On his blog, sociologist Alex V. Barnard recently described how, in nineteenth century France, a socially legitimate way to “go crazy” was to embark on a very long vacation and then forget about it. I love this, if for no other reason than because it blurs the line between travel and emigration, between tourism and homelessness, between wanderlust and walkabout. In the days before modern technology and the internet, it was still possible to disappear, either for a while or forever. Whether or not you believe it is possible to consciously choose to “go crazy,” disappearing in another country provided people with a means of reinventing themselves, of living entirely in the present and putting painful parts of their pasts behind them. You could be anything you wanted to be (a doctor, a priest, the illegitimate great-grandchild of a king or president), or you could be nothing, a blank slate, leaving others to guess at the mystery of your history, or, if you acted crazy enough, you could, like King David when he feigned madness (as described in 1 Samuel 21:12-14), become sufficiently marginalized that no one would care who you were and everyone would therefore leave you alone. Of course, you couldn’t really do this unless you were wealthy enough to go abroad in the first place. Today, we have ecotourism and voluntourism, so I guess we could call this 1800s phenomenon “psychotourism.”
In some respects, being among the ranks of the long-term unemployed can be viewed as a form of going crazy. It is true that, in the United States at least, one tends to be defined by one’s career. “What do you do?” is the first question a stranger is likely to ask you at a cocktail party, a convenient way for our brains to neatly categorize and pigeonhole a new acquaintance. Continuing the nineteenth century analogy, one could say that being divorced from one’s identity is a bit of a Dickinsonian experience (“I’m nobody! Who are you? Are you nobody too?”).
There is always the option of answering the cocktail party question by stating that you are a mother, a golfer, a bridge player, a singer in the church choir, a vegetarian, a Republican, a homeowner or even a blogger. But that, of course, is not what the interrogator wishes to know. Your reply is likely to be greeted by a blank stare or an eye roll, followed by a mumbled excuse for making a beeline for the other side of the room. The question is about money, how one earns one’s keep, the capitalist measure of self-worth. Regardless of how much of one’s lifeblood is poured into a particular endeavor, if you don’t get paid for it then it doesn’t count. You’re supposed to know that. Failure to observe social expectations in one’s answer to this question is treated as an indicator that one may be a bit loco en la cabeza.
The ancillary circumstances that come along for the ride with long-term unemployment really do remind me of Barnard’s psychotourism. Instead of voluntarily traveling abroad, the unemployed person’s lack of income is likely to force him or her to move to another location, to embrace a living situation different from the familiar. You may find yourself in another city or state, doubled up with relatives, living in a homeless shelter or on the street. And just as the nineteenth century psychotourist “forgot” that she was on an extended vacation, the modern long-term unemployed person gradually forgets that she is on “vacation” as the weeks turn into months and the months turn into years and not working becomes the new normal. Over time, the long-term unemployed forget who they are, who they once were and who they may someday be. In both cases, this loss of identity allows you to tell any story, or multiple stories, or no story at all about your life. As in Emily Dickinson’s poem, you enter a strange twilight of nobodiness.
When mental health professionals speak of psychosis, they typically refer to a person experiencing a break from reality. In some respects, this is comparable to what one experiences as an unemployed person. If we consider reality as making a contribution to the economy, supporting one’s self and one’s family, and avoiding becoming a drain on society’s resources, we must recognize unemployment as a break from that reality. Cleverly, the word “break” is a double entendre in this case. It refers to “taking a break” from employment, implying that unemployment is a temporary state of affairs and that the unemployed will work again at some unspecified time in the future (a tenuous proposition these days, particularly when one is out of work for more than a year). But it also refers to a break with the social compact (or the Puritan work ethic, depending on your view), a kind of contractual violation that occurs when one is forced to take from our pool of public resources without providing one’s labor in return. Sloth, after all, is one of the seven deadly sins. The unemployed are not playing by the rules and we can’t have that, now can we? How would society function if everyone decided not to work? The unemployed must be punished, which we do by marginalizing them, by insisting that there must be something wrong with them. If you’ve been out of work for such a long time, then the problem must be alcohol or drugs or maybe you’re just not right in the head.
A separate but related issue is that one may experience mental illness as a result of long-term unemployment. Even if there was nothing wrong with you upstairs before you lost your job, a lengthy period of unemployment can begin to have deleterious effects on one’s mental health. Feelings of disgust at the state of the American economy fade into feelings of inadequacy over our inabilities to support ourselves and our kids. Without the professional and support network that most of us gain at our places of employment, our skills become outdated (particularly in this age of rapidly changing technology) and our contacts attenuate. Friends from work stop calling, perhaps out of guilt, or because you no longer have the latest workplace goings-on in common, or maybe because they don’t want to ask you to go anywhere because they know you can’t afford it anymore. So you watch your social network die while you experience one loss after another — your savings, your vehicle, your home. And you wonder what you’re doing wrong as you fill out application after application, make phone calls, go on interviews. You lower your standards, talking yourself into taking bigger and bigger pay cuts and applying for jobs farther and farther from home. As you get nowhere, you begin to lose faith in yourself. You feel as if you just can’t cut it anymore. Depression and anxiety creep up on you stealthily.
But none of this seems to register with our elected representatives in Washington. Conservative Republicans in the U.S. Congress continue to deny extended benefits to the long-term unemployed largely because we are considered to be undeserving. Who cares that we were laid off due to the bad economy? If it has taken us more than six months to find another job, then we must not be trying very hard. We must not really want to work. If we choose to sit home in front of the TV and eat Twinkies, well, we can stew in our own juices. They’re not going to violate their public trust and waste taxpayer dollars on supporting a bunch of slackers.
I respectfully submit to you, however, that Congress is wrong. We’re not lazy — just crazy.