Long Employment Gap + Debilitating Depression
August 18, 2017 7:11 AM   Subscribe

I've been unemployed and unoccupied for a year and a half and can't get moving on finding a new job. Complications: I'm depressed and lonely and anxious, have crap for social skills and no local friends, don't know how to explain my time off, and don't want another office job even though that's all I'm qualified to do. I understand this vicious cycle is feeding itself but don't know how to break out of it. I will also be alone at home for a week starting on Friday and am worried about this extended solitude's impact on my mental state. Please share practical and mental health solutions to help me get my shit together and get a job.

I left my last job in December 2015 with the intent of taking just a few months off. The job was very stressful (executive assistant-ish role at a mid-sized national law firm, erratic 24/7 on-call, unrealistic expectations, toxic environment, echoes of childhood emotional abuse, basically Team Selina Meyer), and I wanted some time to recover, learn to be myself again, and figure out what to do next. The parting was amicable at the time (I actually extended my tenure by several months after giving notice to give them time to find a replacement for me to train), but given the shifting winds of the practice I'm not sure what my old bosses think of me now.

In the beginning I visited friends and extended family, caught up on pop culture, and looked at classes for things I've always wanted to do, but due to anxiety (mainly social) never pulled the trigger on the classes. I planned to start looking for a job in mid-2016, started obsessing over election news instead, told myself things would quiet down after Hillary won, got really depressed post-election, consoled myself with Internetting, and now it's August and I'm panicking. I never wound up doing anything constructive with all this time off: I explored LA (my partner and I relocated here in early 2015), started writing for a friend of a friend's quasi-obscure website, haphazardly practiced my Spanish reading comprehension, kept the house clean and learned some new recipes, but mostly stayed at home, and professionally have nothing to show for this time and no way to account for it. After a brief uptick in my general mental well-being, the loneliness and lack of meaningful employment took their toll, and instead of working on resumes or cover letters or looking for work I've just been wallowing in a pit of self-hating procrastinative inertia.

My job skills are, like all my life decisions, haphazard and hard to quantify, and I'm terrified that this, combined with the long duration of my time off, makes me unemployable. I'm past 30 and have no career to speak of. My post-college "real job" history is basically two administrative support roles, each held for several years, both in law. I like to think I'm a good worker, reasonably intelligent, tenacious, and resourceful, but I don't present well on paper or in interviews because I'm afraid of overselling my abilities. My last jobs started as temp gigs. Potential employers seem to like me well enough once I've done some work for them, but not really before.

It's probably super obvious, but I don't have a lot of friends. Neither my partner nor I knew many people when we moved here, and I haven't really met anyone new outside of his co-workers. I'm crap at the emotional labor of cultivating or managing relationships and tend to fall out of touch with the few people I manage to get friendly with, so I have no network to tap for professional or personal support, and will be sending my resume out cold.

I spent last week feeling inert, brittle, hopeless, and worthless. Every time I sit down to work on resumes/cover letters it's like the inside of my head is empty. I can't find the words to look good on paper, feel unqualified for any job listing that sounds interesting, and feel like no one will hire me after all this time. I'm so ashamed at how I've handled this time off and my thus-far abortive attempts at job hunting. On top of that it seems pointless to look for a job when the country is imploding. Last week I found myself thinking there was no point to going on, that I've done nothing and will do nothing with my life, and the best thing would be to tidy up my affairs and call it quits. The thought passed, but it was frightening. (My partner doesn't know and I'd like to keep it that way.)

I know this is probably a textbook case of undiagnosed depression and anxiety, and maybe also ADD. I don't know if I'm insured right now; I have/had Medi-Cal but didn't schedule an initial doctor visit because of medical trauma/anxiety and now am not sure whether I've been kicked off. (I'm otherwise healthy, have no outstanding medical bills, and enrolled primarily to avoid a coverage gap, but this fear of a gap is why I'm afraid to investigate my status now.) I saw a therapist briefly while at my last job, and it helped a lot, but she didn't know anyone to refer me to in LA and anyway therapy is off the table until I have a job with health insurance again. I only have enough spoons to either look for work or mental health care under Medi-Cal, and work is the priority. My savings will support a few more months of this but I'd rather not empty them completely.

Please help me get off my ass, actually start writing resumes/cover letters and applying for jobs. (Temp/staffing agency recommendations in LA are welcome too.) Please also tell me whether and how it's possible to account for all this time off, and when and how to present the information. Coping strategies for the mess in my head would also be much appreciated. Finally, on top of this hole I've dug myself into, my (impossibly loving, patient, and supportive) partner will be traveling for a week starting Friday, and although I'm apprehensive about being home alone, the thought of interacting with strangers IRL gives me the howling fantods, so please also share any advice you have for dealing with extended solitude while depressed.

Thanks for reading.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
1. The time off is really not that big of a deal. It's true that it is easier to get a job when you already have one, but I think I wouldn't bother to explain it in a resume/cover letter, and if you get asked about it in an interview, something like "I moved to LA and had some savings, so I took a little time off to get me and my partner settled, but I'm rested and getting bored, so it's time to get back to work" is fine.

2. Do one thing every day. Make it as small as you need to. Call Medi-Cal and check on your status. Don't try and actually fix anything if you have been kicked off, and don't worry about getting an appointment if you haven't, just get your status today. Tomorrow do the next thing. Fill out whatever form to get reinstated. Make an appointment. Polish one job description on your resume. Make a list of 10 jobs you might apply for (ignore your chances of getting them for now, just make the list). Eventually (especially if your daily things lead to you getting some treatment for your mental health issues) you will find that those daily things can get bigger and bigger in scope, and you can do more than one of them a day.

I believe in you. You can do it. You just have to start by doing one thing.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:40 AM on August 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

I can sympathize. My transition to California was rough and it took me a while to make new friends. First and foremost, go gentle on yourself. It sounds like you are doing great things for becoming the best person you can be long term. Being a grounded person is the best way to be.

Connecting with people who can help sort out your skills and prospects could be exactly what you need right now. Here in the South Bay, we are really lucky to have NOVAworks, a government-funded career center to help people retrain and reenter the workforce. These offices can help you assess the skills you have that you can build on for the LA job market and coach you on what to say about the gap.

Here is the list of one-stop career centers in California. Find the beat-rated one closest to you and pay them a visit first thing next week.
posted by rw at 7:40 AM on August 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

My sympathies. I got into a similar situation when I moved to be with my partner, and then a series of things hit the fan, creating a much longer gap than I'd planned. The best thing for getting me up and going turned out to be volunteering for a community literacy thing. It was a very low buy-in as far as training went, and the following week I was hanging out with a chef from Mexico, a doctor from Iran and a bunch of other people with interesting stories. (In my area, people who show up for "literacy" classes are often really looking for English language help.) I have a lot of anxiety about getting out socially; performing service has really helped me with that. And people do find jobs through volunteering; my sister totally changed careers because of a volunteer job.

With September coming, it's a very good time to find volunteer cycles starting up and your training would make you worth a lot to a lot of community volunteer programs.
posted by BibiRose at 7:42 AM on August 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Others may disagree with me, but I have a partial suggestion for accounting for time off: BS.

Tell people you were traveling. It's totally legitimate in this day and age to take ~year sabbatical to explore a new geography. Or that you had to attend to the health issues of a family member. Or that you wanted to explore a hobby. Or you just wanted to take time off and work on your household. If you're anxious, you can put a brief line in your resume stating this break to forestall further inquiry.

If you can't get yourself to look for a job and can afford it a bit longer, try to find some volunteer work for a bit (it doesn't have to be every day). It could even move you in the direction of a "career" you'd prefer.

Also: Despite what anyone tells you, depression, anxiety, or ADD are not your personality. There's nothing to feel guilty about.
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 7:48 AM on August 18, 2017 [13 favorites]

The reasons for time off were nobody's business. Lie. Anything other than children. Travel, or taking time off to care for an aged and now passed relative, for example.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:05 AM on August 18, 2017 [6 favorites]

Agree with above. Interviews and cover letters are not therapy. Therapy is therapy. You have a gap for any and all reasons listed, and by the way you worked on your Spanish too.

Take the week to develop a plan for your mental health.
posted by charlielxxv at 8:08 AM on August 18, 2017

You're going to have a very hard time moving forward in your job search suffering from depression and anxiety and not addressing them. Would you prioritize a job search over getting treatment for TB? No, you would not. You'd understand that it's not reasonable to expect a seriously ill person to devote herself full-time to chasing jobs. Treat yourself the same way here, because it is the same. Take small steps this upcoming week to ease yourself back onto the path towards treatment.

A year and a half off associated with a move with your partner to a new city is nothing, btw, especially in the context of having two long-term jobs that you left amicably on your resume.
posted by praemunire at 8:28 AM on August 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

Others have excellent advice about how to explain the employment gap and finding treatment for your depression, so I'll just focus on the job question.

Once you are ready to go back to work, I'd suggest you consider temping. Since you have great administrative skills, you will be in enormous demand, and temping can be low-stress and low-anxiety if it works out well. Sort of like summer camp for jobs. If someone turns out to be kind of a jerk, well, the role will be up in a few weeks, so no big deal. It's also a great way to find a permanent fit.
posted by dancing_angel at 8:52 AM on August 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Look, I know this particular kind of hell. It's NOT YOUR FAULT. If you were starting to have a seizure and you were disoriented and couldn't think straight, you would need to get meds in you as fast as possible to survive. This is essentially your situation. Don't go by your inner state right now, getting a requisitive amount of caffeine in you and going to get your career sorted out is what you have to do. Be hard and cold and practical about it, you might be heaving with emotion and ready to cry but do it like you would get medicine or food in you when sick.

It sounds like you are anxious to get back into the working world. Remember if you choose poorly or it becomes emotionally overwhelming that nobody can make you do anything. You can bail again and be no worse off than you are now, even leave it off your resume. You may be scared right now of getting a little dirty and beat up emotionally. But just remember, unless you leave your current situation you will never feel excited about life again, and if you hate it you can switch scenes. With that in mind I'd start browsing today.
posted by benadryl at 9:55 AM on August 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

1) Therapy. Figure out your insurance situation. Go to Psychology Today's Find A Therapist Tool. Get your partner to sit down with you and help if you have to. (I do this all the time. Mr. GF, sit here next to me while I make this phone call/write this email so I really do it. And for him, I sometimes make the call myself.)

2) Make an out of the house commitment. I like to join an exercise class, but that can feel like a big hurdle. In my town, I'd suggest going to the library and asking if they have (or asking about) an "Adopt a Shelf" plan, where you are responsible for making sure those books are alphabetized a couple of times a week. It's a recurring commitment, very low social requirements, surrounded by librarians, who are often really lovely people. If that's not your thing, pick something like a shelter where you can play with and socialize animals, or offer help weeding in a community garden. Whatever kind of small, not-too-social, out-of-the-house thing you can commit to. Again, you might need your partner to help you call around and find these places--THEY WILL. They want you to feel better and stronger. It's not a silly thing to ask for. (If they don't, you have a separate problem.)

3) When you've got your mental health a little in hand, start tentatively looking for a job. Don't worry about a career right now; you want to have somewhere to go during the day where you can do something that is useful to someone and bring home a little money. I KNOW the feeling that you want your job to be "good enough" or perfect, but do not think about that. Think of it as occupational therapy.

There will be other advice for choosing a career and finding the right job, but it feels like worrying about your resume and applying for things is getting the cart ahead of the horse. This isn't about getting the cart to market; it's about getting the horse to the vet.
posted by gideonfrog at 10:00 AM on August 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer.

Put yourself on a schedule: every day you need to do one thing. That thing could be:
* finding contact information for five different organizations that seem interesting.
* contacting one organization to find out about volunteer opportunities.
* showing up at the rescue and offering to walk a dog.

I recently put together some options for a teenager in my care, that included:

* a community farm/gardening project
* working the door at a punk venue
* walking dogs at a shelter
* invasive plant clean outs in local parks
* maintaining historic ships at a national park service site
* helping in the friends of the library shop
* helping TA community classes in the library
* shelving books at the library
* staffing the green market

Two things I learned from that process: some folks won't reply to email for weeks but they actually do want you. So don't be discouraged if folks don't reply immediately. And some folks are better equipped to handle walk-ins or explicitly wanted her to walk in (because they wanted her to take some initiative).

I was looking for things for her to do on the regular, like every Monday at noon, but getting out of the house is important, even if it's a one-off thing. Some things that didn't make that list but that are out there: staffing the local historic house tour, ditto the garden tour, opera/symphony/theater docents. Bonus, these are all great ways to get free access to nice events that would otherwise be expensive. I realize that these all involve other-people, but the thing about being a docent is that you really aren't supposed to interact. You're supposed to point to the bathroom and say "sorry, no cameras."

I just did a search and came up with a river cleanup that has come and gone but you can call and find out how to volunteer next time. Volunteer Match also came up. Environmental cleanups are good for being in the vicinity of other people without actually being obliged to talk to them.

This will get you out of the house and into a "work" environment that will help get you out of your isolation, it will expose you to some entry level jobs that aren't office jobs, and it will start to ease you back into a routine that resonates with prospective employers. And even when you do find a job, it's a good way to stay connected to a community where you might wind up making a friend or two.
posted by amandabee at 10:30 AM on August 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oh I would say though, don't volunteer when what you really want is paid cash, and sure as hell don't go for an entry level job. You presumably want money and have no skills deficit that taking a shitty low paid position would fix. Your post is so down on yourself, being an assistant at a law firm sounds hard and fucking exhausting and like something many capable adults I know would be fired at quickly. Soceity doesn't have a lot of interest in validating your seven or eight years of professional experience as work because then they can peer pressure you into less pay, but you have just as many professional skills as say the clowns running the White House.
posted by benadryl at 11:13 AM on August 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm really sorry you're going through this. I have been there, and it's horrible.

It might be an idea to register for a few classes at a university which I believe will give you access to their career counseling resources. You can also ask the folks here on MeFi to help you get your resume in order and possibly to help with your cover letter template.

Networking is a huge part of job hunts these days, so if you don't have a LinkedIn profile, set one up. There are plenty of online tutorials on how to use LinkedIn to network. It's a great resource that doesn't involve leaving the house, which may help with the social anxiety around in-person networking.

Nthing doing one thing every day towards your goal, and getting the help you need with your depression and anxiety.

As far as it seems pointless to look for a job when the country is imploding, that is mostly your depression talking. Yes, things are not great here right now, but letting that paralyze you is not the best option for either your career or mental heath. Business are still hiring, and life keeps going even through difficult times.

Best of luck!
posted by ananci at 12:54 PM on August 18, 2017

Whether temporary or permanent, depression is an illness. If anyone does question the gap in your employment you would be absolutely correct in saying, "I had a long illness and it's taken me a while to recover." You don't need to give more detail than that.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:23 PM on August 18, 2017

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