09/21/2009 12:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Letters From The Jobless: "I'm Not Exactly Sure Where I Went Wrong"

People send me e-mails every day in response to items I've written about unemployment that ask for readers' stories. It's a simple thing: people are relieved when they see that they're not alone in the world of joblessness.

Tammara Phillips in San Diego County wrote:

My husband and I owned and operated an industrial electrical contracting business for nine years. The post 9-11 economy was not not kind to the printing industry (who comprised most of our client base). In November 2007 we had to shut the business down. I know it broke my husband's heart to close the business and take a job, but he did what he needed to do. We ultimately had to file bankruptcy to liquidate the leftover business debts that we had no way of paying off. As of now, we are about to lose our house.

I had gone back to school (while working in our business) in 2005 to finish a degree in International Relations. I graduated in May 2008 and I have been looking for a job in the international relief/humanitarian field ever since. I have sent out probably 500 resumes and volunteered at several non-profits trying to get my foot in the door somewhere, but so far no luck. I have an impressively broad skill set and many organizations would like me to come work for them, they just cant afford to pay me.

Many of the jobs in my field require a Master's degree, but I can't pay my student loans now, so I am afraid to take out more. I have been able to generate a little income with freelance writing, but as more and more people get laid off, the market is increasingly flooded with people bidding for the available work.

I never thought I'd be here, starting over with no savings and no credit at age 42. I'm not exactly sure where I went wrong...

Rae Disco in Bloomington, Ill., wrote about the importance of keeping a sense of humor:

In 2002, I graduated with a BS in Theatre. I was the first person in my family to make it to a higher degree. I also fell in love with an artist; we moved to Seattle where he got an MFA from the University of Washington in Printmaking. He finished in 2005, and we moved back to Illinois. I had been working in retail management while John got his masters, and it was after we returned that I decided to go back to school for a more fulfilling career. At the time, there were a shortage of teachers, and I began my education in education.

While I was in school, I held as many as three jobs while going to class full time. John bit the bullet and worked the low-paying retail gig for nearly 2 years while I finished school. We were scraping by. Then, in 2008, while I was student teaching, we got the news that the store where he was working, where we got our benefits and insurance, was closing. His last day of work was May 9, 2008... the same day I graduated.

Upon graduating, I launched us into what I like to call the "honeymoon period" of student loan repayment -- those 6 blissful months before the loans come due in which you assuredly know that, hey... it's all going to be fine, because I'm going to find a job! Except that job never came, and Sallie Mae calls 15-20 times a day demanding payment. Which is hard to do when you don't have an income. Sure, I could pay the $150 to put my account into forbearance for a measly six months... if I had $150. In the last year, I have applied to over 225 school districts in Illinois and around the country, and have received 3 rejection letters. The rest just never contact me. I worked as a substitute over the last school year, but the work is not reliable. I am sitting on upwards of $100K in student loan debt between the two degrees, and my husband isn't far behind. And it keeps growing; Sallie Mae capitalizes the 9.25% interest about every 10 months and adds it to the principal balance. How nice of them...

90% of our debt is educational. That really pisses me off; you're told as a naive 18 year old that college is the only way to guarantee a career. So you do whatever it takes to secure that education, which may mean unwittingly borrowing from less-than-scrupulous lenders, and upon graduation you discover that hey, that degree isn't worth the paper it's printed on and you're going to wind up working in a crappy job outside of your field anyway, and why didn't anyone tell you that diesel mechanics make three times what you owe the government after just 18 months of training as opposed to four years of classes you're never going to need, like 'Comparative Religions' and 'Carmen: Novel, Opera, Film'?!?

Currently, I keep house to keep myself sane. I bake. I got into gardening with the help of a friend who gives me free plants. This summer, when subbing ended, I couldn't even get hired on at the local Wal-Mart (over-qualified). My husband has applied everywhere, from universities seeking art professors to the local video store, and is told he's either over-qualified to work a register or under-experienced to teach. I have a thyroid condition that I largely ignore and hope stays in remission, because a trip to the endocrinologist equals about 3 months worth of groceries. I live in fear that one of us has an accident and needs the ER; we'd be sunk before we even started.

I have no idea how we squeak by. Bills for anything outside of rent and utilities are forgotten about; they can be dealt with later, because hopefully there will be jobs later. There's always hope. I think if I didn't have that hope, I'd have run in front of a bus a long time ago. When you are working, you never want to be defined by "what you do", but you never really realize how much what you do defines who you are. "I'm a teacher" sounds much better than "I sit on the couch all day Googling banana bread recipes after exhausting the want ads". You also have to keep your sense of humor about the whole thing... I actually put my second diploma on eBay for $53,000 (Sallie seems to think it's worth that much...), just to see what would happen. Unfortunately, no one bid, but I did get some words of encouragement from fellow teachers and people in the same jobless boat. If I didn't have a sense of humor about it, I'd spend most of my days crying into my pillow and drinking chain-store tequila (it's the cheapest!). It sucks, yes. Don't misconstrue the severity of the situation because I crack a few jokes... I just can't afford to do anything else right now.

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