The Vine: February 26, 2014
My boyfriend is having some ongoing employment problems and I hope you can help me with how to deal with them because I feel like I'm really struggling.
His recent history in a nutshell: Four years ago, R was laid off from a job he'd had for seven years. It was far from his ideal job; he's an English major and he was working in support for an internet provider. But it was still a blow. He was finally moving up into more interesting work when they outsourced his entire department and cut him loose. He still has recurring bad dreams about working there. He tried to find work for a few months but he wasn't able to land a job, so he moved back in with his parents and went back to school to get a second bachelor's degree. As he was finishing up the degree, he and I met and he moved abroad to be with me.
When R moved here, he continued to do some freelance writing work that he'd started during his bachelor's study. It was a fairly good situation: he'd always wanted to work as a writer, the work was interesting, and it could be done from anywhere, so moving abroad was no problem. But it didn't quite pay a full-time wage, so about a year and a half ago, he started looking for a full-time job while carrying on freelancing, which he is still doing.
Unfortunately the timing was not good. The job problems that the U.S. had had were only just reaching over here and R's job search has been incredibly difficult. In the year and a half that he's been looking, he's only had a handful of interviews. Some of the interviews have been quite torturous. And each time he doesn't get the job, he's sent into a tailspin of insecurity. This just happened again yesterday; he found out that he didn't get a part-time writing job at a company that he's been freelancing for over the last few months. They invited him and one other person for second interviews and, though he'd gotten very positive feedback from the company about his writing and how he's easier to work with than other freelancers they've used, they gave the job to the other person.
He's convinced that he must not have been perky, good-looking, or female enough to be given the job (he believes with many of these jobs he's lost that an anti-male sexism is at work, and he said he never wants to be up against a woman for a job again). It's another blow to his already shaky self-confidence. And that's the part that I'm worried about and need help with.
R has never been the most confident person, but these last few years have really shattered him. When he's really down, he feels like the world is against him and that everyone gets a break but him. He looks at his friends and only sees successes (steady jobs, houses, etc.) and feels like they look down on him for being a "bum." It doesn't help that his sister, who he used to be close to, has gotten a bug up her butt and can do nothing but criticize him and say that he's lazy for not having a job and wonder to their parents how I put up with him. On top of that, last year he lost a freelancing gig with a friend's company after he had a falling-out with the friend. R always felt that the friend was way harder on R and treated him worse than any of the other people working for the company (some mutual friends also work for the friend's company), though he never had any solid evidence for that. When R stopped working for the friend, he worried that the mutual friends would decide to not have anything to do with him, and he still thinks some of them think poorly of him.
If I try to help R by mentioning other people who've also had a rough go of it lately, he finds some way of dismissing each one. Friends who have had recent long job searches have jobs now, so that struggle doesn't count. Various people I know who are still looking for a job don't count because he doesn't know them, so, I don't know, maybe I'm just making the story up to make him feel better? In any case, he feels beaten down, which is totally understandable to an extent, but I have a hard time dealing with this feeling R has that everyone else has an easy time and it's just him that gets all this shit thrown at him.
I wouldn't say R's out-and-out depressed; on a daily basis he manages fine and we go out often, it's not like he spends all his time hiding under the covers (though that does happen occasionally). But he has an ongoing anxiety with the freelance writing he does which creates a lot more stress than is necessary. He's always afraid that he'll lose the work he has at any minute, for any reason. If someone doesn't reply to his email within a few hours, he assumes he must have said something wrong and now they're done with him, even if this person is someone known to be slow to reply to emails. Recently, he was even worried that he was annoying a company's accountant with billing questions and was concerned that word would get back to the project managers and they'd decide he was just too much of a pain to work with.
These anxieties are always there and hardly a day goes by that he doesn't express worries about work continuing or about content in emails to or from him. It's a horrible mindset for him, and it becomes stressful for me as well because I worry about him and I see the extra strain it causes him.
So, aside from the usual assurances and attempts at pep talks (which he often shrugs off anyway), what can I do to help him? I'd love for him to see a therapist, but he doesn't want to go to one because, as he puts it, he went to one once and they didn't tell him anything you couldn't get from a cheesy self-help book (though when I was seeing a therapist, he encouraged it and felt it helped me). He was on an anti-depressant, but went off of it shortly after moving here because he felt he was past the reason he started on it (I think he went on them not long after losing his job in the U.S.). I've talked to him about how I think he needs to get help with his underlying insecurity and he says that he's overall fine and he may be a bit insecure, but it's not like he can't function because of it. He doesn't seem to see how much it really is hurting him. What can I do?
At a loss
With all the love and respect in the world for my fellow scribes, R's a writer, and this is how we do sometimes. We compare ourselves with every other writer in the world. We concoct paranoid scenarios in which editors, convening in a Brazil-like office, have added our names to a master shitlist etched in stone because we failed to supply a bio or sent in one too many not-quite-right pitches. We exist at times in a hellscape of persecution and collusion in which everywhere is "outside" and any compliment is either insincere or uninformed.
It's a little surprising to me that you describe this is "stressful for" you only because it's taking a toll on him, and not also because it's just fucking annoying. I speak to you now as That Guy: it is fucking annoying. And it is his problem.
I know you want to help, whether it's to relieve his tension or, though you don't mention it explicitly, to shorten up the conversations in which you have to repeat "I'm sure that's not true" and "well, but what about [X positive thing]?" a frillion times. The bad news is that you can't, really, because freelance in particular can put its practitioners in a psychologically precarious place — what dictates whether you get a job can seem like whimsy; budgets get cut, and you're the last to know but most affected. You never have all the information, and in the absence of better intel, you can default to taking it personally, and writers have all sorts of irrational needs and beliefs that, after a little venting, we generally back away from on our own.
The nonsense about reverse sexism playing a part in R's bad fortune is just that, and not really something you should tolerate in your discussions with him about work; the editor side of me feels that, overall, the guy needs to develop a better, less self-absorbed sense of how publishing works, and what editors have on our minds on our sides of these situations. (To wit: nothing. Editors barely have time to eat lunch, never mind sit around thinking up ways to fuck writers over.) We all go down the rabbit hole sometimes, but it sounds like it's constant with him, and this is part of a writer's life — it is possible to cope with the uncertainty in a productive way and then think about other things, and he ought to find ways to do that. You mention a few aspects of R's struggle, like his not wanting to go up against a woman for a job again, that suggest this is a little beyond your garden-variety writerly insecurity, but it's time to call him on the really out-there stuff — and even the non-out-there stuff, he gets 15 minutes to bang on about how everyone's out to keep him down, and that's it.
He wants to vent, which is fine, and I think you've run into some frustration in "helping" him because he doesn't want help. What he wants is to hear, basically, that even though the rest of the world doesn't appreciate him, you do. He wants to feel heard and pitied. So, do that for a quarter of an hour and then change the subject, or tell him kindly, "You know, I feel like you get in these spirals of doubt if we talk about this shit for too long, so I'm happy to brainstorm an action plan, but if there's nothing I can do, I'd like to tell you about my own day." Or something like that, something that's gentle but firm vis-à-vis letting him know that, while you're there for him, he's got to try at least occasionally to rein it in and self-soothe.
I would also strongly suggest that he cultivate a mentor, join a writing group, or identify one friend or colleague whom he makes his industry sounding board, and they go for pints once a week and crab about talentless strivers they both hate or whatever. He needs a friend for those process discussions and bone-chilling work-confidence lows, to take some weight off you and to let him really dig into a shorthand with someone who gets it. Not that you don't get it, but you shouldn't have to get all of it all the time. I mean, there's holding hands, and then there's hand-holding, and if it starts to get into too much of the latter, the relationship gets a parental overtone that isn't good.
It's okay to feel insecure and beleaguered about your writing career. Everyone does. But you can't "fix" that part of it for him, and trying too hard may mean he's not developing skills to pull himself out of these tailspins. Set some boundaries with it for yourself, shove him towards like-minded friends for downloading sessions without you, and understand that this is something he has to figure out so he doesn't drive you both crazy.
Tags: boys (and girls) workplace