The Hidden Trauma in Filing For Unemployment
How filing for unemployment during COVID-19 almost broke me
A couple of weeks ago, right after I got laid-off, I wrote about my experience here. I talked about my rollercoaster of shame, fear and confusion. In doing so, I opened the door for a lot of folks to share their difficult stories with me and I received a lot of support.
I won’t say the negative feelings are gone but the shame, fear and confusion have been joined by acceptance, pride and support. I am grateful for the brave people who shared their stories and the brave people who reached out to those of us hurting to sit with us and share our pain.
I can feel the difficult emotions starting to fade over time, but before I can move on and focus on the positive, there’s one more bear of an emotion that I have to digest: Helplessness.
An institutional adventure into a black hole of helplessness
In the field of psychology, particularly trauma, there’s a concept called secondary wounding. These are the wounds received not from a trauma, but from the reaction of our loved ones and our community. For example, when a woman reports a rape and the police officer makes a comment about her clothes or the neighborhood she was in, they shift blame in her direction. Also, the negative treatment in the US of soldiers returning from the Vietnam War or a parent refusing to believe a child who reports abuse.
We humans are social creatures and how we respond to each other, particularly when we have been hurt is a big deal. Denial, avoidance and flippant “it’s-not-that-bad” comments can hurt us, especially when we expose ourselves as vulnerable.
Although my personal experience in getting laid off is leagues away from war and abuse, I ran into a case of secondary wounding from a surprising place. It came from an institution. It came from my Unemployment Department. Not the people working their butts off there, but from the institution.
My state’s unemployment technology is antiquated and despite the millions of dollars allocated to update the system, nothing has happened. When unemployment claims skyrocketed, the system couldn’t handle it. There has been one problem after another.
“Nothing yet, I’m just trying to be patient.” That was my response to the multiple people asking whether I was getting unemployment.
“Finally, something from the Unemployment Department for you Heather,” said my housemate and best friend Doug as he handed me an envelope.
I felt a tension in my chest ease that I didn’t know I had been holding. Yes. I was going to be okay.
“Based on your work history, you do not qualify for unemployment insurance...To qualify, you must have work with total base year wages of $1000 or more and have total base year wages that are equal to or greater than one and one-half times the highest total wage quarter amount in the base year or, you may qualify if you have some wages and 500 hours of work during the base year.”
The tightness returned to my chest 100-fold and I could feel my eyes starting to water as my throat tightened. I read the sentence again, and again, and again. It still made no sense to me but I knew for a fact that I had been working full time for decades. Whatever the base year was, my wages were above $1000.
As I scoured the page looking for some sort of recourse, I found “THIS REPORT BECOMES FINAL UNLESS YOU REQUEST REDETERMINATION OF THE REPORT OR REQUEST A HEARING WITHIN 10 DAYS FOLLOWING THE DATE MAILED OR DELIVERED.”
It was followed by a few more screaming all caps sentences.
There were no instructions for how to request a redetermination. Elsewhere on the page I found reference to the Employment Department Claimant Handbook. It was in relation to another topic but I was determined. It was better than panicking.
I went to the computer and started searching the unemployment department website. I found the handbook and the section on appeals (I could not find the term “redetermination” anywhere). The handbook referenced instructions for an appeal that were supposedly included with my denial letter. Nope.
Now I had tears in my eyes and a HUGE lump in my throat. I found a phone number, but it was after business hours. I had to go to bed so I could stare at the ceiling for most of the night. I have 10 days. It’s fine. Relax.
Bright and early I called the number and got a busy signal. I couldn’t even get in the phone system. Just busy. I called 140 times that day and it was busy each time. The next morning I had my finger poised at 7:59 am...busy.
The next day, after I don’t know how many calls, I realized I needed to do something different. Back to the website. In circles. I don’t have a “profile” that I can access to see if I can’t figure out why the system is showing $0. I re-read the handbook again and again. I called again. It was busy. There was an email to request a hearing, but because I’d read the handbook enough times, I knew that I needed an appeal first. I emailed for a hearing anyway because there was an email there and I had to get SOMETHING on record within 10 days. I called the number again. Busy. I considered refiling. But would that negate the previous filing? I couldn’t find anything in the handbook about that. I called again. Busy.
“What the F*** am I supposed to do?!” I needed help and there were no answers. Nothing I could do. I felt completely helpless.
I spent another day calling repeatedly but that meant my whole day was spent stewing in the stress. Every time I tried calling and heard that damn busy signal again, I felt diminished.
I was scared and vulnerable and my treatment at the hands of this institution absolutely and completely felt like being wounded. Repeatedly.
At this point, my temper was so short and my distress so high that I pretty much chased my partner Jim out of the house with yet another monologue of fear and frustration.
This whole situation was pushing my mental health to the edge. And I have a bit of savings to tide me over AND toilet paper. My heart ached for those who started this saga while in crisis.
This was secondary wounding. I had all of the emotional fallout of getting laid-off and piled on top of that, when I asked for help, I was told no and shut out.
In an attempt to DO SOMETHING, I went to Facebook and begged the wide world for help. Someone surely knew something. My heart broke again when instead of getting answers, I got a flood of people in the same situation.
My helplessness was magnified, but it felt slightly better not feeling so alone.
Then one of my fabulous sisters messaged me with a back door way to get through. It’s since been closed but it got me on hold. I tried not to touch my phone, terrified I would hit a wrong button and accidentally hang up. I stayed on hold, every muscle tensed, pacing the house, counting my blessings. After a couple of hours of this, I started watching the clock. Five o’clock was fast approaching. What in the world was I going to do? I was finally here. I couldn’t face another day of this. At 4:55 pm, it finally rang.
Are you hoping for a happy ending? Don’t get your hopes up.
A wonderful woman picked up and we went through my account. My income was in there somewhere but because the system was so old, many claims, mine being one of them, need manual attention to get processed. The system doesn’t tell me this. The system tells me I’m denied and I HAVE 10 DAYS OR NOTHING!!!
She informed me that the necessary buttons had been pressed that morning. Again, no automated email to me. Although, I got another denial letter for the most recent week’s benefits the next day, so that was nice.
She reassured me that the funds should hit my account within the next day or so.
I felt a bit like a jerk for getting to talk to her when all I needed to do was wait. I would have been happy to wait if I had gotten a “Please be patient letter” instead of the ten day threat letter. I got off the line as fast as I could and slept like a baby that night.
Since then, I’ve checked my account every business day. It’s now been a week. Nothing.
Let’s talk about another psychological concept called Learned Helplessness. This is where you feel powerless all the time in response to trauma and/or an inability to be successful despite great effort.
Am I going to try calling the unemployment department again? No. Am I going to bother to ask for help anymore? No. Am I going to look for a solution of any kind from the system? No.
What’s the point?
If I have to cheat just to be put on hold for hours just to be told they need three weeks to push a button just to be told your benefits are on the way just to swim deeper into the muck of despair and helplessness when nothing happens...no thanks. I can’t spend every day doing that. Lucky me, I can choose to spend my savings rather than my mental health. I’m actually lucky to get to make that choice. There are many that don’t have that luxury.
In the meantime, since I paid for decades into the system I’m still going to keep filing every week. I’m going to keep looking for non-existent work and blindly HOPE that at some point the assistance comes through.
Blind hope is not a strategy though. It doesn't feel good. Crossing my fingers and pretending to be optimistic is giving up my power and counting on some other force to swoop in and make things better. It too often comes with inaction. I’d rather do something or work on acceptance.
Each time I start to drift down the helplessness rabbit hole, I shift my focus to something I can control. Right now it’s building my digital productivity/accountability group, GoGoDone. Whether it works or not, it feels good to do, because the point of it is to help remote workers feel less isolated and be more productive as they work in social isolation.
Because I’m struggling with income stress, social isolation and helplessness, I’m at great risk for depression. Learned helplessness in particular can go hand-in-hand with depression. Focusing on something fulfilling that I have control over is a great way to keep my head above water. Helping others do the same doubles down on this.
How to survive helplessness: gratitude, connection and control
As my rollercoaster continues, I count my blessings.
There are the physical ones. I am still healthy as are my loved ones. I can pay my bills for now and am not worried about food and shelter. I have human beings to connect with - a few in person and many digitally.
There are the psychological ones. I have developed the skill and over time built the courage to talk about my difficult feelings. I have wonderful people who not only listen, but who will also reach out to me. I can ask for help. I can ask again when I don’t get it the first time. I can reflect and see the growing feeling of powerlessness and its impact and redirect my energy.
I feel pretty optimistic that I won’t end up depressed. I am terrified on behalf of those that went into this already experiencing depression and anxiety and those who don’t have the safety net and experiences I do. I can’t help but think we are barreling towards a second epidemic, one of depression and anxiety.
Since I’m not keen on using blind hope as a strategy, I am taking the following actions to protect and fortify myself as I ride this continuing rollercoaster, so I don’t succumb to the second epidemic.
I’m finding the places in my life where I have control and can make a difference. I spend time there most days.
I call or web conference with people almost every day. I connect both with family and friends and my productivity/mastermind groups.
I have been doing my best to reach out to people who might be having a hard time. I do take no for an answer but not for a reason to stop asking.
I keep moving my body - I do it outside as much as is safe.
Any time I can’t be outside, I’m by a window getting as much natural light as I can.
I have loaded up on fresh fruits and vegetables.
I limit my screen time. I don’t have a television so that’s easy - I do listen to audiobooks from my library. I count my non-webconference hours on the computer and my phone. Phone games are taboo and replaced with puzzles.
I have taken this time to learn something new that’s not on a screen. I can almost play the three guitar chords required for Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds.
I meditate daily and have a spirituality-based audiobook at the ready for my morning walks.
I will continue to talk about it. Full disclosure, it took me two week to be able to come back and edit this article. I didn’t want to dive back into the emotions but it needed to happen.
I’m counting on these strategies to create and maintain the connections that keep me feeling supported as they stand in direct opposition to the secondary wounding rolling out from the government institutions I’ve been funding all these years. I’m counting on the time I spend on the projects I can control to help fight the pull of learned helplessness and instead keep me inspired and optimistic that I still have something worthwhile to contribute to the world around me.
Holy S**t! There IS a happy ending!!
I knew I needed to write this article weeks ago. Right around the time my partner Jim interrupted another circular rant of mine saying, “Maybe you need to write an article about this?”
“Are you politely telling me you’re tired of hearing about this?” was my gritted-teeth response.
“Hmm...I gotta go to work.” And he gently closed the front door.
It took me two weeks to do it (and another two weeks to get the courage up to reread and edit this!). Really stepping into these feelings completely sucks. The only way out is through so, I finally did it and spent the rest of the day feeling low and drained. That night, I sat at the kitchen table debriefing with Doug. He listened with compassion and humor as usual.
After a lull in the conversation, he quietly got up and got the mail.
He came in with intense animation in his voice. “Look! Look at these goosebumps!” His arm was covered in skyscraper bumps. “You know why I have these?”
He proceeded to slap down one check after another from the unemployment department. A month of checks and bonus checks all arriving belatedly, not directly to my account as promised, but mailed.
There was screaming and some picture texting to Jim and a few people who had lent me their shoulders for crying on.
I am going to be okay, for now. I have my fingers crossed that this is how it's playing out for others in my situation. Yes, it’s blind hope, I know - but I’m slightly more optimistic these days.
And if you’re interested in a place to embrace what control you have, get a little support and get a lot of work done, please join our growing community at GoGoDone. If you’re experiencing financial hardship, just give me a shout out and I’ll give you a free code for the duration.