I was unemployed for more of 2014 than I wasn’t. Eight long months, to be exact.
I wrapped up my political journalism internship in D.C. full of the hope of the New Year, confident that I would land one of the dream entertainment reporting jobs I was currently going through interview rounds with, sure that within a month I would be out of my sleepy Northern California suburb and back to living in Los Angeles or New York.
For the first five months, I didn’t even unpack my suitcases.
JANUARY: It’s Handled
That first month of unemployment and living at home was like curling up in a warm bed after you’ve been crashing on your friend’s loveseat for the weekend. Sure it was still my childhood twin bed, and someone had covered it with a comforter my sister picked out when she was 10 that had pastel 3D pop-up fabric flowers, but it was my bed.
It was a month of optimism. I was sure I would get a call-back from one of the internships I was waiting on, so I didn’t bother applying anywhere else. Instead I chose to spend most of my nights in a Netflix-induced haze, bingeing season after season of Walking Dead and Scandal until four in the morning, and waking up only when my sister got home from school around noon. Noon.
But suburbia had that way of making me feel so safe in the beginning – and, at first, being raised in Silicon Valley only added to that. It wasn’t zombie guts or Shonda Rhimes’ cliffhangers that were lulling me to a comfortable, unworried sleep. It was the fact that I was dreaming in a room filled with accomplishments: high school awards, SAT and AP prep books, my college degree. Of course everything would stay on track, it always had.
By the beginning of February I realized my internships weren’t going to come through, but that start-up Silicon Valley optimism was still going strong. I began applying for jobs again, but I cherry-picked through career boards like I was the second-coming of Ezra Klein (journalism joke). Celebrity reporter? Pass. Blog I’ve never heard of? Pass. I had fooled myself into thinking that my two internships at major media companies meant I had paid my dues and that now, at the ripe old age of 22, I could afford to choose only the best. I maybe applied to two a week.
In the meantime, I took my newly unemployed status in stride (I recognize, of course, that this was in large part due to amazingly understanding parents who let me move back home rent-free). I believed it would be a quick month of self-improvement. I signed up for two free online college courses (Jazz Appreciation and Songwriting), made a goal to go to the gym four times a week, and started downloading screenplays in the hopes of bettering ~*my craft*~. In truth, I actually spent most of the month glued to the couch watching Bob Costas’ eye infection slowly fester on NBC’s Olympics broadcast.
But as I grabbed and returned freshly laundered clothes back into my luggage, as if any day now I would be asked to get up and go, I was feeling just fine about my situation.
MARCH – MAY: Depressed in the Suburbs
That positive, gung-ho vibe didn’t last long. By March, weeks had gone by without a response hitting my inbox or ringing my phone. At one point of desperation, I checked my cover letters to make sure I hadn’t spelled my email wrong (not a hard thing to do with my name!) or left out a digit.
Suddenly, the ease of #funemployment felt like a ticking time bomb. Every week that further separated me from my last job made me feel more unemployable. And instead of being spurred to try harder, my habits from the first month returned. But this time it was from depression instead of confidence. There were days where I barely managed to get out of bed, my eyes refusing to lift from The Wire. The successful start-up suburbia attitude that had initially motivated me now felt like it was closing in on me, as every weekend out in SF I mumbled to inquiring North Beach techies that I was currently “between jobs.” And the childhood bedroom that had made me feel so confident in the beginning became suffocating. I’m 22 years old and I’m sleeping with a comforter with pop-up 3D flowers. Some nights I moved to the living room couch, only able to fall asleep when TV Land reruns replaced my dreams.
There were some bursts of hope or energy in those months. They were usually accompanied by an interview request or try-out assignment, but looking back they were more like methods of distraction – and coping. I spent one fervent weekend cleaning out my bookshelf, filling boxes with the young chick lit that first helped me fall in love with reading and stacking the shelves with my grown-up literature tastes and annotated college texts. I spent two impassioned weeks carefully studying the first two seasons of Sex and the City, filling an entire legal pad with notes tracking A and B plots as I tried to teach myself the structure of comedy writing. One month I read four books in two weeks, and watched four documentaries in one night.
And although I had quit my songwriting class ages ago, unwilling to deal with my feelings in verse, I threw myself into my jazz class. The hours of lectures and quizzes each week gave the only structure to my open and restless days – a reason to wake up early in the morning. And the chords, melodies, and notes of Brubeck and Ellington and Davis could easily lift me out of my own blues, if only temporarily.
MAY – JUNE: Prison Break
Those first months were brutal, but they were important. I got over myself. I stopped thinking two great internships automatically meant I deserved my pick of any job on the market. As spring and summer came and California weather stayed exactly the same, I finally started to change. I went from applying to three jobs a month to over 10, in any kind of writing medium where I’d had some experience and was qualified, in cities that weren’t just on the coasts. And even after I got a serious interview request in May, the first in over a month, my pace didn’t change (even as I binged the entire season of Orange is the New Black in 48 hours). I put my clothes in my old childhood drawers and packed the suitcases away. I changed the comforter. After surplus funds from my internship dried up, I got a part-time job delivering food for a start-up order app so I could pay for my study abroad group’s yearly Vegas trip.
JULY – AUGUST: All My Persons
Unemployment made me see a lot of the bad in myself, but more importantly it made me appreciate the good in the people around me. The parents who let me move back home rent-free as I tried…and tried…to figure it all out. The sister I got to reconnect with in her last year at home before starting college, who was always down to watch reruns of Grey’s Anatomy with me. The amazing friends who let me crash on their couches and floors in San Francisco and L.A when I needed to escape another day in my room.
If those eight months could be a song, they would be a jazz song. That January I thought my job hunt was going to follow the form it always had – a month or two of searching and then, boom, an offer.
But what I love about jazz is that it’s as unpredictable as life. The musicians don’t really know where they’re going to take the song until they’re right there in it. They have to follow “the head,” the bones of the song’s structure, but the minute the improv starts and the first soloist takes off it can go anywhere and do anything. I once wrote in my lesson notes that the sample song sounded like the musician had torn his heart out and put it in his saxophone, letting us hear every beat, pulse, and whimper.
Looking back, that’s exactly how my time of unemployment felt. A crescendo into realizing the vulnerabilities and weaknesses I didn’t know I had, a mirror reflecting all the growing up there was still left to do.