A couple of years ago, I was in a Dark Place. I don’t talk about this Dark Place very often because it’s upsetting for both myself and those I care about, but I feel that it’s important to share my experiences at the Job Centre with other writers who are struggling for work.
I finished my part-time sales job in August 2013 and moved to Nottingham to live with my partner. He had a full-time job and because he worked, I didn’t qualify for Job Seeker’s Allowance (he didn’t earn much, but because we were cohabiting I no longer qualified, but I would’ve if I was still at my parents house).
I was encouraged to sign on anyway, because of the importance of National Insurance stamps. I wasn’t convinced—and frankly I’m still not—that they’ll be worth it when I get to retirement age. But I did as suggested and signed on.
I’ve signed on twice—once before I started my sales job (when I lived with my parents and got some money out of it), and when I first moved to Nottingham. They were two of the worst periods of my life.
As soon as I muttered the word ‘writer’, I felt like they were going to laugh me out of the room. ‘Well, what do you plan to do with that?’ I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was 21/22. I just wanted to write. I had no direction and no one to point me in one that would give me money and/or boost my confidence. The direction I ended up in almost destroyed it.
People that knew nothing about me and that could hardly spell filled in details about my life, my hobbies, and insisted that the only jobs that I would be fit for were in admin, data entry and secretarial industries. Anyone that knows me knows that I would make a terrible secretary because I’m awkward on the phone. Anyone with any knowledge of the administration industry also knows that these days you need qualifications to get into it—it’s not as simple as being able to type fast and reply to emails.
So they forced me down a path I wasn’t comfortable with. If I applied for different jobs, I’d get penalised for it.
Did I apply for as many jobs as I could’ve? No, I didn’t. I put my hand up to that. But I didn’t feel motivated, I felt discouraged. I felt like a name on a conveyor belt. I was pitied by the security guard in Nottingham: he’d always notice my book, smile at me and ask what I was reading. He was the only person in the whole building that ever made me feel human.
I wasn’t the right fit for the jobs in the areas I was applying for, and that was obvious—I was getting no interviews and hardly any replies, yet apparently my CV was just fine.
They got pushier and pushier with me whilst my confidence continued to implode. My anxiety skyrocketed to the point where I struggled to leave the house, and if I had a Job Centre appointment, I’d have a panic attack and barely make it there in time.
Yes, I should’ve applied for more jobs to get me out of there, but when you lack direction and those that are supposed to help you make you feel worse about yourself, what are you supposed to do? I was desperately struggling with my depression and anxiety, and I felt that they judged me for these illnesses and decided I was only capable of menial jobs because of my illnesses (NB: that is the WORST way to treat any mental illness. Well done to them on that count). I’d get the odd question about how my depression was, but it was never a sympathetic one, it was just there for their records.
The doctor put me on antidepressants to ‘take the edge off’ my anxiety, but he wouldn’t sign me off because you have to face your fears to treat anxiety. I fully agree with this, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. The Job Centre employees had no respect for me and for people that were supposed to be encouraging me into work they did anything but.
The job-hunting advice they gave me was minimal, and the careers advice was appalling. The careers advisor had no more advice for me than I had for myself. I had a Creative Writing degree—I was clearly an idiot and a waste of time.
In the end, I couldn’t take it anymore. I stopped going. What was I getting out of it? A stamp? A stamp that wouldn’t count towards anything once I started my MA anyway, because you have to have two years of consecutive NI stamps before they’re worth anything.
I stopped going. I stopped caring. I couldn’t even bring myself to fill in the form that signed me off, because it meant I still had to go in and face them.
I struggled that summer, but what kept me going was the thought of starting my MA in September. Going back to university was one of the best decisions I ever made, and I’m incredibly grateful for my friend Victoria who encouraged me to do an MA. I made some incredible friends, got a confidence boost as a writer and finally found some decent careers advice from Nottingham Trent’s careers advice team.
Two years on, I have a full-time job and somewhat of a direction. I know roughly what I want and where I want to be, and which areas I’m most comfortable working in. This knowledge has nothing to do with my time at the Job Centre, though—everything I’ve learnt has been from my MA and from writer friends that have pointed me in the right direction.
Even now, though, when I have a full-time job and the Job Centre I used to go to has closed, I can still feel the anxiety rising up in me just thinking about that place. That place was hell for me, doing nothing but exacerbating underlying medical conditions and making it harder for me to get away.
For any writers that are signing on and feel belittled, stand your ground. You are not an idiot, you are not unworthy, and you are capable of much, much more than what they think you are. Do not let someone who knows you as a few searches on a website each week tell you what you’re capable of. If you don’t think you can work in the industries they’ve suggested for you, explain why and get your advisor to change it. If they talk down to you, talk yourself back up and demand some respect. Take someone with you for moral support.
And remember this:
What have your experiences with the Job Centre been like? Did you feel like they looked down on you because of your creative degree or industry? I’d love to hear about your experiences too.
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