Friday, September 21, 2018

The Trauma of Being Laid Off

I was laid off last week. It’s the second time I’ve been laid off in my advertising career. The first time, people congratulated me on getting my first layoff under my belt. Apparently it’s a right of passage in the industry. Despite it being so commonplace, it was incredibly painful to me. At that time, the recession was just beginning, the automotive industry was falling into bankruptcy, and I was a single mother of a small child. Losing my job meant losing everything. When it happened, I’m embarrassed to admit, I sobbed like a baby. I sobbed while they told me, I sobbed while security escorted me out, I sobbed in my car on the way home.

Never again, I promised myself. Never again would I let advertising hurt me like this.

I knew if I were ever laid off again, I would be prepared for it. And truly, in the ten years since that first lay off, I have emptied my personal belongings, cleaned my desktop and prepared myself for the fateful call. Despite having endured countless layoffs at ad agencies since that time, I myself have not lost my job again.

At least not until last week.

And last week, knowing that rumors were flying around that layoffs were coming again, I cleared my desk of anything important. Cleared my desktop of anything not important. Saved what files I needed and braced myself for the worst. And despite all the preparation, I was entirely shocked when my phone did ring. For whom bell tolls? Well, it tolled for me.

Despite every intention of handling this layoff with grace and detachment … instead I cried like a baby once again. But why? I’m married. My house is paid for. It is not a recession. I have every reason to handle this layoff as a minor blip in a long and successful career. I was not prepared to react to this second layoff as I did the first … as traumatic.

And yet there it is.

It was and still is traumatic. Losing your job without warning and without really believing it’s going to happen, is traumatic. Aside from being dumped by a lover, being dumped from a job is pretty high up there on the cruel jolts we can experience. It has all the same personal elements. You’ve been summarily dismissed. You no longer matter, your contributions are not valued. For whatever reason (even if it’s just financial), you’ve been told that you are no longer wanted or needed. This is rejection, writ large. So there you are, with your manila envelope and your hurt feelings, trying to figure out how to get out of the building without your key card.

Now my usual way of dealing with a traumatic event would be to immediately fix it. I would start searching for a new job, applying posthaste to every job within a 20-mile radius that might possibly consider me. In a rush to escape the pain of being rejected, I would set to work on being accepted somewhere else as quickly as possible.

My therapist counseled me otherwise.

She suggested I do nothing. She suggested I sit with my feelings for now. I have a severance package. There’s unemployment compensation to apply for. And there’s that spouse of mine who can certainly keep the bills paid.

My husband also suggested I take some time to figure out what I want to do next.

Both of these suggestions leave me dealing with … trauma. Everything in me suggests that the best thing to do is to avoid all of the bad feelings. I should do everything I can to keep the bad feelings at bay. I have to admit to glancing at the jobs in my area on Indeed and on LinkedIn. I have to admit to debating whether or not to just take a job — any job — to be anything but job-less.

But instead, I’ve decided to heed my therapist’s advice. Maybe there’s something to this? Perhaps I should allow myself to grieve the loss.

I’ve started reading a book I couldn’t get into a few months ago. This time I really took to it. It’s called The Trauma of Everyday Life and it’s by one of my favorite writers, Mark Epstein. Epstein combines both his experience as a psychoanalyst and as a Buddhist to share his thoughts on trauma and recovery. And in his book, he echoes some of what my therapist suggests:
A critical component of what became known as The Noble Eightfold Path, Realistic View counseled that trauma, in any of its forms, is not a failure or a mistake. It is not something to be ashamed of, not a sign of weakness, and not a reflection of inner failing. It is simply a fact of life. This attitude toward trauma is at the heart of the Buddha’s teachings, although it is often overlooked in the rush to embrace the inner peace that his teachings promised. But inner peace is actually predicated upon a realistic approach to the uncertainties and fears that pervade our lives.
You don’t get to inner peace by avoiding your negative feelings. You don’t get over the trauma of being rejected by pretending it never happened and replacing the job or the lover with another job or lover. You find relief through allowing yourself to experience your feelings, as they are. Allowing yourself to grieve. Allowing yourself to be sad. This can be a challenge, however, as everyone around you is trying to discourage you from feeling those bad thoughts too.

It’s amazing how determined we all are to avoid bad feelings. Since losing my job, I can’t tell you how many people have immediately remarked that I’ll find a better job. Everyone’s in a big rush to not feel sad. It’s human nature.

Other people have reacted to my news with, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that!”or “How awful!” And this makes me feel better. I read those comments and emails and I nod my head, “Yes, it is awful. I feel terrible.” There is relief in that. Almost a weird kind of acceptance.

How odd.

I’m still sad. It’s only been a week and apparently I’m going to have to sit with this feeling of rejection a bit longer. But in a way, just allowing myself to be sad that I lost a job I really enjoyed, and I lost the opportunity to work with people I really loved, is making me feel better. I feel calmer and deeply rooted in myself, if that makes any sense.

The other day I decided to walk to my therapist’s office instead of driving. I’m usually in such a hurry all the time that I don’t get to walk anywhere. My neutral setting is a “rush” setting. I think this is true in the case of most working mothers. I’ve always got to be somewhere and I’m always running late or disappointing someone. There’s a constant clamor in my head where I’m trying to keep everyone happy simultaneously and quite frankly, it’s an impossible task.

Walking to therapy was a big deal.

It was a beautiful, humid morning. The moisture in the air combined with the sunlight to create a sort of glorious haze over the park behind my house. The leaves on the trees were suffused with a living light. I ran my hand through a row of puffy-tailed plants along the sidewalk. I watched my hand move through that morning light, move through those puffs, and I heard a Blue Jay’s siren from above. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard a Blue Jay. A lawnmower started in the distance. Someone was walking their old dog.

And it was all so beautiful, I felt a kind of joy I hadn’t felt in a long time.

I wouldn’t have felt that feeling on that particular day, if I hadn’t gotten laid off, and if I hadn’t allowed myself to mourn the loss. I’m sad, but I’m also joyous. I contain both feelings, fully. As Mark Epstein puts it,
When we stop distancing ourselves from the pain in the world, our own or others’, we create the possibility of a new experience, one that often surprises because of how much joy, connection, or relief it yields. Destruction may continue, but humanity shines through.
I’m hoping I’ll shine through in this. I can’t say I know what exactly is next, but I’m open to it. I’m open to all of it.