It’s Wednesday afternoon, and I’m busy pretending to look at office supplies online as a cover for the conversation I’m having with my husband via text message. My Smartphone sits in my lap, and I sit in my cube, which isn’t even a real cube - it’s a computer monitor on a shelf underneath a row of cabinets with a divider along the right side to keep me from socializing too much with my coworkers. I’ve threatened to bore a hole into the divider with power tools and fashion a window out of clear sheet protectors and double sided tape, or failing that, paste a photo of my face on the other side of the wall so that it looks like I’m hanging out with my coworkers even when I’m on my side of what sometimes feels like a rodeo bucking chute.
On the left of my computer monitor is a color printer, which jerks to life when someone sends a job to it, and hiccups its way through the four colors of the printing rainbow: yellow, cyan, magenta, and black. If I’m feeling gracious, I pick up the printed sheets from the output tray and hand them to whoever sent the job over, if not, it’s owner walks behind me and reaches into the narrow space between my body and the printer, their arm appearing in my peripheral vision like a sun spot. I steal a glance at my phone to catch up on the latest communiqué from my husband. “My hand feels weird,” I write to him. “too much mousing or something different” he replies. “I mouse with the left, and this is my right. Must be all the handjobs I give you in my sleep,” I write back, and then quake with silent laughter at my own joke. A couple minutes pass with no response. “Is this thing on?” I type. “laughter, applause.” comes the answer, with a laughing, yellow-faced emoticon at the end.
I leave my desk to take advantage of the birthday cake in the break room, a sheet cake that makes an appearance on the last Wednesday of the month, with an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper taped onto the cake box that reads “Happy Birthday September Staff!”, which is almost as personal as: “It Is Your Birthday.” I cut off a piece with the plastic spatula that’s been brought into service, and plop the heaping pile of sugar onto a snack sized Styrofoam plate. The frosting is so sweet it makes me cough as if I’d accidentally walked through a dust cloud.
If you’d told me a year ago, or even six months ago, that this is how I would spend my time at work, I’d have been incredulous. I’ve been looking for a job for almost two and a half years now. I know, I have a job doing administrative work in a gym, but I mean a real job, one that I go to on purpose in the morning, and not just because I need the insurance and it makes me look like a better candidate if I have a current place of employment listed on my resume. I’ve had some promising leads, some near brushes with success, but like Charlie Brown winding up to kick the football out from under Lucy’s fingertips, I land on my cartoon ass every single time.
One of the directors thanks me profusely for entering codes into the database, which is pretty much like thanking me for having descended from apes. He tries to be gracious, but it comes off condescending. “Hey thanks so much for getting all those codes in so quickly, you’re a rock star,” he says, breezing past me. He uses the term “rock star” to fabricate a sense of camaraderie into our exchange, a sense of “we’re all in this together”, but what it sounds like is “thanks for using about as much brain power as Koko the gorilla.”
Meanwhile, I’ve been telling stories. It gives me something to be proud of, something to be good at, something to hone. I’ve told stories in front of audiences as small as twenty, and as large as seven hundred. I’ve told funny stories, and really sad ones. It keeps my brain alive. To make myself feel better at work, I post fliers and postcards for the readings that I appear at, and when the ape-loving director sees one, he says “Well I just have to say, I am impressed.” Impressed in the way that it’s impressive to watch Koko sign for a banana? Impressed in the way that it’s impressive that Koko knows how to use a keyboard? He is eight years younger than me and takes an aw shucks, you young ‘uns approach to our interactions, talking about the old days before he was married, when he used to be a performer himself, just like me.
My colleague C is getting married soon, and someone asks where she’s going on her honeymoon. “We’re going to Mexico, and we’re going to swim with dolphins,” she says. I mishear the word “dolphins” for “Daschunds”, and I tell her so. Together we fabricate a scenario where she swims with a pod of the tiny dogs, and has a very spiritual experience. “You don’t have to fly to Mexico to do that,” I tell her, “just get a whole herd of them into Lake Michigan with you, people will come from miles around to be part of it, you could start your own small business.” Taking on the persona of a Daschund swimming participant, I say “It was amazing, they’re so beautiful. They’re so smart; they knew I was pregnant before I did!”
C speaks in a secret code that’s not very hard to crack when she thinks she’s saying something dirty. While relating the plotline of a Sex & The City episode, she tells me that the characters were “doozin’ it”, and refers to the female genitalia as “cucini”. I look the word up to confirm a suspicion – it’s a conjugation of the Italian word “cucinare”, which means “to cook,” specifically: the present tense, second person singular. I inform her of this, and add that if she ever goes to Italy, and the need to describe her genitals arises, she might have to use a different word.
Initially I wrote C off as too young and way too perky to be anything but a pain in my ageing, bitter ass, but as we spent time together in the confines of the workplace I grew to understand that beneath that Noxzema-fresh exterior and can-do spirit is a girl just as dark and funny as any I’ve met. When I bought a new hairdryer she said “that’s better than using the ones in the locker room, there are ladies who dry their pubic hair with those.” I registered surprise. “You’ve never noticed that?” she asked. “I try to notice as little as possible in the locker room,” I explained, my mind reeling with countless images of sagging naked breasts and bent over asses, women of all ages and shapes in various states of undress. I have noticed that sometimes they sit naked on the benches, and I haven’t sat on one since, but I’ve never noticed anybody blow-drying their pubes. “Do you see them sometimes styling it?” I ask, “do people use product? Is anybody feathering their pubic hair into a Farrah Fawcett ‘do?”
I can’t see into the future; I have no idea how many of my Wednesday afternoons will be spent this way. When I do move on, I imagine that it will be a little bit like leaving prison. I haven’t had to wear civilian clothes or deal with rush hour crowds for over two years now. I go downtown so rarely that I get spooked by the wide streets and tall buildings, overwhelmed by the crowds of people surging past me. The blue line sounds so loud to me now that I plug my eardrums like a tourist when it rolls into the station, and I am genuinely shocked when confronted with the dichotomy of shoppers on Michigan Avenue and the homeless people who wander the same street in the hopes of a handout. Sometimes I think that in the time since I lost my job I’ve become feral, other times I feel like I’ve become the person I was meant to be.
Monday, September 26, 2011
Saturday, September 17, 2011
I defaced my work ID card this week; I cut out a glossy photo of a brown egg from a Clinique ad that I found in a magazine in the break room, and pasted it onto my ID so that it covers my bemused 1.5” face but leaves my hair and shoulders as they were. Glancing at it, you’d never notice the complete absence of features. The day I posed for that picture I’d already submitted to a urine test and a background check (which as far as I know never came in, eventually they put me on payroll despite the fact that I could have a rap sheet as long as a gorilla’s arm). By the time I submitted to the ID photo, I was pretty sure this job was going to be a joke, something I’d do for the next six to twelve weeks until one of the other jobs that I was interviewing for – real jobs, came through. I thought it would be something I would omit from my resume. It would be nice to have a buffer between me and unemployment, it would give me a better chance at getting a real job, and at the time that I accepted it there was talk of ending unemployment benefits for people who had reached the one year mark, which was getting precariously close. I was tired of the effort of looking for a job, the constant self-promotion, the interviews, the rejections, the dusting myself off and starting again. Psychologically, I didn’t want to cross the one year mark. I’d done well with taking advantage of my free time and pursuing travel, volunteering, working odd jobs, and pursuing writing opportunities, and hadn’t spent a lot of time feeling down about my situation but I didn’t want to celebrate another unemployed birthday, another unemployed anniversary, another unemployed marker of any kind.
None of the other jobs I interviewed for were offered to me, and time passed. I took advantage of the lax dress code and proximity of my workplace to my home, sometimes rolling out of bed and literally wearing what I’d slept in to work. More time passed, and as it became clear that I would have to do something to mark the time (as if I were doing time, which in a way I am – clocking in and out, counting hours, minutes even), I decided to take advantage of what there was. I signed up for a physical fitness course, and then a fitness challenge. 9 months later I had lost 20 pounds and dropped 2 dress sizes. I’d made some friends too, and made strides in my writing, connecting with the storytelling circuit in Chicago and making regular appearances at different venues. It wasn’t all bad, part of what allowed me to do all that writing was that my job wasn’t taking much out of me.
It had its costs; I wasn’t feeling good about myself. 6 months into the job, I called the EAP line (employee assistance program, a confidential service that gets promoted on the company website as a resource for when things are getting grim) and they literally put me on hold, which made me think of that old Rodney Dangerfield chestnut that he rolled out during his “I don’t get no respect” era. When I finally spoke to someone, they asked me if it was an emergency. It wasn’t. They apologized for asking to call me back, but they were short staffed, or maybe the last seven people who called were all about to jump off the same bridge together, and it was taking up all their manpower to handle it. I told them they could call me back, but I couldn’t take the call when they did. I don’t have any privacy at work, and had snuck outside to place the call out to them. Then one morning I woke up crying, and couldn’t stop. The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on me – I’d managed to keep my spirits up the entire time I’d been out of work, and the reality of what kind of job I’d had to accept is what finally did me in. I called the EAP line again, and the woman on the other end of the line had to tell me to calm down because she couldn’t understand what I was saying. She connected me with a therapist in my neighborhood, and in short order I had a prescription for Prozac in my hands.
Here’s the thing about depression: it’s boring. It’s something I’ve lived with for a long time, probably forever, and prescription medication is a wonderful, life-changing thing, and without it I’d probably live in a halfway house or worse by now, but talking about depression is just, well, depressing. I was depressed for fourteen years before I was treated for it the first time, in my early 20s. The fact that I went fourteen years without anyone noticing is remarkable, but not surprising, considering my family. I had moments during those years, months even, when I was able to rise above it, but I lost a lot too, things I’ll never get back: time, opportunities, and relationships.
The first time it was prescribed to me, Prozac was a wonder drug. Everyone was on it, or talking about it, or knew people who were taking it. I’d read enough to know that mine was far from the worst case; in high school I read The Bell Jar, and resonated with it deeply, and The Yellow Wallpaper. In college I read Girl, Interrupted (I went to a reading by the author and got my book signed by her), and still later I watched the film An Angel at my Table, and was so awestruck that I read the book by the same name, all 434 pages of it, and then went on to read Faces in the Water, by the same author, Janet Frame.
All these stories had a similar theme; they were about young women, generally raised in the middle-class, generally from educated families, who were crippled by depression and had to be treated for it, sometimes with dramatic remedies like shock-treatment. I became the resident expert on depression in my family, which is funny in retrospect (sort of), because one by one all the women in my family were diagnosed with and treated for depression. Suddenly I was a trailblazer; my female relatives came to me for advice on medication, to discuss side effects, and to soundboard.
Prozac was expensive in those days, and I didn’t have any money. I slowly weaned myself off it and began pursuing other methods – I started taking St. John’s Wort, I installed full-spectrum light bulbs in my apartment, I bought a SADD lamp for the long Chicago winters. For the most part, it worked. There was the occasional party that I’d flake out on at the last minute because I just couldn’t peel myself off the couch, the odd get-together that I’d mysteriously be absent from, or sleep through, but for the most part I was functional. When things got serious with the man who became my husband I was up front about my history with depression, figuring if it was going to be a deal breaker it was better to find out early on. Apart from a short stint in my early 30s when I was dealing with some crap with my dad, I was able to get along without medication until recently. Here’s the thing about me and medication: deep down, I feel like I shouldn’t be on it. I feel like its fine for everyone else in the world to be medicated, but I should be strong enough to do without it. It’s stupid, I know. I don’t judge anyone else for taking happy pills, but I judge myself.
Prozac is pretty much the same now as it was the first time I took it, only now it’s cheap as hell. A 90 day supply of Fluoxetine, the generic for Prozac, costs me less than $8. It used to cost me almost $3 per pill. With prices like that, who the hell wouldn’t want a little help? I was recently turned down for a job that I was pretty sure was going to be offered to me; a job that, unlike the countless others I’ve interviewed for in the 2+ years since I was laid off, I actually wanted. It hurt, and I’m trying to figure out what to do next. I have my pills, and I have my husband, and I have my writing, and I have my 20 pounds lighter, stronger body. I know I’m blessed, but sometimes, as my friend Bridget once said: “it’s hard to wake up in the morning to it could be worse.” So here’s to today, and here’s to tomorrow, here’s to hoping for better things, and here’s to the 20 milligrams of magic that keep the whole thing going.