The campaign aimed at destigmatising mental health issues spearheaded by the young royals, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, has received a lot of media attention lately. Prince Harry went public about his own struggles following the loss of his mother at a young age, making the point that bottling up negative emotions can have grave consequences to your psychological health.
This applies to the unemployed too. When you’re not part of society’s workforce, by default you’re marginalised from it, and this can be detrimental to your confidence and self-esteem. Not having an income impacts your social life. As bonding with friends at the pub no longer becomes an option, you may have become isolated from your usual social circle, and loneliness can have devastating effects on your psyche.
A job gave structure to your day – you had to be up and out of the house by a certain time – but not having a job to go to means it doesn’t matter if you never get out of bed, sleep during the day or stay up all night. Empty days roll into empty weeks, empty weeks into empty months. The loss of a sense of purpose in life can make you go literally crazy.
In January I had reckoned I’d have a job by end of February, just because the first month of the year tends to be slow. In February I told myself by March I’d be working, and noticed, slightly panicked, that the balance on my bank account was reaching critical point. By end of March I had stopped leaving the house for anything other than local grocery shopping , using public transport only for my fortnightly trips to the JobCentre and any job interviews. I cut down my meals to one and a half a day and, for extra reassurance, made nominal savings wherever I could – I cancelled my Netflix subscription and switched my facial cream from Liz Earle’s to one sold at Lidl for less than two pounds.
My JobCentre adviser reminded me my contribution-based jobseeker’s allowance would run out at the end of May. “How are you getting on with your job search?” It was more an admonition than a question.
By then my CV had been submitted to all recruitment agencies in town and most online job sites. I’d been to several job interviews that led to…nothing. Even attempts at being ‘proactive’, such as sending speculative letters directly to prospective employers and hounding friends in the industry to ask about vacancies, had ended up in a black hole.
Losing My Mind
Anyone who’s been unemployed for a length of time knows how soul-destroying job hunting eventually becomes. The amount of time you spend preparing a job application doesn’t seem to be compensated by the outcomes. You may have expanded your job search to include positions that are beneath your qualifications, only to be met with a wall of silence. Or you dared going for your dreams and applied in an area you have no experience in but would love to get into. Those are called ‘dream’ jobs for a reason.
Well-meaning friends trying to be helpful can end up sending you further down the dark hole. A comment meant as a compliment can have the opposite effect and make you feel totally inadequate: “But you have loads of experience, you’re good at your job, and you speak five languages! How come you can’t find a job?!” The sympathetic ones won’t make accusations but would like you to meet them for lunch in town so they can comfort you, forgetting that lunch isn’t free, and London has the most expensive transport system on planet Earth.
The positivity tips I wrote about on this blog in the New Year no longer motivated me on a day-to-day basis. I’m known for being a steadfast optimist, but how long can one go on feeling motivated writing letters saying how good you are at a job, when all you get back is one continuous rejection. And, if, additionally, you suffer any upsets in your personal relationships during unemployment, they are bound to hurt twice as much and add to your feelings of inadequacy and failure.
Gradually, I started losing interest in tidying up the house, stopped going to libraries, stopped exercising, stopped answering phone calls and emails that weren’t strictly related to job search. All I wanted was the world to leave me alone. I had nothing to say to anyone anyway. The less I did, the more exhausted I felt, the more sleep I needed, the less I wanted to leave the house.
My day-to-day was starting to resemble that of a prisoner observing the world through the grid of a cell’s window, talking to birds and clouds because there is no one else to talk to. In my confused mental state, I wondered if being a prisoner would be more sociable than life as a jobseeker. There would be inmates, even wardens. I’d have no rent nor electricity bills to worry about, and meals would be provided for. I wouldn’t have a job, but I wouldn’t have to feel guilty for not having one either because my job would be to feel guilty for my crime. I wouldn’t have to prove myself in endless cover letters because I’d belong to the lowest rung of society anyway. I’d be a permanent reject rather than a potential on-and-off one.
It could be jobseekers’ fatigue, but some days I feel as if I’m losing my mind.
Meaning of Life
Being unemployed for seven months, utterly broke and heart-broken, with no family nor partner to rely on for support, made me question what the meaning of life is. What is the point of staying alive?
The other evening a friend said to me, “Do you realise most of our jobs will be taken over by robots soon? There’ll be no jobs for any of us!” According to this article by Yuval Noah Harari, by 2050 there will be a new class of ‘useless’, unemployable people because artificial intelligence will have replaced their jobs. The author says there is no meaning in human life, except what is ascribed to it by our minds. In order to generate meaning, some resort to computer games, some to virtual reality games, others to religion or to consumerism, which, Harari says, are ultimately also fantasy games.
But if I’m not interested in Pokémon hunting nor in collecting points to go to heaven, how do I fill my existence with enough purpose to keep me from slashing my wrists? It’s no wonder so many jobless people end up falling into depression.
If you’re unemployed and think you may be suffering from, anxiety, depression or any other mental health issues, you might like to know the charity Shaw Trust has a programme called Aim4Work, which offers support in getting you back into work for up to nine months, and even after you start working. You can call them on 0800 389 0177 or email Aim4Work@shaw-trust.org.uk to check your eligibility.
As part of our upbringing, we are taught to put on a brave face and march on even when things become unbearable. We live by the motto “I can’t go on. I will go on,” as Samuel Beckett put it. Sometimes we can go on for a long time, unaware of our pain, until something breaks us open.
For me that moment came when I was queuing at the till of my local Lidl a little over a month ago. A young Muslim couple was standing in front of me with a large trolley. I had a full basket myself, but the wife turned to me and kindly offered me her place in the queue, as I had less shopping than them. I had given up my place in the queue to other shoppers countless times before, but this was the first time anyone had offered me the same. Lidl tills can scan incredibly fast, and trying to shove all my shopping into three small cloth bags within seconds proved to be an inefficient idea. I started dropping my groceries everywhere while I fumbled with my wallet under the chilly look of the woman at the till. Her judgement of my clumsiness unnerved me. The faster I tried to put my shopping away, the more things I dropped, the more ridiculous I felt. Before I knew, the husband of the Muslim woman was picking up my groceries from the floor and helping me bag them, as if he was my bagging assistant.
As I paid for my shopping, profusely thanking the man for his help, my eyes caught his wife’s. I saw her face, framed by her scarf, her eyes dark, warm and sparkly. She was smiling, but it wasn’t a condescending smile. It was a look that said “I know”, which brought me instant comfort.
It was the end of March. London was still in shock from the terror attack on Westminster Bridge the week before. A few days later several Muslim women had formed a human chain on the bridge in solidarity for the victims. I’d felt ashamed at the bigotry these admirable women have to suffer daily from those who think all Muslims are terrorists, and I had silently apologised to them. It occurred to me that the human soul works in mysterious ways. Maybe the Muslim woman at Lidl knew something about my pain as I knew about hers?
As I walked out into the street, laden with bags, thick tears started streaming down my face. I took the back streets and sobbed all the way home. The kindness of two strangers had saved my day. Someone had cared enough to reach out and help when I hadn’t even asked. Because asking for help is so hard.
Unemployment messes with your head big time. I’m clearly at the end of my tether.