Being laid off, at any age, is life-changing. In an economy such as Florida has been experiencing, a lay-off at my age is terrifying.
My lifelong tendency always has been to take things into consideration and not overreact. To go into my thinking mode and to search for answers within when none are forthcoming from without. To never let anyone see me cry, much less to even know that I ever cry.
The layoff didn’t come without warning. For almost a year, my supervisor and I knew that that year probably would be my last, as the government scissors cut ever-deeper into the contracts of private non-profits. When finally the word — and the 2010 budget — came down from the hallowed halls of our Florida State Legislature, I received the dreaded call: June 30, 2010, would be the last of my work days, the last of my salary, and the last of my benefits in a job that I had held for 11 years, one month shy of 12.
We both cried on the phone that day, my supervisor and I. Not audible tears, but professional tears that seep, unbidden, into your eyes and trickle in sneaky paths down your cheeks and slither across your lips slowly, forcing you to taste their saltiness. We later admitted our tears to one another, my supervisor and I, when she came for her final visit with me.
Sporting my newly-designed Brave Face mask, I registered on line for unemployment and attended the mandatory meeting at the Workforce Solutions office. “Quite a clever new name for the Unemployment Office,” I thought to myself with more than a bit of sarcasm.
I began the State-mandated process of Job Seeking with mountains of hope. I was armed with promised references not only from my own social-services employer, but also from colleagues that included Judges and State’s Attorneys and Executive Directors of other agencies.
Even though I, unmodestly, thought my resume was stellar, I attended without complaint the required Seminar for the Jobseeking Professional and rewrote my resume along with the other Professionals. I tweaked, prodded and kneaded it into the most-currently- acceptable format, then hastened to post it on the Workforce Solutions site. Said resume was dispatched to hundreds of potential employers over the next 9 months.
On the advice of the Seminar’s instructor, I ordered a supply of business cards to “add that Professional Touch to my application portfolio.” My working title while I wasn’t working became “Administrative Professional.” That seemed to cover all the bases between the work I had done and the work I was capable of doing — kind of a one-size-fits-all description of my Professional Talents.
In actuality, it covered all the bases — from Administrative Assistant capable of pounding out 90 correct words-per-minute to Administrator capable of running an agency — out of my desperation to find paid employment of any kind.
I contacted by e-mail everyone in my workplace address book.
Generally, I despise asking anyone for anything. But, I forced myself to continually ask family, friends and colleagues about job openings and contacts.
Jokingly, when friends asked about prospects, I would respond that I was “considering all offers while enjoying my government-paid vacation.” I kept that upper lip as stiff as if it had been soaked in starch. I would find a job, even in this rotten economy, no problem!
The initial 9 months of unemployment yielded exactly 2 telephone interviews and 1 in-person interview. Despair was beginning to set in, to chip away at my Brave Face mask when a curious thing happened: I became too ill to seek employment. This status change led to a month-long hospitalization and a hiatus from the receipt of unemployment compensation. (My Catholic upbringing would not allow me to continue receiving benefits while I was unable to continue seeking work.)
Upon my return home from the hospital, I immediately returned to job-search mode and re-registered for unemployment benefits. Not allowing myself to think about other possibilities besides being employed and working 40-60 hours a week, I began sending out resumes once more.
One month later, with still no job prospects in sight and still not “officially” released to drive, I rode in my friend Cathy’s car back to Tampa for my hospital follow-up visit and what would be a life-changing moment: a diagnosis of “Stage 3 Endometrial Adenocarcinoma and Synchronous Neuroendocrine Appendiceal Carcinoma.” Cancer.
If ever there was a time to cry, that should have been it. Instead, my professional Brave Face mask morphed into the personal Brave Face mask that I have worn since that date.
But, with the change of masks and with the passing of time, there has been another change, a paradigm shift.
My former paradigm, the framework, both theoretical and practical, that dictated how I thought about and presented myself, contained only Candice, experienced social services administrator.
I finally have accepted and embrace the fact that life no longer intends me to be “employed,” in the traditional sense. I have shed the mantle of “employee” and with it the only description of me that I knew for almost my entire adult lifetime.
I am a social servant. I always have been a social servant. It was a career and a lifestyle that I knew for some 38 years. That never will go away. Never would I trade the families on AFDC and Food Stamps, the foster children, the adopted children or the runaway or homeless or arrested teens with whom I worked. I like to think that sometimes along the way I made some small differences in their lives.
Today, with the help and encouragement of family, friends and fellow writers, I have finally given myself permission to be employed by me and for me. I am shedding the chrysalis and spreading my writer’s butterfly wings.
Now, I am a writer. I always have been a writer and my penchant for words and for the turn of a phrase served me well during my career. And I can still use my pen to help others when the occasion arises. But now, I can be a writer for me. It is at once scary and emboldening. Behind my new Brave Face Mask, I still will cry — possibly even more often, as I turn more inward to draw inspiration for my words.
Helping others helped me. Helping others will continue to help me. The only difference will be that, from here on out, I no longer am paid to help others. Somehow, that feels so much better.
Original Art courtesy of Josephine Wall: