“Imagine: One day you wake up and you’re no longer the person you had been for the past fifteen years. ”
Luz Carime (pronounced looz-car-EEma) was born in Colombia. She married at 21 and came to the United States because her husband, a politician, was receiving death threats. She earned U.S. citizenship after paying two lawyers a total of $11,000 to assist her with the complicated process. They have one daughter, now 23, who is studying in Argentina. She and her husband have been divorced for the last 15 years.
After the divorce, she earned a Ph.D. paid for by doing research and teaching assistance. She became an assistant professor of education at a university in Keene, New Hampshire, and then in Tampa, Florida. She was laid off 16 months prior to this interview due to declining enrollment. In 2012, she self-published a semi-autobiographical novel American Dream? Snapshots of the American Middle Class about her experience with unemployment.
Luz Carime talks, here, about two years of unemployment, searching for a position, and what it has been like to lose a large part of her identity when she lost her job.
Did you ever read The Metamorphosis? What’s the name of the character? I think it was Gregor Samsa? He wakes up one day, and he’s turned into some kind of an insect; he doesn’t really know what kind of insect it is. You know what? That’s what I have experienced. Like I woke up one day and all of a sudden, I am not who I was yesterday. I don’t feel I’m an insect like Samsa, but I know I’m suffering through kind of a metamorphosis, and every day, I am becoming something different that I wasn’t the day before, and it’s scary. I look at myself in the mirror, and I don’t know who I am anymore. The only thing that remains solid and intact is my identity as a woman; that’s the only thing I can cling onto.
I was born in Colombia to a very stable family. My parents have been married for 48 years, and they’ve had a perfect marriage. I grew up very sheltered — middle class but with a lot of upper class privileges because both my parents were educators, and they worked in a very prestigious British school. That’s where I learned English. It was one of the best schools in the country. I got a wonderful, wonderful education. I never had any critical major crisis when I was growing up, everything was wonderful. Although I was middle class, I was living with upper class privileges because my peers at school were all upper class.
They were the elite, and by being with these people for 14 years, from pre-K all the way to twelfth grade, I absorbed what I call the “language of the wealthy.” I’m not just talking about the spoken language, but I’m talking about the way you present yourself, the way you dress. Your life, your interests. You know, your ambitions, your expectations, so I grew up with those privileges, and I think that those were very important factors in determining who I became as a professional. It was only after I got married that I started experiencing hardships in life, and I started discovering that life wasn’t always easy. Because all the way up until then, life was almost perfect.
Growing up, my parents took care of everything, financially, so I didn’t have to worry about that. And then when I graduated from college, my husband supported me, so I didn’t have to worry about that, that much. Of course I needed to establish a career, and that’s why I was always looking for jobs and doing things here and there. But things were taken care of. When I became a politician in Colombia and was still working as a schoolteacher, I started making good money on my own. I was making about $5,000, and we’re talking about 18 years ago, $5,000 a month. A month! So, you know, I could live very comfortably with that money.
I didn’t start realizing what reality was like until much later.I was married for ten years. He was in a very important position in Colombia. He has always been very involved in the country’s politics, and back then, in the late nineties, he worked directly with The President; as I said, in a top-rank position.. In 1998, my husband got a death threat and had to leave the country like, right away, and that’s how we ended up here in the United States. At that point, my marriage was falling apart big time. It wasn’t a happy marriage. My ex-husband, he was and is a very good person. He was just a very bad husband.
When I came here to the States, initially I couldn’t work, and he was behaving very badly with me, and so he punished me financially. He didn’t support me. So I started using up my savings. That’s when I ended up going to The University of Alabama first to finish the Master’s degree, and when I was done with that, I had literally $200 left. $200! And I was so spoiled that, you know what I did with those $200? I bought a mattress, because I didn’t want to sleep on a mattress that had been used by somebody else. But I didn’t even think that I needed money to pay for rent and to pay for gas and to pay for food.
About a week before graduation, one of my professors told me, Hey, why don’t you do your Ph.D.? And I was like, “Eh, what? Ph.D.s are for geniuses and I’m far, far away from being one.” And I had run out of money, literally. And she said, “We want you; you’re very capable, you’re a great student. We’ll pay you to do your Ph.D.” Of course she didn’t tell me that I was going to be a slave for four years (Laughs), but.…yeah: Research and teaching assistant.
The bottom line is that I went through my Ph.D. living in poverty. In poverty. I was in the 1% of — I don’t know how you say that. It was basically the lowest 1% of the poor in this country. I was in the 1% of the poorest of the poor. But since I was used to a certain kind of life, I always dressed very well; my daughter was always very well dressed; we had food on the table all the time. I don’t know how, you know? Don’t ask me how. If you saw me crossing the campus of The University of Alabama, you could never tell, Oh my gosh, she’s poor. Or if you saw my daughter in the school, you could never tell, Oh my gosh, she comes from a low-income family. Never. But I had very little. Barely survived, and I had to work very, very, very hard to get fellowship and scholarship so I could complement my income. I went into student debt.
But then, I started my job as an assistant professor, and I started off with a very good income. I was doing well. I was doing well. As I told you, I grew up with knowing the language of the wealthy, and that’s the lifestyle that I had, you know? I bought good things and I bought nice food, and I could travel every year to some nice place. So I was in fairly good shape [for thirteen years] until I got unemployed.
You know what? I had never, ever thought I would be unemployed. Initially I thought, Well, I was RIFFED, I was laid off; It was not my fault. It was the financial situation of the university for which I worked. And I thought, Well, you know what? I’ll get a job somewhere else. I had no idea that finding a job in this economy was going to be so difficult. And at this point, I can tell you I just reached 100 applications — job applications I have submitted since the moment I got laid off, and I haven’t received any job offers.
The first months of this year were horrendous. Were horrendous. I think it was because I was very demoralized, and I had been turning in applications and applications. I think I’m an excellent, excellent educator. I’m not good, I’m excellent. And I’m feeling that, why aren’t people interested in hiring me? Nobody called me back to even invite me for an interview. So that coupled with the fact that I wasn’t sure where I was going to live… I lost my home.
I had spent December living with some friends up in Washington, D.C. I didn’t know where I was going to live in January. Then I found a little place here in Sarasota where I moved last year, and okay, so I’m living in this place, but I have no friends or relatives nearby. I don’t know anybody. I’m on my own. I don’t have a spouse or a boyfriend or anybody who can support me financially. If I don’t make an income, I don’t know where I’m going to live. I might end up in the streets. And the thought was overwhelmingly scary.
I moved six times in one year. What remains of my home is stored in a 10-by-10 storage unit two hours away from where I’m living. I’m renting a room, an efficiency and [have been in] little studios and apartments and crashing at friends’ houses. Just a terrible situation. I’m feeling homeless, really homeless. So that alone was just a very stressful factor, and I had to take medications, I’m still taking medications. And of course I know I’m not going to end up in the streets. I have family; I’m sure that they’ll take me in and allow me to live with them. But I’m 45. That’s not something you want to do.
Right now, I am living on an unemployment check of $1,100 a month, and obviously that’s not enough to cover my basic expenses, so I’m complementing with my 401K funds, which I had to withdraw at a very high expense, because I was charged 30% in penalties and taxes. So that alone, I lost like $6,000, but it was the only way I could get a hold of money, because that’s the only money I have, is my 401K.
I got two job interviews, recently. Nothing happened. I had [another] one last week, and I’ll have another one tomorrow, but these last two job interviews are not very exciting. They are professorships, but they’re in an area that I am absolutely not interested in, and I have no expertise in. They are in the most horrible places you can imagine. So after completing one year of being unemployed, I’ve decided, you know what? I can’t be so meticulous about where to apply and what to apply for. I read the ad and if it sounds remotely like something I could do, I apply for it.
When I got called back from these two universities, that’s when I started doing the research. Okay, who are these people? What’s this university, where is it, what’s the program about, what does the job really entail? And that’s when I discovered that, Oh my gosh, this is not at all what I want to do, this is definitely not where I want to live. I know these jobs would make me very unhappy. They’re not what I am about. They’re not what I’m interested in. And yeah. It would be like doing something that I’m forced to do, just because there aren’t any other options. I think the hardest part is that these universities are situated in the middle of nowhere.
One’s in Maine. It’s a tiny little rural town of 7,000 people where the biggest attraction is a cinema and a Wal-Mart. I know the winters are very long, very, very long in New England, but you know what? I’m not afraid of the weather, because I’ve lived in New Hampshire. I know what it is. But what I really worry about is being in this place, like a rural area in the middle of nowhere, in a tiny little town where there’s nothing to do and where I would be feeling completely like a fish out of water. I would die of extreme isolation and sadness and not fitting in, you know? When I found out what the jobs areabout and where they are, I literally had a panic attack. My heart started racing; I couldn’t breathe; and I know it’s a panic attack because I had other panic attacks before.
I felt I’m kind of between a rock and a hard place in which if I do get a job offer, I feel that I have no choice but to accept. And accepting these jobs as they seem on paper, and based on that whole interview I had with at least one of them, it would be like signing in for a death sentence. That’s how bad it feels.
How long can you draw on unemployment?
I have no idea. I have no idea. And initially, I was panicking about that, and then things just started getting so complex and so complicated and so difficult, I just can’t think about what if or when would they be cutting off my unemployment check. Because I would have a nervous breakdown. I have to submit a bi-weekly report that I have been looking for jobs, with some evidence, in order for me to receive unemployment benefits.
So I just keep doing that, and they just keep sending me the money, and I don’t know what’s going to happen when the fund runs out. How do they determine that? I have no idea, and I have no desire to find out, because it would just be too stressful to know that in two months I won’t have anymore income. I just keep receiving the money, doing my homework and sending in all the evidence that I have been looking for jobs, and that’s it. It can drive you crazy. It would incapacitate me from doing what I have to do, which is looking for a job. So I don’t even think about what’s going to happen when I run out of money.
What do your parents think of what’s happening to you?
Well, they’re mortified, of course. They’re very, very, very worried. Of course they told me you can come back and live here with us, but I worked so, so very hard to get my citizenship; to be a professor. I don’t want to go back to my hometown [in Colombia] where I haven’t lived since I was 18. And I don’t want to go back and live with my parents. Imagine, after almost 30 years of not living with them. I go to visit and I love it, but after a week I’m ready to get out of there, you know?
Maria Claire, an unemployed single mother of one in Luz Carime’s novel, says “You are stripped of almost everything you possess, and you are losing everything, even your own self. I’m not exaggerating. You begin to question deeply rooted beliefs about your identity, and suddenly you also begin to realize that your identity is ethereal and is shifting, and you are becoming someone you don’t know.”
Maria Clara is a character I created, but she did borrow a lot of my experiences and a lot of my personality traits. This particular quote that you just read to me, that’s totally me, you know? That’s totally what I have been experiencing. Being 45 years old and all of a sudden your ground is moved and you fall into this hole of nothingness and you realize like, Oh my God, who am I? I don’t know who I am anymore. My experience, as Maria Clara says, is an “unwelcome metamorphosis.”
I got my PhD ten years ago. That was my professional identity — being an assistant professor and this is a huge part of my identity. [I could say] I’m a university professor, my colleagues are university professors, we go to national conferences, we share the same interests, we talk about similar things. I don’t know if I’m, if I can consider myself still a university professor after being out of the field for 16 months. I don’t know if it’s the end of my career. That’s something I’m very aware of, that if I don’t find a job this year as a professor, I think it’s the end of my career, because nobody’s going to hire me if I have been two years without a job.
There’s my identity as a woman and there’s my professional identity. And at this point, I don’t have any other identity other than being a mother. But that has also shifted, because my daughter doesn’t need me that much…at all! We talk on a regular basis and we see each other maybe once a year. So my main areas from which I draw my identity are my experiences as a woman and as a professional. So who am I becoming? Every morning I wake and I feel like, Okay, thank God I’m still a woman and I’m still alive, but I don’t know who I am. Identity crisis is one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with, by being unemployed. Imagine, one day you wake up and you’re no longer the person you have been for the past 15 years. That’s a third of my life. And all of a sudden, you know, everything that I’ve been doing for a third of my life is taken away. You wake up, and you don’t know who you are.
What do you hang your hopes on, today?
Oh my gosh, you know what? I’m not a religious person, but I have started to pray a lot that I won’t lose hope, because that’s the biggest fear, that I would lose hope. I have hope, hope that I will find a job, and there are days where I lose that hope, and I’m in very bad shape. But you know, I have a friend I can talk to about it now and it’s helped me tremendously to talk to him about it. And so it goes away. I know that when I get those deep lows, they’re not permanent. That’s how I’ve been surviving. I’m clinging onto hope. The moment I lose hope completely, I think that will be the end. I know I’m going to slip again and try again, keep trying. Don’t lose hope, don’t lose hope, don’t lose hope.
One year after our interview, and two years after losing her job, I received an update from Luz Carime. “I am still unemployed even though I’ve looked for positions outside of academia. As of today, I have sent 172 job applications. Yes, 172!
“And the government stopped the unemployment benefits ‘cold turkey’ as of Jan 1, 2014. So, literally, I haven’t had any source of income this year. As you can imagine, the situation is devastating, and I’ve had a very tough year…mostly mourning the death of my professional career and feeling completely lost when I think about considering alternative career venues.
“I have kept on daily continuing the job search, but it has been very unsuccessful and most likely unproductive because I feel like I’m looking for ‘something’ in a haystack, but I don’t even know what I’m looking for. I am very close to getting to a point where I have to accept that I’ll have to settle for “anything”. I’ve even considered working as a mail carrier for the USPS, or a cash teller at a bank, but I’m trying hard to prolong the moment in which I would have to make that decision. I’m still trying to find something still somehow related to education.
“I have no idea why I still have my self-esteem, but I have certainly felt my life has shrunk to almost the bare minimum. Very painful. I have a lot of trouble sleeping and I have terrifying nightmares. Dark, dark place to be. I don’t think the metamorphosis is over. I’d like to believe the metaphor of the caterpillar (which, when it was ready to die, turned into a butterfly) will apply to me. But I’m beginning to realize that not every struggle has a happy ending. Not everyone succeeds even if you do “your homework”. All these encouraging quotes, like “there’s always light at the end of the tunnel” or “just when the night is darkest, a new day begins”, or “hard work pays back” do not apply to everybody. Sad.
“I told you I’m not religious but my situation has called for trying to get closer to God and getting him on my side. Jesus, according to the bible, said something along the lines of: “Ask and it will be given; search and you will find; knock and it will open for you”…Two years later…Hello?”
In December 2014, Luz Carime published a children’s book titled Do doggies go to Heaven? ¿Los perritos van al cielo?
You can learn more about Luz Carime at her website: http://www.luzcabersh.com/.