It feels like so long ago that I was sat in the office. I could feel something was happening, but I held it together, while the economy fell apart. One morning I arrived to a panicked boss who told how he’d met with a client who had bought a crossbow to guard his bog-roll filled bunker because ‘we’re all doomed’ and just like that my services were no longer required.
Losing my job was a turning point, when I went from thinking things will be okay, to living in a dystopian world, two steps away from where hand sanitizer is traded as currency and coughing in public is an arrestable offense. Over the next week it felt like doors were slamming shut from every angle. Like many people on the Autistic spectrum, finding suitable work has been an uphill struggle. I had put so much effort into getting myself fit for work, fought through so many barriers and hurdles to get on in the workplace, and now I was back to square one.
Week #2 as an out-of-work freelancer began by chasing up potential leads to no avail. ‘You’re a fighter’, my partner Brian said during a pep-talk, but by my third rejection e-mail I cried down the phone ‘I have no fight left in me.’
Phoning up the Universal Credit hotline was the ultimate signifier to myself that I had given up the fight. It felt like I’d taken 10 steps back, returning to a place I had worked so hard to pull myself out of. Back on the lowest rung, I thought to myself…
It’s took a few days and more than a few deep breaths for it all to sink in and for rational thought to return. I began to see the bigger picture. In contrast to my past horrors of being interrogated by the DWP, my claim to Universal Credit was quick and painless. The lady I spoke to politely explained that there was no need to visit the Job Centre, and no need to send any paperwork in, as due to the situation things were being simplified as much as possible. It turned out that 100,000 people had put in new claims on the same day as me, and that’s when it really sunk in that millions of people are in the same boat.
It gave me a great deal of comfort to know that I was not alone. Seeing middle class, respectable professionals going through the same struggle as me, made me realise that not having a job does not make me a failure. It feels like COVID-19 has brought about a more caring side to society. With hardships being so prevalent, people are less quick to judge benefit claimants, extending a supporting hand as opposed to a pointed finger.
To put things in perspective, I left university shortly after the Credit Crunch when every day the media waged ‘war on benefit cheats’; if you weren’t earning and paying tax you were the enemy. In the summer of 2008, I got a job at a renowned media company in London, and I was so excited to be getting paid to do the job I was good at. The lay-offs came and I was first to go. I was distraught. I struggled to see the point in uni given the state my industry was in. The fear of having to take yet another soul-destroying job where I would inevitably be bullied and belittled, triggered my PTSD. My mental health got so bad I was unable to focus on my work and had to defer my final year.
In 2011 I graduated a few marks off from a 1st. I had the academic skills, I had some industry experience, but my social skills and the ‘soft skills’ I needed to succeed in my profession were non-existant. I had no choice but to claim long-term sickness benefits. I had put myself through uni, just to end up back where I started, and I felt trapped. If I took on manageable freelance jobs, the DWP would see it as being ‘fit for work’ and thus force me to seek jobs that would make me feel suicidal again. Unable to work, I internalised the message that I was a lazy scrounger and felt like even my friends resented me for being on benefits. I had no choice but to give up my dreams of being a writer/journalist and pursue a more ‘Aspie-friendly’ career as a graphic designer, which I was terrible at (I was regularly lambasted for my poor eye-for-detail, lack of technical skills and having no flair for design. I regularly went home and cried because all I wanted was to be good at my job. Every day filled me with dread, but at least it paid a steady wage.
Granted, a decade has passed and I have grown a lot as a person since then, but just not having that societal pressure enables me to be more productive. All the government asks of us is to stay home and stay safe; there is no pressure to rush into a job straight away. So I am determined to make the best of this lockdown and come out of it fighting. While I was initially fearful, I’ve grown to see this period of unemployment as an opportunity, even a blessing. A chance to work on the things that can drive my career in the direction I want it to go – building a solid portfolio of work, getting myself up to date on issues in my field, and studying new skills that are in demand from employers and clients.
Being on the autistic spectrum, the ‘soft skills’ are something I have to constantly work at. I often say I’m 35 and basically where I should have been at 21, because I have had such a struggle when it comes to social skills, communication, resilience and coping with day to day life. I have worked extremely hard to become the confident, assertive person I am today and I was afraid that during lockdown I would retreat into my shell and undo years of progress. I am pushing myself to make new contacts, to seek out opportunities and put myself out there on social media. The biggest challenge is in building up resilience, learning not to get disheartened by an unanswered e-mail or an un-published article. Some days it is mentally draining, as I have such a fear of rejection, but I have the time to work on it and keep building my contacts along the way.
It gives me a lot of comfort to realise that employers will be sympathetic to the gap on my CV – as many of us have experienced the same gap. I feel empowered to use my lockdown time to my advantage, as by being productive it not only shows my desire to succeed, but demonstrates that I can work independently. Past employers have insisted that remote-working is never productive, and yet I feel much more motivated to work in my home environment without the fluorescent blue light, background chatter, radio and constant feeling of anxiety I get in a busy office. Now we are seeing employers create the infrastructure required to allow staff to work from home, and it fills me with hope that we are heading towards a new normal, where more trust is allowed to employees and working from home becomes more acceptable.
My lockdown is proving to be a time for self-healing. After pushing myself to work in the wrong job, I feel I have gained clarity of thought and I can focus my effort in the direction I want to go. Getting through the working week sapped every ounce of energy, leaving me short-tempered, grouchy and bitter. Things aren’t completely ideal right now, but I have a new direction in life that I am ready to run with post-Corona. Until then, I am grateful to have the mental energy to appreciate life and make more time for loved ones, as I look forward to a new normal.