Practical survival

When I resigned from my job, I had no clear cut idea about what was ahead of me or of how I was going to survive economically. It could have been argued that I was in no fit state to make a rational decision about resigning and that any decent employer should have refused to accept my resignation. Indeed, someone suggested (a few years later) that I could probably have claimed constructive dismissal and have had a strong case for compensation or reinstatement. However, at the time I didn’t have this knowledge and it’s debatable whether I would have gone down that route anyway. As my view was that I had made my decision and burned my bridges.

I had done a little pre-planning. I’d worked out that I would probably have to go on sickness benefit initially, before I could sign on the unemployment register. And that, once signed on, the interest would be paid on my mortgage for a while. But beyond that everything was pretty vague.

I had two character traits that proved crucial to my survival. I could be quite organised and pretty resourceful. I decided to take direct control of my finances and stopped all of the direct debits and standing orders. At that time it seemed to be pretty random as to when these went out of my account and I didn’t want to risk overdrawing. I also knew that if a bill hit the doormat and I couldn’t pay it I would have about two weeks before a final demand came through; which I reasoned would give me some time to scrape the cash together. The only direct debit I didn’t stop was my mortgage payment.

Finances sorted, I turned my attention to the matter of surviving day to day. I was not yet in a space where I could think about the future; just planning the day ahead was difficult enough. I decided it was best to try and keep a structure to my day, so I got up at the same time I had always done, ate at the same times and went to bed at the same time. A simple enough routine but I knew it would be all too easy to slip into patterns of behaviour that would not be helpful. As I was out of work now, keeping active was also important, so I started to walk everywhere. It was three miles into the city centre and I started to walk this on almost a daily basis. Occasionally I needed to do this round trip two or three times, so it’s probably safe to say that I ended up physically fitter than I’d ever been, it also had the added benefit of saving on bus fares.

Something I hadn’t considered was exactly how much social contact the working environment had provided me with; suddenly the days were rather empty. The city centre was a lot busier than my living room so I started to spend a lot of time there just to be among people. I also kept up any other social contacts I had and took advantage of any opportunities to socialise and generally mix with other people.

Once I came off sickness benefit I then had the problem of negotiating and managing the Department of Health and Social Security. I found here that the skills I had developed as a counselor came in useful. I observed the behaviour of some of the other claimants when they were signing on or being interviewed by the staff in the DHSS offices. Some of them became defensive or worse, verbally aggressive; which didn’t help their case at all. My approach was to mainly sit and listen, ask very few questions and answer any questions calmly and politely. The other thing I did was to sign up to any programme that was put before me. The staff in these offices knew that, at that time, there were twenty people unemployed for every job on their register. They were also under pressure to get people off the register, so getting claimants to sign up for training courses, community work programmes or job clubs, helped them to meet their targets. So I was doing them a favour; I was a real goody two shoes in their eyes. What was also known was that many of these activities were a waste of time. Many employers didn’t recognise the qualifications from the courses. The job clubs just had people writing and sending out dozens of speculative letters with CV’s attached, that prospective employers didn’t bother to reply to. In fact, many job clubs stopped using headed stationary and envelopes, because they discovered that many prospective employers were binning the mail unopened when they saw the logo. Some of the community programmes could be quite worthy, but the problem with them was, that because of the level of resentment in individuals who had more or less been mandated to attend, they were almost impossible to manage and thus quite unproductive.

There followed a period of seven years where I was signing on as unemployed. However, during this period I was far from idle. Life actually became quite busy and diverse for me. Driven by my need for social contact as much as anything else, I got involved with various voluntary activities. I continued my activity in the Peer to Peer counselling network and added administration tasks to my usual face to face work. I got involved in local politics and joined the Green Party; this particular group had a fairly lively social calendar so I was rarely short of something to get involved with. As a spin off from my contact with the Greens I heard about Local Exchange Trading Schemes or LETS. This was a loose network of people who were attempting to exchange goods and services as an alternative to a cash based economy. My thinking was, that I could exchange my skills for an occasional hot meal; thus taking the strain off my own finances. However, this didn’t really work out in practice and I ended up with a large amount of credit within this network because very few people were offering food. Several people were offering alternative therapies, but an Aromatherapy Massage was not going to put food in my belly.

For a few weeks over one particular summer, I conducted a small piece of research for a family therapy unit that was run by Barnardos. They wanted to know why so few men presented for counselling. Almost their whole client base was composed of women and children. I remember saying to them that I didn’t need to do the research, as I felt I knew the answer to their question. My belief was, that men were fearful of being vulnerable. The experience was emasculating for them. However, I went ahead with the research and while engaged in the project I met more people that I could relate to. A spin off from the project was a Men’s group that I set up in my own home. We met up one evening a month for over two years before mutually and amicably agreeing to disband.

Slowly but surely I expanded my social circle; becoming less and less isolated. On Christmas Eve 1996 I was invited to a small party being thrown by a woman friend of mine. It was at this party that she introduced me to one of her work colleagues. This person became my Wife and life partner. From that point on everything changed quite dramatically for me. Creating a very different chapter to my life story….