Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Them negative waves

I want to finish off my series of blog posts about living on the wrong side of the poverty line with a look at what it does to you as a person. The poor and unemployed are always criticized for having a bad attitude, for being lazy, and for being persistently negative. Well, when you live like that, it's pretty much impossible to keep a positive attitude for long. I only had a few months of much less income than I'm used to while I tried to start up a business, followed by two months of virtual unemployment when that failed, and it affected me really badly. I was depressed, grumpy, permanently on edge, and negative about absolutely everything. I've never experienced long-term poverty, and I hope I never do, but the terrifying reality is that for millions, both here in the US, and back home in Europe, this is their life.

Kelly's Heroes: one of my all-time fave movies, mostly for this quote.
When you're at the bottom of the economic heap, negative attitudes become a survival trait. Slowly, inevitably, and inexorably, your entire thinking turns towards staving off disaster, not to finding ways towards a better life. Everything you do is eventually dominated by these four negative principles.

I mustn't

Once money becomes tight, you have to respond by cutting things out. You don't go out, you don't buy that tasty treat, and you don't splurge on luxuries. Then you start cutting deeper, and start denying yourself to basic food, medicine, and essentials, but you feel like it's the right thing, because you're trying to live within your means. Self-denial becomes your way of life. Your first instinct is always to say no, and that sets the tone for everything else. You're surrounded by adverts for things you can't have, and stories of your friends doing things you can't do, and you have to train yourself to respond by thinking, deep down, those things are not for me.

I can't

You soon start to realize that often, you're genuinely helpless. You're doing all you can, but it's not enough. If you don't have the cash, you simply can't pay that bill that's due tomorrow. If that guy who owes you money doesn't pay up, there's nothing you can do about it. If someone buys those games you put on eBay, you have some money for food: if they don't, you don't. You've left countless messages for the guy who promised you some freelance work this week, but if he's not calling you back, there's nothing you can do.  It's exacerbated by people helpfully telling you that all you need to do is... with no understanding that if you don't have those few bucks spare, it's simply not possible. Everything gets filtered through the viewpoint of whether something's actually feasible with your limited resources and without the cooperation of others, and most of the time, the answer is no.

You also become painfully, horrifically aware of your personal limitations. You look at endless jobs, and initially you're sure you could do them but then you realize you don't quite meet the official requirements. You talk to people and they tell you that your resume isn't good enough,  you need to go back to school, and you don't have the necessary skills. Sure, I can use Photoshop perfectly well, but I don't have an MA in Graphic Design with at least five years creating imagery for a major client, so I guess that doesn't count. It doesn't take long before you doubt your own ability so badly that it's paralyzing. You end up responding to every opportunity by thinking, I'd love to, but I can't.

I'm worthless

When you're struggling to stay positive, the last thing you need is other people beating you down, but that's usually what you get. Western societies have a very simple measure of someone's value. Money. When you haven't got any, you're quite literally worthless.

You've got people telling you to your face that getting a job is easy, and anyone who can't get a job inside a week is either stupid or lazy or both. There's a screaming, ranting, well-funded news media telling you 24/7 that the poor are lazy, workshy, scrounging, useless bums who are ruining life for everyone else. I was even told by one kind-hearted soul that people without jobs "might as well just die because they're not contributing to the economy, so who cares if they can't afford medical care."

But, you have to shut your ears to the endless insults, screw up your courage and plough on, applying for job after job, and then...

... nothing.

I must have sent out over 400 job applications in two months. I received precisely seven acknowledgements (of which two were rejections). I applied for about 160 freelance gigs. I got four responses. In other words, 98% of the people I contacted - in response to their ads - ignored me. I wasn't even worth an email. I didn't merit thirty seconds of someone's time, let alone an interview or an actual job. The employers didn't even show up for half the phone interviews they arranged. Recruiters wouldn't return my phone calls. After twenty-five years in business, with a degree from Cambridge University, nobody would even talk to me.

Some days, I actually started to wonder whether I even existed. I used to check my email sent boxes to make sure I hadn't imagined the applications I'd been sending out. I shut myself off from friends and family, and spent all day hiding in my office. I kept telling myself I was looking for work, but in reality, I was simply unable to speak to people. I seriously started to doubt my own sanity at times.

It's pointless

Insanity, as it's often said, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. But that's exactly what we expect job-seekers to do. I was spending fifteen or sixteen hours a day applying for jobs, chasing freelance gigs, and getting nothing back. Just keep going, people assured me. It's a numbers game. Sooner or later, something will come up.

Actually, that's bullshit. It's mostly a contacts game. It's very rare to get a job by simply sending out resumes. Most people get jobs through knowing someone and having an introduction. Every interview I got, bar one, was via an agency, not via sending off my resume. I'm fortunate enough to have enough skills and experience that an agency would actually take me on - though even they didn't respond to me until I got an introduction via a friend.

Eventually you start to realize you're wasting your time. Why bother spending all day, every day, playing the job-hunt lottery, getting more and more depressed, and achieving nothing? At least if you don't apply for anything today, nobody's going to ignore you, and you're not going to get your hopes up for no reason, right?  And, in many cases, even if you do get the job, it probably won't be enough to cover the bills. So after a while, you think fuck it, I'll play a video game, surf the net, watch crap TV, and lie in bed. At least that's better than thinking fuck it, I'll go knock over a gas station and buy some crack, but frankly, you reach a point where that doesn't seem any worse than any other plan.

You'd maybe like to do something creative - after all, if I'd spent those 15 hours a day for two months solidly writing instead of chasing crap jobs, I'd have written a whole bunch of stories or maybe a novel. In retrospect, that would probably have been a smart move - my current portfolio of just three stories brings me in a few hundred bucks every few months, even after nearly two years, and maybe writing some more could actually add up to a significant, if insufficient income. But when your head is full of negative waves, you don't feel like writing, drawing, or whatever your medium is. It's not the blues, where you pick up your guitar and sing soulfully about the bad stuff - it's that mind-numbing blackness where you can't think about anything except getting through to the end of the day, and wondering why you bothered to get up. All that goes through your head, every single day, is I mustn't, I can't, I'm useless and I'm going to fail.

It's not surprising that so many people give up on themselves, on the system, and on their future. Being poor is a real test of mental endurance. You have to keep picking yourself up day after day after monotonous, soul-crushing, joyless day. Time and time again, you have to brave the self-doubt, the financial worry, and the barrage of negativity, ignorance and criticism from other people. You have to cut yourself off from a society that only values people for their economic status and purchasing power.

Your entire life is a cycle of worry followed by (if all goes well) debilitating relief. You don't sleep when you know that tomorrow, the electricity bill is due, and if you can't raise $200 from somewhere within the next few hours, they'll cut off your net connection (which hampers your ability to find work), your phone charger (ditto), your cold food storage, your cooking facilities, your cooling and heating, your lighting, and your sole source of entertainment - and then charge you more money you haven't got to reconnect it. And that's not an occasional thing - that's every damn night, every damn bill. And when you're tired and stressed, you don't present yourself well to potential employers. You know it, and that's another source of stress.

And yet, through all of this endless crap, you somehow have to keep trying to get yourself out of the hell you're in. You have to keep telling yourself it's a mother beautiful job and it's gonna be there, even when you see it blown to hell in front of your face time and time again. Sadly, there's only so much optimism you can draw on.

2013 has so far been much better. I had one interview, and I was offered a job starting the next day. After just four days of earning money, and with the confidence that I will be able to pay all my bills this month and have a little left over for some treats, I feel like a different person. I feel valued. I feel intelligent. I have confidence in myself once again. I feel healthier. I sleep soundly at night, and I have a reason to get up each morning. I'm gradually getting my creative mojo back. I smile.

I have hope.


jmatheny said...

Step two is to feel the way you feel now without a job. Do not let the work/consume/die treadmill define you. You are so much more.

Kate Fosk said...

Read all three of these Matt, powerful words - Kate

Matt Kelland said...

I don't mind not having a job, Joe. I'm not a big consumer either. I mind not being able to afford the basics, like food, fuel, and a place for my family to live. A job is kind of essential for meeting those needs, at least in my present circumstances.

This is why part of my Five Year Plan is to build a place that I own outright, which consumes minimal energy, and allows me to grow and hunt a substantial portion of my food. The more I can reduce my dependence on money, the happier I will be.