Two weeks ago I woke up, got dressed, put on shoes, found coffee and went to work for approximately three hours before receiving an email and being herded into a conference room with a group of my peers. I received a white envelope containing a check, some paperwork and a well-intentioned pamphlet from our HR department on how to deal with unexpected job loss.
I had a beer at noon, and then walked to the subway, convinced that people passing me on the street knew that I no longer had a job. I was free of responsibility, with nothing but the yawning openness of an infinite amount of free time stretched before me.
I made phone calls to my parents, shutting down the worry in their voices with a tone that said “Please don’t talk to me about this, I am very close to tears, please know that I am fine.” I got many drinks with friends who still had jobs and friends who just lost them, then ate a meal of cheap dumplings in hungry gulps standing in my kitchen, legs wobbly from too many beers and not enough food. My roommates treaded lightly around me, looks of concerns etched across their faces.
The first few days were a wash. Every night, I ended up out with friends, and every night I ended up sitting at a bar clutching the cool neck of a beer someone else paid for, frantically making budgets in my head and dabbing at tears with a cocktail napkin. During daylight, I flopped around my apartment in stretch pants, drifting towards my laptop looking for work, emailing everyone I knew for leads and ignoring phone calls from my parents. This was my struggle and no one else’s. This was something I’d have to get through. And I have. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.
1. Get your money right, as soon as you can. Stop buying extra moves in Candy Crush. Purchase only necessities at Duane Reade, which does not mean nail polish, three magazines and an eyeliner to replace the one you think you left at the bar the other night. If you got a severance check, deposit it right away. Sign up for unemployment immediately. Turn a critical and unwavering eye on your bank account and make some hard and fast decisions on how to push some paper towards rent, towards your bills, towards whatever expenses you might have. Take stock of what’s left, and make a budget. This is the part where most people freak out. Do not freak out.
2. Your friends are there for you, and they want to be supportive, so do not look that gift horse in the mouth. They will understand if you snap and put up a wall and cringe under their sympathetic gaze. If someone wants to buy you a beer, put your wallet away and take that beer with a smile. If people give you strident advice that rankles because you are a grownup and don’t want to hear what anyone else has to say, grit your teeth and listen. No back-talk. Say thank you. They mean well.
3. Find a comfortable and cheap place to do your work work. Looking for jobs uses the same kinds of muscles that being at your actual job used. Opening and closing all the tabs. Refreshing Twitter. Typing words into a box, hitting “send” and going to get a coffee. All that’s changed is the intent. If you have a desk or a table at your disposal, congratulations, you’re a step ahead of the game. All of the work you will be doing can be done from the quiet still of your apartment. If you go to a cafe, make sure it’s quiet, full of outlets and has a strong, fast Wi-Fi connection.
4. If you are confined to your home, set some ground rules. Wear pants—real pants, with a button and a zipper—at least three times a week. Leave your house once a day, get some fresh air on your face, and practice the fading art of speaking out loud to other people, even if it is an extended conversation about the price of packaged cheese slices with the cashier at the grocery store. Shower with some regularity. If you want to walk down the street and get a bagel and an iced coffee instead of eating the sad Chobani that stares balefully at you when you open the fridge, do it. If it makes you feel saner to do something that’s like the way you used to do things, so be it.
5. Remember to eat food. I hear you scoff, thinking to yourself, how on earth could I ever forget to eat food, I am constantly, always starving, but trust me, you forget. There’s something about an office environment that finds you monstrously hungry at 11:30 a.m., wrist deep in a bag of Cheez-its. When you’re home and deep in a job hunt, and the tiny abacus that lives in your head is clacking furiously to divide up the same finite amount of money in as many different ways as it can, that din drowns out a grumbling stomach. Look at the clock. If it’s in the same time you would’ve eaten food at your job while you sitting at your desk talking trash into a chat box, get up and make a sandwich.
6. Above all, this is an opportunity for yourself. The constraints of a regular job make it hard to see what the future could hold. If you’re unhappy with your career path, steady money and the silent buzzing of fluorescent lights make you complacent. People will tell you that this is the kick in the teeth you needed to make a change for the positive, and for that you should be grateful. It’s hard to see at first, because the open maw of the unknown sometimes makes it hard to breathe. As humans, we struggle every day to wrest control form the grips of the universe and put it into our own hands. This is a chance to do just that. You’re in charge.
Megan Reynolds lives in New York.