the word, you remain its prisoner.
Its name is shame.
And even though your entire division – from CEO/president through VPs and AEs, down to the technical assistant – may be in this boat as well, you feel alone with your shame. It is no respecter of rank. Like the claws of a hidden iceberg, shame can tear open all your watertight compartments.
I didn’t know what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I tell why I, – a morning person – did not want to drive about in daytime? Let alone why living in shorts was not delight but problem. Why couldn’t I set foot in the ex-workplace? Why did I scoot around the corner whenever I spied a current employee of that firm in some perfectly normal setting like Wegmans? I stopped eating in the two places my ex-colleagues and I usually frequented for restorative lunches. My errands took place after five and on weekends, although these are the crowded times. My behavior made no sense.
I remember hard times in Princeton in the early 1970s. Men of high degree had been "let go" (that era’s euphemism). The girls and I spent significant time at the Princeton Public Library. Men in suits with briefcases sat and worked at bare-bones tables, all the livelong day. "What’re they doing here, Mom?" my daughters whispered. "They’re not reading library books." We all reeled at the librarian’s explanation. "They come here so no one will know they are out of work," she revealed. "Sometimes, even their own families." Ever since June, I have become one with the Library Men.
I live on the third floor of a Canal Pointe building. For weeks, I did not go up and down in daytime. I did not want to meet a neighbor to face – let alone answer – impossible questions.
Then one fine Saturday I had to attend an enormous and lengthy bridal shower. One of the guests asked me, matter-of-factly, "Are you retired?" I paused, considered, bit: "No, – fired." To my amazement, nobody collapsed at my revelation. People actually commiserated. Intellectually, I know that being OUT there is essential to catalyze interview leads. They can’t do that if they don’t know you’re available! Emotionally, I had been cutting off my nose to spite my face.
Scales removed from my eyes, I began spitting out my truth. Just last night, someone protested angrily, "There is an enormous difference between being fired and being laid off." "What is that?," I asked, not seeing at all. "Being laid off means there is not enough work. Being fired means you let them down. Your whole group was let go, for Heaven’s sake!" I laughed, I hope without bitterness: "Either way, I’m out."
At Right Management Consultants, my "Bridge Over Troubled Waters," we began to craft our "30-second commercial." ["I am a high energy X, who worked in Y, with upper level management. I specialize in Z and team-building. And I’m ready for a new team."] Part of that commercial, however, has to be a line about what happened to your ex-job. "Your situation will be perceived exactly as you frame it. It won’t give pause to anyone unless it’s a stumbling block for you. Get OVER it!" I wrote and re-wrote, declaimed and re-declaimed. I’m not sure if "tough love" is an appropriate phrase in this crisply professional setting, but that’s what it felt like. After parroting my reality a couple of dozen times out loud to strangers, the sting went away.
There was my discomfort around the ex-workplace and current employees, however. An intensive three-hour interview with executives of many levels (same company, different floor) served to "get me back on the horse," place-wise.
The people took a little longer. One avenue of success and revenue for people in my condition has presented itself through friends. I have accepted the mantle of Party-Lite Consultant. These rich candles and accouterments are marketed through humans who like giving parties in their homes. Selling seemed strange, but parties are right up my alley. My virgin hostess/consultant experience was arranged with former colleagues. It was so good to see them! After all, we’d been in the trenches together. They came early; stayed late; bought eagerly. We actually had fun that night, as well as when I carried the handsome "product" over to friends at my former company. It felt OK to be there. My friends were cheering me on, as I crafted a new self.
I had become bearer not only of fragrance, but of light. They’ll be back this month for a second round, and some are setting up their own events in their own homes. Those with whom I used to work side-by-side are building rich memories with me, in new settings.
A small, intense breakfast with my favorite ex-bosses happened right around this time. The intensity of our continuing connection held surprise and pleasure. We continue to sustain one another as we did on the job. Three ex-colleagues that same week took me to lunch. Each brought a gift. One – a handsome and useful book on hawks that I do not possess. The second – a stuffed bluebird toy, hiding a recording of an authentic bluebird call, from Cornell Ornithology Lab, to which I happily belong. And the third – a "blank book," its cover rich with roses.
I didn’t realize until I reached home what belongs in this book: "Blessings." Although there didn’t seem to be any that early in the game, there are. Many. Always. Just listing helps you see them, may even catalyze new gifts. Somewhere around this time, shame seems to have dissolved. I am at liberty, and I don’t care how anyone perceives this.
Naturally, I then concluded that I had dealt with the shame game. Nope. It reared its ugly head anew when September opened. School’s not out any more. Some part of me had evidently been justifying my daytime freedom as "being on vacation." Right! You are not on vacation, Carolyn. You’ve been ousted. You are on the merry-go-round of the job search. While this carousel may be classic, it is neither pretty nor fun.
Days and nights in my predicament have become a desperate search for metaphor. Everything is so strange about the Land of the Unemployed. I cannot be sure that I can negotiate this map (even though I shepherded my husband and me around Europe for three months in 1964 without one wrong turn). Let alone exit properly, unless I tie this excursion to other life challenges that did have endings. I’ve hung my new life on many hooks – war, archery, Dante’s dark wood. (I’ve finished Purgatorio, but have yet to open Paradiso). Maybe I should re-read Boccacio – did victims of THAT plague feel defiled by the "fickle finger of fate?" Here I thought death would be the only pivotal journey I would undertake without a Michelin. There is no metaphor for shame. It just is.
There are synonyms, however, that teach me more about shame than I wanted to know: discredit, disgrace, dishonor, humiliation, indignity, ignominy, infamy. Face it, Carolyn: this is what’s been going on ever since your own personal D-Day – the literal Sixth of June. As Joe Kroiss wisely insisted at Right Management, "Get over it."
I am trying. I may still be pretending a bit on weekends, however. Monday mornings remain formidable. Even so, the very difficulties hold gifts. By writing (and crossing off) specific to-do lists at the outset of each day, I am moving through any number of new professional tasks. I’ve interacted with a broad array of "tough cookies" in many roles. I’ve taken software tutorials and aced tests.
I’ve done trouble-shooting on my new computer, even to opening "the tower" "like a suitcase" and "removing the card," all the while on my knees with cellphone under my cheek. And yes, now the monitor’s annoying red notification box has indeed departed. Does this render me a Techie?
I’ve spent that day at Trenton’s Re-Orientation session and survived. Ditto re calling Unemployment every other Monday to answer those nit-picky questions correctly with finger and touch-tone pad. Yes, sometimes I get it wrong; then have to call a formidable woman who works her magic; gets me back on track. I keep telling her, "This is all so new to me." [I who love the new, who have given lectures on Success and Change aboard the QEII, have felt new-battered this hard summer.] I have managed to arrange new insurances for me and for my apartment; negotiated miraculous rent with my landlady; explored (and failed!) low-income housing; [but Somerset’s County’s Affordable Housing people were so gracious.]
Yes, I now move proudly about in the daytime. And no, I’m not in my ex-work clothes or shoes. But I AM working – longer and harder than ever before, than even when I captained my own Transition Consulting in New Hope and elsewhere for a dozen years in the 1980s. My new job, however, is not only "getting a job." It’s re-inventing myself. "Redefinition of core," indeed! It’s MY core that is being redefined.
I’ve become the Queen of the Writing Proposals, and some of them are paying off. A hefty proportion of my interactions now are not with executives, but with fellow writers/poets and editors. I’ve crafted that masterful resume, even though this process is more fraught with disappointment than all the literary submissions of my entire life. In sum, I am surviving. And this is fuel for pride, not shame!
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