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Renata Sellitti Headshot

Unemployment Blues

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My name is Renata, and I have a confession to make: I'm unemployed.

I lost my job early last year, becoming part of the country's 9.6 percent unemployment rate, and I've been a statistic ever since. This past year, I've learned when you lose your job you may very well lose your mind too. While millions of jobless Americans get resume tips, what we really need is awareness of the struggle we are about to stare down.

I experienced something that I've come to identify as "the five stages of unemployment," a playful-yet-serious incarnation of psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' famed explanation of the five stages of grief. The jobless blues can be crippling and embody a similar loss of control at first. Then they eventually -- and hopefully -- lead to acceptance.

Denial. Apart from carrying the contents of our desks out of the office, a job loss often doesn't feel like a bonafide job loss. The initial week or two may even have been fun. We get to sleep late and watch all of the daytime television that we want, not realizing what total poison it may be. We don't admit to ourselves that our foreheads have been branded unwittingly with a capital "U" that won't wash off.

Last summer, Gretchen Sodergren, 32, a corporate retail planner, got a call from her boss telling her, "This is the last paycheck this Friday." Having worked from home, she was confused for weeks, asking herself, "What just happened here?" Sodergren became what she called, "The Coupon Lady," clipping coupons to save money. As her bills accumulated, she learned to make macaroni dinners last for days and downgraded to drinking Miller Lite out of cans. Financial anxiety is the surest way to snap out of the denial. The length of this stage varies for everyone, but is always followed by its ugly stepsister, the second stage of unemployment: repetition.

Repetition. I call this stage "one long Groundhog Day of rejection." I spent endless days in blue Calvin Klein pajama pants and a pink shirt emblazoned with a picture of an angry chocolate chip cookie character and the moniker, "One Tough Cookie." The slogan was ironic because, even though I sent my resume to everyone I knew, only to learn that most of them were also looking for work, I was falling apart. While worker bees buzzed outside my window on their daily commute, I turned to "Ellen" and "Oprah" to drown them out. I felt paralyzed by my inability to contribute to the world around me.

By day, I hung out with Raymond and John, the doormen at my Murray Hill apartment building in midtown Manhattan, and bonded with the Hispanic housekeepers, while I did laundry in the basement. By night I begged my friends to go get drinks so I could actually leave my apartment. I cursed necessary tasks like calling the unemployment office.

I wallowed my way right into stage three: Self-Improvement. The need for self-improvement sets in when even you become so disgusted with yourself and your appearance that you channel your frustration into exercise or grooming and wardrobe upgrades. Some months after losing her job, Sodergren, the corporate retail planner who suffered from denial threw away her stained white "Miami Beach" sweatshirt and the ill-fitting, light blue Old Navy pajama pants that she wore just about every day last year. "I actually convinced myself that because they matched it was somehow an outfit," she says.

Rob Nagel, an Indianapolis college admissions director who was unemployed for most of last year, walked his dogs Boss and Chick at Wadsworth, a local dog park, and rode his Gary Fisher mountain bike regularly because, he says, "Let's face it. Mountain biking is free." He lost 20 pounds. "People say that it's a great opportunity to change career paths and all that stuff, but the only thing that really gave me sanity was exercise," says Nagel.

Rachel Stein, 28, a public relations manager in San Francisco, dealt with her unemployment last year by waking up early and packing her days with job searches and long walks. "I gave myself a routine," she says. "I knew how important that was." This past January, Stein launched a website, "Tales from the Recently Laid Off."

But even discipline and all the exercise in the world can't stave off the cruelest of the stages: Desperation. This is when all of the things that you previously shunned - like your mother's well-intentioned-but-reaching job advice - suddenly don't seem so ridiculous. You start actually entertaining them. Yikes. This is accompanied by a complete swallowing of your pride.

Last spring, Michael Gargiulo, an unemployed freelance television producer in New York, got a call from his mother telling him that there was a news anchor with the same name on NBC4. She urged him to reach out to the "other Gargiulo" for a job. Initially, he resisted but after several months unemployed he sent "the other Gargiulo" an email explaining their many similarities - both work in broadcasting and both are from Brooklyn - and punctuated the email with a subtle plea, "In these tough economic times, us Michael Gargiulos have to stick together." To Gargiulo's surprise, the newscaster emailed him back the next day offering his home phone number and words of encouragement. Later, Gargiulo launched a Facebook fan page, "Michael Gargiulo Unemployed Genius," to help navigate the job search because he says, "You have to have a little humor or you will go insane."

The final stage of unemployment is actually a road that forks into two possible choices, Surliness or Self-Help. Surliness happens when your frustration bubbles to the surface and you lash out. After getting a flurry of emails from Career Builder, an employment website, Nagel, the Indianapolis college admissions director who took up mountain biking, sent the website an email, "STOP F*CKING SENDING ME EMAILS." He received a response threatening to ban him from the site and scolding, "I feel sorry for you however, because your temper & attitude is most likely why you can't hold down a job! We suggest a good therapist to find out why your [sic] so angry at the world! We wouldn't want a foul mouth like you working for us anyway!" Despite his desperation, Nagel was more amused than upset.

Seeking help involves relying on support services or just deciding to be productive and determined rather than symbolically flipping unemployment the bird. Last November, Jayan Kalathil, an unemployed public affairs manager at MTV Networks published the book, "Generation Change," taking on the task of self-branding and promotion to try and break back into the job market. "I think the biggest lesson I've learned," he says, "is to say yes to different opportunities, invitations and everything that comes my way, something that I wasn't as open to before I lost my job."

Early last year, Terry Drula began a support group in Westford, Mass., the St. Catherine of Alexandria Faith Works Unemployment Support Group, with ten members attending monthly meetings. About 25 members now attend. Drula says the group, comprised of a revolving door of chemical engineers, designers, software and marketing professionals, encourages members to identify career strengths and lets them network over coffee and cookies. It also organizes job search presentations to provide tools for reemployment. "There is a heck of a lot of quality people out there without jobs," says Drula.

As if losing your job isn't bad enough, it seems as if unemployment may now actually kill you. Robert Leahy, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York and the author of the forthcoming book, Beat the Blues Before They Beat You, says that according to recent scientific studies, there is a strong link between unemployment and increased mortality rates, because of issues like increased stress, depression-related substance abuse and suicide. "Unemployment feeds into our worry, our pessimism, and is a major health problem," he says. Leahy says after returning to work, the psychological effects that his patients suffer -- like shame and isolation -- don't readily go away. Leahy encourages people to volunteer, exercise and restructure their daily routine and to avoid over-identifying themselves with their jobs. "What you do is part of who you are," he says, but job seekers, "need to identify themselves as spouses, friends, fathers, mothers," and other roles.

In truth, many jobseekers say that they wouldn't attend a support group meeting unless they were forced to attend, but there can be some merit to those measures. "Support systems can be very helpful if they go beyond complaining," Leahy says.

However jobseekers stay afloat despite the tidal wave of injured self-worth that threatens to crest over their heads daily, it is acceptance that most helps. This comes only after hitting bottom, though no one tells you that, either. And it looks different for everyone. For Sodergren, the "Coupon Lady," bottom came when she tearfully realized she couldn't even afford a $24.99 pair of shoes.

For Stein, author of the blog, "Tales from the Recently Laid Off," it came when she looked hard at the other folks vying for the same food service job she was considering. "It went from 'I can't believe I'm applying for this' to 'I can't believe I'm competing for this,'" she admits.

For me, hitting bottom came as I changed diapers and cleaned up Juicy Juice drink box spills while babysitting some of New York City's privileged tots. I escaped the blues only after a total life overhaul. I went back to school and changed cities. Be warned: This method isn't for everyone.

Jobseekers can't always convince their friends and family to understand their situation, but they can let go of their frustration while holding onto hope. Finding that peace will make things better. "I stopped blaming myself," says Kalathil, author of "Generation Change," "and understood that this is the nature of how things are right now. You never know what's going to happen from day to day, so I just stay networking and stay optimistic because that sense of optimism is what gets you through it."

Still looking for work, I don't wear my "One Tough Cookie" T-shirt anymore. I live it.