Six months ago, I was working as a strategist at a marketing agency. I told myself that it was a good job, that it was preparing me for something better. But in reality, I often had to leave my desk in the middle of the day to cry in my car.
I longed for a career that gave me a sense of purpose, that was mission-focused, and most importantly, based in the outdoors. I’d scroll job boards during the workday and fantasize about leaving everything behind to count bird species in North Dakota or work as a ski lift operator in Colorado. Instead, I found something better, a role for which I was perfectly qualified, as the marketing manager at an outdoor education organization in Boston. A job I desperately wanted. Then I got a call that changed my life. I was offered that position. It was a literal dream come true. I accepted the next day.
Last week, I got another call that changed my life. The President of the organization called to tell me that due to the financial impact of COVID-19, they had to make cuts and, unfortunately, my job had been eliminated. My hand shook, I could hardly hold my phone. Tears streamed down my face and I held my breath so that they wouldn’t hear me crying on the call. When they asked if I had any questions, I choked out how much this job had meant to me but that I understood, of course, I understood. These are hard times, hard decisions need to be made. But goddamn, did it hurt so much.
Because this job did mean a lot to me. More than any other job had before.
When I started in the fall I was spending entire days outside, walking on the land where we ran our programs and seeing students learning about the world around them — really learning, shouting for joy when they found a live shellfish in the salt marsh and hugging one other exuberantly when they finished a ropes course. I walked across the open fields with the sun on my face and the crisp smell of autumn in the air and I knew this was where I was supposed to be. In the office, I was connecting with my coworkers in a way I never had at previous jobs. In the past, I’ve often felt like the odd one out. The eccentric woman who’d worked abroad in education and spent her weekends hiking 30 miles through the wilderness. Here, the first time I told a coworker that I’d previously lived and worked in Cambodia, she replied that she had worked in Panama, and eagerly asked me questions about my time abroad. My coworkers were planning trips to Nepal and heading to the rock gym after work or New Hampshire on the weekends. It was like I had finally found my people.
Our programs wrapped up for the season at the end of my second week. Winters were the off season. For me, that meant learning and planning. Every day I laid the groundwork for the year to come, reworked the website, set up digital advertising campaigns, and built a framework for measuring and reporting. These were all necessary tasks, but not the real reason I took the job. As we crept from February into March, an excitement began to simmer in the office. Seasonal staff started to arrive. The days grew longer and collectively we all felt the oncoming rush of Spring and with it, the return of our outdoor programs, the lifeblood of the organization.
Once the season started I would be outside, on the land, collecting stories and painting the narrative of this organization and its work. I was like a cup overfull of water, brimming with ideas. So much so that my boss kept telling me to slow down until finally, she said: “fine, if you want to manage it.” I sincerely did want to manage it. I had never been so excited about a job in my entire life. I threw my whole self at the work, all of my creativity, my heart, my being.
But in early March, doubt found its way into our reality. In the week before Boston realized how serious the coronavirus outbreak would be, I was called into a meeting of the Senior Management Team. They wanted to draft language about our response to the situation. At that time, Boston had one, maybe two confirmed cases. The attitude was that everything would be okay, that we would be safe. Our language in the notices reflected this: “We are watching the situation closely, we intend to stay open and welcome our students throughout the season.”
In the days before the world turned upside down, I was pulled into another meeting. By then the situation in Boston had changed. Cases had increased exponentially. The Boston Marathon has been postponed. People were starting to feel on edge and there was a brittleness to the way we moved through the world. I sat at the large table and listened to the Senior Management Team discuss what they would do if they had to close down our Spring operations. They would keep some seasonal staff on the payroll. With this, they could limit the fallout. I remember thinking that at least I was safe from a layoff because they wouldn’t have pulled me into this meeting if I was at risk of losing my job.
The next time I heard from the President of the organization, she told me that “Due to unforeseen circumstances, my job had been eliminated.”
I lost my job just after 11 in the morning, at the desk in my bedroom within my apartment where I was already in social isolation. My roommate’s stepdad was in the ICU with a confirmed case of COVID-19 and she’d had contact, so we were both trapped inside. I sat at my desk and willed myself not to feel. I wanted to shut it all off, turn back time, make it not real. But the fear and the heartache were there whether I wanted them or not. I cried, hard. It hurt like heartbreak. I realized I needed human interaction, something, anything. I needed someone else to help me carry this.
I walked downstairs. My roommate, Amanda, looked up from her seat on the couch. I was a wreck, still wearing sweatpants and a hoodie, not even dressed for the day, my face red and blotchy from crying. I barely choked out the words “I lost my job” and Amanda was up, holding me, asking me what I needed. I shook my head. I didn’t know what I needed. But she did. Cookies went in the oven, blankets were brought out to the couch. We sat side by side for the rest of the day, the rest of that week, in fact, watching Netflix documentaries and eating our feelings.
In the days that followed, some feelings started to clarify. First, disbelief, and a desperate need for this not to be true. I fluttered in and out of denial. I loved that job so much, it couldn’t possibly be gone. Then there was impotent fury at the irrationality of this entire event. Some person on the other side of the world contracted a new disease and now I’d lost my dream job. How could the impact be this large?
Then there were the facts of the matter. I was not the only person to have lost my job, not even close. The economy was in a nosedive and now I was out of a job and staring down the barrel of extended unemployment. If no one was hiring, what could I do? I grappled with my generalized anxieties about my career trajectory, the fact that I’d just lost a job after only working there for a few months, and then the added weight of my constant existential fear that I didn’t know what I was doing with my life, all layered on top of a world in chaos.
Coronavirus hit Boston like a tidal wave. One day we were content to wash our hands and wipe down door handles, the next I was out of a job. In the blink of an eye my safe, secure, controlled world dissolved around me like a cube of sugar in hot water. At least I have the option of unemployment. Those in the gig economy have even less than that, no safety net to fall back into. We are, each of us, adrift on an ocean of uncertainty.
I read an article recently that argued for a greater appreciation of the grief that we are feeling as a society. The sudden loss of normal, the never-ending onslaught of conflicting messages, the constant feeling of uncertainty, these all have had massive impacts on our collective psyche. And I believe that may be true. I’ve joked more than once over the past few days that I am grieving for a lost job. Denial is my constant companion. I’m angry, not at the organization, but at the situation as a whole, at the faceless, invisible anarchy wrought by COVID-19. And then there is the bargaining. I have had short flights of fancy that they’ll realize what a mistake they made, how much they need someone who can navigate the digital world, and they’ll call me up and ask me to come back. The only stage I haven’t reached yet is acceptance.
It is a peculiar sort of pain, this sudden loss of control.
I look around me and still count myself luckier than most. I have housing, enough food, and a family who can and will support me. Our society is dealing with a catastrophe the likes of which none of us have ever experienced before. We don’t know when it will end, and we don’t know what normal will look like when the dust clears.
A week later and I still wake up every day remembering that I lost my job. I am hit with a searing pang of grief every time I think of the organization, the mission, and the tiny moments of joy in my daily routine that COVID-19 stole from me. But what I’ve realized is that that is okay. These times are not normal, and our feelings will be correspondingly confused. If I cycle through hope and pain every hour of the day, then so be it. With all this space and time on my hands, at least I can give myself a chance to sit with this pain and explore it, whether through creative projects or two-hour-long bike rides (keeping the appropriate social distance of course). What COVID-19 has given me is pain, confusion, and the time to process it.