The first thing I noticed that April morning was that my computer monitor wasn’t on. There was a small post-it stuck to the screen- Come see me - JM. I walked into my bosses office with zero intuition or expectation that anything was amiss. I wasn’t worried, but it only took a moment for that to change. Years later, I can still conjure up a near-perfect image of the face I’d seen as friendly turning into something else.
“He wants me to let you go immediately.”
The moment the words left his lips, my system went into overdrive, and it was all I could do to hold back the tears until I was away from him. My skin sparked with the shock of it, and I tried to speak, but each time I was cut off. He made it clear that it didn’t matter, they had already made up their minds, and I would not be offered the courtesy of explaining, reasoning, asking questions, or defending myself. That I had not done what they accused me of was inconsequential.
When I am asked about my strengths and weaknesses in job interviews, I am honest with my answers. I am a loyal employee. I fall in love with the places I work, the people I work with. I’m sensitive and have a big heart, and that means I will do my best for you. It also means that if you turn your back on me, my heart gets broken.
I wasn’t just losing my job.
I was losing my friends, or people I thought were friends. Working 40 hours a week, you spend as much time with your co-workers as you do at home. What happened for me in my boss’s office that morning was 22 months of hard work, dedication, loyalty, trust, connection, and contribution negated, gone in a flash. This person I’d thought cared about me on a human level showed he didn’t know me at all. I try hard to be a good person, and being told that I am not one is a pill that I can’t choke down.
I sobbed as I packed up my office. I took down my sons’ drawings from the bulletin board, dropped into my bag the mini-unicorns my coworkers had hidden scavenger-hunt style around my office during the week leading up to my birthday. I unceremoniously dumped in everything that made my desk mine, desperate to be anywhere but here. On top, I set the Starbucks sandwich I’d bought on the way to the office that would never be eaten.
It turns out that something that takes months or years to build can be broken down in a fraction of the time, and 10 minutes later, the life I knew was dismantled. I tried not to make eye contact with my co-worker as I left my keys on the front desk. There was no use trying not to cry, my body wracked with out-of-control tears, but I managed to hold back the vomit I felt rising in my throat.
The shattering happened in stages.
By the time I knocked on my boyfriend’s apartment door four minutes later, shock had blossomed into a full grown panic. The reality of what had happened impacted me again and again. I hyperventilated until he brought me my purse and after I’d taken the Xanax, I sobbed until I couldn’t breathe. I shook in his arms, trying to stay afloat as waves of disbelief, grief, and humiliation washed over me.
There are 100 ways I can think of to lose a job that would be easier. If I’d done something wrong and got caught, at least I would know I had it coming. If I got laid off, at least I would know it wasn’t me. Here I was, being told that it was nothing but me, that I had dug this grave and I’d have to lie in it.
The morning I got fired, I learned what it feels like to be completely without direction, utterly lost and unable to find your way. I learned what real betrayal feels like, became familiar with the shock of realizing someone is not on your side. My heart cracked with the excruciating knowledge that someone I cared for thought so poorly of me.
It only took a few hours for me to realize that my rent would be due in less than two weeks, and that I wouldn’t be able to pay it. It was terrifying, and I was paralyzed. I had less than $500 in my bank account, rent coming due, bills coming due, two kids who depended on me to take care of them, and no job. I was already having trouble squeezing by after having to take unpaid sick days to care for myself and my kids.
The day I got fired didn’t just end like normal days.
For the man who fired me, that bad day ended at 5:00 when he went home to have a beer, pet his dog, sleep, and start brand new the next morning. He wouldn’t see me at work anymore, and his life would go on. He moved on, but I didn’t have that privilege. Shock waves of the explosion that obliterated my self-confidence and broke my ability to trust took years to dissipate.
For the first week, all I did was cry, and pack. I had worked so hard and been so proud of the perfect-for-us condo my kids and I moved into 8 months after my marriage ended. I had gotten us on our feet and moved us from bedrooms in their grandmother’s house into our own home, started building a life as a family of three. The day after I got fired, I got an email from my mom telling me that she and her husband wanted me to move back in with them. “I know you don’t want to,” she wrote, “but it will be best.”
So, less than two years into the new life I’d fought for, I packed up three lives in less than 7 days, and moved back into my mom’s house for the second time. 35 years old, I was faced with not being able to support myself or my children. I did what I had to, and I was lucky the option was there for me. It was a relief and a letdown all at once. I spent every moment packing and moving, or worrying that I wouldn’t finish in time to avoid another full month’s rent.
The soul-deep feeling of failure I embodied in the days after I lost that job was rivaled only by the failure I’d felt when my marriage ended. Once again, I was sure I was letting everybody in my life down. I was imposing on my mom and her husband and failing my kids who were being severely disrupted for the second time in under two years.
I obsessed over the cognitive dissonance of finding myself in this situation based on the idea that I would do something to purposely take from or cause harm to the company. I was stuck in a loop of utter disbelief that my former boss thought so little of me, and my mind vacillated between feeling insulted, misunderstood, and inexplicably ashamed.
I became depressed, and the next year of my life was spent in self-doubt.
The confidence I’d gained after my divorce in my ability to work hard, gain skills, and improve my performance was gone. The excitement and momentum I’d gained in starting my own consulting business evenings and weekends disappeared. Ironically, being fired meant I would never start the side business that got me fired. I was in survival mode. The Monday after I got fired, I filed for unemployment. I made an appointment with DSHS to get food stamps so I could feed my children.
For months, I dreamed about my coworkers almost every night. I’d wake up in the mornings with my heart torn open and the betrayal fresh on the surface. I missed my friends. Getting fired brings on a lot more grief than I’d expected. I grieved the loss of people I cared about and realistically knew I’d likely never talk to again. I grieved the loss of my autonomy and independence, something I’d worked really hard for in the wake of my divorce.
I hate living in transition and in limbo, and not having a say in what’s happening to me. It wasn’t just a job that was taken from me that day. It was stability, it was knowing where I was going and when I would get there. It was a future I had planned, obliterated in moments.
For the next eighteen months, I’d have to make decisions about which bills were best to let go delinquent. I began basing health decisions on the fact that I was effectively homeless and without income. Every penny was allocated. My credit card balances rose. My mother and her very generous husband took over my car payment for several months, and I was grateful but beyond embarrassed that it was necessary.
Every time the trauma started to scab over, something tore it back open.
Phone calls with my unemployment case worker where I had to listen to all of the bad things my ex-boss said about me trying to deny my claim split my wounds wide open. Applying for jobs and trying to decide how to explain my separation from my last job was frightening and stressful. Decisions about whether to mask my pain or somehow work it to my advantage wrenched my heart. Three years later, accusations and incidents at my new job pulled this trauma right back up to the surface.
It’s been almost 5 years since the worst day I ever had at work. I’ve been in my current job for 3.5 years, and I finally feel like everything I’ve been through led me somewhere good. If all goes to plan, I’ll retire from this job one day. Still, the traumas I experienced that day sometimes cause me anxiety and tinge my professional experiences.
The aftermath of losing a job isn’t just the annoyance of finding a new job. It’s financial, yes. But it’s also emotional, traumatic, terrifying, and long-lasting. My experience snowballed in so many areas I couldn’t name them all. That day will shape parts of me for the rest of my life. I don’t know that I will ever really “get over” being fired or truly, fully let it go. I can heal, and move on, but a broken heart stays with you forever.