Monday, February 24, 2014


  Is there anything more eye-gougingly annoying than when you meet someone for the first time at a party and their first question is to ask you what you do for a living? Now, just imagine how annoying this question becomes when you've recently become unemployed. The worst part is that you probably won't even attempt to change the subject. In fact, the very question about what you "do" presents the perfect opportunity to plant the idea that you're doing everything but being unemployed. You'll use myriad stock euphemisms like "in transition", "job market researcher", or, my personal favorite, "freelancer". Though, after five minutes of rambling on and on, you'll both come to the mutual understanding that you are, in fact, unemployed.

  I know this situation well because I am unemployed. Not only am I unemployed, but I'm also collecting Employment Insurance (EI). I know what you're thinking, "that sounds awesome!" Well, yeah. Who wouldn't think that? You get to do what you want when you want to do it. You even get to go to bed late and wake up whenever the hell you want. The best part is that you get to do all this while receiving a bi-monthly cheque from the government for 36 glorious weeks.

  It didn't used to be like this. I had a job, a full time one too. Much like many of you, I used to sit at a desk eight hours a day, five days a week while my brain cells slowly eroded away. I'd spend copious amounts of time on Facebook and YouTube in a vain attempt to cloud the sad reality of my day-to-day existence. I would often daydream about what other people were doing while I was imprisoned inside, toiling away for "the man". Not only would I pine for the world outside my office walls on a daily basis, but I'd habitually worry about whether today was the day my impending repetitive stress injury finally kicked in.

  I didn't hate my job, nor did I ever dread having to go to work. But I wasn't particularly happy to be working for a large corporate law firm, with lawyers whose ethics were as maleable as the law itself. Principles aside, I felt no sense of accomplishment from my work and the appreciation I received from those I worked for reflected that. Most of all, I disliked being forced to wear a stupid suit and tie every day in the firm's hardline policy that raped its employees of any semblance of individuality and/or personality.

  I wanted out for years. But as a monkey suit-wearing, corporate automaton, the firm paid me pretty damn well. After all, it's hard to walk away from comfort. If the sense of well-being and fat paycheque weren't enough to keep me around, the firm also showered me with gift cards and presents. And if those didn't skew my negative views of office life, the partners disarmed me with free booze at its monthly staff parties. It was a brilliantly manipulative tactic to keep me in line. In many ways, the firm was like an abusive spouse; ruthless and brutal, yet overly apologetic with its grand acts of kindness. I knew things wouldn't change, but I wanted to believe. So I stayed ... for yet another year.

  Then one day, everything changed. I had been unceremoniously let go "without cause" (their wording, not mine). And after almost four years of dedicated and loyal service, I found myself now a part of the unemployed 7% in Canada. I remember lingering around my office building for a couple of hours after it happened, not knowing exactly what to do next. After all, my crappy little world had suddenly been turned on its axis. Eventually, I made made my way home where I'd remain in a perpetual state of numbness for the next few days of my new unemployed life. For hours on end I'd lay on my couch and watch bad daytime TV, all the while attempting to process things: How did this happen? What do I do now? Most importantly, how the hell was I going to pay rent next month?

  My initial shock then beget relief, as I began to realize that I was actually free (also, it was nice to know I was eligible for EI due to the fact that I neither quit or was fired). Regardless, I was free of fluorescent lighting. I was free of my suit and tie. I was free of lawyers. I was free of my desk. I was free of paperwork. I was free of faxes and phone calls. I was free of corporate doublespeak and office politics. I was free of my PC. I was free of scanning, photocopying and pretending to care. Most of all, I had freed up 40 hours a week to do whatever the hell I wanted to do - and there were a lot of things in my life that I'd long neglected.

  I had big plans.

  I was going to purge my apartment. I was going to write a book. I was going to hit the gym every day and get totally buff. I was going to cook a nice meal for myself every night. I was going to start taking classes - any classes. I was going to practice guitar as much as I could. I was going to travel - anywhere. I was going to conquer that mountainous pile of laundry I'd neglected for weeks. I was going to sleep - oh lord, was I going to sleep. Last but not least, I was going to finally paint my bathroom - a bathroom I'd been meaning to re-paint for years. (*side note* my ex forced me to paint it "salmon"-coloured a couple of years back in a bid to save our relationship. I learned two very important things from this experience: Painting a bathroom will not save a relationship, and "salmon" is actually a man-friendly way of saying "pink".)

  Regardless, EI was going to buy me some much needed time. I was going to sort out the rest of my life before I really had to hunker down and look for another job. For some, collecting only 60% of a paycheque you'd received regularly for years may not seem sustainable, but for me it was enough (or so I thought). After all,  I had no real responsibilities other than paying rent and my phone bill. Ever more, I had no dependents.

  Even though EI may seem like heaven to those who've never had the opportunity to collect it, the reality is that it opens the gates of hell. You see, being unemployed is a festering cancer that pits you against all of your worst habits. It slowly eats away at your soul in a way that working for "the man" never quite did. Although there were a host of things I had been excited to accomplish with my newfound liberation, I soon realized that unbridled freedom itself is quite imprisoning.

  In the weeks that immediately followed my dismissal, I made a valiant attempt to wake up early every day and tackle the chores and goals on my "to-do" list. Though, when you have a predisposition for procrastination such as I, a life without structure is a recipe for disaster. My time management skills quickly began to erode. Even something as simple as doing laundry started to demand a large chunk of my day. Chores that seemed inconsequential when I was employed - such as making dinner, grocery shopping or even making my bed - suddenly became difficult. Within a month, I began waking up one-to-two hours later than I had been previously. And before I knew it, the biggest detriment to my life became the simple act of putting on pants.

  Without pants, I soon fell into a never-ending spiral of deeper procrastination, habitual napping, boredom, laziness, anxiety, masturbation, drinking, staying up way too late, and eventually depression. It didn't help my cause that unemployment happened to come in the dead of winter - which happened to be one of the worst winters in 50 years - either. Soon, I stopped leaving my apartment during the days and would sometimes go an entire week without seeing anyone. Although I tried my hardest to stay busy, the frustration at the reality of how unproductive I'd actually been that day left me prone in the fetal position on my couch. It was self-defeat at its ugliest. Although I'd managed to get a few things done in the early weeks of unemployment, the sustained disorder of my days left me standing in the bottom of a dark chasm (aka hell).

  It shouldn't have come to this. I really should have known better for no reason other than I had danced with the devil that is EI in the past. Though, collecting EI in my 20s had been a far different beast than collecting it in my 30s. From what I remember, everyone I knew back then had been unemployed, in school, or drunk - so we were all on the same level. You see, when you're in your 20s nobody expects anything from you. That, and everyone also seems to disregard the fact that you're an idiot. I assume this is because you have potential. You can still improve. It's funny, though, the slack people cut you comes to an immediate end once you reach the age of 30. Though the idea that we should all have our lives sorted out by our third decade of life is unrealistic, we somehow believe this as truth.

  As much as I've tried to distance myself from societal expectations, the truth is that I totally buy into it. Don't we all? More than anything, I despise the stigma of being unemployed. The sheer pressure to produce and sort myself out leaves me both stressed and with little time. After all, looking for jobs is, in itself, a full time job. The panic to re-join the world of the employed has been further heightened by the realization that EI has left me broke (because, let's face it, 60% of a paycheque doesn't go nearly as far as it did a decade ago).

 Though being in my 20s allowed me a certain amount of flexibility, I'm smarter now and I am blessed with 20/20 hindsight. When I was younger, I couldn't see the forest through the trees. But age and experience have taught me that a positive, life altering change is the result of a conglomerate of small actions. Though I'd allowed myself to slowly descend into the doldrums of unemployed life, I've come to see it for what it is. I have become acutely aware that I had to start doing things differently and become more proactive in my day-to-day life. After all, nothing good comes to those who wait (aka lying on a couch watching Dr. Phil all day).

  So one day, I put on a pair of shorts and started going to the gym. Sure, they weren't exactly pants, but this small action was a gateway to better things ahead. I started jogging and this seemed to kickstart my brain, which had taken a permanent vacation since I stopped working full time. With synapses firing, new ideas began to flow. And with these ideas I began to be productive once more.

  Though the exiguous act of going to "work out" may seem inconsequential, it's made all the difference in the world. My mental state quickly improved and a side effect of that is that I started to look better. Together, those things have helped me to regain the confidence I seemed to lose some months back. This positive flow of energy is infectious and soon I started to see that other people noticed me. I was no longer that dark, hunched figure people avoided eye contact with on the street. Strangers actually began to smile at me and this helped further perpetuate the idea that I was still relevant; a feeling that had disappeared the moment my job did.

  I've found my rhythm. It took a long time, but I've eventually found my way. Though I'm not out of the woods, I see a clearing in the distance. Sure, I still haven't exactly mastered the art of wearing pants for longer than a few hours in a day, nor have I become employed, but all of this will come in time. I think.

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