Navigating the Maze

Confessions

First, the good news. As of this January, I am employed, at a job I like a lot. While I don't really feel like I conned anyone to get it, I have felt rather duplicitous lately, both because of my usual hyperactive guilt reflexes and because I have become so accustomed to exposing often uncomfortable truths about myself here in BENT.

I don't exactly think of myself as a fake, but it has taken me a long time to stop considering myself damaged goods, an inferior example of Homo disabilitus industrius. Perhaps I'll feel better if one of my secrets is no longer hidden: since I left graduate school ten years ago, I have only spent a quarter of my time employed or in school. The rest of the time I was struggling to find employment, or just plain struggling.

After so many years of strife, having a job I like is a tremendous improvement. Everyone has told me for years that the working world is rough, but I have recently understood an important distinction. If you like your work, doing a job is the easy part. Having a job is much harder, and getting a job is harder still.

So I sift through the lessons of employment, hoping for some clarity, unsure of what I'll find.

Expectations

My new job requires me to be gregarious, innovative, and energetic, to work for a cause I believe in, and to insinuate myself constructively into a community I already know and love. Anyone who knows me knows that these are tasks I am good at, because they are so tied both to my personality and my history. Yet in my previous two mini-careers, in disability advocacy and secondary teaching, I had doubted and submerged my energies and my social instincts, to the point where I was giving these two jobs only a shell of myself.

Both as an advocate and as a teacher, I felt unprepared and unsupported. Whether I was expected to rebuild a program from the ground up, or to be the authority figure for 130 high school students, I knew I didn't have the tools or the stamina, and knowing I was all alone, that everything in both situations was entirely up to me, terrified and paralyzed me. People had always told me I was a strong communicator, but at crucial moments those skills seemed to leave me, and I didn't know why. I thought I was clueless, incompetent, a loser.

I know now that I wasn't a loser, just an amateur, and a spoiled one at that. I'd never had experience trying to talk to people who didn't want to listen; I'd always expected a certain degree of deference or willingness in my listeners. I can be a gifted speaker, teacher, and storyteller, and others have called me inspiring even when they're not being sappy about my disability, but inspiring people is very different from motivating them. Inspiration is about a feeling. It may last, or it may not; it may lead to results, or it may remain a memory. Motivating, however, requires getting people to do something, and keeping watch over them until they do.

After years of graduate school, where providing students intellectual content, experience and opportunity had been sufficient, these jobs expected me to scoop up students or people with disabilities and bring them along with me. Many high school students were not willing to go, and I had no way of reaching them, since many of them had drawn negative and seemingly permanent conclusions about school before I ever arrived. I was never very good at getting people to attend disability advocacy events either, because making recruitment phone calls felt like nagging and pestering, in ways that in-person conversations never did.

In my current job, I work with people I already know and with whom I share an overlapping past. That is comforting and reassuring for me. It also makes me a much more known quantity, and recognizes me as a valued citizen of my community being put to work, not a hapless clueless intern teacher or a supremely disorganized community organizer perpetually in hot water. In my job, thank God, I am gradually getting to be Danny, not just Longtime Unemployed Random Crip. Knowing that hasn't really helped me relax yet, but it has boosted my confidence, and believe me, I need all the boosting I can get.

Conditions

I need the confidence and reassurance because I am in transition. Like someone who still thinks of himself as fat long after significant weight loss, I still see myself as unemployed, because that has been my reality through seventy-five percent of the last ten years. When I leave the vibrant pulsating environment where I work, I come home to silence and isolation, to a living space that bears the hallmarks of depression and apathy. The lack of sound and human contact is painful, reminding me of why I was the only kid I knew who hated summer vacation and longed for the start of school.

The television keeps me company, and I probably follow too many shows. Two of my favorites are ending in a matter of weeks, and I'm actually sad to see them go. I have become all too familiar with late-night rerun schedules, with marathon blocks of shows I watch even though I should be asleep. I know sleep is good for me, but part of me sees it as a six-year-old does, as a punishment. Even after all these years I often procrastinate going to bed, afraid I'll miss something. And besides, it's not like I have anywhere to go in the morning anyway, right?

Getting online at home helps reduce my sense of isolation, but it can be a treacherous and time-intensive habit. I may talk to several friends, but not many of them are local enough to meet in person, which can be frustrating, although thinking in multi-year time increments does help when it comes to planning meetings. I have managed to hang out with people in person a bit more lately, but that can sometimes take more time and energy than chatting does.

I am working on taking better care of myself, but it's a slow trudge uphill, and years of habit and inertia often hold me back. When I think of the combined impact of two exhausting and unhappy jobs along with years of intervening unemployment, I marvel that I am functioning this well, problems and all. I thought those experiences were destroying me, but they weren't. I feel more drained and eroded by them, and it may take a while for me to build myself back up. I don't believe that suffering leads to moral improvement, but in my case it has led me to greater knowledge.

Aspirations

Most of the hard lessons I have learned about employment came before I was actually employed, because finding and getting a job can both be harder than keeping one. It didn't help that my thinking was so stark and emotional, oscillating between the two extremes of Destiny and Disaster. Like performing on stage and dating, jobhunting roused some of my deepest hopes, but also plunged me into feelings of despair and futility. Auditioning for a part, finding a boyfriend, and getting a job are not identical experiences, but they all swirled and blended in my head; the more these goals eluded me, the more critical they became.

Auditions, dates, and job interviews all have common elements. We put ourselves out there, vulnerable, on display, never really knowing what the decision makers are looking for or having any sense of how strong our competition might be. We endure the terror of being evaluated, no matter how painful the results, because the alternatives and the consequences of inaction are far worse. Sometimes participation is its own reward, but that doesn't mean the results don't matter. They do, and even with the thickest skin, wave after wave of rejection can take its erosive, corrosive toll.

Overqualified for entry-level. Not enough experience for anything above that. Inconveniently disabled in the world of regular employment. A special difficult case in the realm of disabled employment. A new employee who is a re-entry worker. A novice who is 41. All these are my employment paradoxes. They can become an endless destructive feedback loop for me if I'm not careful, which is yet another reason to be glad I have a job.

Conclusions

During the bleakest stretches of my unemployment, one friend told me what I already knew, that most people with significant disabilities never end up working at all. Rather than beat myself up because I couldn't get a job, she felt I should recognize how lucky and privileged I have been to find work. She said that if I kept myself going long enough, that luck was bound to continue. Another friend challenged me: "Do you think you could be content if you never got another job?" He thought I should find a way to attain that mental equilibrium, so that my happiness and self-esteem would never again be tied to my employment status.

I don't think I'm there yet. I'm aware and settled enough finally to realize that I am not what I do, and that I'm not worthless without a job. But I still have more to do, more to contribute. Like my much much younger counterparts at Berkeley who will be graduating over the next few weeks, I'm just getting started. I have no illusions that prestige or money or power will ever be coming my way, but there's something I want more. A far greater prize would be many years of rewarding and meaningful work; with such a continuous bounty, perhaps my time in the employment maze would be minimal. Regular readers of this column might be shocked at such a display of relative optimism, but hey, I like my job.

©2006 Danny Kodmur

 

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Danny Kodmur lives, writes, and tries to figure his life out in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work is featured in "Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and Their Stories" (Haworth Press), a 2004 Lambda Literary Award winner. Words of encouragement and May Day greetings are always welcome at profxavier@comcast.net

 

More by Danny Kodmur

A Soul Clothed in Shining Armor~5/00
How Much Does it Matter? Wrestling with the Metaphysics of Disability ~11/00
On Being (Un)Representative ~1/02
Testing My Faith in Romance ~3/02
No Need to Kick My Tires ~5/02
Balcony Scenes with a Twist ~7/02
Productive Confusion ~7/02
The Music and the Mirror ~9/02
The Music and the Mirror:II ~11/02
Life Under the Spotlight: Disability and Depression ~1/03
On Getting Stuck ~3/03
Of Cities and Closets ~5/03
So How Old Are You, Anyway? ~7/03
Socializing and Sobriety ~9/03
Walking in L.A. ~11/03
Wedding Bell Blues ~3/04
Fortress of Solitude ~7/04
Sound Bodies ~9/04
Fear, Fat, and Fabulousness ~5/05
Hermit Emerging, Gradually ~7/05
Picture That: On Seeing and Not Seeing Myself ~9/05
My Secret [Hetero] History ~1/06
Of John and Others ~3/06

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/July 2004