(Author’s note: this is the first part of a series. Click here for part two.)
It was sometime around Thanksgiving, maybe a day or two later, when my boss wanted to talk to me. He spoke in an even tone, not somber but not enthusiastic. I’d be out of work at the end of February, he’d said. My position–data entry and accounts payable–was going to be automated.
I couldn’t respond, didn’t know how to respond–I’d held the job for nearly eleven years, showed up day in and day out, without suspecting anything, taking my job for granted, and now, over the course of a single conversation, I was obsolete.
Anxiety consumed me. I felt frozen, locked in a state of inertia. Eleven years. Gone. A stable job. Gone. My future: uncertain. With a wife and two kids, with rent and bills, with debt, I couldn’t afford to dawdle. I couldn’t afford to coast through life, hopping from one dead-end job to the next. I had to act decisively.
But I froze.
Time stood still.
Is this the future? Locked into a job only to watch it disintegrate as algorithms replace people? If I’m so easily replaced by reams of code, then am I worthless?
Where do I go from here?
What am I going to do?
I wrote and rewrote and revised my resume. Black words and numbers floating on a sea of white. I studied it, analyzed it, doubted it. All words lost meaning. What was the point? Why should I bother if computer code could unseat me?
I live in a small town in Indiana, on the mouth of Lake Michigan, near the Michigan border, about 65 miles east of Chicago. Once an industrial town, it transformed over the years, like so much of America, into a Mecca of consumerism and low-paying jobs. A casino, an outlet mall, and a burgeoning “arts” district inspired the knuckleheads running the city to grovel in supplication to upper-middle-class buffoons from out of state–mostly Illinois–to travel here. To spend money here. Buy buy buy. Please, I’m begging you; come on over and spend your money. Pretty please with sugar on top.
Slamming all their eggs into a single basket, without diversifying the economy, our city leaders create part-time retail work–none of which pay a living wage. Good jobs are rare. As a result, we’re a city largely populated by the impoverished: too poor to do anything, too desperate and broken and unable to flee, to seek something better.
The fools running this city might present it as some kind of cozy, idyllic, fashionablykitschy hideaway, but don’t listen to them: it’s malignant. They’ve done nothing more than slap a bandage over melanoma while calling it a birthmark.
Unemployment insurance pays less than the job you’ve vacated. The math is founded by tallying the average of your income. Then it’s reduced by 25%, I think. But don’t quote me on that–I’m too tired and lazy to look it up.
At 36, I decided to take a break, to try to enjoy a brief respite on unemployment. I’d never drawn unemployment benefits before. It was a new experience for me. And I hadn’t spent so much time at home, either. What the hell do you do with your day? I didn’t have cable and I didn’t watch much TV, so the cliche of watching game shows or soap operas didn’t raise its head. I didn’t play video games, either, so no wasting time on that. Instead, I spent time reading and working on an ill-fated novel, one I’d later abandon around the 100,000-word mark.
I’d gone to college at 34 but took a hiatus for reasons we won’t expand on here. Let’s just say a brief separation from my wife, the death of my father, and a recent stay in the behavioral medicine ward played a part. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, and probable PTSD. Everything intensified after that. The world assumed a burdensome and empty pallor.
Finding the right cocktail of meds for a screwy brain is a long and sordid process. In many ways, it’s exhausting.
The first batch of meds for my bipolar disorder rendered me a more or less insomniac. The doctor replaced that with meds that transformed my heart into a marathon runner on meth. I was also prescribed Klonopin for my anxiety issues, a medicine that I loved: it got me high. Every time. Most people build up a tolerance to such medication and they no longer feel the euphoric, stoned sensations, but not me. I not only experienced the relief of vanishing anxiety. I got high every time I popped a pill. And I enjoyed it. A legal high three times a day. How awesome was that?
But it took its toll on me. I needed the Klonopin to control my anxiety and I wanted the Klonopin to alter my reality, to get me high. But it didn’t just get me stoned; it zombified me: I’d sit on the couch and hold a book or stare at the television without paying attention. I’d exist in a sort of vegetative state–alive and high and motivated to do a million things but neither willing nor able to do anything, least of all look for a job.
So I played the unemployment game.
You’re allocated a budget based on the length of your tenure at your previous job and your average income. Your weekly unemployment check draws from, and depletes, this budget.
In order to qualify for unemployment benefits each week, you must prove that you’ve looked for a job. In the old days, you’d visit prospective employers, fill out applications, and the managers or owners would fill out a card verifying that you’d applied for the job.
These days, however, you do everything online. You can apply for jobs on various websites and submit that information electronically.
In order to qualify for my benefits, I had to apply for at least three different jobs the previous week. I had to submit my information every Sunday. I’d “look” for jobs online every Saturday, sometimes as late as 11:59 pm, then get up early the next morning and submit my information.
It’s hard to enjoy unemployment when you’re poor and don’t have savings. Even when you’re in the moment, reading or writing or watching a movie or high on Klonopin your situation gnaws on you, pulling you back and grounding you and preventing you from truly and thoroughly enjoying life: money’s running out; money’s running out; we’re hanging by a thread, one week away from devastation and desolation; what’re we gonna do? Oh god oh god what’re we gonna do? This is insane. This is insane. Why must we live in a world predicated on money, money, money? And you try and try to enjoy this vacation, this respite from the working world, however brief, and sometimes you almost succeed, but then a thought hits you or a sensation roils you, and fear and anxiety, ennui and despair seizes you, and frozen, forced by your brain, and your situation, in a sort of stasis, and you can’t escape it; you can’t flee it; so you stumble through life, simultaneously enjoying it and dreading the next moment. Then sometimes you stop, you try to reassess the situation: is my unemployed state causing these sensations? or is it my anxiety? Fuck. Am I manic? I think I’m depressed. Am I depressed?
You know the answer as soon as you ask the question and this knowledge plunges you into a downward spiral.
Life in manic and depressed states is kaleidoscopic, at least for me. I experience and perceive one object or situation in myriad ways, each moment representing a fragment of time, shattered and broken and reconstructed–and filtered through the lens of my mental state.
I remember a few weeks into my unemployment, sitting at the dining room table, fingers on the keyboard of my laptop, frozen. One second I was writing. Pride and excitement coursed through me. The next second I was staring at the screen, at the words, my fingers hovering over the keyboard. The words shifted focus. Nothing made sense. They were empty, meaningless. It’s all shit. Garbage. I’m worthless, talentless, a hack. No. Less than a hack. A piece of shit. What does this mean, anyway? What does any of it mean?
My perception shifted as I glanced around the room. Paintings by Bosch and Dali and Blake hung on the wall. Some of my favorite paintings, and now I couldn’t stand them. The images transformed into amorphous blobs, colors demarcated.
I wanted to do something, go somewhere, participate in the collective slavery we referred to as “society,” but I was broke. Feelings of uselessness and despair washed over me. What’s the point?
I’d locked myself in my apartment, avoiding or ignoring the outside world, and now I felt as if I were living in a set on an otherwise empty soundstage, or in a house nestled on a spot of land floating in the void.
I had no way of knowing whether or not anything outside of my immediate experience existed. My windows covered, possible outside noise drowned out by Nine Inch Nails–“every day is exactly the same“–I couldn’t close my eyes and sense life outside the house. I couldn’t sense being or existence.
As I crossed the room, I wondered if the world outside, in that moment, played by quantum rules. Was it both existent and non-existent? Only by pulling back the curtain would I determine whether or not the world outside even existed. And yet I hesitated. I hesitated. I took a certain comfort in that moment. As I experienced the sensation that I inhabited a house trapped in an infinite void, an atom in a sea of nothingness, I felt relieved, somehow comforted.
I’d fallen into a dissociative state. Only I existed. Not the world or its problems, not the universe or its complexities–just me. And it was relieving. Silence. Beautiful silence.
Then … sadness, emptiness, despair consumed me.
That’s the great paradox for me, the beautiful dichotomy that festers and blooms: I love life and hate it, reject it and embrace, want it to end and fear the end. And in that moment, in that dissociative state, I glanced my own mortality, briefly fantasized about my death, and terror seized me.
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Daulton Dickey is a novelist, poet, and content creator currently living in Indiana with his wife and kids. He’s the author of A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: Stories, Still Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other stories, Elegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novel. Rooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at daultondickey[at]yahoo[dot]com.