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Coping with no work

Miriam Dann explains the sobering experience that being unemployed had on her and how she changed how she saw herself and others as a result ...

I had no idea how much it hurt to be out of a job
Finding herself unemployed has been a sobering experience for Miriam Dann

So, this morning was a productive one. Up at 6am for no good reason, a walk to the post box in my pyjamas by 6.30 and properly stuck into cleaning the bathroom by 9! As I make my way around the bath and sink, I arrive at the loo and reach for the toilet brush. I should never have bought it. It’s a ‘posh’ looking one which falls apart if you even look at it. I’m not one to be overcome by my mild OCD tendencies, but toilet brushes really are disgusting.

So as I try and reunite the brush head and the handle, whilst trying not to dislodge the precariously attached lid, I notice a curious thing, a small spider living in the bristles of the toilet brush . . .

I have been out of the ‘rat race’ for seven months now.  I was doing all right – not leading up at the front by any means, but I was certainly in the middling ‘above average earner’ group. I had loads of energy and determination to go further,  and was progressing at a good pace.  Those up front were certainly in my sight and I felt a ‘bright young thing’ amongst my colleagues.  

But where I was once in management meetings and conducting appraisals for my department team members, I now find myself in an employability course for (as my work coach, Barry, so eloquently put it) “those with deficits in the skills necessary to find a job”.

Suddenly I’m stumbling along, surrounded by a very different group of people. After a period of no progress in getting back in the workforce,  it is suggested to me that I try something different, another course – this time a two-week course in health and social care. Barry kindly pointed out that he puts people forward who are fatigued by the job search/‘race’ and “could do with something fresh to focus on” . . . that would be me.

So here I am in the Learn Direct centre on the first day of my course. I’m reading the posters on the door of the toilet.  A bright pink speech bubble asks me if I am afraid of my partner and, if so, to call the advertised number. Another asks if I am struggling with drugs. One informs me of the urgent need to recruit carers for a local company on a less than living wage and zero hour contract, and then, what becomes like a friend to me over those two weeks, a tatty black-and-white photocopied poster which reads, “I am in charge of how I feel and today I choose happiness”.

The arrogant ‘I’m too good for this course, I am not like these people. I have a degree, blah, blah, blah’ was knocked out of me very early on in this ‘adventure’.  Although I do struggle with my current circumstances,  I have become acutely aware of the stories and struggles of those alongside me.  And though I have worked with people in hard circumstances throughout my career, it’s a whole different perspective when you are with them in the pit and not the one trying to pull them out!

Which brings me back to my spider in the loo brush.  I tried to flick him out with a piece of toilet paper but, to my horror, he recoiled deeper into the bristles. “You can’t live in a toilet brush!” I say. (Unemployment has made me realise how much I talk to myself.) But then I think, ‘why not? If he  wants to, that’s his choice’.

I thought again of the H&S course.  I met some of the most beautiful people on that course. We were all there by choice. We had willingly chosen to attend,  but we hadn’t chosen to be unemployed. Severe mental illness and morbid obesity were prevalent in the group and people shared stories of abuse, domestic violence, previous problems with drugs and alcohol, and poverty and/or debt.

I’m fortunate in that I haven’t experienced those things and I have the support of my family, but otherwise I am the same as them. We are like spiders in a loo brush, caught in a situation that others look down on with distain. Some recoil at the push to move on and leave the brush, and become entrenched deeper just as the spider has, because unemployment destroys confidence and self-belief. Others are waiting for someone to extend a piece of loo roll they can leap off.

No one is proud to be on benefits or ‘milking the system’ for all its worth. In most cases, as with mine, the system does not even cover the mortgage. It is a lifebuoy that only just stops us from going under; it does not provide luxury as the media often suggests.

What has been of gain, however, is that this experience has taught me so much. It has been humbling and given me insight into a different world. I had no idea how much unemployment could hurt and the problems associated with it.  It has forced me to redefine myself. I didn’t know that my self-worth was based on my job, how high up the ladder I was and the money I earned until it was all torn away. I didn’t realise that the casual “So what are you doing now?” question that starts most conversations could be so wounding when the answer is “Nothing.”

But I am also learning that I am a child of God and that he values me for who I am and still wants me, even as a job seeker who feels they have little to offer anyone.  It has made me realise that tithing is not enough for me and to look for ways to be generous.

I have learnt to pray for my ‘enemies’. I thought I would feel emasculated if I let go of the anger and resentment about losing my job, but having genuinely prayed for those involved, those feelings have gone and I have felt released. I have also realised how much I needed a rest and so I am learning to ‘lie down in his green pastures’, to trust him and to focus on good news or something I can be grateful for every day.

I am praying too that I won’t forget how it feels to be out of work: the poverty, the loneliness, the boredom and frustration, and that I will always help where I can.  And I want to encourage other Christians to support those in their church or in their circles who are facing the challenges unemployment brings.

What could you do to encourage someone today?    

Postscript
I am now in work again, employed by the Salvation Army to develop a café, which both offers subsidised meals to those in financial difficulties and employment opportunities to those who would otherwise struggle to find a job.

I have linked up with my local church – Chippenham Christian Fellowship – and the plan is to use our church building for the café and to provide something that will really serve the community. We have had meetings with the council and are currently fundraising.

Meanwhile, the church is running monthly community meals to engage with people in need or who feel marginalised and is building up some good contacts.

I am gaining useful experience and I am so pleased that out of this horrible time God has given me fresh hope and a vision. It feels like things have come full circle.

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