After nine months of unemployment, Kevin Shea discovers that what he can do for money is not the same thing as what he is truly worth.
On Friday, June 29th, 2012 at approximately 7:30 in the morning I swung my feet from bed to floor only to find that it was quite possible I no longer exist. A disconcerting sensation no matter which day of the week on which it might occur, I think you would agree. I was not pleased with this turn of events. I like to exist.
Vertigo laced with anxiety made my belly flip. I patted the carpet—a high shag affair—with my feet to assure myself that I could stand up. The softly scratchy strands felt good, felt so mundane that I resolved to rise. Surely the floor would support me.
No embarrassing sinking through the floor to the living room below and down to the basement. Why I thought a concrete slab would hold me if a wood floor would not, I do not know. I stood. I did not sink into or through the floor, except to the extent my weight compressed the carpet. Very reassuring, that.
Sunlight leaked in between the small slats of the blinds, inducing me to blink. “A good sign as well” I muttered. The knot in my belly loosened slightly. Air flowed into my lungs. The muffled rasp sound inside my head gave me some comfort. It seemed so normal.
I was just happy to breathe and feel the coursing of air in my chest. So far, so good. Feet on the floor, air in the lungs, no fainting or disappearing into the woodwork. I felt less dizzy as I quickly scanned my surroundings.
Rumpled sheets. Bedside table with books. Low hum of fan. Phone on nightstand.
Heart beating, limbs moving, earth turning. I must be here, I exist—right? Then why did I feel as if there was no gravity, that my flesh was becoming transparent before my groggy eyes?
I shook it off and made my way to the bathroom for some brief ablutions. Then it was downstairs for tea and breakfast, something simple, I don’t recall what I made. There were things to do and places to go, none of which would wait for angst to disappear. I showered and made ready for a road trip, all the while puzzling over my very own ‘unbearable lightness of being’.
Somewhere between lunch and departure it hit me square in the cerebral cortex: I am a salaryman without a salary, and in a certain way, I did not exist. I don’t earn, therefore, I am not. Years of societal and professional conditioning had led me to this identification of self with earnings, and that is a dangerous hook on which to hang the hat of identity.
The pieces came together. I was approaching nine months without employment, and in this culture of “job equals money equals worth”, nine months is akin to a lifetime. This feeling gripped me hard, an uneasy knowledge that many employers now considered me invisible. Nothing breeds success like success, and ladies and gentlemen, success was just beyond my grasp and getting away.
The brutal truth, which most of us know, is that a job is easier to get when you already have a job to lose. My chosen profession of architecture seemed a particularly harsh exemplar of the phrase. On that Friday, it was all I could do to breathe through the disappointment.
I took cold comfort from having identified the root cause of my anxiety. It is always easier to deal with a known enemy rather than a mystery foe. I talked it out some with my companion, and she reassured my faltering ego that I do exist, that I live and breathe, and that I am real.
I felt the blood in my veins, the air in my lungs, the food in my belly. All things good and right. What troubled me is that for a few bad moments during an ordinary morning, external ideas of self-worth overrode the internal foundations of my identity. Months of looking at my haggard self in the wrong mirror came to roost, and it took heavy mental lifting coupled with a strong dose of love to return the ground to beneath my feet.
Mentally I have gained some breathing room, since that unsettling morning nearly 10 months ago. I am coming to believe there is something out there for me, as I seek to reinvent myself as a writer, photographer and artist. Most importantly, never again will I make the mistake of confusing what I can do for money with what I am truly worth. Never again will I be a salaryman in the mist.