Dec 11, 2014, 07:02AM

A New Job Doesn't Hide Old Scars

Long-term Unemployment PTSD is a very real thing.

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They ask me if I’m excited. The word is as enigmatic as the emotion is elusive. After three years of unemployment, pushing through bias and prejudice, navigating the waste and debris of a broken system, enduring countless emotional blows from family and friends too blinded by politics to search for truth, “excitement” is an ambitious goal.

I find myself staring at the phone suspiciously when an unknown caller rings, my stomach clenching, my heart pounding. Is it them? Have they reconsidered? Are they rescinding the offer? I read the job description over and over, analyzing each bullet point and cross-referencing with my previous work experience. I second-guess myself: question the validity of my skills and training. I frantically flip through the files in my mind, seeking to recall and refresh, to restore the knowledge and confidence that seems to have disintegrated over time. It’s to no avail. Everything has changed. I’ve changed. I wonder if my abilities are even still relevant in the industry.

Long-term Unemployment PTSD is a very real thing. The hardship and stress gnaws the emotional flesh and fibers of identity, creating gaps and holes, leaving only clusters of clarity and strength. Not unlike abuse and illness, long-term unemployment is trauma that not only leaves us without financial security, but without emotional safety as well. The recession has left many reeling; unfortunately, there is little understanding and few services designed to deal with the needs of the long-term unemployed. They’re forced to take care of themselves. From a mental health perspective, this can be challenging. It demands the patient self-diagnose during a time when they are incapable of adequately thinking and performing.

I’ve spent months—years now—in survival mode. Like so many others, all I wanted was the ability to pay my bills with a paycheck I earned, to feel useful and productive again. I grew tired of the fears and dependence, of being patronized and condemned. I grew emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted. The weariness remains even now.

Tomorrow is my first day on a new job. I’m not excited. I’m apprehensive and nervous. I’m afraid.

I’ve spent the past three weeks since I received the offer working through upsetting thoughts and anxious dreams. My distress has manifested in a surging heart rate, in fight or flight sensations, in obsessive thoughts and fears. Such an admission is often met with puzzled frowns and exasperation.

“How can you not be excited?”

“I’m relieved,” I answer and wonder why that can’t be enough.

People tend to look at unemployment as a single event: the day of the lay-off. They don’t understand the ongoing stress of not working exacerbates the original wound and renders the condition chronic. The job search, especially in this recession, is challenging and tedious; the rejection is deflating. Constantly juggling bills and responsibilities when there’s no money coming in is just depressing. Every day feels a little more hopeless. Admitting such distress is hard. There’s always this uncomfortable feeling you will be perceived as a failure. And talking about it is discouraged since a prospective employer might be dissuaded from hiring you if there are signs of being anything less than enthusiastic. The fear is pervasive, and more often than not, stops the unemployed from seeking help at all.

At this point, when I think about my years in the workforce, I question the truth and validity of what I remember. After all, memories have transformative qualities. They are not indomitable constructs of space and time, permanently and inalterably ingrained in the mind. They are not protected by an invisible force field that shields and preserves. Memories erode; they are enhanced and adapted, tarnished and polished. They are regularly sifted through the sieves of new experience, increased understanding and daily emotion, creating an evolving landscape for your life. As a result, unless you are blessed (or cursed in some cases) with an eidetic memory, you’re often an unreliable witness to the past but a discriminating narrator of your future.

Three years in an emotional prison will cause even the most talented to doubt, the most confident to feel insecure. There are times I wonder if I really know what I’m doing, if I’m actually qualified for the job they hired me to do. Did my experience really prepare me for this new endeavor? Am I suffering from delusions of adequacy? Or has the unemployment burden created delusions of inadequacy? I’m not sure. I only know my successes don’t feel as invigorating as they once did, and my failures seem to have multiplied in my mind.

There are steps that can be taken to navigate the storm of unemployment, to safeguard from further loss and destruction. There are ways to deal with the anxiety and depression, to manage the cluster of symptoms that accompany trauma and grief. For the long-term unemployed, self-help is no longer a cliché, but a secret lifeline. Unfortunately, this doesn’t cease to be the case when a job is finally obtained.

I know my mind has developed a kind of muscle memory that will kick in when faced with familiar situations. I can logically expect to quickly get into the groove, learn the specifics of the company and incorporate my knowledge and experience in a way that will bring something significant to the table. My emotions don’t subscribe to logic.

Thank God, feelings are not set in stone, nor are they the ruling authority. I can retrain my brain. I can rebuild and learn a new way to live that’s not so mired in the fear and captivity of brokenness, or the careless ingratitude of excess. Perhaps I can learn a better way.
For now, I have a new job, a salary and benefits. I have a pre-built social circle, hope and a future. What I don’t have is a feeling of excitement. That’s okay. It will come… in time.

—Follow G. Anne Bassett on Twitter: @TheSouthernNut


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