When the sea change hits a sand bar
This cannot be happening, I thought as I filled in Centrelink’s Newstart application form.
How could I have sunk this low?
I’m well educated, resourceful and have been a language teacher, conveyancer, legal secretary and newspaper journalist.
I’d sailed through several recessions with the smug attitude that unemployment was for the unemployable.
But now here I was, definitely employable but indefinitely unemployed, and running out of money.
Before deciding Coffs Harbour would be the ideal place to bring up my daughter, I’d researched the area – but not thoroughly enough. Some call this part of the world paradise, and in the good times I’d agree.
What I hadn’t uncovered was the flip side of the idyll – chronically high unemployment.
This beautiful region is overwhelmingly dependent on tourism, with only a fragile commercial infrastructure to sustain its 67,000 inhabitants through the long off-season. And then the global financial crisis struck.
But even if I’d known what to expect, I would still have assumed that low-paid part-time work, at the very least, would be mine for the asking.
I didn’t want or need a high-pressure full-time job with matching mortgage payments – been there, never again.
Coffs looked cheap and cheerful in comparison to London. It was, and still is.
However, there wasn’t enough work to go around when we arrived in late 2006, and by mid-2009, after I’d lost my third low-paid part-time job, the situation was much worse. The next job never materialised.
Once, I’d looked through narrowed eyes at anyone who claimed they couldn’t find a job. Now it was my turn to attract sceptical glances.
I registered with every employment agency in town, seeking any kind of work, but finally had no choice but to line up in Centrelink and apply for the dole for the first time ever.
I was very grateful my claim was accepted but with a 10-year-old child to support and mired in a maintenance dispute with her American father that could drag on for months or even years, I was suddenly having to keep us both on $400 a week.
That’s less than $60 a day for everything – car, mortgage, insurance, utilities, groceries, medical bills. As for books, clothes, toys – forget it.
My morale quickly plummeted, taking personal pride southwards with it.
I binged on chips and chocolate, wore old clothes, often didn’t bother to wash my hair or put on make-up.
As soon as I’d completed the morning’s internet job search, applying for around three jobs a week, I would doze on the couch.
Struggling to keep up a cheerful front for my daughter added to the strain. My nights were fractured and most waking hours were spent fretting.
Within two months I was crying on the shoulder of a sympathetic GP, who prescribed antidepressants.
The pills helped a little but the cause of the depression continued. What to do – sell up and downsize?
Agent’s fees and stamp duty would swallow at least $20,000. Let our place and rent a smaller one?
Jobless tenants are anathema to landlords. Put a lodger in the spare room? I couldn’t face the loss of privacy.
The job search failed to secure a single interview.
Nine out of 10 advertisers didn’t even acknowledge applications. (Dear employers: would it really be so much effort to write a one-line email saying “Thank you for taking the trouble to apply” and/or “Sorry, not this time”?)
An enormous winter electricity bill forced me to consider seeking help.
Would my bank, ANZ, consider an overdraft? “If you’re unemployed,” it replied, “we can only offer a $1,000 facility, at our usual interest rate, with a $5 monthly charge.”
Otherwise the Brotherhood of St Laurence, a charity with which ANZ has a tie-in, could assess me for a loan.
Country Energy mentioned that charities offer utilities vouchers. Uncomfortably aware that some people’s need was far greater than mine, I didn’t ask. Instead I increased my home loan, which in turn upped the repayments.
Six months on, this story has no fairytale ending – yet, anyway.
With the help of a psychologist, however, I’ve adopted a positive attitude and now wake up every morning with a smile (even if it’s sometimes a forced one).
I’m doing voluntary work and a TAFE course has given me hope of future employment, while our cost-cutting efforts have sparked a determination to reduce energy consumption as well as food bills.
We’re also eating better, as I’m now putting together fresh ingredients rather than grabbing expensive ready meals or takeaways, a slack London habit.
I count my blessings every day. I have a lovely home and a loving family, and I’m able to bring up my daughter in paradise, or the closest we’re likely to get to it in this world.
I wouldn’t go back to that old London lifestyle if you paid me.
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