08/14/2013 03:07 pm ET Updated Oct 14, 2013

A New Lease on Life

Sometimes, when I am working the afternoon shift as a wastewater treatment plant operator at Veolia Water, I remember hours during my childhood wading in the Lees River in Somerset, Massachusetts. I remember my friends and I wading in the brackish estuary, catching minnows on our lines or netting blueshell crabs. I remember being in awe of changes in the river: the way the waning tide exposed shoreline or tipping a rock to find saltwater sandworms and clams. I am proud both that the work I am doing is contributing towards cleaning the Lees and nearby Coles rivers of pollution, and that I have found a career path I realized late in life is so close to my heart.

It was a long haul to get here. Prior to working at Veolia, I had been unemployed for nearly six years . Prior to being unemployed, I had been working a job for over 35 years at Quaker Fabrics, a textile upholstery manufacturer in Fall River, Massachusetts.

My story really begins the day I found out Quaker Fabric Corporation had ceased operations. Quaker was then the largest employer in a city struggling with deindustrialization, providing jobs for 2,000 of our 90,000 residents--and the layoffs were on a scale comparable to layoffs in places like Flint, Michigan. When the factory moved, without warning, most of us were shocked. We had all been sent on a mandatory 2 week vacation on the last Friday in June. On the following Monday, the local newspaper reported that Quaker had not been able to renew their financial line of credit, and that for all intents and purposes, Quaker would cease operations.

After all that time, I still remember the disbelief I felt after hearing the news. I was a 55-year-old high school graduate with no job. The only comfort I found was in knowing I was not alone. All of my former coworkers at Quaker were in the same situation.

As I write this, almost six years have passed, and somehow, I am okay. I have reinvented myself. I learned something interesting. When you actually accomplish what you set out to accomplish, you look back on the years of struggle and unemployment, and you look back on that thing like it was a bloody adventure. But you don't know that until after it has happened. When you are going through it, it is terrible and can be tough to see a silver lining. It can be tough to see anything at all.

This post is for the people who are still struggling with long term unemployment. There were a few lessons I learned along the way, that I feel may be helpful to share.

Figure out what you want to do, and if it is marketable. Take advantage of any opportunities you may be entitled to.

The book What Color Is Your Parachute by Richard N. Bolles was a game changer for me. It helped me to remember my passion for the river that I had lost touch with over the years, and to realize that I was actually interested in ecology from a very young age. It took me a while to figure out that there was a viable career option for me in that field in the future in Fall River -- a city which has had among the highest rates of unemployment in the state for decades. I researched projected job markets heavily at the library and through websites like the Occupational Outlook Handbook. I took advantage of Federal educational grants made available to former Quaker employees, went back to school at 57 years old and obtained my associates degree from Bristol Community College in Civil Engineering. I figured an associates degree in a field projected to grow in the future, would provide more bang for the buck than the certificate programs being offered.

Don't Isolate. Don't stuff the bad feelings you are having.

I'll admit it, in my darkest hours, I struggled with feelings of inadequacy. Going back to school was a huge challenge at my age. Even after graduating from school, and obtaining several certificates, I struggled for months and months to find work. There were times when I thought "How many old guys will have to retire at some facility before they even think of giving a job to me." I truly believed I might have to scrounge along with what was left of my savings as I aged. I had bouts of depression.

One of the saving graces in my life came in a Job Club created by a local organization called Project ASSIST.* Every Monday morning a group of residents struggling with unemployment gathered at Project ASSIST's offices to swap stories and to develop game plans. Knowing you are not alone helps so much. Sitting around the table were people in all situations, some who had it so much worse than I did. A few had been sleeping in their cars for months at a time. There were single parents. Some struggled with addictions. Still we could all truly empathize with each other, because we were all going through some of the same things. People expressed feeling hopeless, like we were up against a wall, like we were in a tunnel and could not see a way out. Our optimism had mostly been quashed. It helped so much to have a safe, supportive place to go to once a week where I really felt people could understand. Slowly, we helped each other feel hopeful again.

The staff supported us in our struggles by guiding us to remain positive and tenacious in our job hunts. At the same time, they showed us how to do the practical things we needed to do. Many of us had not had to look for work in decades. In the past, job hunting had meant going door to door to the various employers in town and filling out applications. They helped us bridge the gap between that world and the World Wide Web.

Take care of yourself and others. Know your rights.

There is no shame in asking for help. If your basic needs are not met, you can drag out your struggle for longer and more intensely than you have to. Prior to being laid off, I never had to ask anyone for assistance of any kind. I had done everything the way I was supposed to--even saving nearly $25,000 from Quaker. My savings depleted though, and I was struggling to survive. I had to apply for Medicaid, food stamps and assistance with heating oil. (Staff at Project ASSIST helped me with application procedures). I used these things as a bandaid. I pulled them off after the wound had healed.

At the same time, I used my time to help others. I volunteered for an organization called Citzens for Citizens; and helped out at a community garden, growing produce for food pantries and a soup kitchen for those that had less than I did. It helped me to know I was doing something real that could help others. Even though I work a lot now, I continue to volunteer for the organization to keep giving back.

Find mentors. Be open to those offering help.

Sometimes, a little support, goes a long way. Now that I have come through this, I can acknowledge how much the people who mentored me meant. I look back on some of the professors I had at Bristol Community College, and the case managers and job coaches at Project ASSIST; and recognize their kindness and encouragement. Honestly, I don't know whether to consider them angels or heroes. At down moments in life it is so important to have people rooting for you, believing in you and just kind of providing that little lift you need to convince yourself you are going to be okay.

Don't Give up.

There were days that felt hopeless. You have to acknowledge that finding work, especially in a city like mine, is a process and it can take a few years to get back in the game. Keep up a routine. Exercise works wonders in helping to stave off depression. Be patient. Be kind to yourself. Help others. Accept support. Above all else, trust in yourself.

Now that I am on the other side, I have a tough time getting in touch with that depressed part of myself, remembering exactly what it felt like. It is almost like a story I told myself about another persons life. I am grateful to be able to see things from this perspective. It is not exactly the retirement I was envisioning for myself all those years I was working at Quaker. In many ways, this is better.

*Project ASSIST was created by a four year 5.6 million federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA). The grant was called the Community Resiliency and Recovery Initiative. Fall River was one of three cities in the United States (along with Union City, New Jersey; and Lorrain Ohio) to receive the grant designed to provide a safety net for residents dealing with the economic downturn. Ironically, funding was cut after two years and the staff joined the ranks of the unemployed they were hired to help; but consider the program to have been successful anyhow.