Maybe it was the coffee. Maybe it was the overhead lights. Maybe it was the salary — zero pay bumps in three years, no quarterly reviews on the horizon. Maybe you started crying in your car before work one morning, a hand limply hanging on the door handle, the other wrapped tightly around your travel mug, your sole heat source in a frigid office. Maybe your supervisor was racist, your H.R. department nonexistent. Maybe your co-workers never left their cubbies, never made small talk. Maybe it was the silence. Maybe you broke out in hives on a Friday night after reading an email from your boss, the dread of Monday morning physically manifesting itself as red bumps on your chest and T-zone. Or maybe you just moved to a new city.
Whatever the reason, you quit your job. And, even though you spent your evenings and weekends searching, you don’t have anything else lined up. Truthfully, it couldn’t have come at a better time: Your Siggy has a good job and is supportive; you don’t have kids yet; your student loans are almost paid off; you have some money saved up for an occasion just like this; you still haven’t finished "Breaking Bad." You’ve got good friends, an understanding family, a roof above you, a pantry, clean water, a cat, some houseplants. You’re in a better position than a lot of people. Probably most people. And, you remind yourself, it’s temporary. It’s a passing moment, a layover, 90 minutes stuck at the Denver airport, long enough to get sufficiently pickled before catching your next flight. Everything will be OK.
But everything doesn’t feel OK, at least, not at the outset. It’s as if you’ve finally broken up with a bad lover — one who used to snoop on your computer when she thought you were out of the room, one who’d drink too much and disappear when you’d go downtown, one who was always half-sick and never up for anything and maybe a tad emotionally abusive. One you stayed with for three years, in spite of everything. But even after you divide your board games and move into a new apartment, even as you readjust to living alone, even as you experience that first thrilling feeling of possibility, you still spend a period of time going through … something. You clean out your closet. You take up yoga. You decide it’s time for a new hairstyle and shave your head for no good reason.
Grief may be an unwelcome acquaintance — equal parts odd and exhausting — but you’ll never convince him to call before stopping by.
1. THE DOUBT STAGE
In the beginning, you expect to feel relieved. That first Friday night, when you get willfully overserved and eat the left half of a taco truck menu at 2 a.m., you feel as if your shoulders have finally unbunched, at least partway. Then it’s a two-day hangover, watching eight hours of golf from the couch. By that next Monday morning, whatever relief you felt after half-filling a copy paper box with tea and Tapatío, picture frames and the Edward Gorey calendar from your cubicle, has disappeared. The apartment is silent, Siggy gone to work, the cat outside. (He’s already been prowling for two hours and you’re still in your undies.) You wander into the kitchen and spend too long making coffee, letting doubt slip through the filter. “Oh god, what have I done?” you think. “What was I thinking? In this economy? In a city this size?” You start retracing your steps. “Maybe I could go back. Maybe it wasn’t that bad. Maybe I could start running over my lunch breaks. Maybe I could bring in my own lamp. Maybe I could find some medication for the hives.”
But there’s no going back. Not because you couldn’t — you didn’t burn the bridge, didn’t tell off your boss, didn’t slip one of your Lincoln logs into the filing cabinet under the letter “P” — but because you can’t. You quit a shitty job. You made a smart decision in a poor situation and there’s no use glancing over your shoulder. The remainder of that first day reads like a template for post-graduate purgatory: two hours of job hunting, an hour reading erotic short stories online, a half-hour washing away your sins, and an hour skewering chicken and pepper kabobs while drinking wine and watching "The Office" on Netflix. In your head, doubt and determination sizzle alongside one another: What have I done? I’ll be fine. What have I done? I’ll be fine …
2. THE T-SHIRT COMPANY STAGE
You read somewhere that Mark Twain said, “The ruin of any work is a divided interest.” How true that now feels. It suddenly occurs to you that your crappy job has been holding you back from all the things you’re more passionate about. You jump-start a dozen, dusty projects and conceive another handful, just in case you didn’t have enough to keep you occupied. These projects may include:
- Launching T-shirt company based around a number of witty slogans you’ve written down over the years (e.g., keep clam and chowder on, happiness is a warm gnu, etc.)
- Writing a punk opera set during the Civil War featuring the music of "Titus Andronicus."
- Learning to code and building a website.
- Enrolling in a few photography courses and reinventing yourself as the next Gregory Crewdson or Spencer Tunick.
- Penning a series of romance and/or erotic novels under a pseudonym.
- Building a tiny house.
- Designing an innovative drink menu from scratch and hosting in-house cocktails parties at $25 a head.
- Applying for a Fulbright / the Peace Corps / AmeriCorps / Yaddo / Sewanee / Stegner / the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop / a student loan deferment / unemployment benefits / etc.
Out of these projects, you finish 10 percent of the dozen and 90 percent of the other two. You have coffee with a local illustrator and chat about collaborating on a graphic novel. It’s a positive meeting but, a month later, you realize the car you’re sitting in has been abandoned. The illustrator’s too busy for a new project. Everyone’s too busy. And you’re no different. Too busy to help a friend of a friend with music video for his band, too busy to apply for a job you’d be good at but don’t really want, too busy to call your sister or visit your granddad.
You settle on finishing a backlogged collection of short stories, something that only requires you — your own time, your own effort, your own deadlines. And because it only requires your time, effort and nonexistent deadlines, you don’t finish it. In fact, you spend less time on it than when you were working 40 hours a week. After a few days, you stop feeling guilty and start thinking about new martini recipes, maybe something with cilantro …
3. THE MIXED DRINKS STAGE
It occurs to you, either three days or three weeks into your voluntary unemployment, that every day is technically a Friday. You have no work tomorrow, no assignment that can’t be put off a day or a week, no reason to get up at 7:30 (other than the guilt of lying in bed while Siggy gets ready for the day — though this, like a hangover, will decrease as the day unfolds). This is a dodgy breakthrough, particularly if you were prone to drinking too much when you actually had a job. Now you buy cheaper liquor in bigger bottles and drink twice as often. “Gin in a plastic jug? Classy,” Siggy says as you pull it from the bag. “This is where we’re at now,” you say, and laugh. “A one-paycheck family, my dear.” But it doesn’t feel like much of a joke.
The Shiftless Bastard
2 oz. cheap vodka
8 oz. juice, soda or flavored water
Wedge of lemon or lime
Place ingredients in tall glass and stir with butter knife fished from sink. Garnish with dash of guilt. Repeat until you run out of guilt. Serves one.
Early one evening, Siggy has beers with co-workers and invites you along but you’re already two drinks in, probably too buzzed to be driving down to meet them. “I’m in the middle of making dinner,” you text back while fixing yourself another Shiftless Bastard. “See you when you get home. Have fun.” You whip something up, wash the dishes, clean the bathroom and make the bed out of guilt. You stay up late perusing deep tracks on Netflix — "The Final Countdown," "Night of the Creeps," "Heathers" — and slide into bed, long after Siggy, listing with drink and self-loathing.
Note: This Stage can frequently run concurrently with any of the other Stages of Voluntary Unemployment.
4. THE SWEAT PANT STAGE
You’re a mess. The Mixed Drink Stage has left your skin dry, your sleeping pattern a wreck. You’ve gained weight and stopped exercising but once a week (when you can work up the energy). Siggy is concerned, you can tell. Most mornings, you stay in your undies until 11 a.m., aimlessly wandering job boards and long-form articles you might have missed. You wear sweat pants and sweat shirts, anything that feels like you haven’t actually gotten out of bed (which is where you’d rather be). Worse, you’ve become needy. You text Siggy two dozen times a day, most of them going unanswered (not because she doesn’t care but because she, unlike you, has a job):
- “Did you remember to grab your lunch?”
- “How’s your day going? Miss you.”
- “Job applications are the worst! Argh!!!”
- “Anything specific you want for dinner? I was gonna run to the store.”
- “What do you think your ETA is gonna be? You think you’re gonna have to stay late again?”
- “Looking forward to seeing you tonight. Missed you today sorry for texting so much god I’m needy.”
You start apologizing more. Then you apologize for apologizing so often. You enter a cycle you can’t break where you feel guilty for feeling guilty, depressed about being depressed, angry at feeling so angry. You project your own self-doubt onto Siggy. “I feel like you’re disappointed or frustrated with me,” you say. “That I haven’t found a job or that I’m not looking hard enough.” But Siggy doesn’t confirm your suspicions, doesn’t start packing a suitcase, doesn’t even shake her head as if to say, “Jesus, this again?” Instead, she patiently reminds you how much she loves and supports you and then takes you out for burritos and froyo to prove it.
5. THE BEEKEEPER STAGE
Over beers with a friend, someone still employed at a dead-end job while searching for something better, you wonder aloud why you both keep stumbling down the same path: looking to replace a mindless office job with yet another mindless office job, exchanging sciatica for carpal tunnel syndrome, windowless cubbies for fluorescent lights, bad bosses for bad backs. “Sometimes I think: Why don’t I go become a beekeeper?” your friend says. “Exactly,” you say, “or a knife maker. Someone who, you know, works with their hands. Being able to see what you’ve accomplished.”
You bike home exhilarated with beer and talk and mutual misery. You request an information packet from a heavy equipment operator training school. You look up the nearest physical therapy programs. You research whether you’re too old to join the Coast Guard. Everything is on the table, everything is an option. “Why not?” you think. “I mean, why the hell not?” And then you see what the heavy equipment school costs, where the Coast Guard bases are located, how long a physical therapy program will take (not to mention all the prerequisites a former English major would need to complete beforehand).
The daydream finally dissolves one evening when you float the idea of going back to school for a degree in forestry. “You can do whatever you set your mind to,” Siggy says, a smile lurking at the corners of her mouth. “I just have a tough time picturing you as a logger.” She isn’t the only one. Even if you paid the money or made the move or devoted a few years to studying, there’s no guarantee you’d love your job. No rule saying physical therapists, dump truck drivers and deckhands don’t have bad bosses and bad backs. You recall the summer you painted buildings for the school district, right out of high school, or any of the other dozen, dead-end jobs you’ve had, when the thought of working in an air-conditioned office and making $45,000 a year to sit on your ass and use your head felt like a daydream. “God, have I changed that much,” you think, “or was I always so prone to manufacturing discontent?” You toss the pamphlet for the heavy equipment operator school and spend a day mourning the beekeeper you might have been.
6. THE PHUGOID STAGE
Rather than flying in a straight line, a phugoid is the action of a plane slightly ascending and descending, over and over, in a wavy pattern. While modern aircraft systems are designed to prevent phugoids, the loss of hydraulic systems often precedes their occurrence. This can subsequently lead to “pilot-induced oscillations,” where the pilot overcorrects in the opposite direction of the phugoid and inadvertently sends the plane into an even greater (and more dangerous) pattern of climbing and falling.
At this point, your hydraulics are shot and your phugoid has begun. Like a panicked pilot, you start yanking the throttle backward and forward. Slight descents lead to steep climbs (e.g., when you don’t get a reply regarding a position you’d be perfect for, you apply for five jobs in one day, none of which are a good fit or a plausible hire) and slight ascents turn into dizzying dives (e.g., after receiving an impromptu invitation to Siggy’s company camping trip, you drink yourself stupid and spend the night fertilizing the grass outside your tent with regurgitated hot dogs, hummus and Fireball).
In the mornings, you wake up feeling as if the world, as they say, is your oyster. You have the whole day ahead of you, you can do anything, and anything might happen. But by 3 p.m., you remember how much you hate oysters. You’ve begun your daily dive and the little you’ve accomplished hasn’t felt like nearly enough. No applications submitted, no new jobs uncovered, no great stint of writing completed. Any emails you received are form letters penned around tired phrases: “thanks for reaching out, we’ll be in touch” or “while the work contained merit, it wasn’t quite right for our magazine.” Every afternoon, you consider whether to pour yourself a drink or go for a run …
7. THE DAY-TO-DAY STAGE
You wake up and fix yourself breakfast. Nothing fancy: yogurt and half a grapefruit, oatmeal and a sliced banana, maybe an egg on toast if the coffee’s already kicked in. You hop on your bike 20 minutes later than you would have liked, but no one’s keeping track. Then it’s down to the library to meet up with a few other acquaintances who are either job hunting or doing coursework. You talk shop for too long with a sympathetic friend, someone applying for teaching positions all over the states (a task you don’t envy). You don’t get as much done as you’d hoped but, again, no one is looking over your shoulder. After a sack lunch, it’s off to the gym to spend 40 minutes on the bike while watching the latter half of a World Cup match. Then you head home to clean the house and start on dinner.
Maybe you have a glass of wine, or maybe you don’t. Maybe you mow the lawn, or maybe you decide to put it off until the weekend. Maybe you meet a friend for a beer after his kids have gone down. Maybe you stay in and finish the new season of "OITNB" with Siggy. Maybe you feel depressed for two days and like Kanye for the next five. Maybe you drink too much on your family vacation. Maybe you consider doing another “Year of No Beer.” Maybe you have an interview that goes really well but they don’t call back. Maybe you’re a finalist on a Glimmer Train contest. Maybe you abandon an old idea and maybe you finish a new story.
Or maybe you decide it’s time for a new hairstyle and shave your head for no good reason.