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Nightmares of the Recently Laid Off 

Those were the days of the MSNBC afternoon. It was 1996, I was in Charlotte, in the 12th grade, and my father had just been laid off. I recall returning home from school to see him watching the 24-hour news channel, and turning our living room into a workplace.

I played along, of course, and asked how certain stocks were doing. He looked content or, at least, he sighed at the market's closing bell. He then called himself a "daytrader." That title shifted from quasi-retired, to real estate broker, to consultant, to assistant in my mother's production company. In fact, though, he was constantly dwelling on what seemed like a problem of logic--how his company, to whom he dedicated two decades of his life, could fire him so suddenly.

In year five of his unemployment, after my mother moved out, his heart began producing half-beats. Doctors identified them as palpitations and recommended shock therapy. That treatment solved nothing. Then, without any pivotal moment to cite, he left depression's ravages unfinished. He was tired of self-abuse. He got a job, my mother moved back in, and his heart beat returned to normal. Loyalty is for the family, he now tells me, not a business.

For many Americans jobs are important part of identity. They can be the cornerstone of one's self-conception. When someone's job is stripped, his or her inner landscape can become dire and confusing. This is rarely portrayed, as in my father's case: Only my family knew his loss after he was laid off, while he deflected inquirers with false titles and ego-protecting half-truths. A person's dreamlife, however, can bypass such artifice and provide an emotional snapshot of what is taking place inside him or her. Murderous bikers, burning houses, chaotic classrooms and violent tussles with prehistoric creatures all convey the intense loss and destruction experienced during unemployment.

When people sense their jobs slipping from a central position, they often experience a disbanding feeling and seek out confirmation of a job's importance. Motivational speakers are often those people who are called upon to correct such shifting. Susan Hite works in the retail environment where enthusiasm is notoriously low. She advances a portrait in which hard work and sacrifice result in happiness and higher sales. She leads employees to see their condition as something they have the power to create in their own minds.

Following are two different tales: one of the dream world created at night by people suffering through the loss of jobs, the other of a person some people seek out to make their places in the real world feel right.

Dianne Genser was getting ready to leave work for the day. She organized her desk at Wellness Consultants in Durham, where she was an office manager, and then walked to the back of the building to say goodnight to her boss. Her boss was occupied in a meeting, but mentioned that she needed to speak with Dianne. Genser replied that she would have time to talk after running an errand.

"And while I was gone, I knew," she recalls. "I just knew." When she returned to the office, her boss began by saying, "This is the hardest thing I've ever done ..."

Dianne took it fine. She even said OK. Her boss was amazed that she wasn't angry. "I think that kind of helped matters a lot, because I think she thought I was going to get mad at her. And I didn't."

The two of them arranged a time for Dianne to pick up her belongings. She would receive two days' pay as her severance package. When she left, the shock hit her. "It was like, Oh my God, wait a minute, what just happened to me?"

Over the next few days Dianne's shock turned into relief. She saw the layoff as an opportunity to figure out what she really wanted to do. She concentrated on a new goal--finishing her degree in psychology and opening up her own wellness clinic. She signed up for classes at NCCU.

There were a lot of things that bothered her about her abnormal psychology class. First of all, the professor deferred his teaching responsibilities to a graduate student. Then the student, out of tiredness one night, canceled class after everyone had arrived. Dianne had driven an hour to get to that seat, not to mention that she'd paid $600 for the course. So, on a recent afternoon, while driving along Academy Boulevard and thinking about the class, she became irate. "Think about it," she says, "I drove an hour to get to class. And she pulls this shit because she's tired. Excuse me, that doesn't fly with me."

That's when she also started thinking about her layoff. "There was a lot of anger coming up about that [class], and I think this thing with my job just hooked onto it and said, well, by the way, you are pissed about this, and probably have a right to be."

Now Dianne is trying to sort out new career plans while working on her degree. "I haven't really looked for jobs because I'm really trying to sort out psychologically what I want. I don't want to jump into a job just to have something to pay the bills. I want it to be something I love. And that's why I'm back at school getting my degree, because I know I love psychology, and I want to open my own business. I'm really going to test myself and see how long I can go without working."

Dianne has had two recent dreams which, she thinks, exhibit the experience of being laid off.

In the first...

She's in a lake, wrestling an adolescent alligator. She's on top of it, with her hands clasped around its nose. She manages to get her hands to the tip of the animal's snout and break it in two. After the scuffle she realizes she is hurt: She has lost her right front tooth. She finds it and holds it in her hand. It unfolds like a wonton. Inside rests a thick, black goo. It disgusts her and she forces herself to wake up.

Dianne sees the dream as a revelation that she is wounded. "A part of me is broken--I think both symbolically, with the alligator's snout being broken, and my tooth...So some type of brokenness."

She understands the tooth to be a metaphor for herself, in light of her career as an office manager. "To look inside of me, and see what was really there, really wasn't that good," she says, "that probably, what I was doing, the vocation that I was doing, was not the right one for me. I mean, it had served me well for 18 years, but now it's time for something else."

In another recent dream ...

She is working on the second floor of a white, three-story, wooden school house. It is in the middle of a dry plain. A fire starts in the right side of the building. She rushes to warn two of her friends working in adjacent rooms. They escape safely. Outside, a single-file line of aborigines walks by. One family--parents and two children--are wrapped in palm leaves. She is stunned. "Why? Who are you? Why are you here," she thinks, "and what do you mean?"
To her, this dream conveys her feelings of anger and the possibility of starting a new life. "The anger," she says, "then the burning away of the old. The symbolism of the old-fashioned school house represents, to me, an old way of being--you know, the job. It's burning away."

The aborigines represent her new life, which can be characterized by "peacefulness and getting down to earth." She takes comfort in the image of the leaf surrounding the family. "The palm is some type of protection. It's some type of good sign or signal, saying it's going to be OK."

Nearly 3,500 people have been laid off in the Triangle since January, according to the state's Employment Security Commission and local reports. There have been 20 so-called "mass layoffs," or instances where 50 or more people have been fired at one time.

"There's a big climate of fear right now," says Peter Metzner, a Jungian dream analyst and corporate consultant. With his company, Dynamic Change, Metzner attempts to gauge employee preoccupations by looking at their dreams. He recalls a recent workshop in which a woman told of a dream featuring the flashing word "CONTROL." Another man came to a session unnerved after envisioning dominoes falling.

Even though the business arena is characteristically stressful, people who have been laid off reveal a unique set of concerns and emotions. Dr. Theresa Yuschok says she has been seeing themes of betrayal, survival, shock and rage in her laid-off clients' dreams. Eileen Cleary, of Chapel Hill's Easttown Clinic, says people who have recently lost their jobs have been describing a disruptive dreamlife. They have been, as she says, "waking up anxious in the middle of the night after a dream where there's been a semi-nightmarish quality."

Because dreams often convey emotions felt but not confronted during the day, a community can help sufferers by bringing those emotions into the conscious, public realm. Our current statistical and broad way of representing layoffs, however, does not address their personal trauma. This can make it harder for people to work through of the experience, says Dr. Jeff Chambers of the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society. "You know, deep down, a person may feel very traumatized, and violated, but it [our talk of layoffs] is kind of sugar-coated. There's a lack of validation. It hinders the working through of psychic shock."

What follows are the stories of two people, like Dianne Genser, who have been laid off. They were asked to share a dream they felt exhibits the emotional experience of being fired, and then provide an interpretation of that dream. Their stories reveal that losing a job, even when recession is clearly the cause, is internalized as a personal failure. Their real names have been changed at their request.

Linda Packard and her co-workers at Lucent were watching signs--their company's stock was dropping, assignments were becoming simple, her manager retired and was replaced by a temp, and employees were leaving. "A whole bunch of people jumped," she says, "you know, took the window, as fast as they could. The company was getting down to the bare bones."

Then managers in her department called a closed meeting. They exited to say every employee would have a 15-minute meeting with his or her boss--that way, no one but the newly laid off had to know. Linda's appointment was in the morning. When she went to her boss' office, she was handed a packet containing information on leftover vacation time, Cobra, severance pay, and outplacement services.

It wasn't the first time Linda had been laid off. In fact, 1994's episode might have been more brutal. She was in her office, on the phone with a friend, telling about the managers who were making rounds in the building that day, knocking on doors and laying people off. She hadn't even put the receiver in its cradle.

Linda was shocked and relieved after the second layoff. Her fate had been in such flux that knowing something was a comfort. Still, she found herself tending to her co-workers' feelings. The ones that didn't lose their jobs felt guilty. The ones that did blamed themselves. "You're angry and you feel like you've failed," she explains, "And no matter how much someone tries to tell you, 'It wasn't your fault, you're fine,' you still can't let go of the fact--Why me? What did I do wrong?"

At first, she enjoyed the freedom of not having a job. With six months of severance pay, and feeling exhausted, she tended to her well-being. "I was so pleased with a little time," she recalls. "You were so worn out from 60-hour work weeks. ... You're feeling and recovering and healing and getting your health back. Your family is glad you're home again."

As she took contract jobs, though, the market dropped out. From Sept. 11 into the fourth quarter of 2001, the Triangle market was flooded with information technology talent. Linda still applied for jobs but requested unemployment assistance. Her thoughts about her work switched from shock, self-blame, and freedom to retrospective loss and regret. "I wanted to do what I could to save that crazy company," she says. "Oh God, now you look back on the waste--all the dues, all the golf courses that they built, all the money they spent on people that abandoned ship anyway. So you're angry and frustrated."

In the first and second quarter of 2002 Linda broadened her search for employment. She joined a support and networking group for laid-off workers, where she learned self-marketing tips and heard about job openings. When she visited a college advisor at her alma mater, she landed a job teaching business skills at summer school. She is still looking for full-time work, but not of the kind she had.

It was during this latter phase, amid the part-time work and self-help groups, that Linda had a dream she thinks exemplifies the experience of being laid off. In it ...

She walks into a conference building with automatic glass doors similar to those at Lucent. She is standing with a supportive friend when she notices two or three men dressed in black. They have the roguish energy of bikers. She and her friend have offended them. The men tell them they have one hour to pack their things and get out of town. She thinks, "Sure, OK, I'll get out of town."

The scene switches to her house, which is on the conference building's property. It's the house in which she was raised--old, wooden, Southern, white, and two-story. She chats with her friend briefly but is in a rush to pack. The men come early and stand outside--guffawing and prodding them to hurry.

She overhears their talk: They plan to set the house on fire. They might even murder her and her friend. She gets angry. She thinks of her and her daughter's possessions, stored in the attic and basement. She focuses on an oval portrait hanging on a wall. It pictures her grandfather, wearing his World War I uniform. She stops packing and decides to stand up to the men. "Burn it? My possessions? How can they?" she yells. She's ready to use a gun. She's angry enough.

Linda sees this dream as being about the experience of collecting her office belongings. "I literally saw it as the same energy, and fears, of being told to pack up your office," she says. "The good stuff, and all the stuff I loved. I see it as that kind of energy."

She worries whether her current income will be able to cover her house payments. "The only thing I want money for is to pay off my mortgage. You know, I have six more years and I won't have to pay anymore. It would be horrible if I don't have any money from the unemployment checks." So, she concludes, "To take it more literally, you can lose your home. People are losing their homes."

She says the companion in the dream symbolizes the feeling that she is not isolated in the experience. "I see it as me and the buddy--the friend, you know, it's not me alone. There are other people being threatened in this way."

The gun reference in the dream is an expression of defensiveness. It makes her think of a friend who shot himself after he got laid off in the mid-'90s. "That same energy," she says, "go get a gun, but use it to defend your home."

The picture of the grandfather symbolizes past generations. Her grandfather, she recalls, saved his own life when he jumped off a sinking merchant marine ship in World War I, despite the instructions of his superiors. He leapt into the lifeboat they were boarding. Of the picture's emotional relevance, she says, "The grandfather is the disappointment. That you have let down those early generations. If you're good, and work hard, you'll keep your job. And it's not true."

Sara McAllister had just laid someone off. Then her boss called her into his office. She had only been working at the clothing company for six months and, already, she had watched the chairs around her empty. "There was a sinking ship feeling working there," she says.

After her boss apologized for hiring her into the mess and terminated her position, she went home crying. It was the third time in two years that she had been laid off. "My reaction to the third layoff," she says, "was not to even attempt to go back into the work force. I actually felt, maybe I don't even belong in the workforce at all."

She symbolically reciprocated the insult. "If you're going to reject me," she recalls thinking, "I'm going to reject you--and toward all employers. You know, like, 'Screw you. Screw you. I'm not going back.'"

She held true to this declaration by not applying for a job in a year and a half.

She tried to make ends meet with consulting projects and credit cards. "I just started to crawl into debt. And I really wasn't too terribly worried about it. I think I had denial going on about the need to get a job." As a result, at the end of that year and a half, she owed $25,000.

The fact that her friends were employed and making money made matters worse. "I got that feeling of being behind and out of step," she says.

When her dwindling finances forced her into the work world, the search brought to light her feelings of inadequacy. "I think I felt, especially when I started applying for jobs and coming up number two," she explains, "kind of hopeless, you know, really wanting to contribute to some job, and feeling like I had a lot of talent, but just not understanding how I can convince people that I'm talented and worth hiring."

When she took a life-skills class, though, she found something that she would be interested in doing. She created her own class, modeled on the one she took, and offered it to others. She began applying for jobs and in mid-June, in the span of two hours, two local companies offered her positions.

Sara recorded the following dream during the depression and application process of her unemployment. In it ...

She's lecturing in a warehouse with no windows and doorless frames. A competing event is going on nearby. People are entering and exiting the room at will. There is an atmosphere of chatter. Half of the people in the audience appear to have been at a previous class. The other half appear new. She knows the class' subject, but not the content. She does not know what text to use, and certainly did not bring one. A usually supportive friend is sitting in a row, near the front, and looking at her like, what are you doing? Without any notes or books, she starts talking about the course. As she rambles, she feels incompetent and self-conscious.

For Sara, this dream is characteristic of the kind she has been having during her unemployment. "That's pretty much typical of the dreams I've been having," she says. "That I'm not being responsible. That I show up, and I'm not ready. A lot of unprepared. And that's a new thing for me."

She attributes the feeling to her own confusion at the time, and the feeling that others possess jobs, goals and drive. She feels like she's missed something. The lack of text is important to her because, as she says, "That's one basic part of a class--that you have the texts for them, or the material."

The fact that she's a teacher symbolizes that she's not living up to a required role. As she says, "It's this feeling of just not being in control of an area in which I believe I should be in control."

Train Your Brain

Susan Hite can't walk through Northgate Mall without someone waving at her. The 35-year-old motivational speaker, born the daughter of a Methodist minister and trained in the boardrooms behind Marc Anthony and Mitchell's hair salons, exudes the confidence of an anchorwoman. She looks the part, too, with silver jewelry, sun-freckled chest showing through a lime green blouse, white pants, and hair like the "professional cut" in a salon's demo book. She has smile lines that curve around her mouth, like those on an adorable child actor.

Hite conducts monthly classes at Northgate Mall in Durham as a part of her "Train Your Brain Series" in a vacated store in the Belk's corridor. They are a fusion of boardroom and church meeting, with a blue PowerPoint screen projected on a white wall, with shelf holes visible underneath, a horizontally bound black sign-in book passing between guests, and even a gushing, handshaking, "Thank you for coming out!" session led by Hite beside the exit door.

Through the classes, the speaker hopes to inspire mall employees to re-envision their jobs as opportunities for happiness using her philosophy that the work place can be rewarding. "If you came in and treated Jersey Mike's, or A Southern Charm, or Hudson Belk, or wherever it is that you work like it was as important as seeing a patient today," she says, "you would revolutionize your business and make so much money you'd just roll all over the floor in total excitement. But I don't think people see that that's the bigger picture."

Susan's career as a motivational speaker started a year and a half ago on a bench in Crowder's Park in Raleigh. She was thinking about her life when she noticed sunlight shining off a distant body of water. She wanted to help people. She wanted to make a difference. She wanted to share the message she and her mentor, Carlton Whitaker, had been spreading throughout Mitchell's hair salons. She hurried home, rushed into the kitchen, and began writing Bible verses: "In His name, in all ways acknowledge Him, and He will make clear thy path."

A few months later, one Sunday after church, she and her family were gathered in her parent's living room. She told them she had an announcement to make.

"You're going into the ministry," her sister guessed.

"Well, no, but kinda," she replied.

The resulting business, Hite Resources, includes a few projects, the best known being "Susan's Train Your Brain Series," which includes the lectures, "It's All Good--Developing Positive Thinking Skills," "Raising the Probability of Change," "You're So Lucky!" "Happiness is Something to Look Forward To," "Setting Yourself Up for Success," "Who's Your Daddy?" "Burn On, Not Out!" and "You Get What You Are."

The title comes from the idea that we must train our brain to find the positive in every situation. Susan believes that if thought determines mood, and mood determines action, and action determines other people's reactions, then the types of thoughts we have are of central importance to us. "The very first thought you have about anything," she says, "has a domino effect for the rest of the day."

This is a struggle because, "Our minds automatically dwell on the negative." When people control their thoughts, they are set up for a good life. "People that control their thoughts are usually happy, productive, successful people," she says.

There is another aspect to Susan's work perhaps related to her Methodism. She believes that doing work in a "right-heart attitude" will set one up to receive gifts. "Whatever you give, you get," she says. And, "When you give sacrificially, that's when you get back the most."

God works in the retail universe, too, and He blesses employees and businesses in which people are serving each other with good intentions. To exhibit the fruits of the "right-heart attitude," and His mysterious ways, she tells the story of Della, a manager at Strasburg's clothing store for children.

A leukemia-suffering child and her parents come into the store. Upon seeing that the wheelchair-bound girl's shoe is untied, Della teaches her to tie the laces. The child's parents leave without buying a dress. A few months later, though, the mother returns. Her child has died. She wants to buy a dress, in which she can bury her daughter.

"I mean, that's what I'm talking about," she says, upon finishing the story. "You go back to your store, and look beyond the food that you sell, or beyond the dresses. You look at the job, as a career, as an opportunity."

People make their jobs dismal only when they confine their interactions to the employee/customer relationship. When they borrow from other, more intimate models, they not only make themselves happier, they ensure their financial success. Stories of vivid suffering, like Della's, fill Susan's repertoire, which she uses to point out our privilege. A paraplegic who paints Christmas cards by holding a brush in her mouths, a legless man who travels by skateboard, her friend, Laurie, with cancer, all appear in her lectures as "points of focus," upon which we gain scope on our minor travails. "Unless it has to do with sickness, injury, or death," Susan says, "get over it. Lighten up, don't tighten up."

Susan's success depends on her use of pulpit-like storytelling. Her scenes are from everyday life, and they are often mildly suspenseful. One gets the sense that she's visualizing the scene on the spot, which gives a voyeuristic quality to watching her. It's like she's channeling a story directly from memory's perfect archive.

"One of the merchants had just told me," she begins telling a Northgate audience, "how this was one of the cleanest malls they have ever seen. They had just come from another mall. And they go, 'I tell you, the cleaning staff here does a great job. If I have a spill, they're here (snap), they don't seem like it's a drudgery. They seem nice about doing it.' Well I had just heard the story and I was just walking by the men's bathroom and the door was propped open. And there was this guy, I think his name was Larry, and he was standing there mopping the floor, and it's the men's bathroom, but it was open, you know ...

"I walk in there and I don't know his name yet but I see him and I'm like, 'Hi, I'm Susan. I know you probably don't know me. I work with the merchants here. And I just heard the greatest story about you and your associates.' And he's looking at me kind of funny cause I'm standing in the men's bathroom with him. And I start to tell him about this merchant, at this tuxedo shop, After Hours, by Mitchell's. I think it was Hal that told me the story.

"'I just heard the greatest story about you and your cleaning staff. How you're so nice about what you do. And you don't look at it like drudgery. And you're happy to clean up the spill.'

"Think about it, you'd have to have a good mindset to be happy about cleaning the bathroom. But you can be if you see it for a bigger purpose. I know it can sound kind of corny. But there's a lot of truth to it.

"Anyhow, I start to tell him the story. And it's like, he looked up at me, and he grabbed my arm. I thought, 'Oh my goodness, what have I done here. Maybe I shouldn't have come in this bathroom after all.' And he took me out of the bathroom and there was this little hallway. And he opened this door and there was this long hallway. And he said, 'Come with me,' kind of rough, even.

"I'm thinking, 'What in the world?' We go down this long hallway and we go to this office. And there's this guy there named Everett. And it's his boss. Everett's his boss. And he says, 'I want you to tell him what you just told me.' He was just wanting a little praise and recognition. And I told him. And then I took a picture of the cleaning staff and I put it in part of my presentation."

In between her three Train Your Brain classes Susan makes rounds and checks up on her attendees. She is always received with affection. At one kiosk where she stops, a 60ish woman pulls a folded letter she had written to Susan from her purse. In it, the woman writes briefly about a business practice picked up during the Train Your Brain session, and then mentions how the seminar helped her personally.

"The Christmas cards I sent this year were of a toy train," she writes, "illustrating the declaration that I am still chugging along after the horror of Sept. 11. This morning felt like the tune, 'I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends,' and I am thankful. Truly, I do like to see myself as one of those bowling pins that keeps popping back up. I will be watching for your smiling face around my post at Northgate."

At another stop, she visits Leslie Jacques-Chabon, manager at the Sunglass Hut, who raves about her. "Susan," she says, "makes sunshine where people think there couldn't be sunshine."

Leslie was inspired by the Train Your Brain series to redecorate her store's breakroom. The usually gray and cold concrete space immediately behind the bustling and bright showroom now has an eight-foot mural that reads, "Choose Your Attitude," with a smiley and frowny face interspersed in the text.

For her, Susan's lessons have been extremely valuable. "Training your brain," she says, "that's her whole philosophy--constantly policing what you believe, what you think, finding out why you operate the way you do, and realizing you're the only one who can change that."

Leslie, who wants to eventually write self-help books, believes that Susan has what it takes to make a name for herself in the motivation industry.

"She's the next big thing," she says, "We're going to say we knew her when."

Susan deals with such praise by suggesting that she is working for the right reasons. "The more I give, the more blessed I become," she says. "That's the truth. I know that people don't always believe that, but it's true. It's so true. You've got to give and you can't expect anything in return." EndBlock

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