About (my) privilege

I can’t watch anything on TV – concentration isn’t there.

Books. How about books? I said I’d spend the kids’ holidays reading. But today, my thoughts keep drifting.

Okay. Take a walk? But it’s stormy outside.

I could try yoga, but yesterday’s attempt didn’t work out. I can barely climb the stairs today. Something’s wrong with me.

Something’s wrong.

Was it the attempt to get off the SSRI that caused this, one of my worst bouts of depression ever? Or was it, oh, I don’t know, the fact that I’m finally strong enough to start thinking about the future, which includes my rather hopeless job situation and all the plans I’d made for a life whose best – they say – half is now over, which never came to fruition? Is it that I constantly think of my 86-year-old dad, and the fact that he dreamed of going to Bergen someday, and all the things I’ve been wanting to do someday, so that it’s been someday for the past twenty-odd years, and how these things still haven’t happened, just as my dad never got to go to Bergen, and his someday never came to be, and how – I see it, and it fills me with despair – my someday will not come to be, either?

Or is it my bad habit of comparing myself to the luckiest and most privileged people I know instead of taking a good sane look at my life and being grateful of where I am and what I have? I should be grateful, after all, given my initial conditions: I grew up in Greece. I’ve done well, all things considered, even if it’s only by getting married to someone who can give me a quasi-secure life in Germany while I keep struggling with mental health disorders for decades. In Greece, I’d be the village fool. I wouldn’t have the extensive mental health care I have here practically for free. I wouldn’t be able to go for hiking in the Alps. Now, the Alps are a short drive away, and that’s worth something.

See, what most people don’t get is that more important than any amount of work you can invest in anything is pure luck. Where you’re born, to what parents, in how educated a family, to how steady a home, in what country, with access to what schools, with what kinds of opportunity around you, which gender you have, who you happen to meet and marry (although, I should get some credit for that, because I only ever liked the safe and boring guys – those who are solid and loyal and steadfast). Sure, there are those rare cases of people who’ll pull themselves up by their shoestrings, rising from a very underprivileged position to heights nobody in their environment ever reaches. But these are memorable exactly because they’re not the norm. You can’t blame the rest for not making it – and sometimes they don’t, no matter how much they try and how much effort they put into it, because, in all we achieve, there’s a crucial factor: the random factor; in short, luck, whose importance for our achievements we all tend to underestimate.

So, why should I be bitter? I’ve been very, very lucky, even if my kids complain because the neighbours have a pool and all their friends have Playstations and Nintendo Switch and their own iPhones, and we can’t afford any of those things. We can’t really afford our house, to be honest. We’ve been overoptimistic – mostly about my employment prospects – and now we’re paying the price for that. But I’m still lucky. Many would give a lot to be in my position. Okay, no career prospects, sure, but a super-loyal and loving man, two wonderful children (yes, even with all the mental health problems), a home, even if mortgaged, and an acceptable level of health, even if it’s after a lot of bad luck and trouble. And, as much as I want to travel and see the world (which will not really happen – finances, time, you see), I still have Greece. Home. If you can’t afford holidays, how lucky is it to be able to go home to Greece and hop off to amazing tropical beaches, sparkly Aegean islands (the obscure cheap ones, every bit as stunning as the more known ones), mountains, forests, gorges, archaeological sites, medieval settlements, all that condensed wonderfulness that is my home country?

What a fail it is to compare yourself to others. What an absolute, soul-straining fail.

So, what to do now?

I’m going to try to earn some money, for starters. I don’t think it’s going to be easy to do that – either with editing/proofreading, or by finding a job. “Oh, with your skills you can definitely find a job,” all my male friends say, while the women chuckle under their breath and nod condescendingly, because it’s the truth we don’t like admitting that a woman with a family at the age of about forty has about one fourth the chances a man in the same situation has – not to find a job, but just to be called to an interview, and from there it only gets worse. With my patchy and erratic CV that includes mostly academia and multiple changes in branch and type of job, and with my non-native speaker status in Germany (I’m perfectly fluent, but have the suspicion they don’t believe me when I write it in my CV) these chances are even more diminished. A couple years ago, a recruiter – overoptimistic himself – tried to suggest me to a consulting company that hired PhD physicists, only to be told I’m too unstable (which, in a funny twist of fate, was accurate in more ways than they knew). Add to that being female, with kids, no industry job experience, and you see how much fun I’ll have as I try to enter the workforce. Stick with me for the next few months. It’s going to be soul-crushing. We’ll have a blast.

Luckily – a female friend said a while back – I’m growing out of the age when women can have children, and this will increase my chances a little. Not by much, of course, but still, it’s something.

Just think about that. Go on, stop reading and consider that statement, which – I’m not afraid to say – gave me some relief. Very well, men, tell me: how happy are you to be men? Imagine all the shit you’re going through trying to find jobs, magnified by, I don’t know. Pick a number. Chances are, whatever number you pick, you’re underestimating.

But enough about the work issue. I haven’t started searching for industry jobs (again) yet. All I’ve done is look for editing jobs (ha, those don’t come easy – and to be employed as an editor for a company or website you have to be a native speaker anyway, so that’s out of the question). I’m going to go the self-employed way for a while, because there’s nothing else to do right now. It doesn’t pay, and I don’t get social security, which stresses me quite a bit.

But I’ve made a mess out of my life anyway. In all categories, I’ve fucked it up, big time. The only thing I did right was find a man who won’t leave me, no matter what I do to him. I’m not sure he’s in his right mind, to tell you the truth. No idea why he’s still here. I’m nothing but trouble. Delightful, if I believe my friends, but still trouble.

In any case, the one thing I will certainly do is keep writing and editing. It’s pretty much the only thing that keeps me close to sane. This, and the very few people who came through for me. You know the name: Dimitra.

Funny story: today, I told Dimitra I shouldn’t compare myself to others; it causes nothing but pain. And she pointed out – tongue in cheek, I think, although it’s true – that, no matter what these people have, they don’t have her.

She’s right. I’ve never had a more loyal, self-sacrificing friend. And, you know what? She has to factor in in the evaluation of the worthiness of living my life. Family, luck, wealth, opportunities, friends. Well, on that last front, there’s no way you can do better than Dimitra.

14. Unemployment and anxiety

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Everyone tells me not to think about other things right now—unemployment, for example—and to focus on getting better. But anxiety is not an easy issue to tackle, and I’m already worried what will happen when I stop taking the meds. This is another thing they tell me not to worry about: don’t think about what problems you’ll be facing in a month of two, they say, just concentrate on the here and now.

But, how can I?

The job situation is difficult. As a mom of two in traditional—code for sexist—Bavaria, without real-world experience in a real-world job, and having drifted in academia for years without really publishing and without becoming an expert in one subject, the chances of finding employment at my age are, let’s say, not stellar. I’m now finally unemployable in academia—not that I want to reenter that soul-crushing space, Urban is adamant that I should leave that behind for good. And industry sees someone with no job experience or expertise in one specific subject as a liability.

Sidenote #1: If you thought industry values versatility and breadth of talents, you’re wrong. They mostly like dedicated workers who don’t get too many ideas, even when their job is to get ideas, like for example in consulting. Don’t ask me why, it’s just one of those bizarre facts of life. You’d almost think HR departments don’t understand the skills of astrophysicists.

Anyway, in the past couple of months, and as I was heading at breakneck speed towards burnout, I felt more and more like I couldn’t handle the normal loads of work, family, career, home. I knew a full-time job would be near-impossible for me to balance with the responsibilities of kids and with my passion for writing, and this was another cause of intense anxiety. We have a mortgage, after all, and there’s the added insecurity: what will I do if my husband gets hit by a bus? I made him buy life insurance, but that kind of money doesn’t last long. I need to be in the position of finding a job, of earning a living on my own—anything else causes me too much insecurity. But I also need some time off, to recuperate from all the stress, to figure out where it all goes from here. And I thought it would be difficult to stay afloat only on Urban’s salary—which is exactly what is going to happen in three weeks, when my contract with my current employer ends.

Urban tried to apply for some well-paying positions, some of which he could probably get, but this freaked me out even more: more money, yes, but he’d be out of the house (he works from home now, even pre-corona) and there’s just no way for me to reliably take care of the kids day in, day out, every day. I get debilitating tension headaches. Then, you have the hemiplegic migraines. And now, there’s this new adventure, which forces me to stay away from sources of stress, and I’d say job-hunting would be one huge source of stress. All doctors are unanimous: I absolutely have to take it easy!

But I also can’t take on the role of housewife. I need someone to take care of me, too. It’s not even unfair: I worked and took care of everybody for years. Now, I just can’t. And I can’t even heal on my own. Urban is in a bad situation: he has to earn all the money, take care of the kids and of the mentally ill wife, too.

My anxiety rose to red shortly after the breakdown. How would I manage if he really got offered another position that would require me to be the caretaker on weekdays? I could barely walk from the couch to the bathroom in those first few days—who knew that anxiety and a mental breakdown could cause very real bodily fatigue—but he said he wouldn’t accept another job offer, which reassured me, big time. Still, how will we survive?

It turns out, now that we’re keeping careful tabs on what we spend, expenses are not as huge as I thought they were. For the past couple of years, and even though I had a small salary of my own (did you expect part-time researchers get paid a lot? Nope), I rarely ever had a couple euros left at the end of each month. But now, with Urban working only part-time thanks to covid and me saving my whole salary in order to survive the months of unemployment that I know are coming, our situation is not that strained. What happened?

Urban is what happened. For years he spent money, without my knowledge, without keeping track of what he spent and when. You see, he’s a little like me: when he gets obsessed with something, he goes all in. His latest hobby is fountain pens, and in a few short years he’s accumulated a fuckton of them, and I don’t know how many hundreds of different inks, and notebooks, and pen pillows (google it, it’s a thing), and I don’t know what else. I don’t even mind that—his hobbies are important to me, as my hobbies are important to him—but what I do resent is all the stress it caused me. Racking my brain how to make a couple hundred euros last me weeks, with grocery shopping and the kids’ needs—never mind the stress I feel now, when I’m thinking that my mental health problems might ruin us because of my inability to contribute financially. The times I felt guilty for buying expensive fruit! Why? Why?

This bothers me more than I can express. I can forgive a lot of things, but someone causing me this level of anxiety is hard to swallow.

Urban makes spreadsheets now to track our income and expenses. When I get stressed all over again, he shares the spreadsheets with me, so that I know exactly what’s going on, in real time. He’s promised full transparency and to continue keeping track of everything.

And it’s not that I’m completely without talents either. Today, I organized my writing and editing space in the attic. It’s a room where I feel completely in my element. Who knows, maybe soon I’ll be able to bring in some small income from my new activities too.