This letter came in last week, and a lovely blog reader who will now be known as “The Girl Sparky” helpfully volunteered to tackle the “sudden unemployment” part of the question. Her answer is below the letter/the fold.
Here is my (Jennifer, Captain Awkward’s) one additional suggestion to her beautiful post, dear Fed Up Fed:
Consider emailing or calling your coworkers and getting them together for a pot-luck of some kind.
Back in 2003, when I was in the first year of my graduate program, our financial aid did not come in until Week 13 of a fifteen-week semester. I lived in the same city as the school and already had housing/friends/a romantic partner in Chicago, but a lot of the students relocated here without that and had to live for several months and undertake an expensive art form without knowing when the money would come through and without having anyone local to turn to. In addition to pulling out all the 2-for-1 Subway coupons in the Chicago Reader every week and being Sandwich Buddies between classes, another thing the group did was to gather informally at the apartment of one of us who had a big, centrally-located place (with no furniture in it)(but that’s another story)(good for dance parties!). People would bring “a food” or “a drink” with them. Cheap vodka worked well, we’d mix it with the seemingly unlimited supply of V-8 that this student could “borrow” from his Aunt’s nearby storage room and a little hot sauce (“So we don’t get scurvy!” was the joke-that-was-not-really-a-joke), the cooks among us would turn whatever random groceries were on offer into a few hot dishes – spaghetti, big pots of ramen dressed up with a little green onion, baked mac & cheese with frozen broccoli in – and we’d sit on milk crates and dance and tell stories and Not Starve for one more week.
Some of those people are lifelong friends, and some are not, but if anybody from that cohort knocked on my door right now and needed a hot meal and a couch and a shower and some V-8 (to avoid scurvy!), I would open the door, if only because of what we shared that year, because of how we got each other through it.
If what you’re feeling right now is LONELY, Fed Up Fed? Maybe your coworkers are, too, and maybe there is some warmth and light to be found in a couple of those magical cheap-ass giant pizzas from Aldi in the living room and something silly on TV and a no-obligation jar by the door where if people have a few $ they throw it in and together you take care of each other a little, and you take turns making sure the jar goes to the food pantry or to the coworker who needs a little help to get through the week.
That might not be possible or comfortable for you, so I offer it as a suggestion only, but if you’ve been demurring out of pride or worry about crossing those professional lines, I’d just say: We need each other. It’s okay to need each other.
I’ll let The Letter Writer (The Fed Up Fed) and The Girl Sparky take it from here.
Dear Captain Awkward,
I (she/her/hers) am one of the hundreds of thousands of government workers who is currently furloughed. I am very fortunate to be in a place financially where I can survive missing/late paychecks, and I am also very fortunate to know that I will be getting back pay, unlike contractors (which include all custodial and food service staff). I have a supportive partner, and several friends who are also furloughed. In many ways, I’m very well situated right now.
But, this is taking a major toll on my mental and emotional wellbeing. I do not do well with unstructured time, and my ideal level of social interaction is having people around me making some noise, and having short interactions throughout the day (ie: working in an office). I also am happiest when working on discrete, manageable tasks that build to a larger goal that has a purpose I support. The shutdown has destroyed this for me.
I’ve scheduled activities and left the house every day. I’ve taken advantage of the many free things my city has to offer. I’ve signed up for volunteer opportunities that use the skills I use at work (still waiting to be called back about those). But I’m finding myself in tears, feeling utterly miserable, and knowing that ideal solution–going back to work–is entirely out of my hands (I don’t even have a Member of Congress to call!). I love my job, so I’m not ready to give it up yet and look for another one. But I want to stop being miserable. And people telling me how much they’d enjoy time off and a long-term vacation isn’t making it easier.
Do you have any tips for dealing with this?
Fed Up Fed
Dear Fed Up Fed,
First of all, I’m so sorry you are going through this. It’s messed up and it shouldn’t be happening.
I see a few different things going on in your letter and I want to tease them out from one another.
The first, and in some ways the easiest and most straightforward thing to deal with, is that you’ve just had a lot of unstructured time dumped in your lap – far more than you’re used to dealing with. In my industry, construction, it’s fairly common for us to be laid off at the end of a job and perhaps have to wait a few months for another job to come along. So I’ve gone through this experience myself and it can be surprisingly unpleasant and stressful! The more you’re used to having your time regimented and controlled by someone else who is Not You, the harder it is to figure out what the flibberty-gibbet to do with yourself when you suddenly have to make every single decision about how to fill every single minute of every single day.
Have you ever gone to an unfamiliar grocery store that’s a lot bigger than your usual one and been confronted with an aisle of toothpaste that seems to stretch on to eternity, with more brands and varieties of toothpaste than you ever imagined existed? It makes buying toothpaste suddenly fraught! This is true even if you know exactly what toothpaste you want.
But if you’re used to being told what toothpaste to buy, and now you’re not even sure what
toothpaste you, Fed Up Fed, personally want – that makes it ten times harder.
The bottom line is, capitalism trains us so hard and so thoroughly to obey our bosses and to suppress not only our ability but our DESIRE to make our own decisions about what to do with our time, that it can be really hard to deal when suddenly we don’t have a boss anymore. This isn’t our fault! It’s something that a lot of people struggle with.
Additionally, for people who are prone to depression, having a lot of unstructured time makes it a lot easier to slide into a depressive state. Been there, done that!
So the struggle is real. And you are already doing a lot of the right things to muddle through. For the benefit of those reading along, let’s make a quick list:
- Keep to a consistent sleeping and waking schedule
- Make sure you eat proper food and maintain your normal grooming/showering/etc habits
- Get regular exercise
- Make a list of tasks you’d like to accomplish, and work on at least one thing from the list every day. This list can be far-ranging – anything from a home improvement or repair project you’d like to tackle, to a new skill you’d like to learn. The important thing is that it’s (a) something you want and/or need to do (b) something you probably wouldn’t have as much time to focus on if you were doing your usual job (c) something that will make you feel like you accomplished something.
- Things that have gone on my list in the past include: learning to draw, sorting through all my piles of clothes to pick which ones need to be thrown away, practicing guitar for 30 minutes per day, replacing a cracked toilet seat, watching a whole series of youtube physics lectures about electromagnetism, and finally finishing Baldur’s Gate. I will leave it to the readers to guess which ones I did and did not do. I definitely did not do all of them. (I got pretty far in Baldur’s Gate though and will definitely finish it one of these days.)
- Be really gentle and forgiving with yourself if you don’t actually get to everything on your list. The list is meant to help you. The list is not your boss. It is not going to fire you or even judge you. YOU get to decide what you want to do. The list is a tool to help you decide. That’s all. I promise it’s okay.
That brings us to the second thing I see going on in your letter which is… bigger and more complicated.
Okay, so there’s one thing about USian culture that is frankly kind of screwed up, and that’s how we are encouraged to strongly associate our personal identity as humans with whatever it is we do for a living.
A lot of us know that’s BS. Even those of us who know that’s BS fall into the trap because all the cultural pressure in that arena is so very strong. If you’ll forgive my saying so, this is especially true in one particular area of the country that lacks a Congressional representative. What you “do” matters SO MUCH there. It determines your place in the social pecking order, it determines who will be friends with you, or even who will talk to you, and how seriously they will take you – so it’s natural that you would feel a little unmoored right now, when you’re not actually allowed to DO what you “do.”
Part of the solution involves reorienting yourself a bit, and that’s hard. And maybe it’s not something you feel like doing right now. That would be understandable. So you can take or leave this part of the advice (just like the rest of it, honestly) but you may find it worth thinking about anyway.
You are not your job! Your job is not you! What if you took this opportunity while you are involuntarily separated from your job to think about who YOU are, Fed Up Fed, when you’re not being a fed at all? Who would you be if you never went back to that job? What’s most important to you? You feel a strong need to work toward a larger goal that you believe in – that’s so cool! What do you want to build? If YOU got to be in charge of you for the rest of your life, and if you had a whole team of people to work alongside you to shape the reality you thought we should live in… what would that reality look like?
These are big questions. It’s okay if you don’t know all the answers. It’s okay to figure out one or two steps you can take toward working out those answers. Maybe this is something you can talk about with your other furloughed friends.
If you do have a sense of what the reality you want to build looks like, the best thing you can do is find other people who are working on that and build relationships with them – and figure out how the skills and experience you have fit in with what they are working on.
Whew, okay, that was a lot. Thing Three is pretty simple again, and that is that people who are telling you how grateful THEY would be for a “vacation” are being jerks. YOU get to decide that you are grateful for an involuntary “vacation” if you want to. But other people who are not you, who haven’t just had their lives upended against their will, who aren’t being used as pawns in a nakedly racist authoritarian political power grab, don’t get to tell you that you should feel good about it.
And I would hazard a guess that some of the people saying this stuff to you are saying it because they support that nakedly racist authoritarian political power grab; and they may be saying it because they have bought in to the right-wing propaganda that says your job is worthless and shouldn’t exist.
They’re saying it because they want to deny that the human suffering caused by that nakedly racist authoritarian power grab is real. That it matters. Well, I am here to tell you what you already know, which is that is IS real and it DOES matter. YOU matter.
You don’t have to let people saying that kind of thing to your face hide behind a veneer of civility. They’re full of steaming donkey manure AND they’re being rude to you.
You also don’t have to argue with them: the Carolyn Hax “Wow” could be deployed to good effect here.
Or you could be more direct: “That’s a really disrespectful thing to say.”
Or you could be EVEN MORE direct: “If you want time off that bad, nobody’s stopping you from quitting your job and getting yourself killed trying to sail your sailboat around the world, Chad.”
But you don’t have to be that direct. “Wow” is fine. Or you can say nothing at all and just file them away as jerks in your head. It sucks that they don’t respect you, but better they let you know that so you can use the information for good decision making in future.
All the best to you, Fed Up Fed. I have every confidence that you’ll figure out how to wrest control of your life back into your hands – and the good news is that when you do, you’ll find people can’t take it away from you again easily.
-The Girl Sparky
The Girl Sparky (she/her/hers) is an electrician and a union member. When not working for money to eat food and sleep inside, she reads lots of books, plays lots of video games, and works together with her fellow union members and with fellow members of her local DSA chapter to build a better world.