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May 14, 2004

  • The Year of Hell
  • imageAbout the only decent episode of Star Trek: Voyager was an episode entitled “The Year of Hell” where an accident with some temporal something-or-rather left the ship badly damaged and over the course of a year, everything went from bad, to worse, to much, much worse. Many say the most grievous sin the story commits is that at the end the story resets itself back to start and the year for the Voyager crew never happened. Me, I think the most grievous sin is that they never made another story that good.

    One year ago this week, I got a phone call from the then-Director of Operations at my current workplace offering me the job I have now. It took me fifteen seconds to accept the offer. In its own way, that phone call was the reset button that marked the end of my own personal Year of Hell.

    With the exception of six weeks of temping, I spent the last six months of 2002 and the first six months of 2003 unemployed. It was the most debilitating, most humiliating 365 days of my life.

    Denizen of the new economy that I am—with lots of skills but no specialization, and, embarrassingly, no degree—I have been without work for a few weeks, and occasionally a few months, at a time. That was hard. But a year gave me a glimpse into the abyss that exists when hope is extinguished that, frankly, I pray I never have to see again. What follows is my journey through despair, bewilderment, and survival from EI cheque to EI cheque.

    June 4, 2002: I conclude the contract of my last job, ending a eight month stint working for the heartless Martinet that was the organization’s Communications Manager, leaving her to fulfil her cold soul’s desire to change all the branding and advance her career. I have a month of vacation and lieu time owed. I’ve just played a major part of the relaunch of a substantial website. I’ve got an actual portfolio of marketing writing. I have real job experience. And I’ve just been named as a finalist for a prestigious screenwriting prize. My resume has never looked better. I figure I’ll have a new job within a month, maybe two, tops. And if I can’t get anything immediately, I’ll surely be able to find some temp work—my old agency still remembers me, after all.

    June 24: I send the following e-mail to some of my friends: “Okay, the first week off work, it was okay because I needed to get the unpleasant taste of [place I last worked] out of my mouth. The second week off work, it was less-than-okay but I was writing a short story and I had that and job applications to keep me busy and I was at my parents which also makes life extra crunchy and I had some performance art at the end of the week to keep me focused. The third week off work, it wasn’t very okay, but I had the story to finish, I had some job applications, I had a long-awaited outing to go to.

    “The fourth week off work I feel like I’m about to fall into a void.

    “Though I have an enthusiastic agency, the temp market chose this month to die, apparently. And it’s hard to work up enthusiasm for the 6 millionth cover letter and resume when none of ones I’ve previously sent has even merited a *single* *fucking* *interview*.

    “And I don’t know how I’m going to pay for my life beyond the middle of July. At least rent should be covered through to August.”

    July 2: The first temp job comes up—three days working for the Ministry of the Attorney General entering data from a survey of judges into a spreadsheet.

    July 18: I’ve been diligently visiting a variety of employment-related websites every day and printing up job postings, and every day I have diligently written tailor-made cover letters and attached my resume and sent it off into the great black hole that is the Human Resources department. On this day I find a job posting from a medium sized non-profit looking for someone with virtually the same characteristics as me. And a friend of mine at Chum-City sends me a posting there that looks exciting. I write fresh and lively cover letters. I tweak my resume to reflect what I’ve done.

    August: I never get a phone call from either of these places. Nor do I get a phone call from any of the other places I’m applying for. In fact, I have not been asked for an interview by anyone. Fatigue is beginning to set in. I start setting my sights lower, on the sort of jobs I was applying for five years before.

    I don’t hear from those, either.

    I start to send my script around to various producers and agents. I don’t hear from them.

    Somewhere around this time, my Employment Insurance benefits kick in. I am required to go to the nearest Human Resources Development Canada office to hear someone speak about EI benefits and job search. It consists of a 20-minute video that informs me it’s a crime to defraud the government. Afterwards, the woman from HRDC puts up a list of job search websites I was already using. Someone asks if there is some kind of job retraining that might be government subsidized. Apparently you have to be on welfare to get that far.

    I am constantly rejigging and re-tweaking my cover letters: “I have been responsible for promotional and marketing writing, which entailed the ability to write promotional copy.” “In my former position I was instrumental in the line-management of the design, development and implementation of the organisation’s new corporate website” It goes on, and on…

    I visit my parents for stretches at a time and start renting every James Bond film, filling in the lacunae of British superspy action in my life. Watching them becomes like a ritual: I watch the special documentary on the making of the film before watching the film itself. It provides me with something to look forward to, and some structure while doing it. I spend my nights watching a lot of Quantum Leap. During the summer of 2002, CKVR is showing Season Five, which I mostly missed in its original run. I soon start digging out my old off-air tapes from the early nineties of episodes from other seasons. It provides me with a strange, but real, comfort.

    October: I have a “long-term” temp assignment at the Ministry of the Attorney General unceremoniously end on me after five weeks. I keep getting told that it was nothing to do with me—someone on disability leave returned and they had to reshuffle—but I was so obviously bored in the job I can’t help think it’s about me. I write my friends: “If I don’t get another temp assignment for Monday I’m going to be phenomenally fucked.”

    I don’t, and I am.

    By the end of October I start developing a dread of calling the temp agency that I experience physically as nausea. I’m so tired of “Sorry sweetie, there’s nothing here. Call back on Friday.” Only to hear on Friday, “Sorry sweetie, it’s been quiet.’

    November: It’s somewhere near the end of the month. I’m staring into a coffee mug while talking to my father in a Tim Horton’s. For my entire life I’ve suffered a small speech impediment that has meant I can’t look people in the eye while talking to them. Now I can’t even look people in the eye even while they talk. I feel small, worthless. I tell my father I’m beginning to think I’m unemployable. I’ve been unemployed for five months and I have not had a single job interview. The futility of calling the temp agencies for work—in vain—only confirms it for me.

    My father sounds the most alarmed I’ve ever heard him. “You really are depressed.” He says. My father arranges for me to see my doctor and tells me not to call the temp agencies anymore.

    March: A job in communications at a former workplace is posted, again describing the very same job I had done (and elements of which I had been doing for years). As I had worked for the organization previously, and I had a good friend still working there as one of my references, I figure I should at least be long-listed.

    I hear nothing. It’s probably the most humiliating of all the silences I have received during this time.

    Something snaps. I break every rule about contacting HR people known to humanity and send an e-mail begging the HR professional there them to tell me why I wasn’t considered for this job, telling them it would be a big help to understand what it is about my experience or resume that isn’t connecting with them.

    Naturally, I hear nothing.

    I decide it’s time to retrench. My girlfriend offers me advice on completely redesigning my resume. An old friend gives me similar strategic advice about my job search. But it’s still more job postings, more cover letters, more resumes and more silence.

    April: Earlier in my unemployment, I had written a non-fiction book proposal and even started work on a new screenplay, but now I have no interest in writing anymore. I get up at 9 am and watch The E! True Hollywood Story on Star, followed by The Shopping Bags on W Network and go to bed at 2am having watched one of the same 13 episodes of South Park shown continuously on CH. The rest of my days become a blur of television and obsessing about my new relationship, which probably does more harm than good in the long term.

    April 22: I pull six job postings off various websites including one from a grad school for which I had been interviewed two years before. I wonder about even bothering.

    June 16: I start my new job there the very day my Employment Insurance benefits run out.

    Now the reset button has been pressed. I am solvent (occasionally) and employed. My year without employment is now a cascade of images: watching daytime TV just to ogle female presenters; calling temp agencies knowing there wasn’t anything for you and being proven right; ending cover letter after cover letter with “I trust that the attached resume will give an indication of the breadth of skills and experience I have to offer. I look forward to speaking with you in future.”; figuring out how to stall paying my rent until my next EI cheque; and, like Sam Beckett on Quantum Leap, hoping each time that my next leap…will be the leap home.

    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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