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Monday, 20 October 2008

Coping with joblessness: A personal account

I COUNT myself lucky to have survived two tough years of unemployment with mounting financial problems during the period after 9/11 right up to the Sars epidemic. My family had just returned from overseas as we were away for a year on study purposes. The situation was made worse when we decided to buy a private house burdened with a mortgage loan.

Although my wife works, it was tough to make ends meet with only one income. We also had a young daughter to raise. I faced sleepless nights trying to meet the minimum income payments to all my credit facilities (one credit card and one other credit facility) especially when the bank account dried up. There was a unforgettable day when my ATM bank account showed a balance balance of less than $20. The worst moments of my life came when I had to borrow cash from friends to tide over. This is when you realise who your true friends are and whether they will stand by you when you are almost down and out. To this day, I am thankful to many who helped me financially in a willing manner.

During that period, I hovered between desperation and panic. Naturally, relations with my wife was not the best.

After about six months of unemployment, I realised the first step was to manage my emotional health above all else. I realised that, if I could manage my emotions better and stay positive, I had a better chance of coming out of my financial crisis stronger. I also drew up a timetable so my days could pass by fruitfully. When one does not work, one has much free time to idle and often negativity floods our minds. I hope to share some personal experiences and strategies and, if possible, help some who are depressed and affected by the current financial crisis. I dare not say these strategies are surefire solutions but at least they can provide hope to the depressed and fuel optimism in those who are unemployed. For readers who are still employed and unaffected, it is a good time to prepare for retrenchment as it will come like a thief without any warning. When unemployment hits, we may be too shocked to face up to it.

- Share your tensions and frustrations with your family. Our loved ones are the closest to us and they yearn to share in our happy and sad moments. By cutting them out of our darkest moments, we deny them a chance to support and help us. Though my wife did not speak to me much during that tough period, her unwavering support and toughness to hang in there with me helped me to tide through that difficult period.

- Seek help if things are too overwhelming. I was fortunate to have many good friends and a good support group in a church that met weekly. They gave me the platform to raise my needs and shared my frustrations. It was a relief for me to know that people cared how I felt. It would be disastrous to face unemployment alone. So learn to share and be humble.

- Network more than ever. Many jobseekers stayed at home due more to depression than anything else. Like many, I sent e-mail messages to prospective employers and attended countless interviews, to no avail. Much later, I managed to secure a part-time job through a meeting with a long-lost friend. Although it paid only $6.50 an hour, finally I was relieved to know there was income coming in after 20 months of unemployment. More important, my self-esteem was boosted by the part-time work. That experience helped me land a full-time job six months later. To this day, I am eternally grateful to the friend who recommended me. My life turned around after that. So don't stay at home - go out and move around. Opportunities are out there, but if we stay at home we cannot seize them.

- Think positive. This is easier said than done, but very important for one to stay on top of the situation. I read a lot of motivation books during that period, so my mind was full of positive thoughts. This was often done immediately after I woke and right before I slept. This helped me start and end the day with the right frame of mind. If not, our mind is always filled with negative and depressing thoughts.

- Indulge in physical activities. I turned to jogging daily more to occupy my ample free time than anything else. However, I discovered after every run I felt light hearted and positive about my situation. My mind was also free when I jogged and it was very therapautic. I later realised that, when one exercises, feel-good chemicals called endorphins are released and this help one stay calm and relaxed. I still run regularly and have taken part in the annual Standard Chartered Marathon.

- Spend time with your loved ones. I began to spend a lot of time with my mother and daughter, who stay at home. This not only took a lot of the free time I had but also allowed to indulge in meaningful activity. I must say my mother remained the most influential person during that dark period, allowing me to recover fully.

- Face the situation bravely. I learnt to face relatives and friends when I met them. It was sometimes difficult as I had difficulty explaining why I was still unemployed after so many months. It could even be depressing if questions were raised insensitively. So I prepared my answers before I met relatives and friends in social gatherings so I would not be caught unprepared. I also realised that such meetings can be used for networking purposes.

I hope this will help many who may be laid off in the coming months. Remember the world will not end and you are not alone. The dark moments will pass you by but the important thing is to hang in there and face up to challenges. What does not kill you will make you stronger. You will end up stronger mentally than before when you are baptised in the fiery fire of unemployment.

Gilbert Goh

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