I turned 31 a few months ago, and a month later I moved out of Brooklyn and back into my childhood bedroom in my parents' house in Oakland, Calif. At that point, my latest bout of unemployment had lasted about nine months, and the looming end of my Emergency Unemployment Benefits at the year's end prompted the begrudging decision to, at least temporarily, give up my independent life.
I graduated from Vassar College 10 years ago with a BA in Film and dived into life in New York City full of optimism and excitement for my future. I imagined that I'd be "rich and successful" by the time I was 25. After failing to secure a job in my field immediately after college I turned to retail. It was fairly easy work to get, and once I ascended into the world of high-end luxury designer sales, it afforded me just enough money to live a fairly comfortable -- if still a paycheck to paycheck -- existence while I pursued my creative passions. A couple-year interlude working as a production assistant on films and television shows offered some brief hope that I may actually make it into the business, but life as a freelancer was hard and I spent months on and off unemployment waiting for new projects to materialize. The desire for something stable sent me back to retail, where I remained until I was laid off a few years later. In retrospect I probably could have been more aggressive in securing a career, but in a city like New York you either work or you starve, and jobs became harder and harder to come by as the years wore on and the economy crashed, so the motivation to take what you could get and not give it up was strong.
Being poor anywhere sucks, but there's perhaps a particular kind of soul crushing that one experiences being poor in New York City. The cost of living is so high, and the constant inundation from all around you of experiences you could be having, things you could be buying, luxury apartments where you could be living, if only you had the finances, slowly break you down inside. Various people have asked about "savings" over the years; I think at one point I might have had two or three hundred dollars in a savings account, but honestly, I don't know how anyone who lives in New York City could have savings unless they make six figures. My "affordable" rent in Park Slope, Brooklyn was never less than $900 a month, and it never stopped going up, unlike my income. On average, after rent and bills, I probably had less than three hundred dollars per month to put toward food, other expenses and social activities. As the years wore on, and my employment became less and less steady, I relocated to a cheaper building in a less glamorous neighborhood, but since I wasn't making as much money, that did little to ease the stress of supporting myself. Sometimes after rent and bills I had nothing leftover, and the only reason my rent checks didn't bounce was because of my credit line with my bank.
Sometimes I really didn't have the money to eat three full meals a day. I would splurge on a 10 dollar lunch to keep me going through the work day, and then I'd eat nuts, cheese and fruit for dinner, or a can of tuna, or a bowl of plain rice, and drink a cheap beer because I knew it would fill up my stomach. It always seemed like every time I could almost catch a break something would go wrong to keep my head under water. My bank would randomly seize a couple hundred dollars from my account because I had stopped making credit payments when I needed to pay rent, or a bedbug infestation in my building required me to wash everything I owned and buy a new mattress, or even though I had received taxed unemployment benefits somehow I still ended up owing the government money when I filed my taxes and risked having my wages garnished if I didn't come up with the money.
Even having a steady full time job in the last few years didn't end up making that much of a difference. The last job that I had was in retail sales for a high-end subsidiary brand of a major global sportswear corporation. The type of company where they have clauses in your employment like caps on the hourly rate an employee can earn in a given position, regardless of performance or how long they've been with the company, as well as an "at will" agreement which basically means they can legally fire you without notice or reason at any time, which is what eventually happened to me. By that time the emotional anguish of trying and trying for so many years to succeed and continually feeling like I'd continually failed had taken its toll. I experienced panic attacks for the first time in my life in the last couple years I spent there. Living off credit cards in between jobs and subsequently maxing them out when work didn't come fast enough or didn't pay me enough to afford basic necessities and minimum payments decimated my credit, leading to regular harassment by creditors, who would ask me how much of my unemployment benefits I could put toward my debt, or if I had any family or friends who could pay off my debts for me. It's pretty brutal what happens to your morale after years of struggle and failure. You hope for the best but expect the worst. You learn to let go of desires and hopes for your future. My dreams of one day buying an apartment or a house or even a new car evaporated years ago.
So far in the eight weeks I've been living in Oakland I've been rejected from eight low wage customer service jobs, from start ups to department stores to banks to cellular phone retailers, perhaps because they think that I'm overqualified for them, or not qualified enough, or perhaps because my ability to fake enthusiasm for them has waned. I just don't know anymore. Corporate or administrative positions don't even bother to send me rejection notices. At this point where I went to school doesn't mean much. My resume is 10 years of customer service and assistant work, and no one wants to give me a chance to prove I can do anything else. I want to go back to school, or get some kind of certification, but I need a job in order to pay for supplementary education. My friends, who are mostly settled in their careers, starting families and taking group vacations, tell me how "smart" I am, how they "don't understand why someone wouldn't hire me," and how I just have to "keep trying and not give up." It makes me sad to think about how much I became a ghost in my circle of friends in the last few years. Group dinners, vacations, brunches, shopping trips, nights out at bars and clubs just became less and less a part of my existence until most of the time nobody really bothered to try to include me. I never blamed any of my friends for that; you can only decline invitations because you're literally too poor to participate for so long until people just stop asking. I'm lucky, or perhaps unlucky enough depending on how you look at it, to have some incredibly successful friends who worked really hard and put in the effort to become very well paid in their respective jobs. It's not so much that you envy your friends' success or are jealous of them, it's more that being around people who you consider your peers who all managed to "make it" when you yourself continually stumble and fall makes you question whether you really even belong with that crowd. Being the only fuck up in the room becomes a pretty dark cloud that you'd rather not expose anyone to after a while.
In comparison to many, I'm considerably lucky. I got to live this amazing life surrounded by amazing people for so long, even if most of it was living beyond my means, and even now that I've come to point where it's basically all disappeared, I still am fortunate enough to have family who's willing to give me a place to stay and feed me. But now, sometimes I honestly don't know what would've been worse, having experienced for so long a life of relative privilege only to have it all fall apart, or never having had the chance in the first place.
I grew up actually believing in the stereotypical American Dream that I could be anything I wanted to be. And I had a good reason; I was afforded more opportunities and privileges than countless others. And I still blew it. So now I wake up some mornings optimistic and motivated that if I just keep trying something will change and I'll finally have the chance to prove I can be a successful person and restore the self-worth that has slowly been drained from me over the last 10 years. This morning, however, I just want to go back to sleep because it seems like no one will ever give me that chance.
Christian's story is part of a Huffington Post series profiling Americans who work hard and yet still struggle to make ends meet. Learn more about other individuals' experiences here.
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