When I think back to my first holiday party as a full-time employee, all I can remember is the opulence of the event. Snatches of celebratory conversations between blaring music. Bubbles from the first champagne — and alcohol, for that matter — that I’d ever had around co-workers.
I was 21, freshly graduated and hired right out of college, one of the lucky ones from my class to land a job right away. I worked for a company that had been synonymous with the internet while I was growing up and where I had great colleagues, amazing mentors and the chance to interview celebrities and bestselling authors and get paid to write and edit for a living.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the reason I was hired so quickly was that I was replacing someone several years my senior who had been let go right before the holidays. Less than two years later, there would be no fancy holiday party for me.
Though the recession struck in 2008, I felt its force in December 2009 — after layoffs had stolen favorite co-workers away from me, seemingly without any warning. I was recommended to take a buyout.
It’s devastating to be let go no matter what time of year. The impact of losing one’s livelihood, purpose, routine, sense of self — whatever being employed means on an individual level — can’t be overstated. In fact, research has linked underemployment and unemployment with depression and other mental health issues.
For me, the already-cruel blow felt all the more painful given the time of year. I thought of my co-workers who would go to the company holiday party without me, my work having been reassigned just as quickly as I’d received the paperwork. I thought of my parents’ annual Christmas card — which usually recaps the family’s highlights of the year — and of my resolutions and predictions for the year ahead, and I didn’t want my employment to be a question mark. I thought of the expenses of Christmas gifts, my apartment, groceries, my two dogs.
Most of all, I thought about the 13 months my dad, who was the sole breadwinner in our family, was unemployed when I was 12 years old.
I thought of my co-workers who would go to the company holiday party without me. I thought of my parents’ annual Christmas card and of my resolutions and predictions for the year ahead, and I didn’t want my employment to be a question mark.
During the fall of 1999, we moved three times, first selling our house to make ends meet and moving into an apartment. Then, when there still wasn’t a job and that housing option became untenable, we moved into a short-term, off-season beach cottage vacation rental. Back then, Craigslist and Airbnb hadn’t yet opened up the possibility of finding a place to live without proof of income, so the week before Christmas, when our rental was up, we didn’t know where we were going to live.
My parents eventually found a nearby homeowner who let us move in before Christmas Eve as long as we paid three months of a security deposit and one month of rent upfront.
When I was signing my voluntary buyout agreement, one that gave me four months’ pay, I thought about how my dad said to always have six to 12 months’ savings on hand and felt the full weight of the reason why. While I was extraordinarily fortunate to have the six months saved, plus four months of extra padding, I didn’t believe that I could find a job I wanted that would be equal to the one I’d just lost before my savings would potentially run out.
I luckily landed two interviews before the New Year. The first potential employer offered me a job on the spot with lateral pay right before Christmas. I was so relieved, I accepted without much thought. I couldn’t be sure the job would offer joy, but it did present the security and validation that I desperately needed at the time.
I wish I could say that finding this new job fixed all that was broken with me after losing my first job. But, just as a rebound usually isn’t the answer after a bad breakup, this job didn’t make me whole.
Over the 10-plus years since, I’ve moved from my first employer — a mega-corporation — to an independent publisher; from for-profit employers to nonprofits to startups. I crossed coasts (and biked the country looking for meaning).
And in between, I have experienced two more “department restructures” — it still stings to say that I’ve been “let go” or “laid off” — that left me unemployed. One happened a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving and the other was a few days after New Year’s Day.
The second time, I’d just moved across the country, bought new furniture and signed a year lease on an apartment I could afford based on having a full-time job. Receiving only one month’s severance and having no established network to fall back on in the area, I undertook the labyrinthine process of signing up for unemployment. After Thanksgiving, the $450 per week, which would cover only half of my rent in Los Angeles and little else, started coming in.
I worried about my finances and whether I could afford to visit my family across the country at Christmas and my husband’s family in El Salvador for New Year’s. I debated whether I deserved to celebrate the holidays or if I should instead focus on finding a new source of steady income and spend as little of my savings as possible until then. With some interviews reaching the final stages during the week before Christmas, I gave myself a little hope and continued with my travel plans as if I’d find steady work. Luckily again, I came back to a job offer and a new gig I was able to start the week of New Year’s.
Being let go is never easy, but I know that I’ve been privileged — I’ve endured less financial anxiety and shorter periods of unemployment than what my own family experienced when I was growing up, and I’ve never been more grateful to have strong references, a helpful network of colleagues, supportive family and friends, and savings I’ve worked for and set aside for hard times like these to fall back on. To lose a job and not have these resources would be like falling into an abyss with no rope or ladder to climb out.
My family lost our home, but not the ability to have a roof over our heads. I had the worry of money running out, but not the reality. And these circumstances and more are impossibly unfair realities for some.
Being let go is never easy, but I know that I’ve been privileged — I’ve endured less financial anxiety and shorter periods of unemployment than what my own family experienced when I was growing up.
My second and third experiences of job loss hurt less than the first because I knew the warning signs and planned as best as I could to mitigate the pain and financial instability. The knowing and planning helped, but still, there was the sinking feeling of not being good enough — and the salt in the wound of being evaluated and judged unworthy during a season when, to most outward appearances, everyone else would be giving thanks, celebrating the “most wonderful time of the year,” and spending money as if without any financial or employment concerns.
But if I’d stopped to step outside my grief, I would have realized how other people might also feel inadequate during a season filled with self-reflection, an abundance of perfectly packaged and decorated — even manufactured — moments, the stuff of holiday movies, greeting cards and social media feeds.
If I had, I might have reached out. I might have shared my story. I might have freed myself of some of the weight of it. But instead, I held it in close. Let it become the thing that wrapped itself close to my heart, a ball of darkness amid all of the light.
Over the years, I’ve soaked up professional advice in hopes that the right belief or saying could heal the thing that made me stop believing in me, the thing that made me feel perpetually unworthy.
One colleague told me to find more joy and meaning outside of work. I volunteered, I took up ultra walking, I played tennis, I biked, I traveled, and I found happiness in all of these. But still, I could not shake myself loose of my feelings of professional unhappiness. A couple of years later, the CEO of another company I worked for would tell us that when you find work that gives you joy — your calling, your purpose — no day at the office ever feels like you’re simply doing a job.
I still think about these seemingly conflicting pieces of advice all the time. I’ve managed to fill more time outside working hours doing things and being with people who give me joy, but after years of seeking roles that offered promises of bigger paychecks, titles and importance, I’ve sought work that doesn’t feel like a job (but still helps me support my family of three).
For now, as I circle closer to the way I felt before the very first time I had the wind — and professional and personal confidence — knocked out of me, perhaps I know no more about what the right job looks like than I know about how the wrong one looks.
Earlier this year, in fact, I was able to quit a part-time job that provided some financial support but that the mere thought of seemed to suck all the air out of my left lung, causing me to feel a sharp tug at my chest. It took a few months for me to recover financially. Personally and emotionally, however, I felt a huge wave of relief the moment I gave notice.
I was starting to put my worth first, separate from and ahead of any employer. And maybe that was the secret all along.