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Or the jobless, for that matter?  I think the most emotionally debilitating part of this situation has been the isolation it has created.  My interactions with other adult humans are pretty much limited to brief chit chat with the checkout clerk at the grocery store, a comment exchanged with another parent while we await the dismissal bell, and two minutes of conversation with my daughter’s basketball coach at the end of practice.

The kids are less affected as they continue to attend school, have play dates and are involved in activities like basketball, choir and the school play.   But my social circle, small to begin with due to our moving around and unconventional lifestyle (being a single mom to four by choice, a rare thing, even rarer in professional circles), has essentially disappeared. You don’t realized just how important work is for social interactions until you no longer have a job.  As blogger Joe Malik, in “Unemployed in Tacoma” remarks with a measure of humor:

“Until I was summarily booted out of the place, I didn’t realize how much I had come to depend on my workplace for social connections. And that’s the really pathetic part, because most of the people I worked with were generally annoying, or downright despicable human beings.

So why do I miss some of them so much?

Well, the people you work with – whether you like it or not – are kind of like your surrogate family. You see them every day. You know about what goes on in their personal lives… most of all, the workplace seems to be one of the few places that many of us have a chance to make any sort of deep, personal connection with people.”

It is sad how that ‘deep, personal connection’ turns out to be the most superficial of connections once it’s severed. Former colleagues (one of whom recently characterized my blog as a “depressing website” in an email to another former colleague) are the first to disappear off your social landscape. Another place for making those connections is church, but since we left our church (in response to what I considered an unfortunate change in leadership) shortly before becoming unemployed and homeless we discovered those ‘friendships’ to be similarly superficial.  As I’ve remarked before group membership (even unofficial) is what counts.  When you are out, you are really out!

What about friends and family, you ask?  Friends, and family, while initially concerned, seem to grow increasingly uncomfortable with and tired of your unemployed/homeless status the longer it lingers on.  Compassion fatigue settles in. Your status overshadows everything, and while you are both bored with the subject, like an elephant in the room, it cannot be avoided.  So instead they avoid you.  New acquaintances are both curious and repelled by your situation – offering generic words of comfort while withdrawing from interactions with you the way one might do with someone infected with a peculiarly grotesque and contagious disease.  They marvel, “How do you manage?” while backing away. Who invites a leper out for drinks?

Even social networking falls by the wayside as your experience begins to vary substantially from your connections on LinkedIn, your ‘friends’ on Facebook, and the members of all those yahoo groups to which you belong.  It becomes harder for you to relate to their lives and events which begin to seem increasingly complacent and superficial to you, while your struggle with very essential, bottom-line issues is foreign and discomfiting to them. BTW- along this line I plan to start a 2nd blog for single parents in this situation in which there can be multiple authors and points of view, support and resource exchange.  I guess if you lose your group memberships you need to find, or start, new groups!

It’s odd the way this isolation makes itself felt at times.  For instance, most recently, the kids’ school was having one of those jog-a-thon fundraisers to fund future fieldtrips and each family was supposed to find sufficient sponsors to raise $150 per child.  Where do you turn, school fundraiser, or Scout cookie or nut sales, in hand?  To your colleagues, friends, members of your church and the other organizations to which you belong.  And although so starved for conversation that I’ve frequently engaged the checkout clerk in lengthy exchanges to the despair of the people in line behind me, I haven’t been able to bring myself to solicit jog-a-thon sponsorships from complete strangers! 

I’m not the only unemployed person to feel this sense of isolation.  In “The Lonesome City Blues,” Pulitzer Prize winner and former LA Times columnist, Al Martinez, blogs about the loneliness of being unemployed; saying of the jobless, “We occupy a landscape of spiritual desolation.”

Among the unemployed, blog after blog is filled with tales of isolation and loneliness, with the feeling of being cut off from the world around us.  Some people struggle with depression, others tell of the loss of hope, and anxiety about the future.

And a column in USA Today, titled, How Joblessness Hurts Us All, states the following:

“Recent studies confirm the results of research during the Great Depression — unemployment badly frays a person’s ties with his community, sometimes permanently. After careful analysis of 20 years of monthly surveys tracking Americans’ social and political habits, our colleague Chaeyoon Lim of the University of Wisconsin has found that unemployed Americans are significantly less involved in their communities than their employed demographic twins. The jobless are less likely to vote, petition, march, write letters to editors, or even volunteer. They attend fewer meetings and serve less frequently as leaders in local organizations. Moreover, sociologist Cristobal Young’s research finds that the unemployed spend most of their increased free time alone.  

Moreover, beyond civic disengagement, places with higher joblessness have more pervasive violence and crimes against property. They have more fragile families with harsher parenting, and higher rates of mental disorder and psychological distress among both the unemployed and the employed. These social consequences are a powerful aftershock to communities already reeling economically.”

Our social landscape is changing, shifting and cracking, in ways the still gainfully employed and big financial institutions may not initially notice but will surely feel in the future.

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A caveat – this is an entirely personal POV post.  I’ve never been a particularly vain person, never had reason to be.  And no one who knows me would consider me ‘high maintenance.’  I have short wash and wear hair, nails that haven’t seen a manicure since grade school, and a ‘beauty’ routine that uses less than a handful of products. Regardless, like any American woman influenced by the media and my own desire to look attractive, I exfoliated, plucked, and moisturized, dabbed on a bit of scent, and slicked on some lipstick on a daily basis.

But when we had to pack up our belongings and move to tents this summer I wasn’t thinking about looks. It was like an extended camping trip, right?  Who packs make-up to go camping? My primary concern was that the family was fed and safe.  Well, clean, and clothed were secondary.  That’s how basic it got.  I packed soap, shampoo, toothpaste and brushes and a first aid kit, not lipstick, moisturizer and Crest Whitestrips!

The two months we spent in the tents camping out in the parks were tough. Mid-summer in California is dry and the campsites had seen constant use since the beginning of the season. It was impossible to get and keep clean – walking back to the tents from the public showers (where a quarter bought you 3 minutes of hot water) we would begin to acquire a fine coat of grime, the first of many layers before our next shower.  We spent hours in the sun and even liberal doses of sunscreen couldn’t keep us from developing deep freckled tans.  Fingernails broke in the setting up and taking down of tents, bug bites accumulated and festered.  Whether it was due to squinting in the sun or fretting over our future, new lines were etched onto my face, leaving me with the appearance of a perpetual frown. My “beauty routine” consisted of putting on deodorant.  I ignored the damage – there wasn’t much I could do about it anyway. 

Since moving into the trailer some things have improved.  It’s perfectly easy to brush our teeth after meals for instance and we shower much more frequently.  We can keep clothes clean after laundering them – something that was hard to do in the tents.  I can even, though not easily, color my hair again.  I retrieved my moisturizer from our storage unit but am uninspired to mess with makeup.  When you aren’t going to work every day, the need to look professional fades. Depression, poor diet and lack of activity have layered on the pounds, and with the sun damaged skin and lined face; I look five years older than I did this time last year.  Just one more toll this journey has taken.

Click for post soundtrack – Lean On Me

When faced with stress or adversity, the experts tell us it behooves us to have a ‘strong support network’.   Stress, especially long-term stress, is debilitating.  It causes problems- physical health problems and mental health problems.  Media outlets are full of articles on the recession related mental health crisis – reporting that more people are seeking help from mental health professionals, the rise in prescriptions of anti-depressants, and at the extreme end, individuals beset by helpless feelings committing suicide.  It’s good to have a loving spouse, caring family, supportive friends, or a faith community to turn to when you lose your job or home.  People who do, we are told, are less likely to succumb to depression or lose hope.

Losing first our home and savings, and then my job, has been very stressful.  The first two months of being homeless were an adrenalized stress- I felt hyped up with anxiety and fear while we lived in tents.  I didn’t feel we were safe and my unemployment checks were tied up in a paperwork snafu.  Since acquiring and moving into our trailer my stress has morphed into a more steady and continuous pressure.  The uncertainty of our future weighs on me and after searching steadily for a new job without success, I doubt my ability to greatly influence that future. 

Where is our support network?  Well, it’s largely internet-based and I would characterize it as made of up people who know of me, as opposed to knowing me. And I appreciate every one of our cyberspace supporters! We do have caring family who offer what help they can but they live far from us and are themselves limited by the economy.  Locally what I perceived of as friendships with people from work and church have turned out to be more a matter of ‘club’ membership- and we don’t belong to those clubs anymore.  It appears I have a regrettable tendency to mistake friendly behavior for friendship!  I am a fiercely passionate and loyal friend and unreasonably expect an equivalent commitment from the people I befriend.  A commitment they might not want or find possible to make.  It is I expect, the reason I never married.  Too high expectations.   So now I draw what solace I can from my animals- always loving and sympathetic- and nature, cheap wine, and intermittent contacts with friendly people.  I guess one of the things I miss is feeling like I can be a friend- when people do contact us it’s in the spirit of charity, not because they like us or want to spend time with us.

I have always been a fairly resilient person – perhaps not overly strong or brave but not weak or fearful either.  I try to do what needs to be done.  As a single mom by choice I’m used to relying on myself and I’ve prided myself on my ability to be self-sufficient.  Like my own mother in times of crisis I try to maintain a sense of humor.  Perhaps it’s a bit darker than most people’s but I still find things to laugh about.  But this unrelenting stress has worn down my resiliency and lately I find myself feeling more fragile and less capable. It’s hard to be alone in this. I soldier on, one foot in front of the other, one day at a time. But I have no sense of where we are going anymore.

I wish I had someone to lean on.  A shoulder to cry on, a chest to rest against, an embrace in which to find comfort.

I send up my S.O.S.
A message in a bottle set out to sea
It just reads “Soul in distress”
But nobody ever got back to me
Can you hear me now

[Can you hear me now – Emmylou Harris]

Four people were found dead in an Illinois house just before Thanksgiving, and the deaths are being labeled a murder/suicide.  Despite the grim nature of the story I had to read the article- sure I would see that the father (who apparently killed his wife and sons and then committed suicide) had recently lost his job.  The article didn’t say but I would not be surprised if that comes out in a later article.  It wouldn’t be the first time.  

According to an article on CBSNews.com job loss not only affects individuals financially – it can affect their mental health as well.  Yeah, well duh.

Over the past 9 or 10 months the Labor Department has regularly reported that the number of Americans who are unemployed is at a record high. Those who have lost their jobs not only worry about money or paying their mortgage, but also their families and how society views them. With all this stress, unemployed folks can end up depressed and lonely as they try to fill the void.

“Spouses are fighting more often, people may turn to drugs or alcohol, smoking, overeating,” says Dr.  Sudeepta Varma , psychiatrist at New York University Medical Center. “Losing the job… isn’t so much the problem, but the anxiety and the depression and the substance abuse [that can follow]… are often extremely more damaging than the job loss.”

Historically, the suicide rate follows the unemployment rate; Dr. Varma says that suicide rates do tend to go up during times of economic crisis.  So far the link between the economy and rising suicides is only anecdotal since there is generally a two-year lag in national suicide figures.  But browse the headlines over the past year or so and you’ll find stories like the laid off 55-year-old Petaluma building official who killed himself, the 90-year-old Ohio widow who shot herself as authorities arrived to evict her from her home, and most notably for the sorrow and horror it provokes, the Los Angeles man who killed his five children and their mother, and then took his own life after he and his wife lost their jobs.  

According to an article titled ‘Economic Crisis is Getting Bloody’ , which details recent mass killings related to job and home loss as well as suicides, the Elkhart, Indiana coroner estimates that a quarter of the suicides in that town (22 so far this year)  are directly related to the economy.  Elkhart had an unemployment rate of 15% in September 2009. 

Many mental-health crisis and suicide hotlines are reporting a surge in calls from Americans feeling despair over financial losses and the  only up spin on that is that people are seeking help and so may not join the suicide statistics or grisly headlines. 

It’s hard to know where to turn when you suffer setbacks like the loss of your job or home.  Or both. Former colleagues, relieved to have escaped the scythe of unemployment, retreat.  Friends commiserate but are busy with their own working lives and grow weary of hearing of your plight. Social services are a confusing warren of crowded and seemingly unconnected offices requiring similar (but never the same) stacks of paperwork and manned by unsympathetic and overworked staff.  Forms filled out disappear with a ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’ rejoinder.

It’s easy to become depressed, feel powerless, lost and lonely.  Your actions seem futile and you are overcome by a lassitude. You lie awake nights agonizing over dwindling bank accounts and mounting bills.  Or you self medicate so that you don’t lie awake once again dwelling on all those things that you seem to have no control over.  Stress has corrosive effect on happiness and joy dissipates in the face of constant anxiety.

As months of fruitless job searches pass by it’s hard to maintain hope.  And without hope you are left with all those other inhabitants of Pandora’s Box as your companions on the slippery slope.

Box Car Kids

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