I once went swimming at a surf beach in south-east Australia. A strong swimmer in the pool, my experience in surf was limited, but it was a hot day and I thought a little body surfing was in order. For the first fifteen minutes, it was great fun, but then an enormous wave smacked into me. Without having a chance to grab a breath, I was unceremoniously shoved under, rolled around and around in a maelstrom of black, sandy, foamy water until I had no idea which way was up and which down. With my lungs bursting for air, I lashed out with my feet, hoping they’d would find the sandy bottom and propel me to the surface. My head spinning, I shot upwards to the surface, gasping in a breath just in time.
Being made redundant from my job of six years felt horribly similar.
They take care of you, of course. They tell you, stone-faced, devoid of emotion, that they don’t need you any more. As though the slightest hint of ordinary human feeling might be misconstrued as regret, or perhaps a powerful lack of it. As though they aren’t trashing your life right in your face. As though this was just any other day for them.
But they do take care of you. After you leave that meeting of like minds, you’re taken into another room, barren except for a desk, a smiling shrink and a very large box of tissues. I make use of the tissues. Lots of them. I figure I don’t have to pay for them. The shrink is a young-ish man, and he keeps sprouting clichés at an alarming rate. I want him to stop. I want to go home so I can digest where this shock leaves my life, but he keeps asking me if I’m okay – which of course, prompts another round of tissue abuse. I know that if I can just get out of here, I’ll be fine, but it takes some doing to extract myself.
I’m left in an invisible corner while somebody in the know goes and retrieves my handbag, so I don’t have to face up to my colleagues, so I don’t say anything to embarrass those who got rid of me. So I don’t make everybody else afraid they’ll be next. After that I drive home, stunned like the proverbial mullet.
For the next few hours, I sit on the couch repeating over and over to myself that I don’t work there any more. It seems inconceivable that I don’t. It’s been such a huge part of my life for so many years that my mind simply can’t imagine a world where I don’t turn up there every day. Suddenly, I have a reality where all those little jobs I was doing, all those half-finished things, the calls I had to make, the people I was in the middle of helping – none of that matters any more.
But it does. And I can’t turn off the caring like it’s a dripping tap. Instead, I feel like I’ve died. Not dead, per se – but death can happen suddenly, and you’re unprepared, and you leave things half-finished. You wonder how things that, only yesterday, were so important to you, you stayed back an extra hour to get them done, could suddenly stop mattering. How are you supposed to unhinge the part of yourself that cares about what you did?
And then two weeks have gone by, and you’ve done a little shopping, and you’ve completed all those little jobs around the house that you never get to normally because you’re too busy going to work and trying to have a life outside it. But it’s not like having a holiday. There’s no joy in it. There’s no sense of release, as there always is at 5pm on a Friday when you know you’ve got the whole weekend ahead of you. There’s none of that – and that makes you feel sad.
Another week goes by and nobody’s hauled you in for an interview for a new job yet. You know it will take time but somehow you’d hoped you’d beat the odds and have something shaping up by this point. But in between all that grindestone effort of sending off resumes and making calls, you can’t quite find yourself. The person you used to be, the one who was really good at their job, who knew where everything was, who had all the bits and pieces of their life at their fingertips has suddenly gone on vacation. You’re left with the work-experience kid who spends most of his free time popping bubble wrap and talking to the 17-year-old receptionist about vampires.
You’re anchorless, drifting, with no wind, and no current. If it weren’t for the need to earn money, it’s entirely possible you could coast along in this mental half-slumber forever. You know there’s a part of you in mourning. It feels a little stupid, but there’s no getting rid of it.
There is a happy ending – you just haven’t got there yet. You know this is true. But it’s a little like knowing that old age is going to creep up on you eventually. Knowing it’s true and having it happen right in front of you are two entirely separate, gnarly entities.
That wave did spit me out and I did make my way, coughing up water, acidic saltiness stripping my throat, to the baking-hot shore where I recovered and lived to swim another day. I’m a very strong swimmer, more comfortable in water than I’ll ever be on land. But that day, in the waters of Merimbula, was the closest I’ve ever come to drowning. Fortunately, I remember the experience very well indeed.
I just have to keep kicking out with my feet and eventually, I’ll push myself back to the surface.